The Devil Inside: The Dark Legacy of The Exorcist, by Carlos Acevedo (Hamilcar Publications, 232 pp., $21.99)
“I saw + think ‘The Exorcist’ was the best saterical (sic) comidy (sic) that I have ever seen.” So wrote the Zodiac Killer in one of his many letters to the San Francisco Chronicle on January 24, 1974. By that time, the film had been in theaters for a month, and it had already cemented its status as a cultural event on which everyone felt compelled to have a take.
But the infamous murderer’s dismissal was a minority opinion. The film was taking on disruptive proportions, comparable with Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which debuted 60 years earlier. Ticket lines wrapped around street corners. Religious groups picketed movie-houses. Riots allegedly broke out in overcrowded theaters. Many filmgoers allegedly experienced physical side effects: fainting spells, vomiting, and even heart attacks. The wild rumors only encouraged more people to see it—and see it repeatedly. William Friedkin’s directorial follow-up to The French Connection, in which two priests (Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller) seek to rid a young girl (Linda Blair) of a demonic possession, tallied $66 million domestically and $46 million internationally, making it the highest-grossing R-rated film before Pretty Woman deposed it in 1990. If The Exorcist was a film few were prepared for, with its unprecedented profanity and literally head-spinning special effects, it was also one that many could not get enough of.
As Carlos Acevedo makes clear in his forthcoming new book, The Devil Inside: The Dark Legacy of The Exorcist, the film’s publicists and filmmakers were prone to exaggerate its effects on audiences, one of the many instances of “hucksterism” and “cynical ballyhoo” he highlights. “Did I play it up? Sure,” a publicist later admitted. “I played it up in the sense that people wanted to know how many people got sick last night. I would inflate the figures. That was my job.” “Watch if you dare” is one of the oldest tricks in the horror marketing trade. Often, as in the case of William Castle (and not always justly), these tricks outshone the films they promoted. That The Exorcist is the rare and enduring exception tells us a lot.
The trifecta of American horror comprises The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rarely is one very far from the company of the others. They are the most seen, the highest ranked, the most imitated, and the most talked about. To dedicate a whole book to any one of them does not necessarily require a reason, but it helps. In writing The Devil Inside, Acevedo’s reason is one of demystification. Acevedo brings a Mencken-at-the-Scopes-trial level of tenacity to the task of forcibly separating legend from truth when it comes to The Exorcist.
Acevedo’s strategy is multipronged, combining social history and cultural analysis with the hero’s journey, behind-the-scenes lore, and showbiz gossip. He aims to dispel the hype and arrive at the material facts and the artistry that propelled them. He writes with great clarity and knowledge, if not always enthusiasm—all housed within a sound structure. In fact, The Devil Inside leaves almost nothing out when it comes to the film’s conception, its production, its critical legacy, and its ongoing controversies.
In addition to telling the story of the film’s garish promotional rollout, The Devil Inside airs and then deflates both screenwriter William Peter Blatty’s claims of genuine demonic forces in his work—especially the 1949 exorcism case that inspired his novel, later revealed to be a child’s hoax—and Friedkin’s “Barnumesque” antics playing up the “cursed” production with its delays, studio fires, and cast injuries. (Acevedo lays the blame for the latter at Friedkin’s “tyrannical” style of directing.) The book explores the social atmosphere in which the film arrived: an America not simply fatigued by failed wars and the reported death of God but pushing at the boundaries of sexual taboos, the occult, and other transgressive thrills that made contemporary films like Straw Dogs, Rosemary’s Baby, Bonnie and Clyde, and Dirty Harry harbingers of a new, grittier American cinema. And it explores how the volatile American horror industry achieved prestige along with it.
Acevedo’s earnestness of purpose does some good deeds. He dedicates a chapter to Mercedes McCambridge, one of the greatest voice actors of all time, who provided the demonic registers for the possessed Linda Blair. He gives due credit to Ray Russell’s 1962 novel The Case Against Satan, which, in addition to being nearly identical in plot to Blatty’s 1971 novel, is shorter, better written, and back in print through Penguin Classics. And he’s done his homework with the horror canon, deftly expositing its progress and its many off-branches and taking it seriously.
All these efforts are enough to show that The Exorcist was a thing that happened at a certain moment and had an immense impact on its genre and on film generally. “Behind the scandal and success of The Exorcist,” Acevedo writes, “is a rich historical, sociological, and cultural context that doubled—or even tripled—its impact.” This is nearly the opposite of the view shared by Friedkin and Blatty, who both in their own ways “practically demanded that The Exorcist be treated as sui generis, as something beyond a film, indeed, as a spiritual experience.” Neither view is entirely correct.
The Exorcist is certainly anomalous in part for going against the amoral grain of its contemporaries. But this is possible because the spirit of the film reaches much further back than the burnout of the 1960s or even P. T. Barnum. One missing link is the eighteenth-century revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards. The carnival and the church are two of the most enduring American cultural institutions; the barker and the preacher, two of its most reliable centers of authority. You may call it a Saturday-Sunday culture, where citizens indulge their vices with fried food and freak shows one day and seek salvation for doing so the next. The showy extravagance of Barnum is reflected in the hellfire vividness of Edwards.
On quality alone, The Exorcist is timeless, but when it fused those two traditions into one product, it could be nothing less than a sensation. What Acevedo’s objective, debunking account perhaps overshadows is an appreciation for that innate, indispensable impulse of horror fans to bask in credulity—and to risk losing their lunch in a movie theater.
Photo by Screen Archives/Getty Images