The Exorcist is roundly seen as the scariest movie ever made, and while I disagree on that point I can totally see why it’s engendered that opinion in audiences and critics alike. The film focuses on a young girl possessed by a demon, which twists and contorts her every which way and turns her into a snarling, hate-filled wretch, excellently voiced by the late Mercedes McCambridge. The mere idea of something invading our body, bending our limbs at impossible angles and forcing us to do and say things we never would is naturally disturbing. It’s also a notoriously grotesque film, making it controversial even today, albeit to a lesser degree than in 1973.
But The Exorcist, for all of its head-spinning and vomit-spewing and improper-use-of-a-crucifix-ing, is actually at its scariest, or at least its most unsettling, when it opts for the subtle approach. Though the possessed, Gollum-esque Regan McNeil obviously draws the audience’s attention, director William Friedkin made a point of littering the film with numerous, uncanny little details.
This is evident from its very first sequence, a prologue focusing on Father Lancaster Merrin (Max Von Sydow) during an archaeological dig in Iraq. A small army of local diggers swing their pickaxes at a frantic yet robotic pace and the choppiness of their movements suggest Friedkin filmed the scene at a sped-up frame rate. As Merrin examines an artifact he uncovered, the head of a stone idol, a nearby wall clock suddenly stops, its pendulum frozen at the height of its arc. Later, when he visits an outdoor café, a nearby blacksmith wipes his brow and stares at the priest from across the square, one of his eyes a cloudy, cataract-ridden white. Not much later, the Jesuit is nearly run over by a loud, careening carriage that comes out of nowhere.
On one hand, these disconcerting images have the unintentional effect of “otherizing” Iraq and its populace, making them seem like residents of some living limbo, and that’s kind of unfortunate considering that The Exorcist is a very humanist film, be it of a religious or secular variety. But Friedkin can be forgiven for maintaining this indescribable miasma throughout the remainder of the movie, which is set in the United States.
Waiting for a train in a subway station, Jesuit priest and psychiatrist Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller in one of my favourite theatrical performances) is beseeched by an old wino for money. Claiming to be an “old altar boy,” the vagrant stares at the priest out of the darkness with empty eyes and a pockmarked. When the priest says and offers nothing, one can almost understand why (though it should be noted that later in the film the demon adopts the wino’s voice, perhaps to taunt Karras for his lack of compassion). Several scenes later, another Jesuit priest enters the Georgetown chapel to perform his daily chores, only to discover that the statue of the Virgin Mary has been, let’s say, phallically defaced. It’s later implied that this vandalism has a rational explanation—that the possessed Regan left the house at night and mutilated the statue with her paint and clay—but it’s still a greatly unsettling image.
Why do these little details work? How do they burn themselves into our retinas and get under our skin as effectively, if not more so, than the obvious and grotesque projectile vomiting and spider-walking that the film is famous for? It has everything to do with the uncanny, a word that’s tossed around a lot in verbose descriptions and X-Men series titles but actually has a neat backstory and a very interesting—and fitting—usage. “Uncanny” is derived from the German term unheimliche, which can be described as a feeling of being unfamiliar, out of place, or as House of Leaves puts it, “not being at home.” The clearest definition is one I learned in a literary criticism course, that of “something unfamiliar being in an unfamiliar place” or vice versa. If you want an even briefer definition, try “something looking/feeling just off.” Consider the following two robots.
Now, which looks more disturbing: the obviously non-human robot on the left? or the highly-detailed android on the right? Chances are the latter weirded you out more, probably because of its lifeless eyes. This specific reaction, pertaining to the relative humanity/inhumanity of robots as well as computer-generated doppelgangers, is known as the “uncanny valley,” wherein the closer a mechanical/digital copy comes to fully imitating a human being, the more unsettling any inaccuracies in its appearance or behaviour are. To put it bluntly, it gets under your skin.
As strange as the uncanny is, it’s no stranger to the horror genre. In fact, the uncanny has done more to make horror effective throughout its history than any ghost, goblin or gout of gore. In Dracula, Bram Stoker used the eponymous vampire’s alien and exaggerated features to make him a disturbing figure upon the moment of his introduction. German Expressionism, such as the classic film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, warps angles and dimensions to create environments that are both navigable (i.e. familiar) and downright eerie. Internet favourite Slender Man (seen below) is unnerving almost completely because of how uncanny he is. And while David Lynch isn’t a horror director per se—though Inland Empire is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen—his work has no shortage of disquieting and just weird details, such as the Man from Another Place’s backwards speech in Twin Peaks or the “half-night” in Mulholland Dr.’s ridiculously tense diner scene.
So while Friedkin’s The Exorcist markets itself on all of the horrible, horrible things the possessed Regan McNeil does to herself and others, the uncanny details go much further in establishing a troubling atmosphere. So while the infamous crucifix scene doesn’t occur until quite a while into the movie, the vaguely surreal opening scenes in Iraq, as well as the odd little details in later scenes, help set the tone far in advance.