The Exorcist and the Terror of Unbelief

This past June marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel The Exorcist, and this December 26th will mark forty-seven years since the box office release of William Friedkin’s film, which scandalized and turned the stomachs of moviegoers (like my newlywed parents) who stood in long lines and braved cold temperatures to see the film.

While not technically a Halloween film, it and its instantly recognizable soundtrack, are trotted out every October to once again put Americans in a spooky mood. This year, even Vans, makers of iconic canvas skater shoes, have gotten into the act, releasing a shoe emblazoned with the iconic silhouette of the exorcist, Fr. Merrin (Max von Sydow), standing beneath a lamp post.

But this year there is good reason for the book and film to be back in the headlines. According to the Beltway news magazine The Washingtonian and NPR, the three-bedroom house in Prince George’s County, Maryland where the events inspiring Blatty’s novel took place, has been sold, bought by a young, unwitting couple trading their D.C. apartment for something cheaper and quieter.

What is remarkable is not that the couple was able to, despite the mega-inflated housing market, buy the infamous house for a steal, but because James Baldwin—one of America’s most incisive and eloquent writers on the ways that race and religion define (and limit) American culture—prophesied such a moment. In the final pages of his 1976 book-length essay The Devil Finds Work, he writes:

The Exorcist has absolutely nothing going for it, except Satan, who is certainly the star: I can say only that Satan was never like that when he crossed my path (for one thing, the evil one never so rudely underestimated me). His concerns were more various, and his methods more subtle. The Exorcist is not the least concerned with damnation, an absym far beyond the confines of the imagination, but with property, with safety, tax shelters, stocks and bonds, rising and falling markets, the continued invulnerability of a certain class of people, and the continued sanctification of a certain history. If The Exorcist itself believed this history, it could scarcely be reduced to so abject a dependence on special effects.

Admirers of the film will likely cry foul at this dismissive, anti-capitalist critique and demand to know the larger context. Fair enough, though really, this is it, and it is consistent with Baldwin's criticism throughout the book: for all of American cinema’s attempts at portraying the sin of racism and the complicity of Christians in this nation’s “Original Sin,” it is precisely when Hollywood believes that it is at its sincerest, that it has made some sort of real contribution to a real dialogue on the history of race and racism in America, that it is actually behaving most pathologically and narcissistically. More to the point, Baldwin seeks to show the connection between the economy of images and attitudes that American film projects vis a vis race and the perpetuation of a self-aggrandizing narrative about America as a democratic Christian nation.

Reading Baldwin’s critique of American cinema in general, and The Exorcist in particular, against the backdrop of our contemporary moment in which the economic markets are overheated, when two white men are on trial for allegedly hunting down and killing in broad daylight a young Black man jogging down the street, a moment when politicians are running reelection campaigns promising that they ban Critical Race Theory from public schools in the name of protecting how American history is taught, and it becomes clear why previous attempts at a kind of exorcism of racism via film have not been successful: the roots, as it were, grow deeper and deeper with each misguided attempt.

If you watch enough movies about exorcisms, you will know that the exorcist must somehow ascertain the name of the demon, for it is only in naming it that it can be called forth and expelled. But exorcising America through film is difficult because the name of the demon is obscured from us, or it is constantly shifting: to some it is Mammon or Moloch, to others it is Critical Race Theory, and still others White Supremacy.

But Baldwin suggests a less supernatural reason for the difficulty of ascertaining the name of the demon. He writes that the “subtext” of the entire film is an “uneasy and even terrified guilt . . .” that cannot be exorcised because “[the film] never confronts it,” and the film never confronts it because “This confrontation would have been to confront the devil”—a task that no amount of special effects or roguishly handsome priests can accomplish.

This reading runs counter to the typical Cliffs Notes assessment that it is a story of the age-old tension between science and faith. The problem with twelve-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) is medicala matter of abnormal psychology, or some kind of lesion on the brain causing her to maniacally rage, curse, and perform superhuman and inhuman acts. Baldwin entertains this theme, but he instead opts to put the focus on the adults surrounding her.

He is interested in how they behave, how they respond to what is happening before them. Both Fr. Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Regan’s mother, the famous movie actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) are wracked with guilt: Karras over the death of his elderly mother, who he wishes he could have taken better care of, and MacNeil over the life she has created for her daughter as a divorced Hollywood actress who lives an itinerant and jet-setting lifestyle. (The Ouija Board that Regan plays with would, in a reboot of the film, be an iPad or iPhone, that digital babysitter.)

In the book and the film there are numerous heated scenes between MacNeil and white-coated chain-smoking doctors, and later, between MacNeil and Karras (also smoking) in which, like any caring mother, she frantically demands that they do something; that they figure out what has transformed her daughter into a foul monster. Each time the men explain as calmly and rationally as they can that what is happening with Regan is all in her head. It is only after Karras sees with his own eyes the pitiful condition of Regan and hears his dead mother’s voice emit from the mouth of Regan that he agrees to ask permission from the bishop to perform an exorcism.

The pathos evoked by watching this young girl be tortured and tormented from within is thick, and so it is difficult to not become swallowed up by pity and concern for her fate, but Baldwin’s approach to the film is similar to Fr. Merrin’s (Max Von Sydow) admonition to Karras: Do not listen to the demon. The film only pretends to be concerned with the soul of a young girl, but really it is concerned with making sure you understand that the answer to all of this vulgarity and suffering is penitential self-sacrifice, exemplified by Fr. Karras ultimately provoking the demon to enter him.

In the context of Baldwin’s own personal life and personal demons, guilt and self-loathing loom large. He writes that the film “terrified” him because it required a confrontation with and “re-living my adolescent holy-roller terrors,” and as a result to not “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” For Baldwin, as in all his work, notably in Notes of a Native Son, and especially in that book’s title essay, he dramatizes moments wherein he discovers how self-loathing for his skin color translates into a capacity for self-destruction, even to commit murder. In these moments of realization, a kind of grace is extended to him, as he is suddenly able to see that he must resist it if he is to survive and ultimately thrive. A big part of his solution was to leave America behind and move to France.

Baldwin’s gloss of the guilt that hounds Fr. Karras and Regan’s mother is that in not confronting it, shame is allowed to mount, dominate and paralyze them. From there it is only a short leap to the unexamined guilt and shame that many White Americans harbor. By stubbornly and fearfully running from this racial guilt, they empower it, and they refuse the grace awaiting them upon confession and penance.

Even though Baldwin does not use the word “grace,” he nonetheless speaks of the confrontation with pain and terror as a kind of gift: “In some measure, I encountered the abyss of my own soul, the labyrinth of my destiny: these could never be escaped, to challenge these imponderables being, precisely, the heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.”

To the average moviegoer, it is a tragedy and mystery as to why someone would become possessed by Satan. Hollywood would have us believe that the Devil prefers young, innocent and vulnerable children, especially white girls, which stands to reason considering how concerned we are as a public with the safety of young white women. (See: the Klan’s obsession with protecting the “white flower of Southern womanhood.”) Why, the thinking goes, would such a terrible, unspeakable thing happen to such a wholly innocent child?

Baldwin is less mystified because for him the pathos of the film is not driven by poor Regan’s demonic spewing of foul words and epithets, or the “mumbo-jumbo of levitating beds and discontented furniture and Wuthering Heights tempests,” nor even the moment when Regan does something truly unspeakable with a crucifix. These moments leave him cold. What is terrifying about the film to Baldwin is the way it causes him to encounter the devil in himself. He writes:

For I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.

Baldwin’s reflection on the film is not merely a beautiful interpretative set piece, in which he is finally able to say as plainly as he can that the source of the violence at the heart of American culture is not the bogeymen of black criminality or nasty, ancient Babylonian demons, but white supremacy, a disposition that sees the world as something to be dominated and possessed in order to, paradoxically, maintain order and harmony; to protect the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Certain readers might at this point will make the mistake here of conflating white supremacy with prejudice. Prejudice is no doubt a sin. It is as common to me—a middle-aged, straight, white man—as it is to my Black and brown friends. We all harbor prejudices against racial groups, religious groups, people from different regions of the country and the world. This is not to excuse them, but it is to say that prejudice is an ineradicable fact of human society. White supremacy is a man-made system that exploits prejudice for profit, power, and social control under the guise of entrepreneurship, wisdom, and decency.

The antidote to white supremacy is to deliberately work to dismantle this system. Individuals do this through political action, personal relationships, and economic decision-making, but if we are to believe Baldwin even political and economic action alone will not be enough. What is needed is spiritual renewal and reconciliation. This reading of The Exorcist as a metaphor for White guilt might strain credulity—Baldwin’s vision is a radical and demanding one—but it raises important questions about the sincerity of the questions that the plot of American films pose, and the hackneyed and sentimental answers that insincere questions elicit.

Baldwin traces this pathology to the very beginnings of American film, specifically D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film which Baldwin observes “cannot be called dishonest: it has the Niagra force of an obsession.”

The story of the film is “impossible to do justice” as it is “submerged in a tidal wave of plot.” This distinction between story and plot is a crucial one for Baldwin. He writes:

A story is impelled by the necessity to reveal: the aim of the story is revelation, which means that a story can have nothing—at least not deliberately—to hide. This also means that a story resolves nothing. The resolution of a story must occur in us, with what we make of the questions with which the story leaves us. A plot, on the other hand, must come to a resolution, prove a point: a plot must answer all the questions which it pretends to pose.

America’s desire for an answer to the problem of racism feels similar. There is a sincere desire, especially by white Americans, to plot our way out of this—a book club, a TED Talk, a legal, economic intervention that will fix it. As a result we ignore the ways that being attentive to the power of story could provide a spiritual awakening.

Baldwin who raised Baptist, and preached from the pulpit as a child, and whose prowess as a master of the personal essay is well-known, is rarely under-estimated, but his work as a cultural critic was (is) often discounted (See: Flannery O’Connor’s comments on him) for being so personal and full of pretension that it cannot be seen as a trusted source for any sort of practical solutions. 

This view misunderstands the power of bearing prophetic witness; misunderstands the power of story. Baldwin does not merely write with courage of his convictions, he writes with the preternatural insight of a mystic because he is engaged with examining his own soul.

To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live. Neither of us, truly, can live without the other: a statement which would not sound so banal if one were not so endlessly compelled to repeat it, and act on that belief.

This dogged self-reflection and interrogation, so common to his work, is not so much self-laceration as care, protection, and guardedness. In fact, the very trigger for Baldwin’s reading of The Exorcist is something his friend David says to him while having a drink after viewing the film for the first time. “So, we must be careful,” David says quoting Fr. Karras at a moment of despair in the film, “lest we lose our faith—and become possessed.” But, Baldwin points out, “He was no longer speaking of the film, nor was he speaking of the church.”

This statement haunts Baldwin so much that he goes to see the film again—this time by himself. He is curious to see what the audience’s reaction is to the film. “I wondered what they were seeing,” he writes, “and what it meant to them.”

Baldwin does not explicitly say what he believes the audience saw in the film or what it meant to them. Instead he says that the “ambience” of the film reminds him of The Godfather, which had ruled the box office the previous year (1972), and starred his close friend Marlon Brandon. Both films, he writes, are “afflicted with the same pious ambiguity.” Yet, not satisfied with “ambiguity” he proposes “hypocrisy,” and not satisfied with that he finally settles on “compulsive.” The film is “desperately compulsive, and compulsive, precisely, in the terror of its unbelief.”

This is a bold allegation, and one that, until now, I had not been able to see evidence for. But if one sees the film in the context of a national struggle to have an open and sincere conversation about the state of the country’s soul and what afflicts it, then it is suddenly and unavoidably and malevolently there:


This compulsive unbelief is something Baldwin sees in most of the films he treats in this indispensable book. It might be more easily understood today as gas lighting: the film ardently claims to be about one thing while in its action shows it to be concerned with the kind of titillation that sells movie tickets.

While this might seem like a naive, even sophomoric, perspective on Baldwin’s part—of course Hollywood films are about making money—his concern with unbelief in film stands. And by unbelief he is not merely alleging that Friedkin is hostile toward Christianity, but that whatever piety the film displays is an act.

Just as Birth of a Nation is “an elaborate justification for mass murder,” The Exorcist is an elaborate commercial for the devil. What is astonishing is that in the final pages of Blatty’s novel, Regan’s mother says just this. Fr. Dyer, a friend of Fr. Karras, who has come to the house to say goodbye to the MacNeils, asks her, “What do you think really happened? . . . As a nonbeliever. Do you think she was really possessed?” She replies:

Well, like you say . . . as far as God goes, I am a nonbeliever. Still am. But when it comes to the devil—well, that’s something else. I could buy that. I do, in fact. I do. And it isn’t just what happened to Rags . . . You come to God and you have to figure out if there is one, then he must need a million year’ sleep every night or else he tends to get irritable. Know what I mean? He never talks. But the devil keeps advertising. Father. The devil does a lot of commercials.’

These lines are not found in the film. In the film there is a rather abrupt and offensively naive denouement. Baldwin writes:

At the end of The Exorcist, the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing: she is departing with her mother who will, presumably, soon make another film. The grapes of wrath are stored in the cotton fields and migrant shacks and ghettoes of this nation, and in the schools and prisons, and in the eyes and hearts and perceptions of the wretched everywhere, and in the ruined earth of Vietnam, and in the orphans and the widows, and in the old men, seeing visions, and in the young men, dreaming dreams: these have already kissed the bloody cross and will not bow down before it again: and have forgotten nothing.

Baldwin is clearly perturbed by this easy forgetfulness, this amnesia, because to him it is an instantiation of the invulnerability of a certain class of people; an instantiation of how sanctified versions of history are written.

What is important about Baldwin’s book of ostensible film criticism is that it transcends and eludes categorization. It is a work of film criticism, a work of personal testimony, and a work of prophecy. Through this powerful confluence he has found a way to pry open the vault where the sanctified history of America is entombed and confront the demon squatting there.

Despite Baldwin’s loathing of the film, his criticism inspires a conversation about a metaphorical kind of exorcism, a national exorcism, a dismantling of the master plot in order to get at the raw life-giving and implicating stories inside. This is not a rewriting of history but an unmasking.

Featured Image: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller in The Exorcist (1973).


David Griffith

David Griffith is a writer and educator. His work has appeared in the Utne Reader, Paris Review Daily, Image, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.

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