I was nine years old the first time I watched The Exorcist. Raised primarily on horror films, I’d been conditioned to no longer be afraid of movies thanks to being constantly exposed to monsters, zombies, and serial killers. That night, however, brought forth a lesson of fear that I’m still learning to this very day.
At the time, I lived in an old, drafty house with wall-holes and bugs but not a goddamn trace of heat. It was always cold. The fifth house I’d ever lived in came at the tail-end of my parents’ first separation. Life was weird, and still is if I’m being completely honest.
The night was late and cold as ever, but my folks had rented a movie for us to watch together- one I’d somehow never seen (by that point, I thought I’d seen every horror film in existence). A movie called The Exorcist, with a plot I had no idea about.
The thing about that first viewing is that I don’t remember my thought process during the film, but I damn sure can’t make myself forget the feeling that came after. The haunting silence of my room as the dark hallway peered through the doorless frame, threatening to send Pazuzu in at any given second. The sun broke through the white curtains of my window the following morning, consoling my fear and swearing by the sound of chirping birds that I’d survived the night, regardless of how little those odds were.
Despite its greatest effort, that day and every day that followed could not rid me of the fear.
Less than a year later, I moved again. The sixth time in what would eventually become twenty. With my parents officially back together, they moved our growing family into a single wide trailer. I made a lot of friends in the neighborhood, rode bikes often, and even made a bitchin’ clubhouse in the woods behind my house. Simpler times.
My obsession with horror continued to grow while living there. Not only was I revisiting my favorite scary movies constantly, but I began reading horror novels. Stephen King this, Stephen King that. While shopping with my Nanny (what I called my mother’s mother) one afternoon, I came across The Exorcist again, this time in the form of a novel by William Peter Blatty. The cover displayed a blurry, pale white girl, seemingly possessed, and goddamn was I terrified of it. Even standing there in the store with the novel in my hand, prepared to beg my change-carrying Nanny to purchase it for me, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to read it. Not yet. Maybe when I was older and less afraid of the material, but certainly not now.
The novel sat on my bookshelf with the rest of my books, facing outward so that the haunting face was on full display. I thought that if I could get used to the cover, then I’d be brave enough to open the book and try reading it- though when night came, I found myself turning the cover away from my bed so not to become possessed by the demon. After a while, turning the book away became second nature; as routine as brushing my teeth, using the bathroom, and whispering the night-prayer that I believed to be mandatory at the time. The sole purpose of Blatty’s novel for this ten-year-old boy was to sit idly by and wait for me to become a man.
We moved again a year or so later and I still hadn’t turned the pages beyond the prologue.
Our new house, “lucky” number seven, is where I truly became entranced by my fear of The Exorcist. Within the first few months of living there, I rented the film from a small, family-owned video store and received an even-more-horrifying experience due to a short documentary that screened before the film.
In the doc, cast and crew described the harsh conditions on set and the numerous tragedies that took place during and after filming was complete. Viewing their testimony made the horror flick feel realer than a movie. The film itself played immediately following the documentary and the sense of dread creeped out of the screen and settled in the darkest corners of my living room, holding me captive.
Even at what was still an early age, there were no other films that came close to touching that fear; that suffocating dread. Curious about my fear of the material, I finally began reading Blatty’s novel shortly after that viewing of The Exorcist.
On the surface, Blatty’s words hadn’t frightened me as much as William Friedkin’s film, but it enhanced the fear and appreciation of all things The Exorcist. It was then that I realized why the novel and film were so horrifically effective- because neither are executed as straightforward horror fare.
At its core, The Exorcist is a drama. A tragedy. It’s a sad, human story about loss. The loss of faith. The loss of innocence. The loss of someone that you love. The demon Pazuzu and the possession of Regan are merely the dots that connect those losses to one another. The fear that The Exorcist continually instills deep within our minds doesn’t necessarily stem from the supernatural element of the film, but from the dread and hopelessness of a masterfully crafted story.
Upon that understanding, my fear of The Exorcist began to change. I graduated from “this is going to scare the hell out of me” to “this is going to fuck me up”. The dread-inducing nature of the film lingers with me long after the credits roll and it’s impossible to claim any sort of significant comfort after witnessing the possession and exorcism of Regan MacNeil.
When my mother left my family a couple of years later, I became addicted to that dread. In the weirdest fucking way, I established a connection between myself and the film. Always one to wallow in my despair (we all hate something about ourselves, don’t we?), I just wanted someone, SOMETHING, to understand the magnitude and pain of that loss. The Exorcist always did. Each time that I needed to turn away from the ever-progressing world and stop pretending that things were okay, The Exorcist was there to comfort me, and like the greatest friends, let me know that I was never alone.
So now, you see, The Exorcist serves as a reminder of that dark time in my life- which, when coupled with the dread of the film itself, makes for an experience that cannot be shaken.
I moved again over the weekend. The twentieth time. A rental, built in the ‘50s but entirely new to me. I was scheduled to get wireless internet on the Monday following my move, but found out two days later that it could take up to a month before the WIFI is installed. Bullshit. I’m spending my nights on the couch with my horror collection, revisiting movies that I love (The Funhouse, Frogs), writing articles in a spiral notebook, and trying to convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I want to, but this house is creepy enough as it is. Maybe tonight will be the night.
But there’s always that dark hallway.