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William Freidkin’s The Exorcist is a masterpiece: was it also a psyop?

In honour of legendary director William Friedkin, who died yesterday, we delve into the intrigue surrounding one of his most famous films

William Friedkin – one of the most significant directors of the last 50 years – died yesterday at the age of 87. His legacy can’t be reduced to just one film, particularly when his catalogue includes classics like The French Connection, To Live and Die in LA, Sorcerer and Cruising (a gay serial killer thriller which was boycotted by queer activists at the time of its production, but which has since been re-acclaimed). That said, one Friedkin film occupies an almost singular position in the cultural canon: The Exorcist (1973), a story of faith, religion and demonic possession which is still often heralded as the greatest horror film of all time.

From a modern vantage point, it’s difficult to grasp quite how frenzied the public reaction was at the time of its release. It was an overnight box office smash, and the audience itself formed part of the spectacle. There were mass reports of cinema-goers fainting (at one screening in New York, a woman had to reportedly be carried out on a stretcher) and throwing up – to the point that one disgruntled cinema manager complained, “we have a plumber practically living here now. The smell in the bathrooms is awful.” People were found hiding in cinemas after screenings had ended, and numerous others – particularly lapsed Catholics – experienced profound spiritual crises, some of them rushing out of the cinema and into the nearest church to beg for an audience with a priest. Several viewers even required psychiatric treatment after watching it. 

As a cultural reference point, The Exorcist is best known for its scenes of shocking blasphemy and grotesque imagery: torrents of green vomit; Regan – a possessed 13-year-old girl – stabbing herself in the crotch with a crucifix while growling obscenities. But it’s a slower and more sombre film than its most iconic moments suggest, and one which takes religion seriously: as Friedkin said, it’s about “the mystery of faith, the mystery of goodness”. While it was officially condemned by a number of Catholic organisations, many religious figures embraced it as a story about the power of faith. In fact, at the time of its release, Warner Bros deliberately blew the religious backlash out of proportion as a way of promoting the movie (“one of the best things that could happen is if the Pope denounces it”, as Friedkin said). It’s not surprising that some elements of the Catholic church liked The Exorcist, or even saw it as an effective recruitment poster: for all its blasphemy, it ends with the triumph of good over evil, thanks to a Christ-like act of self-sacrifice.

While The Exorcist is now near-unanimously acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made, it’s commonly understood as reactionary, conservative and misogynist in its worldview. There are some compelling points to support this: for a start, it’s about a single mother whose focus on her career leads her to neglect her daughter (arguably) and allows dark forces to invade the family home. Looked at that way, The Exorcist is a parable about the dangers of girlbossing too hard. Pointing to the fact that Regan is a pubescent teenage girl, and the explicitly sexual nature of her possession, some feminists have interpreted the story as an expression of misogynist revulsion towards feminine sexuality (on the other hand, some have argued something similar in the opposite direction: the demon is itself female and Regan’s possession is a kind of monstrous rebellion against the patriarchal forces which seek to constrain her, or something to that effect.)

Many critics – including Stephen King – have suggested that Regan represents the untameable, rebellious youth of the 60s and 70s, a time which saw the emergence of the counterculture, the gay liberation movement, second-wave feminism, the campaign for Civil Rights, and ongoing protests against the Vietnam war. Under this reading, The Exorcist is about generational warfare, the corruption of America by the forces of social progress. As with any other great work of art, it is too ambiguous to be reducible to a single interpretation.

One of the more interesting readings of the film, however, borders on conspiracy theory: The Exorcist was a government psyop designed to scare the American public back on the straight and narrow. This isn’t quite as far-fetched as it appears at first glance. Earlier in his career, William Beatty, the novelist who wrote the book on which the film is based, worked for both the CIA and the “Psychological Warfare Division”,  a programme which promoted anti-communism both in the US and abroad – using all sorts of sinister and underhand tactics to do so. One of its operations, which took place in Vietnam in the 1950s, weaponised religious belief as a mechanism of control. As part of a successful effort to drive Vietnamese Catholics from the communist-controlled North to the South of the country, the division launched a propaganda blitz – carried out with the help of Catholicism organisations and local religious leaders – which involved telling people that “the Virgin Mary has departed the north” and “Jesus Christ has gone to the south”.

According to Counterspy, a 1970s magazine which focused on covert operations, a similar attempt at social manipulation is at play in The Exorcist (the novel, rather than the film): “It is Blatty's message, then, that spiritual fixation and religious orthodoxy are, in the final analysis, at the service of political reaction. For religion, activated as a mass response to an externally conceived threat, can be a powerful ideological cement to keep the masses spellbound in a time of profound social crisis.” 

There’s no evidence that the CIA were involved in the making of the film, and it’s also true that Friedkin’s vision was quite different to Beatty’s (who was a lifelong religious conservative.) So suggesting it’s a psyop is a bit of a reach. But if it was, then credit where credit’s due and hats off to the deep state: it’s a good one. 50 years on, The Exorcist’s power is undeniable. 

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