When I first started watching horror movies as a very young girl, spending hours seeing people getting ripped apart with my grandmother on long, sunny Saturday afternoons, part of me knew it would never be that good again. That sense of safe deviance, of transgression, of danger, the badge of honor of being able to say, “Oh, yeah, that eye gouge was so fake…” to my scandalized, blood-shy girlfriends—it became a part of me as it does to any young fan of the macabre. But time passes and after your two hundredth hour clocked in front of the screen, your thousandth corpse, after the very last drop of technicolor blood, suddenly you find, to your horror, horror just isn’t what it used to be.
As with any drug, the first few hits are euphoria, and the ones that follow only hold the ghost of what used to be. Your addictions aren’t so much escapism anymore, they’re a slow march back in time. And as any addict will tell you, looking back is the worst way to move forward. While I remain a rabid connoisseur of the genre, I couldn’t help but feel cheated, and it was partially because of William Peter Blatty.
I had seen the YouTube videos of newscasts from the 1970s with leisure suited reporters stopping hysterical housewives and trembling teens as they fled the theaters. What did you think of The Exorcist? Half of them couldn’t even put the fear into words. They smiled, they shivered, their eyes were glazed in that ugly mustard glow everything in the 70s seemed to have. They talked about people passing out in their seats, vomiting, crying. I was jealous. Horror movies were (and are) my sanctuary. They were bloody, bold, angry, and loud—all the things I wanted to be but couldn’t be. But after years of watching, I knew I’d never have the naïve experience of those late-night news refugees. So, I put off The Exorcist for years.
I made excuses, got busy, felt it would be a case of warmed-up left overs after having seen the movie parodied and referenced over my entire movie watching life. But four years ago, when I needed a good, cathartic release, I watched it.
I wasn’t sorry.
It’s easy to look back on Blatty’s work and call it tame, messy, silly---anything to sound tougher than we really are. Isn’t that, after all, part of the horror movie’s glamour? But even today, the chilling ugliness of Blatty’s vision has fangs. The demon that overpowers poor Reagan is fouler, meaner, and more single-minded than any slasher villain, the slow-burn, torturous medical montage where Reagan is given an agonizing spinal tap is worse to watch than anything the entire Saw franchise could throw at us, and Father Karras—what better horror movie hero is there than Father Karras? Sure, he’s spawned a generation of faithless movie mimics, but that nightmare about his mother’s death… that dank, colorless ward with bed after bed of the dead and the dying was more scary and soul-disturbing for someone who’s witnessed a parent’s death than even the beautifully twisted make-up Linda Blair dons for the film’s climax. Watching it all with my post-9/11, desensitized- millennial, digital native eyes at one of the darkest times in my life, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I could have been there in 1973.”
Horror, like anything of any substance, is many things to many people. It can be entertainment, escape, and for some of us, release. As someone who has spent way too much time thinking about horror movies and literature, a question I return to almost incessantly is, “What could be The Exorcist for my generation?” Like those wide-eyed viewers surprised by carnivorous camera crews, I want to be part of something as powerful as the horrible, brutal, lovely thing Blatty brought to life. But tonight, as I reflect on Blatty’s recent death, I have to concede that I may never be physically present for something quite like his bittersweet nightmare.
I can’t go back in time. I can’t sit in a gaudy orange and yellow 1970s theater and watch people vomit in the aisles. I can’t recapture all the initial joys and thrills of horror films I had as a new and naïve viewer. But four years ago, when I first watched The Exorcist, I knew I was part of something vast and powerful, something that had captured the hidden nightmares of so many quiet sleepers, and all I could feel was gratitude. Near the film’s quick, violent end, before the final show down with Evil Itself, Father Merrin tells poor, struggling Father Karras that Reagan’s possession is an act of terror, “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as... animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” Maybe that’s why this one film has come to define horror movies, the always copied but never quite truly imitated—that distinct braiding of good and wicked, damnation but the promise of grace.
Here’s to you, William Peter Blatty, for the ugliness, for the joy, for the best of the bad times.