“The Exorcist” celebrates its 45th anniversary, oddly enough, the day after Christmas. Once one of the most successful and terrifying horror films of all time, it’s a lot less scary now than it was in 1973.
The plot centers on a girl (Linda Blair) who becomes gruesomely possessed by a demon, leading her mother to enlist two priests to save her. In the ’70s, it helped put scary movies on the awards track as the first horror film to nab an Oscar best-picture nomination (to date, only six have been nominated and “The Silence of the Lambs” is the sole winner).
“The Exorcist” remains a classic, of course. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, it’s well executed (though the special effects are laughably outdated now). It’s a compelling story and was terrifying at the time: If you saw it in the theaters, you probably didn’t sleep well that night. The point is not that it isn’t a good movie, it’s that it’s no longer a good horror movie.
The actual exorcism scene is still unnerving, but it’s more gross than frightening. And that’s a big part of why re-watching “The Exorcist” now is different: Society’s relationship with horror has changed.
The horror genre is perhaps better than any other at immediately commenting on current societal fears. That’s why “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a horror/sci-fi movie about aliens trying to turn Americans into brainwashed “pod people,” came out in 1956 amid the Red Scare.
In the ’70s, as Vietnam, the Kent State shootings and Watergate sapped optimism, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” depicted young people falling prey to a group of murderous cannibals and “The Exorcist” presented an innocent girl who becomes the victim of a ruthless, unknown evil. They each go about storytelling very differently but share the same cultural anxiety: young people experiencing trauma as a result of things totally out of their hands.
As American political rhetoric shifts, so do the things people fear. And right now, what Americans are most afraid of is one another.
Consider two of the biggest horror movies of the past two years, “The Purge: Election Year” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.”
“The Purge: Election Year” was released in 2016 during a polarizing presidential race as debates raged over gun violence. “Get Out,” which arrived less than a year later, exposed a heightened but relatable example of how racism still plagues the country.
“A lot of us are afraid of politics – we’re very intimidated by it,” Sam Zimmerman, a film curator for the horror-streaming site Shudder, told USA TODAY at the time. “The way the world is headed and our greatest fears about it – that people at the top will just tank us, essentially – is perfect for subversive storytelling.”
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Both movies embody the unease Americans are feeling, perhaps better than any other horror movies in the past few years: There’s no alien, spirit or otherwise mysterious evil force to blame. The bad guys are just people. The scariest thing right now is what regular humans are capable of.
In 2018, “The Exorcist” fails to captivate audiences in quite the same way because American society isn’t afraid of the unknown right now. Daily headlines about the state of the world show us a reality that’s terrifying enough to begin with.
“Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty stands on what are popularly known as “The Exorcist steps” in the Georgetown area of Washington in 2013. Blatty died in 2017.
“Exorcist” author William Peter Blatty stands on what are popularly known as “The Exorcist steps” in the Georgetown area of Washington in 2013. Blatty died in 2017. (Photo: H. DARR BEISER/USA TODAY)
“The Exorcist” remains a cultural phenomenon; a spinoff TV series of the same name lasted two seasons on Fox. The movie still inspires Halloween mazes and viral pranks. The real-life steep staircase on which Father Karras infamously falls to his death is in Washington and attracts daring tourists to the Georgetown neighborhood to this day.
Moviegoers in 1973 experienced nightmares after watching “The Exorcist.” Some were so frightened, they fainted at the theater. But whether you decide now to watch for the first time ever or just the first time in a while, it’s difficult to imagine a reaction quite that extreme.