Considered by many to be the scariest film ever made and the first horror film nominated for Best Picture, The Exorcist has remained at the top of the horror heap for over forty years for good reason — what’s more terrifying than seeing a little girl on the edge of womanhood being possessed by the devil and driven to commit all manner of unholy atrocities? The film is still every bit as shocking and progressive as it was upon release, if not moreso, especially considering that The Exorcist made over $400 million, which means the majority of Americans witnessed the possession of Regan MacNeil in all its visceral detail. The point I raised in my introductory essay for this project is especially applicable with this film — how many general audiences would go see a movie about a single mother and her teenage daughter with intense discussions of female bodily autonomy, free will, and Catholicism if that film were not also a horror film?
You know the details: 12-year old Regan MacNeil becomes possessed by the demon Pazuzu after playing with a Ouija board, and it’s up to her single actress mom, Chris, (the always luminous Ellen Burstyn), some conflicted priests, Fathers Merrin and Karras (Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller), and a curious cop (Lee J. Cobb) to save her. Regan and Chris’s single mother/daughter dynamic was still a relatively new narrative base in the 1970s, and even when Regan starts acting out due to the possession, Chris is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter, relying first on science, then on more spiritual options. Some of the scariest scenes in the film are early on, when Regan is subjected to a variety of grueling medical tests (including a particularly brutal spinal tap) that yield no answers, frustrating Chris infinitely since she cannot help her daughter even with the assistance of medicine, and beginning the slow process of Regan’s loss of bodily control. There have been plenty of films about demonic possession since The Exorcist, but the intimacy of Regan and Chris’s relationship in the film’s first act coupled with extremity of the imagery in the film that happens later in the film feels more shocking in the wake of exsanguinated possession films that have been released since.
The Exorcist is based on the real-life case of Roland Doe, but in adapting the film for the screen, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Peter Blatty made the change of Roland to become Regan, a teenage girl. I don’t fully adhere to Peter Biskind’s theory that the film is all about male fears about menstruation, but I do think it was a very conscious choice on Blatty’s behalf to portray a teenage girl as so monstrous, considering many roles for teenage girls in “adult” films are of the Lolita variety. But, Blatty’s decisions in just how far to go with Reagan’s possession — the spider walk, the head spinning, the green vomit, and the crucifix masturbation — does feel like a conscious choice to explore the horrors of female puberty, and the terror that comes from a mother and from the church when a young woman’s sexuality blossoms. Regan’s self-carving of “HELP ME” into her stomach addresses how even when nearly all hope is lost for her, she still clings to whatever tiny sense of bodily autonomy she still has. The crucifix masturbation is an especially careful choice from Blatty and Friedkin — sexually graphic in a way that few other films are, especially as related to a child, totally sacrilegious to the celibate priests trying to perform the exorcism, and conceptually devastating as a form of self-mutilation — it is nonetheless one of the most singular images in all of horror, and speaks to an overall male fear of teenage female sexuality.
The Exorcist is continually lauded as the best and scariest horror film because it presents us with images and concepts so graphic that we cannot help but allow them to get under our skin. Even if the idea of possession defies all logic, you can’t help but feel a little more aware of your own body while watching this film. Most horror films are about the loss of the self, whether that means the physical self, the emotional self, or the psychological self, and The Exorcist hits on all three of those fears, as personified in Regan MacNeil. It’s a truly remarkable thing that the most notorious (banned on video in the UK until 1999 derided by the Catholic League, and possessed by demon according to Billy Graham) horror film of all time is on some level about male fears about teenage female sexuality, and the death of innocence.
And with that, we conclude 31 Days of Feminist Horror Films. I’ve really enjoyed unpacking these films, and I hope this series has helped you better delve into the idea of the female experience as it is explored in horror, presented you with a new take on an old favorite, or simply given you more thoughtful scary movies to watch this fall. I’ll never stop talking about women in horror, as I feel that the genre offers a unique window into the female body, psyche, and social experience, and explores a variety of topics that are still rarely touched upon in most mainstream films. I also wanted to note that I really, really tried to find more horror films with women of color or LGBTQ women in the lead, or those made by women of color/LGBTQ women, but there are a dearth of those horror films out there — all the more reason we need more women behind the camera in genre filmmaking. As a super special spooky Halloween treat, here are 31 more feminist horror films for your viewing pleasure:
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
The Final Girls
The Company of Wolves
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Under the Skin
Night of the Comet
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Tale of Two Sisters
Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Picnic at Hanging Rock
The Slumber Party Massacre
Drag Me To Hell
I Spit on Your Grave
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Trouble Every Day
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Eyes of Laura Mars
We Are What We Are
Death Becomes Her
Eyes Without a Face