The Corner

Is The Exorcist a Conservative Film?

A 40th anniversary special-edition DVD of The Exorcist was released this week.

Reading the quote page that opens William Peter Blatty’s book, The Exorcist, one finds a statement by a priest about a Communist atrocity (the shock troops encounter a religious teacher whom they kill, and then drive drumsticks through the ears of the student children). Since this quote is on the same page as the quote from the Gospels about Jesus exorcising the demon Legion from a man, the implication is that the Communists are Satan’s instruments.

As the film, faithfully adapted from the novel (Blatty wrote the screenplay which won him an Academy Award) reaches its 40th anniversary, one may be tempted to ask whether the Exorcist is a conservative film. Social conservatives at the time didn’t think so. Billy Graham stated it “stank of evil.” Even limousine liberals (“I don’t know how Nixon won; everyone I know voted for McGovern”) like Pauline Kael condemned the film on moral grounds, horrified more though by the legions (no pun intended) of show-biz mothers who took their daughters to audition for a film that would have had them, among other things, masturbating with a crucifix.

Without knowing Blatty’s politics, I would say that his purpose in writing the novel was a socially conservative one. Calling the novel an “apostolic work,” he hoped his presentation of the devil (actually the demon Pazuzu) being alive and well and capable of violating and abusing a twelve-year-old girl was proof that the presence of evil proved there was a presence of good.

The scenes Blatty wanted restored, and which were only restored decades later, certainly were those of a socially conservative nature (it is unknown whether he wanted the infamous “spider walk” scene added). For him, the whole purpose of the film centered around a conversation shown between the two shell-shocked priests. When the younger priest — who has lost his faith but will regain it at the end of the story when he altruistically beckons the demon to enter him and then attempts to kill it by killing himself — asks the elder exorcist why the demon picked the girl, the exorcist’s reply is that the whole purpose of possession isn’t to harm the host, but to convince the witnesses that God could never love anyone so bestial and ugly.

The other discarded scene that Blatty lamented was the ending in which the younger priest’s friend links arms with a kindly detective, the beginning of, as they both put it, “a beautiful friendship.” Blatty intended this scene to show that now “all was right in God’s world.”

Whatever the audience’s interpretation of the film — and there is certainly proof that the makers of it went for the gross-out and not the religious factor — Blatty’s authorial intention, in both the book and the script, was socially conservative. He wanted it to be a conservative film, despite whatever blasphemies drew audiences in.

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