Ygraine Hackett-Cantabrana – host of the What A Scream! podcast – talks about how one of the most reviled films in history spoke to her during her upbringing in Ireland…
Ask any die hard horror fan when they first saw their absolute favourite horror film, and I can guarantee they will be able to remember the exact time, the year and every sensory memory from that moment. I know I can. I was 16 years old, laying at the end of the bed of my then boyfriend, chin in hands and eyes wide staring as a young pre-teen girl spider walked backwards down the stairs with a scarred and decrepit face that would haunt me for the rest of my life. That night I lay in my own bed, wide awake staring at the ceiling whilst outside my window were the horrific screams of mating foxes, and I truly believed my heart would pound right out of it’s boney cage. That’s the exact moment I began my intense love affair with William Peter Blatty’s horror megalith The Exorcist.
The Exorcist is a 1973 horror film directed by William Friedkin, based on the novel by Blatty. It follows the story of actress Christine MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) as she attempts to navigate various disciplines of medicine and religion to discover what is happening with her formerly sweet pre-teen daughter Regan (Linda Blair). After realising that modern science and psychology cannot help her, she depends on the Catholic rite of exorcism by two Jesuit priests to dispel the demon that has taken a hold over her child.
In 1970s Ireland, the country was still in the throes of extreme rule by the Catholic Church. There was no separation of church and state, schools were run by the Christian Brothers, unwed mothers were locked away in workhouses run by nuns and divorce, homosexuality and even contraception were strictly illegal. So when The Exorcist burst onto the cinematic scene with its depiction of the battle between God and The Devil, the country clutched very firmly onto its rosary beads. Despite never actually being on the official banned list, the film – in its complete uncensored entirety – was effectively “banned”, being unavailable for home release until its 25th anniversary at Halloween 1998. It remained in the cinemas until Christmas, with hordes of curious Irish cinemagoers flocking to see the film that their parents and grandparents had warned them about.
Growing up in rural Ireland during the early 2000s was a constant battle against the Catholic indoctrination that was still rife in Irish culture, and so watching horror movies – and especially The Exorcist – was almost a form of anarchistic rebellion for me. Despite the fact that Blatty’s novel and Oscar-winning screenplay could be seen as pro-Church, with “good” triumphing over “evil”, as a 16 year old attending a devout Catholic convent school, The Exorcist represented disobedience and nonconformity.
One would think a Catholic country like Ireland would embrace The Exorcist’s religious themes, but its depiction of several “sins” cemented its place on the list of media “obviously made by the devil” that would find a way to corrupt the Irish youth. To begin with, the film’s narration centres around a divorced family with a successful, career-driven single mother at the nucleus. Divorce in Ireland wasn’t legalised until 1997 and so any film previous to then that depicted a broken marriage, and especially one that mentions the devil on top of that, would have been an absolute disgrace to Irish Catholic culture and censorship boards.
The Exorcist also contains perhaps one of the most sacrilegious scenes ever performed in a movie, with Reagan violently masturbating with a cross. This sequence fuelled the anti-church rebel in me to a higher level. The church’s attitude to sex was prudish, archaic and extremely damaging. Between sexual abuse scandals, the punishment of unwed mothers and the fact that the use of any form of contraception was illegal in Ireland from 1935 until 1985, the vision of a young girl assaulting herself with the symbol of Christianity came across as a huge metaphor for how the Catholic church had truly screwed over its followers, especially those who were most vulnerable to them.
The final act of The Exorcist displays perhaps one of the biggest sins in Catholicism, the act of suicide. It may come as a complete surprise to non-Irish people that until 1993 suicide was a crime, and so the fact that this movie – as well as depicting a young innocent possessed by the devil – concludes with a man of the cloth throwing himself out of a window to kill himself, committed the ultimate crime in the eyes of the Church and the Irish state.
The Exorcist is one of the greatest and scariest horror movies of all time, boasting amazing screenwriting, direction and of course out of this world effects created by master craftsman Dick Smith. But watching it also became in itself an act of rebellion. Possession and religious horror is my ultimate, hands down favourite subgenre of horror, and it all started from my very first viewing of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. At a time when I was searching for solace against a culture that had normalized institutional abuse by the Catholic church, I found it in the story of a possessed 12 year old named Regan MacNeill.