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Film Essays

The Exorcist and My Mother

My mother is one of those people who relished the ability to mold my opinions on the world. One of my earliest memories is being taught to reply to the question, “Who was the best band of all time?” with, “The Beatles,” and “Who was the worst president?” with “Nixon!” (this last bit was spoken very emphatically, scowling as much as a two year old possibly can). My mother brought me around to friends and students, showing off this parlor trick, and everybody loved it.

Of course, it wasn’t just for fun. There were some things she took very seriously. Like The Exorcist.

The Exorcist, horror, personal essay

And Christmas.

From a very young age my mother told me she would never keep me from watching anything except The Exorcist. She was never specific as to why I couldn’t see The Exorcist just that I absolutely could not see it. My mother was so insistent on this, so deeply and genuinely upset by the movie, that I didn’t dare rebel. This was something that was clearly made of evil, I thought, to have troubled her so much. (The only other thing she took so seriously, by the way, was the book Helter Skelter, which I was also forbidden, and have yet to read.)

I was a sensitive kid who avoided horror movies in general, so this ban didn’t affect my life. Even trailers for horror movies could frighten me if I was in a particular mood (to this day I mute the trailer to Contagion—but that shit’s just not fair for a hypochondriac), so I’d never dream of watching something boasting to be the “scariest movie of all time.” But it wasn’t just that it was scary, that wasn’t why my mother banned it. She wasn’t looking out for my ability to sleep at night; she was looking out for the purity of my soul.

My mother’s family are second-generation immigrants, from Serbia and Finland, and there’s always been a kind of old-world fear in them. They’re stoic, they’re tough, but they’re also steeped in the ideas of another place. My mother subscribes to this distantly-Eastern European superstition, distrustful and fearful of anything that seems to meddle with the balance of the universe. To her eyes, then, The Exorcist wasn’t just a ‘scary movie’ (a meaningless and nearly pejorative phrase), it was something that had the potential to invite evil into your life. The film itself was steeped in darkness. It wasn’t to be meddled with, and certainly not by children.

The Exorcist, horror, personal essay

My mother never knew about the subliminal faces, either.

My mother is a brilliant academic and I by no means intend to imply that she thinks The Exorcist is literally demonic or possessed. Still, there’s something about it that’s not quite ‘just a movie’ for her. As I became older, more interested in pushing my own fear-boundaries, she clarified it for me: I could see The Exorcist, if I had to, but I could not bring a copy of it into her house. It’s very physical incarnation was a threat.

And so, I didn’t. For years I eschewed watching the film, not because I seriously thought it was evil, but simply because . . . well, I’d been told not to, I guess. It was so ingrained in me. The Beatles were the best band of all time and The Exorcist was evil.

After facing my long-time fear of horror movies and watching a string of films I’d previously been nervous to see (including Alien and The Thing, both of which I loved beyond sanity), the time came to finally face the film. Of course, no movie, no matter how demonic, can stand up to a 23 year build-up. I enjoyed it predominantly on an intellectual level, which is the exact opposite of my mother’s reaction to the film. Part of this may be because I am not a monotheist and don’t believe in a devil. I also don’t intend to have children and have no feelings towards seeing them in peril in film. My mom, of course, wanted kids, and maybe part of her discomfort with the film was in her premonition about eventually having a daughter. Ooh, spooky!

The Exorcist, horror, personal essay

Above: Not me

I still had no intention of owning the film, because of the sort of Exorcist/Helter Skelter curse I’d been raised to hold in the back of my mind, but my roommate surprised me with the DVD for my birthday. So, now I own the demon movie, sandwiched between The Exterminating Angel (Buñuel’s best, in my mind) and Fargo. It was silly to avoid the film, or any film, out of fear for so long. Fear no Art, Fear no Book, Fear no Film, is my new motto.

But still, it’s kind of exciting, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not just a regular scary movie—it’s an evil movie. A movie I was raised fearing, something that is now imbued with a new level of significance, a sort of personal mythology. It has transcended the original narrative and become something else, something scarier off the frame than on. That’s special, a gift my mother could have never fathomed: the gift of legend.

Britta R. Moline  1/1/6/12

(By the way, my mother eventually forgave my roommate—but it took some time.)
(“You can just X that part out– I never forgave your roommate.” — Mom)

For more like this:
Leg Braces and Rape Scenes: An Attempted Apologia for Disturbing Imagery
For more on The Exorcist:
CaptainHowdy.com

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “The Exorcist and My Mother

  1. A ban never works in my family – because it’s an immediate green light in my eyes. Though I went ahead and watched I.T. when I was very small and bloody wished I hadn’t!

    Posted by Demuthy | January 16, 2012, 12:58 pm
  2. You’ve managed to explain me to myself when it comes to this wretched film, Britta.

    When I first saw it, it was in the theatres. I was going to be an intellectual about it..examine it as a “film” and not a movie. But TE (shorthand for “this wretched film”) did more than scare me; it disturbed me profoundly. For weeks afterward, I found myself being scared by scenes from the movie, most involving Linda Blair. I would have to force myself to think of something else as I lay in bed at night (see “Above: not me”) because the demonic possession images and sounds haunted me. Eventually, they faded.

    Jump ahead – what? – a decade and we are now the just-gaga parents of a beautiful, perfect, best-thing-that-ever-happened to us baby girl. There was never any doubt we’d do anything to protect you from anything.

    You were lucky in that your father, a rational human being, protected you mostly from true harm. I, of course, protected you also from imaginary – from possible even if not probable – harm. Not because I was (very) crazy but because I always believed, much like Holden Caulfield did in Catcher in the Rye, I could catch you before you walked off any edge into the darkness if only I could anticipate where that darkness might be.

    “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
    -Friedrich Nietzsche

    And that’s why I didn’t want you to fall into the same abyss I had after watching The Exorcist. But you’re right about my being superstititious. It took you to point that out to me.

    [Totally personal P.S. -I crazy love you and am in awe of the writer you are. But not as much as I am proud of the person you are.]

    Posted by Ellen Mrja | January 16, 2012, 1:03 pm
    • Thanks for the comment, and for your blessing to post the article. Not everyone would be so cool as t have their personal superstitions dragged onto the internet. In all honesty, I probably would have been scared to death of The Exorcist had I seen it before this year. It took a lot of time and exposure to train myself to intellectualize horror films (the way you tried to do with it).

      The film that DID fundamentally disturb me– Outbreak– disturbed me in the same way you describe. For weeks, maybe months, afterwards I was seeing flashes of it in my mind’s eye. It still causes me to shiver.
      Much love,
      — Britta

      Posted by VideoWordMadeFlesh | January 16, 2012, 1:26 pm
  3. Britta, there is a reason hundreds, if not thousands, of former students refer to your mother as the Goddess of Knowledge. Beatles? Yep. Nixon. Of course. Exorcist? Absolutely. QVC? A gift. Pamela McCoy? None better. Diamonds? No question. Guess the only one I disagree with is Mob Wives. Don’t quite understand that.

    Like your Mom said, Britta, you are a gifted writer. And wonderful person.

    Posted by Eileen Smith | January 16, 2012, 5:48 pm
  4. Awesome post! Love your writing style.

    Posted by Oh God, My Wife Is German | January 24, 2012, 11:25 am
  5. Friedkin always said that you take from the Exorcist, what you bring to it and I totally agree with that. It’s like with most things in life: your view of the world affects the way you experience it, and where that view is negative then that experience only serves to re-enforce your view of the world. For me the Excorcist is a film about the triumph of good over evil; of love, faith and sacrifice. And so whilst it dares to shows you wretched and evil things, the film itself is the complee opposite. But what a ride! For my money, it’s still arguably one of the best films ever made, and Ellen Burstyn is just outstanding. Glad it’s sitting on your shelf now, it deserves to be there!

    Posted by adam | March 22, 2012, 2:40 pm

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