Oct. 26--If we're going to have the debate on what is the scariest movie of all time, then I get to play a piece of music for you. It's a delicate little piano riff, echoed with glockenspiel, and repeated on a loop. And for those of a certain generation, that simple trance-like musical fragment will instantly drop the temperature in any room 30 degrees.
That piece of music is called "Tubular Bells" and it was the opening theme to "The Exorcist," which I'm going to go ahead and declare the scariest movie ever, to save us all a lot of time.
Certainly, if we were sitting around all day with a stack of DVDs and a Netflix account, "The Exorcist" -- marking its 40th anniversary this fall -- may or may not stack up well against, say, "Saw" or "Hostel" or any number of the sick perversions that the horror genre has coughed up in the past 40 years. In fact, younger viewers may laugh at the histrionics and crude special effects of "The Exorcist" all these years later.
But taken in the context of its time, "The Exorcist" was a seriously disturbing mass-media experience, in a way that today, with our instant access to any and all manners of graphic horror and blanket media sensationalism, we can't quite imagine.
The lurid tale of a nice upper-middle-class schoolgirl being possessed by the spirit of the devil attracted blocks-long lines at movie theaters throughout the U.S. and Europe in late 1973 and early '74. It was an enormous cultural phenomenon, particularly when reports began surfacing soon after the film's release of moviegoers fainting or vomiting or running from the theater in terror.
I was just a kid at the time, a bit younger than Linda Blair the film's preteen star. The film was rated R -- some argued for the X rating, in fact -- and, in those days, it was a lot more difficult for a kid who couldn't shave yet to get into an R-rated movie. My parents would sooner set me on fire than accompany me to see "The Exorcist."
Word spread fast in the hallways of my school and there were a few middle schoolers who claimed to have seen the film, though they could have been all liars as far as I knew.
These were the days, remember, long before the Internet, even before the video revolution. So, I didn't get to experience the film until I saw it as a teenager as a midnight movie several years later. The fact that it was so hard to get to see was part of the film's eerie mystique, at least for kids my age. All we had was "Tubular Bells" and our overactive imaginations.
For those old enough to brave the long lines and the hysterical news reports, "The Exorcist" was tapping into a dark recess of fear that was rising to a widespread cultural level. In 1973, America was in the midst of a deep socio-political freakout. Watergate, Vietnam and the ugly, drug-addled death of the '60s were bad enough, but by '73, Americans were deeply worried about their children -- something was very, very wrong in the land.
A movie about a sweet young girl suddenly rendered unrecognizable by some sinister outside force resonated with a public that, just a few years before, had watched similarly nice, well-parented girls shave their heads and fall in line behind that murderous mad man Charlie Manson. Just about every media outlet had stories, most of them coming out of California, of stressed-out middle-class parents having to kidnap their own daughters from any number of crazed cults and lock them in a hotel room with some for-hire deprogrammer. What is that if not "The Exorcist" in a nutshell?
In an astounding coincidence, it was during the height of "The Exorcist" insanity in February 1974 when 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by a left-wing guerrilla group in a story that gripped the country for more than two years. From the perspective of millions of Americans, on screen and in real life, the devil was afoot, both metaphorically and literally, and he was coming for our daughters.
That "The Exorcist" was playing with religious iconography in a way that the movies had not quite done before was another part of its frightening mystique. The early '70s was a bad time for organized religion and the portrayal of the guilt-ridden priest struggling with doubt in the film was a vivid metaphor for an institution trying to hold on to its moral authority in troubled times.
Reportedly, Linda Blair was the target of death threats for months after the film's release from protesters who found the film deeply blasphemous. The Rev. Billy Graham denounced the film and said that the actual film reels themselves were possessed by the devil.
None of this stuff would have touched much of a nerve if director William Friedkin had been even a little bit timid and had not taken his film to the very edge of social stigma to peer out into the void of animal terror. Even in today's more garish and cynical world, some of the scenes in "The Exorcist" can still stop the heart, including the infamous "spider walk" scene. How many directors today would dare to show a 12-year-old girl masturbating with a crucifix? My best estimate is zero.
Just as horror movies in the '50s were about nuclear fears and, in the '80s and '90s, all about serial killers, the scariest films of the 1970s focused on the cosmic supernatural battle between God and Satan as played out in the souls of men, women and, especially, children. In a country of the devout, there lies the seat of all fear.
So, yes, by all means laugh at the dated look at "The Exorcist" this Halloween. But, trust me, if you were of a certain age in 1973, the last thing you'd be doing is laughing.
Contact Wallace Baine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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