The Exorcist film poster

Who is the real devil?

This week is Halloween, although you probably couldn’t tell from all the Christmas decorations that have been in the stores since July. But it’s still time for scary movies, and it’s the 50th anniversary of one of the scariest of all, The Exorcist. I never watched it. The stories of people fainting and fleeing theaters in fright from the practical effects might have scared me off. (And for scares and gross-out gore, practical effects beat CGI every time.) Or maybe I was afraid I’d burst out laughing at the “your momma” jokes that get thrown at the priests.

As I got older, I discovered there was something else unsettling about The Exorcist. Horror stories often give moral lessons, and The Exorcist offered two disturbing lessons that come from conservative Christianity. Some other group’s beliefs rarely concern me. But when that group tries to make their beliefs the law of the land and impose them on everyone else, I need to speak up about them.

The first is how it views the female body. The Exorcist is about Regan, a 12-year-old girl. We all know what happens to girls around that age. This is a normal part of growth. My wife went through it. My daughter went through it. My granddaughter will soon go through it. But if your belief system views females as objects that must remain pure until they can be possessed by a husband to bear and raise children, puberty is disturbing. That pure innocent being turns into someone who doesn’t appear as innocent. Not to mention the new emotions and growing awareness of their bodies (and the practical effects that happen once a month).

When you look at The Exorcist from that context, it isn’t truly a story about demonic possession. It’s about a girl whose maturation and growing sense of self is seen as demonic. Consider that The Exorcist came out during the Woman’s Liberation Movement, the ERA, and Roe v Wade. The idea that women could have agency over their own lives threatened religious conservatives who saw them as objects. Like Regan’s family and the priests, they had to get her under control.

That is what religious conservatives have been doing for the past 50 years. We see it today with the overturning of Roe and the election of a Speaker of the House who said this:

And there is the issue of the devil itself.

In the movie, Regan does terrible things when she’s possessed by the devil. Once the devil is driven out, she is back to her sweet, wholesome self with no memory of what happened or what she did. She is not responsible for anything that happened. It’s like what Flip Wilson used to quip in his Geraldine bit, “The devil made me do it.”

In the years since then, how many times have we seen televangelists and other religious conservatives blame the devil for their own transgressions? When they cheat on their spouses, defraud their parishioners, or abuse children, they will come on TV with tear-soaked cheeks and blame “a spiritual weakness” or “being deceived by Satan.” They will beg for forgiveness, and their followers will give it. Because they believe if they say the right prayers, they are automatically forgiven. They even believe mass murderers are forgiven if they accept Jesus. When you can blame the devil for your own vile acts and escape responsibility by saying the right things, you are free to commit those vile acts again.

So who is the real devil in The Exorcist? Is it a growing girl who just wants to understand the changes she’s going through? Or those who want to control her and force her to be a broodmare for their faith or an object of their gratification? Is it those who make mistakes, take responsibility, and do the work to make things right? Or is it those who use their faith to shift blame and escape responsibility?

Religion at its best provides moral guidance and helps people navigate life’s challenges. That’s not what I see in The Exorcist. I see fear of female bodies and female agency, the pinning of all of social ills on the supernatural, and religion being used to control. If we look at what is happening in society today—the stripping of our civil rights, the violence against marginalized communities, and the destruction of democracy and the rule of law—we can clearly see who the devil is.

As it is said about another staple of horror, “Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein was not the monster. Wisdom is understanding that Frankenstein was the monster.” The exorcist is the devil.