Halloween’s coming up – my favorite time of the year – which means that I’ve been watching scary movies almost every night for the past two weeks. Some I’ve seen, many times: The Wolf Man, The Innocents, Poltergeist. Others I’m experiencing for the first time: The Exorcist, Cabin In The Woods.
So last week I finally saw The Exorcist, a film I had avoided for many years because I was told that it was THE SCARIEST MOVIE EVER. I was surprised. I was shocked. It was – wait for it! – not very scary.
I don’t mean to say that The Exorcist is a bad film. The performances are excellent, from Max von Sydow on down; the script is intelligent (and humorous); the build-up to Regan’s possession effective. Thematically, it’s fascinating, a juxtaposition of science and tradition, an examination of faith and of the inexplicability of evil. The special effects are spectacular for their time period, and still hold up fairly well. Everything about The Exorcist – aside from one or two moments of apparently unintentional humor – is great. But it ain’t scary.
Right, so I might be in the minority on this one. But I’m interested in why I don’t find The Exorcist scary. While watching the film, I found myself unconsciously comparing it to a similar but (for me) much scarier film: Rosemary’s Baby.
Demonic possession and impregnation are two different things, but the films deal with the issue of the satanic in similar ways. What gives Rosemary’s Baby its pathos is the psychological aspect of the film: there is a constant question about Rosemary’s sanity. It’s perfectly possible that she’s imagining the whole thing, that her terror of childbirth informs her paranoia. The audience is never privy to anything other than Rosemary’s experience; the entire film is focalized through her. Her paranoia becomes our paranoia, her uncertainty and persecution mania belongs to us as well.
By contrast, the audience is aware long before the characters that Regan is possessed by a demon. We know that psychology cannot really explain away the marks on her skin, or the bed rumbling, or the whole, y’know, demonic voice swearing a blue streak. The camera eye takes a more omniscient position; while the characters might remain uncertain and unwilling to believe, the audience is never in doubt. The terror of The Exorcist depends not on uncertainty but on certainty; the audience having more information than the characters. The tension arises from ‘will they save her?’ not ‘does she need to saved?’ As a result, The Exorcist is actually a more comforting film than Rosemary’s Baby; it takes away the guesswork for the audience by placing us (them) in a superior position.
Then there’s humor. Despite some punctuations of humor in the dialogue, The Exorcist takes itself very seriously. The reality of a demonic possession – even if this isn’t Satan himself, which I have some doubts about – contributes to the feeling of discomfort, yet we identify less with Regan as a character. She’s something of a nonentity- we’re rather horrified by the kind of evil that picks on a young girl, any girl. There seems to be no purpose behind her possession, only a sort of joke being perpetrated by the powers of darkness. While this is The Exorcist’s strength – the unfairness of victimization and the pathos we feel for an innocent child – it also becomes its weakness in comparison. Our feelings for Regan as a child mean that it is difficult to find some of the more extreme moments – stabbing herself with a crucifix for instance – humorous. Which, when you really think about it, they sort of are. The demon running around inside of her just isn’t very creative, now is he?
Rosemary’s Baby plays on aspects of the grotesque and the absurd. It avoids fully indulging the terror of the satanic because at bottom the film does not believe in demons. The characters of Roman and Minnie cease to be figures of horror and become figures of fun – they’re caricatures, their beliefs as ridiculous as the sight of a lot of naked old people. The satanic rites are infused with humor. Even the most horrifyingly blatant scene of the film is slightly ridiculous and unbelievable: Rosemary is raped by Satan, yet the appearance of a lot of naked old people performing satanic rituals in the background has its own edge of absurdity.
This combination of humor and horror makes Rosemary’s Baby more unnerving than a serious film like The Exorcist. The triumph of Rosemary is affected through recognizing these people for what they are: crackpots, self-aggrandizing cult members with no real awareness of the powers they’re engaged with. Rosemary succeeds in escaping from her victimization in the most horrible way, because she fully embraces the role not that they have set out for her, but the role she always had, that they attempted to rob from her: that of a mother.
The Exorcist is one of those films that may have become a victim to its own popularity. The spinning head and green vomit, the levitating bed – it’s been done in The Simpsons, in Ghostbusters, in Scary Movie 25. Hell, it was even done in a Daffy Duck cartoon. So when the moment comes for Regan to barf pea soup, I had all of those parodic moments running through my head. The parody has unfortunately influenced my experience of the original film. Rosemary’s Baby, largely because it does not depend on visual effects for its horror, is infused with far more dread and less easily parodied. It’s all in the mind.
But you know what really makes Rosemary’s Baby scarier than The Exorcist? At the end of The Exorcist, order is restored, the demon is defeated (for the time) and the little girl saved. At the end of Rosemary’s Baby, the forces of darkness … win. I don’t think there’s anything scarier than that.