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.
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.
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!
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)
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