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The Legacy of The Exorcist: Five Decades of Fear


The Legacy of The Exorcist: Five Decades of Fear

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The Legacy of The Exorcist: Five Decades of Fear


Published on September 20, 2023

Image: Warner Bros Pictures
Image: Warner Bros Pictures

2023 marks fifty years since the release of The Exorcist (1973) and the opportunity for commemoration hasn’t gone unnoticed. July saw the release of Nat Segaloff’s franchise deep-dive The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear; September greets us with the 4K Ultra HD remaster on physical media of the original movie; and in early October the iconic film will be re-released theatrically as a Fathom Event, leading up to the premiere the new The Exorcist: Believer, touted as its direct follow-up and also the first installment in a new trilogy. (If that approach sounds reminiscent of 2018’s Halloween, it’s no coincidence: both projects are helmed by the same director, David Gordon Green, and involve Blumhouse Productions.)

With this swirl of conjurations in the air, it seems apt to revisit the classic, and provide a primer for folks who might want to explore the tortuous, oftentimes confusing, history of the Exorcist franchise.


The Power of The Exorcist Compels Us

Image: Warner Bros Pictures

On the face of it, the story seems simple: a demon possesses the body of a young girl named Regan MacNeil, and psychiatrist Father Damien Karras together with priest Lankester Merrin, do their—pun intended—damndest to get the demon out.

At the time of its release, director William Friedkin played up suggestions that the making of the film might have been accompanied by unusual events, and William Peter Blatty, author of the source novel, didn’t shy away from discussing the allegedly real case which had inspired the book.

Audiences were sucked in and responded viscerally. Word of mouth spread quickly, as folks were stupefied and scandalized by The Exorcist’s profanity and gory visuals. Looking at the film today, we can see that beneath all the sensationalistic excrescences lurks something genuinely strange and foreboding—in a way, by filing down the film’s initial shock value, time has elevated its other qualities.

Mark Kermode, in his indispensable book The Exorcist (BFI Film Classics, 2nd Edition), observes that “for the first time in a mainstream movie, audiences witnessed the graphic desecration of everything that was considered wholesome and good about the fading American Dream–the home, the family, the church and, most shockingly, the child.” Famously, Stephen King talked in Danse Macabre about how the film captured the generational disconnect of the day.

But these ideas are insufficient to explain the movie’s extraordinary staying power. “…below the gaudy surface,” Kermode acknowledges, “something far more complex and contradictory was at work.” He goes on to provide examples of juxtapositions that create a permeating sense of dread, noting “it is in this tension between the progressive and the regressive, the divine and the depraved, the hidden and the apparent, that the power of The Exorcist lies.”

Having just revisited the movie, I cannot sufficiently emphasize the brilliance, for instance, of its sound design and editing. The film’s very opening is an invitation to dissonance: as the title appears, with its obvious reference to a Christian ritual, Muslim chanting—the adhan, or call to prayer—swells in the background. We’re then introduced to vistas of a non-industrialized region of Iraq, but the soundtrack, rather than providing the expected quiet of sweeping desolation or stillness, assaults us with clanging picks and other instruments hammering away.

Soon thereafter, a clock stops on a wall, an event whose signature is the cessation of sound. “The suggestion,” Kermode writes, “is that time has stopped, that the normal flow of the present has been interrupted by a force from the past.” I’d like to offer an additional interpretation: we are entering a contest between good and evil that transcends time. As we’re about to witness a particularly dramatic interlude in this ongoing struggle, the universe’s ordinary laws are suspended. If time stops, anything—including levitation—is possible.

The movie’s prologue famously closes with a tableau in which the figure of Father Merrin is shown facing down the statue of an ancient demon against a backdrop of ancient ruins. Their silhouettes, representing some kind of primeval confrontation, linger in the mind’s eye as we’re whisked away to Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and the modern-day contrivances of making a (fictional) film.

Sly audiovisual choices continue: as actress Chris MacNeil (the mother of Regan) walks from the movie-within-the-movie up to the campus steps, her lips move but there’s no sound. Later, as she strolls home and observes Father Karras talking to a colleague, an airplane overhead drowns out his speech, so that his lips also move without sound. Somehow, before even meeting, these two characters are already in sync.

Later, in Father Karras’ unsettling dream, his lips again move without accompanying utterances. Back in reality, when we see him running on the track, Karras’ gait is like that in his dream. In this, and a variety of subtle other ways, subjective experiential truth is used to bridge reality with imagined realms.

Other echoes and anticipations reverberate. When Karras visits his mom in her dilapidated neighborhood, these contemporary “ruins” allow the essential uncanniness of the prologue to seep in. Relatively early on, Father Karras requests a reassignment, and the foreshadowing of his fate is explicitly portentous: “I need out.”

Before dealing with Regan’s condition full on, we witness other intimations of possession. Karras and his uncle visit Karass’ deteriorating mother in the hospital and the patients they encounter, confined in a jail-like setting, seem tormented or inhabited by other presences. As Kermode remarks: “The suggestion here is twofold, hinting not only that the psychiatric patients’ illnesses may somehow be spiritually derived, but also that Regan’s ‘possession’ might ultimately be nothing more than yet another form of psychological disturbance.” To this I would add that when Karass’ mother cries out in Greek, as far as the majority of the audience is concerned, she is speaking in a strange tongue—another clear prefiguration of possession. At the party hosted by Chris, director Burke Dennings is also not himself, in this case “possessed” by alcohol.

When Regan is tested by a cadre of dour doctors, the thudding of scientific machinery is similar to that clanging of hammers in the prologue. Kermode: “One of the strongest themes of The Exorcist is the uneasy disparity between the modern, suburban setting of Washington DC, and the apparently archaic solution that Regan’s illness ultimately demands.” It should be noted that the first characters to draw blood on screen are scientists.

Image: Warner Bros Pictures

In the wake of an incident involving Dennings, we’re introduced to homicide detective William Kinderman, whose first name doubles for that of the director and novel writer, and whose last name literally translates as “children-man”—an interesting moniker for someone investigating a child as a possible murder suspect.

These details are not intended as any kind of exhaustive accounting of Friedkin’s magnificent craft, but should illustrate that The Exorcist is sneakily meticulous filmmaking well before any of the possession effects are unleashed.

Returning to the film’s use of sound for a moment, I haven’t yet mentioned Mike Oldfield’s now-iconic “Tubular Bells.” Friedkin’s use of score is sparse throughout, and I think this ties back to one of the key reasons The Exorcist is so effective. In his book, Kermode describes the picture as “a movie at war with itself, a divided entity.” Besides the elements we’ve already touched on, part of this tension, this irresolution, stems from the fact that many of Friedkin’s choices appear to be bluntly straightforward, almost as though he was making a documentary. Unobtrusive camerawork captures naturalistic dialogue between a mother and daughter; students protest; folks trade banter at a party; and so on. But Friedkin yields the tools of unadorned realism deceptively, as he often focuses on details of subconscious import, pregnant with foreshadowing and thematic connotations.

The rapid accrual of these quasi-journalistic images and sounds immerses us in a world that, logically, we accept as real, but which our hindbrains intuit as fantastical. There are two principal “outs,” both of which enhance the film-viewing experience; we can resign ourselves to the fact that our world may indeed be inhabited by phenomena like those experienced by Regan and Father Karras, a possibility that heightens our dread; or we can choose to believe that when we experience dreams, visions, and other flights of imagination, we are somehow tapping into a greater symbolic realm (religious or not), one with which the film is in eloquent dialogue.

This brings us to a further element that draws us: “For all their technical accuracy,” Kermode writes, “the words and actions of the doctors seem little more than mystical hokum and hollow ritual.” This idea of ritual is critical. Misdirecting us away from the idea that we’re seeing a performance is one of the movie’s key strategies; one of the ways it achieves this misdirection is to repeatedly point to us to fictive performances within the film. (Chris starring in a fictional movie called Angel overlays additional meanings). “That over there is fake,” the movie says, “and this over here is also fictional,” which by extension means that all the other, freaky events must be unfolding within a real environment.

In his book The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in The Christian West, Brian Levack writes: “The most fruitful way for modern scholars to make sense of demonic possession is to see it as a theatrical performance that reflected the religious cultures of the demoniac, the community, and the exorcist.” In the course of a meaty chapter, Levack traces the similarities between possessions/exorcisms and theatrical performances, as well as the earliest fictional depictions of the former by the latter. “Modern playwrights and film directors have continued to exploit the theatrical potential of possession and exorcism,” he writes, citing Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) and The Devils (1971) as antecedents of The Exorcist.

Coming back, then, to Kermode’s comment on the doctors; it’s ingenious to show this first (modern, scientific) attempt at dealing with Regan in the form of ritual, because it establishes a natural continuity with the second attempt, which takes the form of the Catholic Rite of exorcism, lending the religious practice weight and credibility. It also allows for a heightened sense of catharsis by reinforcing the value of performance itself, and allowing us to experience successful release only after protracted failure.

[Warning: Spoilers for The Exorcist follow.]

It’s well documented that soon after the movie was out, audiences became aware of The Exorcist’s main storyline and attended viewings with certain expectations. Indeed, Friedkin himself shortened the lead-up to the exorcism while in postproduction, cutting out material that Blatty wanted left in, because he knew the public’s patience could only be tried so long by sequences involving doctors and medical examinations. They wanted to get to the good stuff.

With that in mind, it’s admirable and almost mind-boggling how long Friedkin still manages to postpone the explicit conflict between the men of the cloth and the demoniac Regan. Kermode describes “the film’s growing sense of claustrophobia” and astutely points out that “the whole progression of the movie is a series of increasingly bizarre, cataclysmic incidents that become more and more outrageous and disturbing, but which remain unresolved until the final exorcism.”

In its original version, it takes 1 hour and 19 mins—more than half the movie—for Karras to even meet Regan. It’s only at the 1 hour and 34 minute mark—we’re now three-quarters of the way through!—that Father Merrin arrives at the house. One of the most saliently supernatural moments, the levitation scene, occurs at 1 hour and 43 mins, with just over fifteen minutes left to wrap everything up. Not only does the movie tunnel us in spatially, trapping us in Regan’s room, to create the claustrophobia Kermode remarks upon, but it also drums up a kind of temporal anxiety, with events speeding up more and more as we plunge towards the end. The faster the more “unbelievable” events happen, the less likely we’re liable to analyze and deconstruct them.

Perhaps the most famous of all is the scene in which Regan’s head spins completely around. “In deference to his producer,” Kermode writes, “Friedkin inserted a mid-turn cutaway to Karras, suggesting that the spectacle might be an hallucination.” Indeed, when I saw the movie a few days ago, not only did I not have time to dwell on the physical impossibility of the act—it’s very brief—but I remembered Merrin’s earlier admonition to Karras about the demon: “He is a liar, the demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us.” Since at one point Karras imagines seeing his mother lying in Regan’s place, I assumed those lies could take the form of other visual deceptions, including an impossible head-turn.

During the exorcism scenes, we quickly glean that the pattern of call and response between Karras and Merrin is critical. Neither one can exorcise the demon on his own; the team of two must work together to be effective. Blatty, in a number of interviews throughout the years, has talked about how Regan was in fact not the intended victim. “The point was to make us despair at our own humanity and to make us feel so bestial and vile that, if there was a God, He could not possibly love us,” he is quoted as saying, for instance, in Segaloff’s volume. “One of the strongest themes of Blatty’s novel and screenplay–that the target of the ‘demon’s’ attacks is not Regan herself, but all those around her, all those who are witness to the evil that grips her,” Kermode says in his book. Interestingly, one of the side-effects of the demon’s instigations is to forge a strong bond between two very different men at different life stages.

Thinking about the raw power of the exorcism sequences in terms of theater and performativity, I think a case can be made that they speak to us on a fundamental level in the following way: Regan, or anyone possessed in this type of narrative, represents a member of a community who through no fault of his or her own has become cut off from everyone else. They are alienated, literally speaking in strange tongues. It is only through the ancient institutional knowledge preserved and passed down through the generations of the tribe that these lost individuals can be restored and healed, outcasts regaining their link to the whole. Seen in this light, I think exorcism narratives are conservative only in their re-affirmation of community values, rather than serving as propaganda for any particular theological framework or dogma. To exorcise is to heal; to perform the theater of exorcism via story is to say that story itself is healing.


A Tale of Two Cuts

Image: Warner Bros Pictures

Apparently, Blatty was quite troubled by the idea that a lot of viewers thought the film had a downbeat ending. In Segaloff’s book, for example, he recounts: “Billy and I thought we made the ending perfectly clear, that it was a triumph of good over evil, that it was Karras’ love for this child that caused him to break out of the demon’s spell for one split second, long enough to go out of the house, which is the only thing he could do to save the child’s life, because, in another two seconds, the demon would be in possession again and he’d kill the girl. At least fifty percent of the people who have seen the motion picture never get that out of it; and they thought it was a triumph of evil over good and they thought it was a downer.”

I’ve encountered various versions of this in the literature, and I have to say, it strikes me as a bit ironic. Let’s go with Blatty’s interpretation—which I agree is quite clear in the movie—and accept that Karras sacrifices himself in order to save Regan. Okay. Still, on the whole, what do we have? A pretty grim story involving a psychiatrist’s ill mother, who dies in fear and confusion, the invasion of a child’s body by an ancient demon, the murder of a film director, and the death of two of our leads, one by demonic attack, the other by suicide; all of this to end with a traumatized, amnesia-riddled child. The triumph of goodness, I think, is at best muted.

This is no doubt one place where Blatty’s Catholic worldview colored his idea of “positive” and “negative”; for Blatty, Karras and Merrin would continue in the afterlife, presumably Heaven. But anyone who believes that their stories are over when they die in the movie—myself included—is probably liable to think the demon got away with quite a bit of carnage….

At any rate, this question of the ending, along with other aspects of The Exorcist, really did bother Blatty, and for years he kept trying to convince Friedkin to change the movie. “Finally in 2000, despite all previous protestations to the contrary, Friedkin produced an entirely new 132-minute cut of The Exorcist,” Kermode writes, “reinstating scenes which he had previously deemed ‘redundant.’” Friedkin himself said: “Bill had been imploring me for years to put the film back to the way I first cut it, because he felt it had more meaning like that. […] Viewing both versions now, I can see that the old version is a colder film, more dyspeptic and abstract, more like a piece of contemporary music than a classical piece. This new version is much warmer. And, I think, much better.”

Alas, I’m not one to share that opinion. Kermode describes the new, longer cut (in fact, there are two versions of this longer cut, the first titled “The Version You’ve Never Seen” and the second called “Extended Director’s Cut”, but they’re almost identical, so for simplicity’s sake I’ll be using the second label going forward) as “more languorous,” an assessment I think is accurate.

By making the movie slower—“warmer,” to use the director’s term, or “more languorous,” to use Kermode’s description—Friedkin makes it more conventional in its orientation along the axis of traditional character development and neat emotional denouement. The temporal anxiety I mentioned is diminished, and the director’s almost-documentarian approach is diluted. Anyone approaching the film as horror is likely to enjoy the original version more. Those who think of it in terms of a supernatural drama might, I suppose, prefer the longer edit.

This wouldn’t be the last instance of variations afflicting the franchise. For the 40th anniversary edition of the original novel, Blatty rewrote certain passages. And both sequels, along with the prequel, ended up having different versions. (Segaloff’s book, which I reviewed here, details all the differences). Though surely it wasn’t planned this way, this almost lends a kind of mythical gravitas to the Exorcist saga. It’s akin to some ancient story being reconstructed by modern scribes, performing numerous adjustments and exegeses in their attempts to get closer and closer to the original, holy text….


Choose Your Own Pazuzu

Image: Warner Bros Pictures

After The Exorcist proved a runaway hit commercially and (at least in terms of awards nominations) critically, it was inevitable that sequels would follow. There are in total four Exorcist movies, each of which has two available versions on home media. So how best to navigate the franchise?

  1. If you just want the essentials, and you’re a horror fan, simply watch the Original Theatrical Cut of the first film. Done!
  1. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, after seeing the Original Theatrical Cut of the first movie, skip the second one entirely and proceed to the Director’s Cut of Exorcist III (but be warned that it isn’t quite a “finished” version when it comes to the postproduction quality of the various assembled elements).
  1. If after seeing movie 1, or movies 1 and 3, you’re hankering for some Father Merrin prequel material, you should still resist the temptation to check out movie 2. Your best bet is Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. But keep in mind, “best bet” doesn’t mean winning bet. Dominion, directed in a bare bones manner by Paul Schrader, is in my opinion better than its alternative film, The Beginning, but remains a slow, often tedious affair, with seriously creaky CGI.
  1. You insist on watching at least one version of each movie, in release order. Here’s what that journey looks like, according to me:

My guiding philosophy for the above recommendations is pretty straightforward. For movies 1, 3, and 4, I believe the versions I’ve chosen are overall the best presentations of the core material and, when viewed together, offer the most cohesive aesthetic and thematic experience.

By that logic, though, shouldn’t I be recommending the Original Cut of the Exorcist II, which some viewers believe is less confusing than the more condensed version I’ve opted for? Perhaps—but the content of both versions of Exorcist II is so outrageous and ultimately inconsequential that the less time you invest in it, the better. When it comes to Exorcist II, you’ll be grateful you saved all of 15 minutes. John Boorman tries to achieve incantatory power through the sheer repetition of words and phrases, but rather than inducing a trance-like state, it triggers first giggles and then yawns. By my count, Exorcist II mentions Pazuzu 27 times, Kokumo 12 times, the word “evil” 11 times, the word “demon” 11 times, and the word “devil” 5 times. Oh, and let’s not forget the phrase “go deeper”—something the film itself unfortunately fails to do—also 5 times.

Perhaps the most unintentionally apocalyptic bit of dialogue in the original Exorcist is this brief allusion to Father Merrin’s past: “…he’s had experience. […] Ten, maybe twelve years ago, in Africa. The exorcism supposedly lasted for months. I heard it damn near killed him.” These innocent lines ended up unleashing hours of unnecessary moviemaking. Boorman’s Exorcist II attempted, with overweening, misplaced ambition, to act as a corrective to the first movie by tapping into this backstory. The result was a mess—tonally, it’s a movie completely at odds with the preceding and subsequent entries. At one point, Father Lamont, played by Richard Burton, says: “Evil is a spiritual being, alive and living, perverted and perverting, weaving its way insidiously into the very fabric of life.” Cue… locusts.

Not learning from history, Paul Schrader was doomed to repeat it, entrenching himself even more devotedly in Merrin’s history with a new attempted prequel. It proved leaden; the studio balked. The script is full of didactic lines like “it’s so much easier to believe evil is random, or an ogre, not that it’s a human condition, something everyone is capable of.” I say, give us the ogre. Renny Harlin was called in to create a sexier incarnation of Schrader’s materia prima; alas, “more commercial” in this case means trashier and more generic.

That leaves us with The Exorcist III. I’ve left this sequel for last because it’s the good one. Alex Bledsoe does a nice job of recapping the importance of the Director’s Cut of The Exorcist III on this very site. Essentially, The Exorcist III is a standout for several reasons; it was originally conceived by Blatty and Friedkin; its genesis led to Blatty writing a sequel novel to The Exorcist titled Legion; and Blatty ended up directing the film (retitled The Exorcist III) himself. In that sense, you can’t get any closer to the source. It’s also quite unlike The Exorcist. One of the main differences between the theatrically released version in 1990 and the 2016 Director’s Cut is, well, the fact that the former was forced by studio mandate to include an exorcism, and the latter doesn’t. It even works, truth be told, as a standalone movie, fueled by a script whose verbal gymnastics are brought to life primarily through Brad Dourif’s tour de force performance. It also contains one of the scariest moments ever committed to film—blink and you’ll miss it. This third outing was the first Exorcist movie I ever saw, and I’ve no regrets.


The Exorcist—The Television Series

Image: 20th Century Fox

Nat Segaloff writes in his book: “What critics and audiences failed to notice in their eagerness to find flaws in the Exorcist lore was that the series was exquisitely produced, well cast, and well acted, with an admirable consistency of tone and seriousness.” Having recently watched all twenty episodes for the first time, I concur.

The series contains plenty of nods to the original film and book, for the most part tastefully executed. It is respectful without being deferential, and after the fourth or fifth episode, makes clear that it will be staking out its own, separate identity. Both seasons feature season-specific stories, but they also begin to paint in a broader mythology that could have helped keep the show interesting for at least one or two further seasons.

Whereas the storytelling focus of The Exorcist and The Exorcist III is largely on the externalized manifestations of evil, the television series delves into the subjectivities experienced not only by the possessed, but by those whose minds come into contact with these victims. Many sequences therefore exist inside various figurative mindscapes, remixing iconic images and bringing together different moments in characters’ lives achronologically, in a way that structurally honors the source material—time stopping, and so forth. Fans of The Exorcist III, in particular, should stick around for the end of Season 2; that’s all I’ll say…

Geena Davis in Season 1 and John Cho in Season 2 are given involved and muscular acting challenges through their arcs; they’re both up to it. Alfonso Herrera as Father Tomas Ortega and Ben Daniels as Father Marcus Keane are both charismatic, in often complementary ways. One of my favorite early moments occurs shortly after meeting Keane. “Every day is progress,” he says. “The power’s in the repetition.”

In the fifth episode of the first season, we’re treated to this exchange between Angela Rance and Father Tomas:

Angela: Anthony was the patron saint of… uh…

Tomas: Lost things.

Angela: I thought that was St. Jude.

Tomas: No, St. Jude is lost causes.

Rance: So how can you tell when something stops being lost and starts being a lost cause?

The Exorcist television series, which I’ve never seen much discussed, may be somewhat lost in the ever-expanding maelstrom of pop culture, but it’s by no means a lost cause. [Editor’s note: Leah Schnelbach has an in-depth look at the TV series here.] While the second season finale teased the team-up of Tomas with an intriguing new character played by Zuleikha Robinson, and also planted the seed for the return of Keane, it brings to a close its own story in an emotionally satisfying way.


More Exorcisms Than You Can Shake a Pazuzu Statue At…

The resounding success of Friedkin’s film, besides leading to sequels, proved a clarion call for copycats of all stripes. Less than a year after its release, for instance, Turkish director Metin Erksan released Şeytan (1974), a work of overt, and overtly low-budget, plagiarism. Domestically, William Girdler released the blaxploitation flick Abby (1974), the distributor of which was actually sued by Warner Bros. on the grounds that it was blatantly derivative of The Exorcist. Another lawsuit, for the exact same reason, was filed against the production company behind Beyond the Door (1974), a joint Italian/US venture.

In May 1974, German director Walter Boos released his Exorcist-capitalizing movie Magdalena, vom Teufel besessen (The Devil’s Female) . Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins directed and starred in Exorcismo Negro (The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe) in December 1974. Spain’s Amando de Ossorio cooked up Demon Witch Child (La Endemoniada) in 1975. Italy wasted no time in producing movies like L’anticristo (1974) and La casa dell’esorcismo (House of Exorcism, 1975), which was in fact a new version of Lisa and the Devil (1974)—actually first released in Spain as El diablo se lleva a los muertos—to which Exorcist-type material was added for commercial reasons. 1975 also saw the release of fare like the sleaze-fest Un urlo dalle tenebre (The Return of the Exorcist, 1975) and Exorcismo. And so on and so forth…

Publishers cashed in on the phenomenon as well. One of countless examples: J. J. Madison’s novel Ohhhhh, It Feels Like Dying from 1971 was republished by Belmont Tower in 1972, after Blatty’s novel had come out, as The Thing, with a cover that declared “More Frightening Than The Exorcist And The Other” (this was before the film version of Blatty’s novel had been released, and you can see the publisher hedging its bets between the success of Blatty and Thomas Tryon). Fast forward to 1974, post-movie-mania, and Belmont Tower again brought out a new edition, this time with the phrase “More Terrifying Than The Exorcist” on the cover, with the movie’s title featured almost as prominently as the title of Madison’s novel.

That same year, Belmont published Norman Thaddeus Vane’s The Exorcism of Angela Gray. 1974 also saw the publication by Pocket Books of The Exorcism of Jenny Slade by Dorothy Daniels, who a year earlier had published The Possession of Tracy Corbin through Warner Books. The 1974 paperback reprint of Bill Garnett’s Down Bound Train boasts “A Satanic Journey One Step Beyond The Exorcist…” In 1974 we also got Lovers & Exorcists by Wesley Simon York (a pseudonym of Kin Platt), Joseph Nazel’s The Black Exorcist, and Andrew J. Offutt’s (writing as John Cleve) The Sexorcist. These titles are just some prime examples of the torrent of imitation and invocation that burst forth like so much pea-green vomit in the wake of the movie’s success, but there were many more.

Tracing the lineage and influences of The Exorcist would fill up several volumes. In fact, Italy Possessed: A Brief History of Exorcist Rip-Offs, is a 2020 documentary that covers just what is says—and though Italy was uber-prolific in this regard, it certainly wasn’t the only country, as evidenced by some of the examples above, commodifying the craze.

Besides movies and books trying to replicate the phenomenon in a dramatic way, we should touch on a few parodic highlights. The 1990 film Repossessed stars Leslie Nielsen—and Linda Blair herself! The popular 1992 TV-centric meta-comedy Stay Tuned included a cable channel from Hell featuring a very trying workout routine called “The Exorcisist.” The Shrek franchise special Scared Shrekless (2010) contains a segment titled—what else?—“The Shreksorcist.” And Scary Movie 2 features perhaps one of the goofiest ever send-ups of Friedkin’s original, starring Andy Richter and James Woods.


Beyond The Exorcist

To wrap up our look at The Exorcist and its lasting influence, here are twenty-five recommendations (twenty-four movies and one short series) of stories involving exorcisms of one type of another going back to the turn of the millennium. Along with titles that will be familiar to most horror fans I’ve tried to include several lesser-known items, at times prizing ambition or originality over execution. Though these narratives can’t help but exist in the shadow of The Exorcist, many of them carve out surprisingly distinctive and memorable slices of darkness. Their name is Legion, for they are many…

  • Stigmata (1999)
  • The Order [a.k.a. The Sin Eater] (2003)
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
  • Constantine (2005)
  • Requiem (2006)
  • Apparitions [6-episode BBC series] (2008)
  • The Unborn (2009)
  • The Last Exorcism (2010)
  • The Rite (2011)
  • The Devil Inside (2012)
  • The Possession (2012)
  • The Conjuring (2013)
  • Deliver Us From Evil (2014)
  • The Priests (2015)
  • The Wailing (2016)
  • The Crucifixion (2017)
  • Belzebuth (2017)
  • The Devil’s Doorway (2018)
  • The Cleansing Hour (2019)
  • The Closet (2020)
  • The Medium (2021)
  • Agnes (2021)
  • The Exorcism of God (2021)
  • My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2022)
  • The Pope’s Exorcist (2023)



In Chapter 3 of The Exorcist, Blatty writes: “There was a strangeness in the house. Like settling stillness. Weighted dust.” The best exorcism stories, I believe, spectacularly pierce our everyday stillness and leave the dust of our emotions settled in subtle new ways. What are some of your favorite narrative houses of strangeness? Please let me know in the comments below!

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016 to critical acclaim. Being Michael Swanwick, out in November 2023, is Alvaro’s second book of interviews. His debut novel, Equimedian, is forthcoming in 2024.

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