Everything in The Exorcist is bold and scary... but the ending is quiet. Why?
There are few movies I consider actually "scary." Sure, there's gruesome horror, and I indulge in jumps every so often, but when it comes to genuine scares, it's hard to think of anything that actually gets under my skin and makes it crawl like The Exorcist.
Maybe it's the 12 years of Catholic school or the mastery of William Friedkin, but this classic from 1973 is a movie that left a big imprint on me. It was the first horror movie I saw with amazing character development and a true arc for the people involved.
It was a movie about clashes, like between progressive and family values, between science and religion, and between atheism and faith.
This movie was important for Hollywood, the country, and the world.
But one thing the ending of The Exorcist makes perfectly clear is where the film's own politics stand. Check out this video essay from The Take, and examine the deeper messages and themes of The Exorcist’s ending, and how to still appreciate this movie if you don’t happen to agree with its values.
Why Does The Exorcist Have Such a Conservative Ending?
Just watching that essay made me scared to go to bed tonight, and I watched it at ten in the morning. I want to get into our grander discussion of the film's ending. But first, let's talk about the actual movie and its plot.
The Exorcist, released in 1973, is a supernatural horror film. It was directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the 1971 novel it was based off of. The film stars Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair, who plays a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon.
At the end of the film, Father Karras asks the demon to leave Reagan and enter him. When this happens, he throws himself out a window, dying to save Reagan from the demon. When he lands, Father Dyer administers his last rites, and the demon is defeated.
A few days later, Reagan, now back to normal, prepares to leave for Los Angeles with her mother. She has no recollection of her possession, but she is still moved by the sight of Dyer's clerical collar, and kisses his cheek. As the car leaves, her mother tells the driver to stop, and she gives Dyer a medallion that belonged to Karras. After they drive off, Dyer pauses at the top of the stone steps before turning and walking away.
After such a batshit movie, this was actually a pretty quiet ending.
Well, the answer lies within the moral of the film. As we look back on the movie, it can be seen as a condemnation of female sexuality, the single-parent home, science versus religion, and the importance of a father in your life. While some of these notions might feel outdated, they were prevalent in the 1970s, pushing back on the free love generation and moral shake-up of the 1960s.
In fact, the book on which the movie is based was written for the sole purpose of trying to drive people back to the church and encouraging them to chose what the author thought to be "moral lives."
At the end of the movie, we see Reagan reject becoming a woman. Instead, she becomes a meek child who chooses religion. She also gets a father figure in God and the priests. And our priests make the ultimate sacrifice, like Jesus did, to save her soul.
It's funny that this was the intent, because when the film was released, it faced a backlash from parent groups, church sects, and much of the public, even as it was embraced by Hollywood and nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
I think the central questions of this movie are what makes it able to withstand the test of time. Even though the "morals" might be outdated or skewed one way, the entertainment value is done so well. We have the struggle at the forefront of the conversation, and it informs every scene we see.
What do you think of this reading of The Exorcist?
Let us know in the comments.
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