by Noah Patterson
In William Peter Blatty’s film The Exorcist, the catalyst of demonic possession transforms Regan, a young girl, into a prime example of the abject and grotesque. Through reasons unknown (though one posited explanation includes playing with an Ouija board), Regan becomes the target of a powerful demon and is rendered unrecognizable by the end of the film. Facial gashes, discoloration of the skin, yellowed teeth and eyes, a stark vocal distortion, and more afflict Regan in ways that recall the excess of the grotesque. Similarly, the demon causes Regan to abject parts of herself by separating her physical body from her actual identity and personality. This allows her exorcist, Father Damien Karras, to explore the guilt he has repressed regarding the death of his mother. As the film investigates the demon’s strengthening hold on Regan’s body, the viewer is exposed to the ways abjection and the grotesque manifest. Thus, the viewer is able to grapple with his or her own ego by confronting the increasingly monstrous character of Regan.
Throughout the course of The Exorcist, Regan’s transformation into the grotesque is meticulously chronicled. A grotesque body is defined as one that “’protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off;’ it seeks to go beyond” (Hurley 140). In the beginning of the film, Regan is shown as a curious, energetic, and ultimately innocent child, with no visible aspects of grotesqueness. Her relationship with her mother, Chris, is close, and the two are shown playfully interacting: Regan recounts her day, asks her mother if and when they can get a horse, and then steals a cookie from the jar before dinner, prompting Chris to chase her and wrestle with Regan on the floor to get the cookie back as they both giggle (00:16:56-00:17:54). The portrayal of their dynamic is immediately idealized, making Regan’s transformation into a grotesque body—in appearance and behavior—even starker.
The influence of the grotesque is first seen on the night of a party thrown by Chris. Regan emerges from her room in a trance, telling one of the guests, an astronaut, that he’s “going to die up there.” She then begins to urinate on the floor, creating the first display of the grotesque: the lack of control over bodily functions (00:42:46-00:43:28). Through this incident, as well as the later instances of vomiting, an interesting dynamic is created. Vomit and urine are associated with early childhood, and the doctors that see Regan are convinced that her condition has a medical explanation rather than a supernatural one.
Positing Regan’s initial instances of grotesqueness as displays of typical childlike excess creates a moment of doubt about the validity of Regan’s possession; that is, until the excess becomes undeniably grotesque and aspects of abjection also enter the narrative. At that point, Regan’s possession is undeniable; however, it also signals something more for the viewer. As we begin to question our own limitations, we also question the ways in which our own “ego . . . remains threatened by [but] yet attracted to the possibility of dissolution,” or the existential struggle to define our own borders as “a discrete subject” (Hurley 138). Some aspects of this grotesqueness are inherently Regan and indicative of her status as a child, surely; but, as her excess grows, the viewer is both horrified and fascinated by the visceral extensions of Regan and their relation to the viewer’s own body.
Within Kelly Hurley’s article “Abject and Grotesque,” these extensions are defined. She states that the excess of the grotesque is linked to “’images . . . of the corpse, whole and mutilated,’ and of ‘an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears, and putrefying flesh’” (138). Regan embodies these characteristics, developing past a child unable to control her bodily functions and into a form that resembles a living corpse. She claws at her face, creating scratches that turn into deep gashes. She infamously and violently projectile vomits into the face of Father Karras during their first meeting (01:25:45-01:25:57). She further harms herself by stabbing a crucifix into her genitals and covering her body in blood, and in the “spiderwalk” scene, blood dribbles out of her mouth when her contorted body reaches the foot of the stairs. Regan’s head also famously twists around, breaking the limits of what is considered physically possible (01:18:49-01:19:44 & 01:00:54-01:01:05).
While Regan’s grotesqueness challenges what is possible for the human body, her abjectness comes from the actual personality of the demon inside of her. Hurley explains psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject as “a space upon which [the proto-subject] will construct an ‘I,’ the proto-subject attempts to define what is ‘not-I’ and then repudiate and expel it as ‘other’” (144). Ultimately, “one experiences oneself [sic] as the vile matter that must be cast off” (Hurley 144). Throughout the course of the film, there is a clear attempt to differentiate the demon within Regan from Regan herself. Chris exclaims to Father Karras, that Regan’s possessed body can have the “[s]ame face, same voice, everything: and that thing wasn’t Regan. I’d know in my gut. And I’m telling you, that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter!” (01:27:57-01:28:16). This outcry becomes even more fascinating when considering Regan’s symptomatic grotesqueness. While she does display some characteristics of grotesqueness associated with childhood, when accompanied with the demonic excess, they also become a form of abjection, and the characters notice this.
Furthermore, when Karras talks to the demon inside of Regan, they have an interesting exchange; the demon states, “What an excellent day for an exorcism.” When Father Karras wonders aloud, “Wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?,” the demon responds, “It would bring us together,” implying that the two are separate entities at the time of this conversation. Karras clarifies, “You and Regan?,” and the demon now foreshadows its connection to Karras, finishing, “You and us” (01:31:05-01:31:29). To further perpetuate the “otherness” of this demon, it speaks in a deep, masculine register instead of the youthful voice of Regan. Finally, the phrase “help me” protrudes from her emaciated abdomen, both expressing the grotesqueness of her form and emphasizing the abjectness the demon is perpetuating through the division of Regan, a terrified captive of her own form, from the demon, who has gained full agency over her body (01:37:12-01:37:54).
Another critical component of the abject is the presence of repression, or, as Jackie Stacey puts it, the attempt to“expel those unwanted objects that remind us of our origins or our fate” (qtd. in Hurley 144), which “results in a denial of those objects” (Hurley 144). Throughout the course of The Exorcist, repression can be best exemplified through Father Karras. Regan’s abjection actually becomes a tool for Karras to interrogate his own guilt regarding the fate of his mother, who died in a public institution when he did not have enough money to send her to a better healthcare facility. Regan takes the physical form and voice of Karras’s mother throughout the exorcism, forcing Karras to confront his guilt towards his mother’s death. This mirrors a repression of the grotesque, not in Regan, but in Karras, who confronts the corpse of his mother, verbally blaming him for her demise. This is exacerbated when Father Merin, the second exorcist, reminds Father Karras, “The demon is a liar . . . But he will also mix lie and truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – don’t listen to him” (01:43:05-01:43:40). In spite of this warning, Karras falls prey to the demon’s trap, unable to separate his guilt from the exorcism.
When Karras’s lack of focus causes the exorcism to fail, resulting in the death of Father Merin and potentially the loss of Regan’s soul, Karras makes a heroic decision: sacrifice himself and call upon the demon to enter his body. Fighting the demon’s influence, Karras gains control long enough to fling himself out of Regan’s window, sending himself tumbling down a steep flight of stairs, which kills him and ends the demon’s terror (02:00:29-02:01:44). While the exorcism results in the deaths of both priests, there is still an acting resolution and catharsis to Karras’s repression: through this exorcism, Karras has combated the guilt he is repressing, confronting it in the form of the demon and defeating it for good, all while simultaneously mastering his own fate. This is appropriate, as the demon acts as the agent through which abjection can be conveyed. Without the demon’s grotesque capabilities, Karras would not have been able to meet his mother in a physical form. Furthermore, without the demon transferring bodies, Karras may not have reconciled this guilt. Similarly, if Karras had not called upon the demon to possess him instead, the exorcism would have ultimately failed.
Abjection and grotesqueness surround The Exorcist, undoubtedly to make Regan’s transformation terrifying and effective; nevertheless, these monstrous tropes are also evolved to reveal the power of the demon inhabiting Regan and the repressed guilt of Father Karras, ultimately giving him the agency to defeat it. The catharsis experienced by the end of the film also shows a return to normal; Regan is healing from her wounds, unable to remember the experience of possession. Furthermore, the family is ready to move forward, leaving their home in search of a life away from this gruesome memory. While the impact of the abject and the grotesque may never leave the memory of Chris, there is ultimately the hope that Regan will recover from her experience.
Hurley, Kelly. “Abject and Grotesque.” The Routledge Companion to the Gothic, Eds. Catherine
Spooner and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007, pp. 137-146.
The Exorcist: Extended Director’s Cut. Directed by William Friedkin, performances by Ellen
Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and William O’Malley, Warner Bros., 1973.