Essays

My Mother and The Exorcist

How horror reconciled me to loss

Marlena Williams

A marquee for The Exorcist at the Warner Rendezvous cinema London, 1974. Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A WOMAN IS STARTLED AWAKE by a loud sound. She pulls on a robe and rushes down the hall to the room where her daughter rests. She finds the girl there, sleeping peacefully, but all is not as she left it. The window is open, frigid air blowing in. Light from the streetlamp below streams in. The drapes flap in the breeze. The sheets on the bed have been yanked down, leaving her daughter’s prone body exposed to the cold. Strange, the mother thinks, but nothing more. She closes the window and rewraps the covers tightly around her sleeping child. She kisses her forehead, tells her she loves her, and tiptoes out of the room.


MY MOTHER RARELY TOLD ME STORIES
about her life. I think she considered talking about herself self-indulgent. As a child, I hungrily clung to whatever hazy stories she offered, tales plucked from her memory that have become even hazier when filtered through the cluttered corridors of my own. I know she was raised on a farm in a small, mostly white town in Oregon. In high school, she played on the Canby Cougar’s volleyball team but stopped after she injured her knee. The surgery left a long scar that zippered across her kneecap. In an old picture I found, she smiles in a green bikini near a lake surrounded by fir trees.

A decade after her death, I still find myself sifting through the shards of narrative and fragmented recollections she left behind, hoping that eventually I will fuse together enough pieces to build something whole. There is one story, however, that has remained as clear to me as it was the first time I heard it, and that is the story of my mother and The Exorcist.


WHEN
THE EXORCISTa film about the possession and eventual exorcism of a twelve-year-old girl named Regan MacNeil—premiered in December of 1973, my grandmother Marlene forbade my fourteen-year-old mother from seeing it. Marlene died of brain cancer before I was born, but I know she was a devoutly religious woman who chain-smoked Pall Malls and swore like a sailor. She liked to drive her kids to school while still wearing her bathrobe and curlers, exhaust sputtering from the pipes of their clunker car and smoke curling off the tip of her extra-long cigarette. To Marlene, a conservative Catholic living in a rural Oregon town, The Exorcist was not just blasphemous, but dangerous, a movie that would corrupt the mind—and perhaps even the soul—of anyone who saw it.

It was one of life's simple rules. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t cross the street without looking. And don’t watch The Exorcist.

Marlene’s fears weren’t completely unfounded. Within weeks of the film’s release, there was a marked increase in the number of people calling priests to perform exorcisms. The evening news was filled with reports of filmgoers fainting and vomiting in their seats, of the film inducing heart attacks and miscarriages, of people leaving the theater shaking and screaming. In Berkeley, a man threw himself at the screen in a misguided attempt to “get the demon.” Four women in Toronto were supposedly so disturbed by The Exorcist that they were subsequently confined to psychiatric care wards.

West Germany banned the film because a nineteen-year-old boy named Rainer Hertrampf shot himself with an automatic rifle shortly after seeing it. When a sixteen-year-old English boy named John Power died the day after watching it, a heavily publicized inquest connected the film to his death. Even when it was revealed that John died because of an epileptic attack, the image of a seizing teen felt a little too close to the film to fully ease the public’s suspicions.

In the United States, The Exorcist seemed to strike a particular chord with a country still struggling to absorb the political and cultural tumult of the previous decade, a struggle that often manifested in an increased paranoia about the safety and morals of the nation’s youth. On live TV, before his interview with The Exorcist’s best-selling author and Academy Award–winning screenwriter William Peter Blatty, Johnny Carson dourly warned his viewers, “Children under fifteen shouldn’t see the film.”


MY MOTHER WENT AND SAW
The Exorcist anyway. One cold Friday night, she snuck out her bedroom window, crawled across the roof, and scrambled down a tree. Her friend was waiting for her in a car at the end of the long gravel driveway. My mother climbed in and together they drove to the town’s dingy, one-room cinema and paid three dollars to see the movie that seemed to be sending the nation into hysteria.

“It was the most frightening thing I have ever seen in my life,” my mother told me. “I wanted to scream and run out of the theater, but I couldn’t move. The whole placed seemed colder than normal. My breath just hovered in the air. I swear to God there was something else in that room, sitting there with all of us. I could feel it.”

After seeing The Exorcist, my mother lay awake in bed each night, staring at her ceiling and waiting for the devil to rush into her body. Night after sleepless night—so the story goes— she sat red-eyed and pale-faced at the breakfast table, neglecting to touch the runny eggs and blackened toast her mother had prepared. My mother was still thinking about that horrible little girl and all of the disgusting things she’d been forced to say and do. She was thinking about the way Regan (played by Linda Blair) snarled and barked like a feral dog, and how the worse she got, the further everyone in her life, even her own mother, backed away.

Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair, seen here on the set of The Exorcist. Photo by J. T. Vintage/Bridgeman Images

Marlene sat across from her in a meringue-colored bathrobe with her elbow propped up on the table and a cigarette between her fingers, eyeing her fourteen-year-old daughter with stony suspicion.

Without asking, Marlene knew, the way all mothers know.

After a week of fraught insomnia, my mother was so exhausted that she finally fell asleep. As soon as she drifted off, Marlene snuck into her room and walked over to her bed. With moonlight from the window washing over her face, she leaned down close and began speaking to her sleeping daughter.

“Mary,” Marlene whispered. “Did you go see The Exorcist last Friday night?”

A pause, as if even my mother’s unconscious sensed punishment looming.

“Yes, Mother,” she finally responded in a dull drone. “I did.”

I imagine Marlene nodding slowly and grinning in satisfaction.

“Good,” she said. “Very good. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

Marlene confronted my mother the next morning, informing her that they’d had a very interesting conversation the night before. My mother collapsed into tears. She promised to go to confession and wear a crucifix and say the rosary every night. She would do anything, she said, anything to get that horrible movie out of her head.

Marlene held my mother in her arms, rubbed my mother’s back, and ran her fingers through my mother’s long auburn hair.

“It’s just a movie,” she whispered into her daughter’s ear. “Everything will be okay.”

Much to my mother’s surprise, Marlene did not drag her off to the nearest priest or lock her in her bedroom to ponder her sins in silence. Seeing The Exorcist and living with its images imprinted in your mind must have seemed like punishment enough.


MY MOTHER WAS TRAUMATIZED
by the most attention-grabbing parts of The Exorcist: the pea-green vomit, the spinning head, the desecrated crucifix. Though these became the film’s most enduring images, they weren’t the only things that shocked and unsettled audiences in 1973. Set against the heated backdrop of the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade, Regan’s mother in the film, Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn), also proved controversial. A single, divorced actress with short-cropped hair and a biting temper, Chris perfectly embodied a threat to traditional American values of female domesticity, passivity, and idealized motherhood. In the film, Chris makes enough money to rent a beautiful house on Prospect Avenue while in Georgetown filming what she calls “the Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story.” She hires a butler, a maid, and a personal assistant to help with the mundane parenting duties she can’t be bothered with. Her life with Regan is illustrious and unconventional, filled with red carpet events, trips to Europe, and even invitations to the White House. Chris is very much a member of the bourgeoisie, a second-wave feminist at its whitest and most privileged. What’s more, she does not believe in God. Chris turns to the Catholic Church for help with her unwell daughter only after all other solutions—a pediatrician, psychiatrist, and hypnotist—have proved useless.

The Exorcist can be seen as a warning call to women like Chris who dare to drift outside the realm of male control. By horror-movie logic, the female-led household in The Exorcist, much like the one in the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie, is inherently more penetrable, more open to invasion by an evil outside force, than a household with a strong male at the helm. And so the aberrant home descends into chaos and moral disorder. It is only through the intervention of Father Lankester Merrin (played by Max von Sydow) and Father Damien Karras (played by Jason Miller) that the evil is removed and order at last restored. Father Merrin and Father Karras die at the end of the film, which transforms them into valiant heroes who sacrifice themselves in order to save the wayward females from a torment of their own making.

Gore, profanity, and blood-chilling horror aside, The Exorcist is a story about a mother and a daughter.

And yet paradoxically, even though it’s a film that seems to express a fear of female sexuality and independence, The Exorcist is unusual among the films of the 1970s for its foregrounding of strong female characters. A single woman and her adolescent daughter have prominent roles and receive just as much, if not more, screen time than the film’s leading men. The Exorcist passes the Bechdel Test, a rare feat for movies from any era. Gore, profanity, and blood-chilling horror aside, The Exorcist is really a story about a mother and a daughter.

In its early scenes, The Exorcist carefully depicts the intense love that exists between Chris and Regan. Regan steals food off the kitchen table and Chris chases after her, wrestling her to the ground in a delirious fit of giggles. Chris and Regan joke and laugh in the basement, idly chatting about horses and board games and paper-mache. Chris tucks Regan in at night and whispers, “I love you,” the last thing Regan sees and hears before she falls asleep.

If it weren’t for these establishing scenes of intimacy and warmth, the later horror—Regan stabbing herself with a crucifix, shoving her mother’s face into her bloody crotch, and growling “Eat me, eat me”—wouldn’t come as nearly as much of a shock. The film brilliantly dramatizes Chris and Regan’s close emotional bond and then exaggerates the brutality of its eventual decline, showing the ways deep love can quickly curdle into hate, and how love and hate or attachment and dissolution can, and often do, exist at the exact same time.

In this way, beyond whatever political and social anxieties it seemed to express in 1973, The Exorcist hits upon a primal fear: the daughter will reject and loathe the mother, the mother will resent and fear the daughter. The mother-daughter relationship is inevitably shaped by the looming specter of betrayal and loss. As Adrienne Rich writes, “The loss of daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy.”

And yet Chris and Regan’s relationship also holds within it the possibility for redemption. At the end of the film, there lies the other promise of all mothers and daughters, a promise so often left unfulfilled: the daughter, waking up from a long and frightful dream, crawls into a dusty corner of her room and calls out for her mother. Her mother, hesitant at first, runs to the daughter and envelopes her in her arms, everything forgiven.


MY MOTHER LEFT HER HOMETOWN
four years after she saw The Exorcist. She attended Oregon State University in Corvallis and fell in love with a boy who later died in a car accident. She moved to Portland for nursing school and got a job in the intensive care unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital. She went to church on Sundays and wore a crucifix around her neck even while she slept, content that God, and her rottweiler, Brit, would keep her safe. At thirty, she met my father in a Mexican restaurant. Two years later, they married and bought a house in the suburbs. The decision to quit nursing came easily. She felt ready to be a wife and a mother. Not long after the wedding, Marlene died of cancer, a disease that first manifested in her breast but soon snaked it way to her brain. A year later, still grieving her mother’s death, my mother gave birth to me.

And—like her mother before her—my mother forbade me from seeing The Exorcist, long before watching the film was even vaguely plausible for me. It was just one of the simple rules of life. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t cross the street without first looking both ways. And don’t watch The Exorcist.


I WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD WHEN
I first caught a glimpse of The Exorcist. My mother and I were in our basement watching television when it flashed on the screen: a little girl in a nightgown crawling down a staircase in an impossible back bend while her mother looks on in horror. The screen blipped to black before I even noticed my mother was clutching the remote control. Her hair, I remember clearly, had only just started to grow back after she’d lost it all while undergoing treatment for the cancer that had killed her mother less than a decade before.

What I saw was likely a trailer for the film’s highly anticipated twentieth-anniversary re-release, in which the infamous “spider walk” that director William Friedkin had cut from the 1973 original was reinserted. And yet even this brief flash of the film terrified me. It terrified my mother, too, as if this horror from her childhood had followed her into the twenty-first century.

Fear, like disease, can mutate and spread. When The Exorcist terrified my mother at fourteen, I think she’d seen in it the looming threat of her own monstrousness, her own failures at goodness and love. When she saw those brief scenes from The Exorcist as a mother herself, perhaps she was terrified by the possibility that the thing you love most in the world will one day come to hate you, maybe even to destroy you.

The film reveals a primal fear: the daughter will reject and loathe the mother, the mother will resent and fear the daughter.

“It’s just a movie,” my mother said again and again as I cried in her arms. She pressed her lips to my forehead and rubbed my back, as her own mother had done. “It’s just a movie.”

I didn’t sleep that night. I spent the next eight hours and countless sleepless nights thereafter staring out of the crack in my bedroom door towards the staircase, waiting for the little girl to ascend it in a backbend and come for me. I didn’t just fear the little girl; I feared becoming her, too. Now that I had seen the darkness my mother had warned me about so many times before, I was convinced that some latent evil, some rotten thing deep inside of me, would be unleashed, and I would be helpless to control it. I came to see myself as pre-possessed, a body waiting to be destroyed.


The Exorcist
is haunted by dead mothers. Both Friedkin and Blatty were notoriously obsessed with their mothers, both of whom had died shortly before production began. Friedkin once described his mother, who fled pogroms in the Ukraine to become an operating room nurse in Chicago, as “a saint . . . like Florence Nightingale.” Blatty was raised in what he calls “comfortable destitution” by a deeply religious single mother who made ends meet by peddling quince jam in the streets of Manhattan, once even offering a jar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

During the filming of The Exorcist, when Blatty wasn’t hectoring Friedkin about the film’s abhorrent lack of religiosity, he was at a sound studio trying to get in touch with his dead mother. Under the guidance of a book called Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead by Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive, he had started recording what he believed were the disembodied voices of the dead. Apparently, on one of these tapes, you can hear the crackling voice of Blatty repeatedly whispering, “Mother. Mother. If you are there, come.”


AT AGE FOURTEEN,
as if someone had flipped a switch, I became foul-mouthed and sullen, prone to angry outbursts and overcome by the overpowering desire to be left alone. My mother and I fought often, alternating between bitter screaming matches and long periods of icy, impenetrable silence. When her cancer returned after a period of remission, it did not soften me to her as one might expect. It terrified and confused me.

My family did not see my anger and self-imposed isolation as the normal result of hormones, depression, or adolescent angst but rather as something irredeemably hateful and cruel, a cause for grave concern. Sometimes my mother would look at me and shake her head. “If only I could film you right now,” she’d say, “you’d be ashamed of what you see.” I was, I told myself, the loathsome little girl I’d sworn never to become. I dismissed religion, kept the crucifixes my mother gave me tangled thoughtlessly in my dresser drawer. I knew even without the help of a therapist that part of me was pushing her away to make it easier for myself when she was gone.

I left home after high school graduation to live in Spain and returned for Christmas six months later to find her hair thin and her right arm bloated and white, a new tumor blocking the blood flow through her body. Within three months, she would be dead.

Her death became the great smoldering divide of my life. I came to see cancer as a kind of possession in itself: an evil that invades and corrodes the body, corrupting it from within. Even years later, when I read Susan Sontag and tried my best to heed her warning about finding metaphors in biological illness, I still clung tightly to my metaphor. It made sense to me. I no longer feared being possessed by the devil, but I feared this new kind of invasion, the one that no priest can save you from. I came to see myself as precancerous, simply biding my time until my rogue cells began to relentlessly divide. I awaited it with a kind of mournful softness, in the secret hope that it would, at last, be the thing that would bring me close to my mother.


I FINALLY SAW THE EXORCIST
in its entirety five years after my mother died, on a drizzly Friday night in October. I rode my bike alone to a historic second-run theater in Southeast Portland that was showing an original 1973 print of The Exorcist as part of a Halloween marathon. The theater was less than half full and so cold that I left my jacket on for the length of the film. Like my mother had said, I felt something, someone, in there with us, but this time I wasn’t afraid. I watched the film from start to finish and left the theater amazed. My eyes welled up in the final exorcism scene, in that moment when the mother and the daughter hold each other in their arms.

After that night, I watched The Exorcist obsessively. I came to see it as a way to connect to my mother and all the different versions of her I never knew, a means of understanding someone I had lost in ways I forgot to care to about when she was alive. I accepted the film and all its problems as part of me, probably a larger part of me than it was of her, and I didn’t mind. Watching it was a way of calling her forth, of keeping her close.

Mother, mother, I whisper with each passing frame. If you are there, come.

Marlena Williams is a writer from Portland, Oregon.
Originally published:
December 20, 2021

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