On Halloween, I watched the movie The Exorcist for the first time. The film was released in 1973, when I was in tenth grade. Seeing it decades later, I was impressed. Ellen Burstyn does an outstanding job portraying a fiercely loving mother, strong and successful, struggling to protect her child. Linda Blair turns an impossible role into a believable character — the possessed Regan, who undergoes gargantuan physical and mental transformations in the course of a 2-hour motion picture. Jason Miller, who plays the young, tormented Father Damien Karras, gives a stunning performance – tightly wrapped, ready to detonate, gripped by private emotional demons.
As the film began, I was nervous, remembering my high school friends who braved the movie. A few fainted, many vomited, and one was rushed to the ER for chest pain and shortness of breath (where she was cleared by cardio and turfed to psych for an anxiety attack). Everyone reported aftereffects including nightmares, fear of the dark, anxiety being alone, difficulty falling asleep, and a mighty aversion to pea soup.
In 1973, The Exorcist took the nation by storm. Public warnings were issued, and some theaters had ambulances conspicuously parked outside, feeding the hype. The film was wildly popular, and some critics chalked it up to sensationalistic special effects. But many films try to force themselves over the top, and most come across as ridiculous. The Exorcist was compelling forty years ago, and still is.
As an excessively cautious teenager, I watched from the sidelines. The Exorcist promised two hours of horror, a decent chance of puking, the possibility of fainting, a shot at a faux heart attack, and a smorgasbord of stress-reactions. Still, audiences packed the theatres, with lines stretching for blocks. I understood the allure — a macho rite of passage, complete with I-Survived-The-Exorcist bragging rights. I would have loved to bring out my Inner Macho, but I wasn’t ready.
Forty-two years later, I finally arrived. As I embarked on my Exorcist Maiden Voyage, I was curious what my response would be. To my intense relief, I realized I was in no danger of hurling. Riveted, I watched Regan spiral from Daughter of Cuteness to Vessel of Evil. I wasn’t surprised by my fascination, but I quickly found myself reacting in a way I never expected.
Initially clueless about the cause of her daughter’s devolution, Regan’s mother follows the footsteps of every worried parent: call the doctor. A team of white coats converges on Regan, to begin a blood-curdling procedure involving a needle in her throat. In an instant, the child rockets into gladiator mode, fighting with the strength of Muhammad Ali, spitting like a camel on meth. As she rages and curses, I caught myself smiling. Before I could redirect my extremely wrong response, a thought hit with a clarity that stopped me cold: Regan is doing what I’d want to do.
No way around it: I was identifying with the possessed girl.
Meanwhile, the devil continues to take up residence in Regan, and another scene soon follows in the infamous bedroom. The girl slams repeatedly into her mattress – whipping, flailing, out of control. Looking at her body run amok, I suddenly understood my extremely wrong response.
Regan is 12-years-old, on the brink of puberty, when an alien force ambushes her entire being. She punches her mother in the face. She speaks backwards. Her body morphs from cute to unrecognizable. She takes inappropriate sex to a new low. She can’t speak without cursing. Her voice drops. Her head spins. If the world’s finest research team could bottle adolescent impulses, bring them to a state-of-the-art lab and distill them into their purest, most extreme form — the result would be Regan.
Although my adolescence took a different form, I’ve been there. People look back and remember me as quiet, polite, well-spoken. Adults admiringly called me “mature” and “wise beyond her years”. But I knew the secret truth: Hidden deep inside, I was a stewing cauldron of green gunk.
As The Exorcist concluded, I felt an odd sense of pride, as though watching the movie resolved an unfinished piece of my adolescence. My macho rite of passage was complete, and I proudly pinned on my invisible I-Survived-The-Exorcist badge. The final credits rolled, the silver screen faded to black, and I swaggered.
Then I shook my head slightly, smiled fondly at my inner 57-year-old adolescent, and returned to adulthood.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with students who speak over forty languages. The story deals with adolescent sexuality, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to support same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum.
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