Monday, May 11, 2015

The Exorcist still scares this 40-year-old man

All movies should be watched in the dark, but this is especially true for horror films. Yet, as a 40-year-old man, I am watching The Exorcist with every light in my house on, the doors to a darkened bathroom and the basement are closed, my feet are fully and firmly on the couch, and I have a little more bourbon than usual in my glass. I am scared shitless.

Back in the small town in Minnesota where I grew up, there was a drive-in theater that my parents would frequent. I would normally have to hide under a blanket so Chuck, the guy at the gate, wouldn't see that I was there. It's probably equally true that I had to hide in order for my parents to avoid the additional charge and that they were bringing me to movies I had no business seeing. The Exorcist was one of those movies. It was released in 1973, less than a full year before I was born, and I was incredibly young when we saw it at the drive-in. Although I can't say for sure what year, it must have seen somewhere between 1978 and somewhere between the ages of four and six. How's that for parenting?!

When compiling a list of the scariest movies of all-time, you are sure to see some of the same names everywhere, and every list is going to have The Exorcist very near the top, if not in the top spot. As you can probably guess, it holds the No. 1 spot in my book, but it isn't just the pure horror of the film itself that makes it No. 1 for me. It's two specific yet peripheral things about it that frighten me to this day.
  1. Take my young age into account. What kid between four and six wouldn't be adversely affected by the imagery. It's the simple memory of having to hide under a blanket and hear my mother tell me not to look or listen during some of the more disturbing scenes in the last half of the film that triggers a fear all these years later...and I still have a hard time actually looking directly at the screen.
  2. In the film, there are electric candelabras on the walls upstairs. My grandmother's house had one creepily similar candelabra at the top of the stairway leading to the bedrooms. This candelabra was on a dimmer and was usually kept on the dimmest setting possible without being turned off. As a kid I spent many weekend nights at my grandparents' house, but walking up the steps was something that I dreaded because of The Exorcist. Years later, my family moved into that same house, and the next eight years saw me run past that light at the top of the stairs.
[At this exact moment while writing this came the reveal of Regan's possession...and I'm still scared shitless.]

Let's talk about the cast for a moment. Ellen Burstyn has spoken about the physical demands of making the film, and ultimately earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Her co-star, Jason Miller, also received an Oscar nomination for his role as Father Karras.  Lee J. Cobb is Lee J. Cobb and I've never seen a poor performance from him. I can't look at Max von Sydow without thinking about Father Merrin (or Ming the Merciless, but that's beside the point). And although Linda Blair does a fantastic job as the possessed child, there are two others who really make the film the fright-fest that it is: Mercedes McCambridge and Eileen Dietz. It is McCambridge's voice acting as the demon that surpasses Blair's look in the film. And it is Eileen Dietz's "Captain Howdy" that we see flashing subliminally throughout the film...

Thank you to both women for scarring me for life. Much appreciated.

And the piano intro to Tubular Bells? This and the theme to Halloween are the two pieces of music that will make me piss myself even today. 

In the 42 years since the film's release, there have been many other horror films to come and scare the hell out of the masses. The aforementioned Halloween (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but is there anything truly scarier than The Exorcist? I guess it depends on whether you're of my generation or someone who came a little bit later. I've heard and read comments from individuals in their twenties talk about how funny The Exorcist is, but how scary a more contemporary film is for them (Saw, The Crazies, 28 Days Later, etc.)...and neither of us is necessarily wrong. But I'd like to know how many of these "kids" saw their scariest movie at the age of five. 

When you see the devil before you, it's going to make an impact on your life, and The Exorcist has made an impact on mine. So although some of the younger people out there have similar experiences with something other than The Exorcist, I challenge those of you who are of my generation to do what I can't do: watch this film alone in the dark. Then, let me know if you can make it to your bed without having to jump so the beast under there doesn't get you.

What's that noise you just heard come from your attic?

What is that scratching on your window?

You may be a rational person and you may not get freaked out by strange noises, but that doesn't mean that something isn't trying to get you.


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