exit icon
exit icon

A PTSD Diary of The Exorcist

A PTSD Diary of The Exorcist

Trevor Mowchun   |   December 2020

~ for Justin ~


The following remarks are unusual for me in that they stem from an inability to closely analyze my experience of a film. When writing about a film, or any work of art, I typically find myself more or less orientated and at ease, even if I am still mystified by many things and unsure of precisely where the writing process will take me. That is not the case here—you, dear reader, I’m afraid you’re not exactly in the best of hands, for these are hands unhinged.

Like many people who saw The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA) upon its release in 1973, or who saw it when they were a tad underage, as I did as a young teenager, I continue to find myself utterly defenseless against its supernatural and visceral horrors. The writing process comes to me now, perhaps, less for the sake of knowing than coping, and in the hope of reaching a place within myself where I never have to think about the film again. I may even be able to uproot it once and for all from the soil of my subconscious mind. In choosing to write about what is, for me, an unwatchable film, I am compelled to get the better of it by seeing through its wild charade of evil and thus face the logic of my own fears. And yet I am fully prepared for having set myself too tall a task, one whose realization proves slightly beyond my reach, that is, if I can remain completely honest with myself in the coming days. I would be a fool to think that I can simply think these things away, as it were, for the fears induced by the film are still sufficiently rooted in me as to render impossible any disenchanting objectification of the film into a mere “object of study.” By recording my memories of the film in the form of a diary, and when possible cross-referencing those memories with the film as I see it now, I should be able to return to the site of trauma with some renewed insight and perspective. Some healing might even occur.

Analyzing the film in this way—as a series or cycle of personal encounters, as self-analysis perhaps—may not add up to a “reading” of it in any conventional sense. Usually, the more personal or bewildered an interpretation of a film is, the more closely one will analyze it, digging deeply and without mercy into all the details, large or small. But how close can I actually get to the hellish flames of this film? Like some psychoanalysts might say, if I struggle to read the film it’s because I am still being read by it. And that may not change: such is the power of movies, such was the power of movies… Disorderliness of thought and the delays between thoughts, a relentless self-examination that risks running in circles around the core issues, feelings of frustration, resentment and possibly despair coupled paradoxically with an attachment to one’s deepest impressionability, convening with my inner child and, without scolding him, but in partnership, agreeing to disagree about our ways of life while inhabiting the same house we both call the body—could this become a poetics of PTSD? Can trauma be transformed into something lucid, sharable, perhaps even beautiful? In the end, it is my main wish that what the diary lacks in cogency it makes up for in courage, and that a courage which buckles before my formative fears not be seen as a lack.


(Composed in Gainesville, Florida, while sequestered in late summer 2020)

August 16, 2020 – Noon.

While I have managed to block out much of what so disturbed me in The Exorcist, I will never forget where and with whom I first saw it: at home (my mother’s home, to be exact), with my older brother, and on VHS cassette.[1] As many of you know, the advantage in having an older sibling is that your exposure to arts and culture can happen earlier; the disadvantage, though, is that these exposures may be premature and result in overexposures. Parents can also become more permissive towards their youngest children, demonstrating greater flexibility in applying their ideals of protection, perhaps due to exhaustion, and in some cases delegating responsibility to the older siblings who are, of course, still children themselves. If my brother rented the film when he was of legal age at 18 years, then that would have made me 13 years old/young. The middle sibling, as sensitive to horror as I was, did not participate in this screening event. Had he been there he might have dramatically fled the living room refusing to watch, and I might have taken his advice by following him at the risk of being labelled a coward by the older brother. The fact is that I probably was a coward who rarely ran away, unable to face the greater fear of disappointing others and myself by “missing out.” The five-year age difference between the oldest and youngest never felt more unbridgeable than it did during that horrible viewing—though maybe we both felt horribly alone, a feeling which horror films seem driven to exploit, locking us up within our fears and insecurities, singularizing something which is so universal. To this day my brother and I will sometimes watch horror films together, bonding and brooding over a taste for such fears—minimized as mere “thrills”—that we continue to endure on our own. We seem to consent again and again to the horror genre’s criteria of isolation, excruciatingly reinforced when the viewers of a horror film—a family at home, and at peace—go their separate ways and retire for the night into their respective bedrooms. That can be a troubled walk, like marching to one’s death, and what is a sanctuary on any other day—your room—will take on a menacingly alien aspect as soon as the lights go out. So, you keep them on.

August 17, 2020 – Evening.

Why does this film terrify more than most in the genre called horror? I know I am not alone in my extreme reaction to it. By a psychological principle which cannot be grasped solely by reason, the greatest horror attracts the greatest number. Fear may bring us together, sadly, on a common ground that drops beneath our feet—but what is it about this fear that continues to draw people in droves? In the interest of jumping into the cold water, I will offer a quick theory of the enduring and damaging “appeal” of The Exorcist. A supernatural evil is made natural by two polar institutions: religion, specifically Catholicism, whose sense of the good hinges on its capacity to defend against evil, and medical science, which seeks a physical cause for something metaphysical. And this evil, which no manmade institution is capable of understanding whether by faith or reason, is shown to have the monumental power to possess—i.e. flip the switch of goodness and health—anyone, anyone at all it seems, whether you subscribe to religion—this religion, or science as religion—or not. In other words, you might not believe in this evil, you may not have known it even existed, but it exists all the same: this evil is indifferent to your belief—it certainly believes in you. It knows you better than you know yourself, and that’s why it can possess you on a whim. You who do not yet know yourself, a self not yet ripe for self-possession, and who can ask in all seriousness, “Who am I?” If you watch a film about the possession of a young girl’s soul when you too are still young, or even of the same age, then… Before I attempt to see such thoughts through I should say: it’s not fair to describe the film as being about a possession. Like so many horror films, it seeks to document such an event, and as is the case for so many premature viewers, events beyond the realm of what is possible can be perceived as real, no matter what your parents tell you. The confluence of realism and affect is analogous to the most vivid, gut-wrenching nightmares, the ones that still cling to us as we go about our daily business. Cinema’s power to realize the nightmare amidst the broad daylight of consciousness is routinely exploited by horror films, and I would say such exploitation makes these films both fascinating and forgettable. No matter how bad the dream, by evening its charge has long dissipated, along with most of its symbolic allure and whatever it is we may be trying to say to ourselves while asleep.

August 18, 2020 – Noon.

So far I have been working from memory alone. I have yet to re-watch a single scene. Plenty of images and sounds have been kicked up like dust from the deep, disturbing a generally tidy and centered state of consciousness. Of course, I would never have referred to the film’s content in terms of “images and sounds” when I saw it as a youth. My scholarly background does not seem very appropriate for handling such candid grotesqueries: yellow eyes, cracked blue skin, twisted smile, incongruous voice. Bedridden. Supremely weak and supremely powerful. She/he/it… It’s quite possible that these film memories will forever unnerve me, forever bewitch me with fears the understanding of which may not help to overcome them. This is not a fear of something, like an outside threat with a calling card. This fear resides in my foundations. It is the sickly and inscrutable feeling of dread—like pale light, the smell of impending rain, or tomorrow’s test—that mark a film from its earliest moments, often from its opening chord, as “horror.” There are no discernible threats and yet there is something terribly wrong with the world. Philosophically speaking, the world of horror is the worst possible world—cursed a priori. This is why concrete manifestations of decay, malignance, melancholy and lostness, such as monsters or ghosts or what have you, are rarely as powerful as this fallen worldview atmosphere at the basis of all horror. You might think of this worldview as lacking the assurance of a family house to center and shelter the self from the world, for in horror the house along with its denizens is a haunted one, quaked by argumentative or absent parental figures and uncanny in the sense that what is most familiar is easily turned on its head by the sinister eye twinkle of imposters. But all this is just a familiar way of speaking. If horror truly makes us feel “shelterless,” let us set aside such abstractions and breathe in this atmosphere many of us know all too well and love to hate.

August 18, 2020 – Evening.

An innocent young girl with an old and powerful name: Regan. Struck by black lightning and seemingly by pure chance. She falls into the bowels of profanation, speaking in a voice—or voices—not her own and which could never be hers (or could it?). This setup was terrifying to me, and to many I’m sure. If a spirit could overtake you and speak through you, then wouldn’t that be worse than death? While still finding myself at that all-too-tender age, the islands of my personality still sprouting up in various places, and while it’s possible that at that time my voice may have been changing, or deepening, amidst the throes of puberty (although my voice did not deepen as much as I expected), it never occurred to me that my sense of self could be gutted and dislodged, that my voice might be hijacked and cease to be mine. And what about the familiar voices of my family and friends—would they always ring true? The voice—few films rely so heavily on it and on its loss. The only thing comparable in film that comes to mind is the character of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1968), an artificial intelligence being who is all voice, monosyllabic and tense. We never fully recognize our own voice when we hear it on a recording. I wonder if I thought that my voice, unquestionably linked to my identity, might not be mine after all. Or perhaps one of many. I would not be surprised if such a skepticism suddenly became possible upon watching the film. And now that I have returned to the film after all these years, the skepticism surrounding the voice takes on a further dimension: How many variations of my voice do I speak with today as a grown man? The voice assumes different inflections and tonalities depending on the context and to whom you are addressing, and this often occurs completely against our will. I would not be surprised if a distinct vocal variation accompanied each and every social situation. My friends would be those with whom my most clear, calm, and recognizable voice—“unhesitating,” as Emerson might say—emerges out of its shell of hiding. But I don’t think there is such a thing as an absolute voice. That was a fantasy that the possessed Regan forced me to shed. The only candidate for an absolute voice might be the very sound of our thoughts, or if that is too oxymoronic, the tone taken when talking to ourselves. I for one rarely talk to myself unless it is to curse myself. It is not a pleasant voice. My social voice is often too pleasant. The demon in Regan speaks violently yet with conviction, even eloquence, assuming on occasion a severe British accent (thankfully, I do not remember the sound of the voice well enough to verify whether or not that is true; I am going by what others have told me). Like the main protagonist Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (William Wyler, USA, 1949) who epitomizes shyness in speech, she finds her tongue in the sharpness of cruelty and vengeance, expressing herself beautifully when her voice turns sour and a touch ugly. Coincidentally, both characters have father issues as well: Regan’s father is absent, save for a tardy birthday phone call, and Catherine’s is systematically unloving out of resentment for his wife’s death during childbirth. These female characters, girl and woman, eventually adopt deeper darker masculine voices. (Regan’s voice is perhaps strengthened even more by her mother’s profession as an actor, expert in both the art of impersonation and the sort of social butterflying that exposes Regan prematurely to power games disguised as revelry.) A single unwavering voice that booms from within and which you embrace as your unique and inimitable voice may not be the one you want, or the one those closest to you can tolerate. Alternatively, having more than one voice could be a symptom of too much unfocussed listening, of mistaking the refined opinions of others as that of your own (Emerson on conformity). Monsters in horror do not listen, usually because they are mute. As for monsters who can speak, like the demon in The Exorcist, words are weapons that pour out of a raging mouth. A tantrum which has been methodically thought through. Conversational hopelessness.

August 18, 2020 – Night.

A male demon that takes possession of a prepubescent girl could be perceived as a metaphor for what happens to boys when they hit puberty: rapid growth and its pains, appearance of the atom’s apple and its deepening of the voice, waves of acne, raw sexual urges mysteriously activated without external stimulus. With the possession of a girl by a force that for all its cryptic supernaturalism is undoubtedly of masculine gender, The Exorcist depicts male puberty as a crisis of both body and mind, compressing its evolutions into a disaster that could be experienced as life-threatening by the subject who undergoes it, perhaps even by those who helplessly bear witness to it. It’s as if the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood is self-discovery by grotesque transformation. And the transformation, when complete, will not yield a beautiful butterfly, I’m afraid not. No childhood is so protected as to be permanently cocooned, and I doubt any teenager has ever awakened in the morning with the feeling that now, at last, he can stretch his wings and fly. This cliché brings to mind the redemptive final image in Frank Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis”: “And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.”[2] Now I do not take this to mean that female maturation is more positive or generative than it is for men, or that puberty for women is a sublime butterfly-like experience as Kafka seems to suggest. But if The Exorcist is an allegory of male puberty in particular—if that’s how it struck me on some level as a male teenager on the verge of such a physiological threshold—then perhaps what horrified me was that the new body of manhood may not necessarily be an improved one. It would be ugly and undesirable and possibly uncontrollable. Does it need to be restrained? Will the convalescence of puberty ever end? Could such a body ever be loved? It might have to stand up for itself and bear the burden of desire or else risk being unloved and untouched. But where will it find the self-confidence to do so? And should its love be driven excessively by the desire to be loved, as proof that it is worthy of love, well then, it might simply have to be locked away.

August 19, 2020 – Morning.

Archeology. An archeological dig in a “foreign” country (Northern Iraq) is not your typical way to open a horror film, though such a prologue is clearly connected to the more familiar method in the genre of beginning in the past where some terrible atrocity occurred that will in turn traumatize the present. As resonant and determinant as these past events are, there is a false comfort in being provided with a clear-cut cause behind a prevailing sense of uncertainty or unrest. Archeology extracts the past in the form of objects which appear inert and lifeless from the ignorant and often disenchanted perspective of the modern age. The relics which frequently appear in horror films are not so much from the past as of the past, and they tend to be excavated from domestic rather than scientific locales—from attics, basements, garages, or backyards. These objects belong to the history of a family or the repressed crossroads between families, and not that of an entire people or epoch, as is the case with archeology. The Exorcist wants the evil unleashed in the ruins of Northern Iraq to be scientifically indifferent to the house and human it haunts in Georgetown, USA, so that no amount of genealogical research or self-discovery will be sufficient to placate its powers and banish it from whence it came. The evil originates from another place and time, perhaps beyond time as we know it. And the demon’s first move is to stop a swinging clock. (Fig. 1, 2)

Figure 1
Figure 2

August 19, 2020 – Noon.

More on archeology. For the archeologist on film, nothing says “adventure” more splendidly and acutely than the collective act of excavating lost civilizations beneath a sweeping spread of desert sun. (Fig. 3) You get so close to the past through material traces which, while touchable, also withhold the elapsed era from view, ensuring that the past as it was, as it breathed, is forever dead. These artifacts chiseled out of the rocky dunes are so stiff and cold and inscrutably fractured—often to the point of being unrecognizable—that it’s hard to imagine they were ever in lively use. In digging up these sleeping bones of the past amidst a playground of imminent archeological discovery, there seems little risk in disturbing a sleeping soul, the living force connected to these ancient relics, even at the outset of a horror film where convention usually has it that ghosts are light sleepers, that the digging up of the past is the precarious flirtation with something deliberately hidden or repressed. Scenes of archeology in film—and I think immediately of the Indiana Jones series, particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1981)—always fill me with feelings of both excitement and security, perhaps because these scenes draw such a hard and decisive line between present and past, reducing the mystery of the past into a material form that, like a toy, radiates a positive magic for the imagination to play with. Archeology onscreen also occurs in broad nonthreatening daylight, with few if any shadows, and as a sort of team sport where a synchronous swarm of hands scrape and polish away at remains which will always be but the tip of the iceberg of history. Somewhere among the throng there is that individual with the most at stake, looking for and perhaps dreading the needle in the haystack, yet he cannot re-enter the solitude out of which he dreamed up the expedition, the solitude necessary to face what he seeks, which is also what he fears. Father Merrin, why go on digging for it? Pandora’s Box. And what is archeology but the order to open it? Here, evil can be stirred but cannot yet strike. Eyes may widen and hands tremble, but only in anticipation of a cryptic chain reaction. History, a leviathan corpse undergoing an autopsy, spread out into a million pieces across the dunes, cannot spring to life so close to where it had been lain to rest, full of rage at having been awakened into a time where it does not belong. How will The Exorcist darken the bright room of science with the shadows of religion and shift the tone from adventure to horror, a shift whose jarring abruptness is itself horrific? (Fig. 4)

Figure 3
Figure 4

August 19, 2020 – Night.

A few artifacts are excavated that disconcert Father Merrin who seems to be on the lookout for traces of evil. He seeks out a power stronger than him, a mere mortal. Again, why would he seek out his enemy unless he is certain that he is a good match for it? Is he not playing with fire? The artifacts intrigue him yet he continues to shovel deeper into a small dark crevice in the rock. As he drags out a clump of earth with a bust of the demon he is pursuing, or who is pursuing him, a dusty swirl of wind escapes from the crevice like a gasp of air that has been locked up and held in for centuries. (Fig. 5) No artifact—coin or amulet or idol—however charged it may be with energies of belief, can contain the air of another era, this ancient breath or vapor of the corporeal past. The brown wind swirl scurries past the hands of the diggers and instantly enters the present-day atmosphere like a poisonous gas, infecting the space-time continuum of today where the dominant religion has become science (priest as archeologist). The infection slips into the gears of the grandfather clock, which comes to a sudden stop while Merrin and his associate are documenting the day’s findings. The clock is a statue whose blank face represents the order, logic, and empiricism of science, and the monotony of filling up rather than breathing time. (Fig. 6) The clock-statue’s mid-swing stoppage may not be a breakdown but an enchantment, analogous to a religious statue weeping tears of blood… But I am reading too deeply here, or merely reading. Now if this breath of wind released on the heels of the demon bust is the demon itself, and if demons are supernatural entities empowered by yet not dependent upon material channels of the known universe, then what prevents it from rising up through the layers of earth whenever it so desired? Are these the sort of pointlessly speculative questions you end up asking yourself when a film has you bewitched by the throat? From this moment on, the characters are doomed, the film is doomed, and I too am doomed. We are all doomed because we forgot that to be good in this world starts by being in this world and not above it or below. Doing evil and being evil are fundamentally different things. Real evil, as it were, is not from here—or so we like to believe—which is why when it possesses us we shall cease to be human. The real horror is that you don’t decide to become evil; evil becomes you; you have let it in. But what is this evil, exactly? What is it about? What does it say? That’s the question that needed to be asked when I first saw the film, and it could have come from my brother or myself had I the intellectual resources. Instead I recoiled from the ugliness, derangement, and ancientness of some great evil that could take the world by storm by slipping into my bed unnoticed. I couldn’t bear to look at it, listen to it, and see what it was all about. I still can’t, curious as I am. Maybe I should read the book instead—William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, or better yet, The Bible.

Figure 5
Figure 6

August 20, 2020 – Noon.

The large statue of the demon that Merrin eventually confronts at the end of the archeology prologue has a most unusual and perverse feature: a serpent can be seen coiling around one of the statue’s creaturely legs, rising up the leg and tapering off into a phallus in the groin area. (Fig. 7) It’s possible that on some level I may have sensed the statue’s circuitously libidinous energy and connected it to the expression of maniacal ferocity on the demon’s face. The male erection is boldly depicted as a separate creature in its own right, perhaps the serpent of biblical temptation, or perhaps it is a gesture of female sinuosity flooding masculine potency. Whatever the case may be, the chaotic amalgamation of sexual domains is irresolvable, shackling its leg and bolting it down to the earth like Satan in The Inferno who tragically freezes himself in the icefields of Hell by beating his wings over the rivers of guilt which pool around his body.[3] Does the demon signify a type of sexual tension that is beyond one’s control because it is beyond one’s understanding? Is that the source of his/its rage and insanity? When the demon first takes possession of Regan in her bedroom, I half recall a close-up of her face snarling, disfiguring, eyes rolling into white marbles that instantaneously freeze the glint of her human presence in and behind her face. (Fig. 8) What so disturbed me about the scene may have been the shock of the loss of soul coinciding with creaturely penetration and unknown, not to mention unwanted, orgasm. The serpentine erection as spiritual penetration and rape suggests that the libidinous urge is neither exclusively masculine or feminine but carnal—the hungry devouring body imposing itself, making demands, reacting emotionally and putting reason’s discipline towards itself and moral consideration for others into submission. The moment of possession/rape is presented as a traumatic orgasm in which the self is forced out against its will, effectively exorcised, well before the self is mature or stable enough to know how to let go of itself in coupling so as to return to itself edified and renewed. Regan, spiritually raped by this phallus with male and female energies confusedly intertwined, transforms upon contact of this insidious penetration. Transforms into what, though? From a child into a man, or into a woman? Can the transformation be called complete, or is her possession the agony of an orgasm without end, of a self perpetually dissolving? What we do know (what I still remember) is that the transformation makes her gravely ill, alienated from her body, a danger to others and to herself.

Figure 7
Figure 8

August 20, 2020 – Evening.

An entire subgenre of horror is built from the idea that the body can be possessed by another soul, that souls want bodies, that souls without bodies are vengeful or evil, that possessable bodies can never have enough soul. Such notions reiterate the old philosophical dualism of a self that lives inside a body, but this me-and-my-body dualism, as it were, fails to account for the terms of our occupancy. We may be the sole owner of our body without actually being our body. If I am tempted to say that my body is mine, then I have implied that my body is also on loan, that my ownership is not permanent or guaranteed. Roman Polanski wrestles with a similar question in The Tenant (France, 1976), a film also about possession, albeit the possession of space rather than soul insofar as the act of renting an apartment or house is to take possession of it even if the spirit of the previous tenant remains. While drunk, Polanski’s character Trelkovky muses, “If you cut off my head, would you say me and my head or me and my body? What right does the head have to call itself me?” Rarely are professional philosophers capable of articulating their questions so succinctly. If we live in our bodies we stay in our heads, for the most part. But if we owned our bodies the way we ought to (that is to say, thoroughly and without skepticism), there would be no question that the mind—me—is anything but body. And if we were truly one with ourselves, so to speak, the very concept of possession in all its forms would be unthinkable. The Exorcist is a film that thinks possession through to its very limit, and what it discovers is what we call horror—the self, humanity, identity, all are losable. Whatever can be thought can be lost; if something can be known it can also be forgotten. That’s the deal we made with a certain snake wrapped around a tree.

August 20, 2020 – Night.

In his novel A Death in the Family, James Agee describes a child, most likely himself, peacefully carried off to bed by a trusted adult, musing while half-asleep, “but [they] will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”[4] Adults don’t always fully know who they are, but at least they know not to ask. If the great voyage of self-discovery is ever felt to have come to an end, what is discovered lying in wait is a self too much in the know and recalcitrant to change. A self that cannot grow or change cannot be lost either. Since the life of a child is constant growth, and the life of an adolescent relentless awakening, such lives consist in finding and losing the sense of who one is. They will give anything to know, for not to know this is the basis of all fear.

August 21, 2020 – Night.

My fear of the film is so acute that I cannot face the possession scenes which commence at around the 48-minute mark of the original theatrical release. (I could perform a close reading of the film only up to this point where the mother, Chris, and a team of doctors barge into Regan’s room upon being told by the babysitter that Regan’s so-called convulsions have grown violent. But such an exercise strikes me as little more than distraction or evasion, harping on the wrong details. The film wants me to give myself over to it at the very moment I find myself turning away from it completely.) This introspective analysis of a lingering fear response has allowed my inner child to revise my “adult” theory about the film and perhaps supernatural horror in general: for us it is worse to watch The Exorcist than it is to be in The Exorcist, if such a thing were possible. If I were in the film I would fear for my life, whereas when I watch the film I fear for my soul. And in the wake of watching, when I am alone at night, it is as if my life is a film in which anything is possible. Every thought and feeling within this mire of consciousness is like a quick cut to something unknown and threatening.

August 22, 2020 – Noon.

If this persistent fear which keeps me from facing its source is best described as trauma, then it must be because it lives inside my body, enmeshed in tissue. I experience a hot tingly sensation in the pit of my stomach. Baited breath with mild palpitations. These sensations are similar to various childhood fears and anxieties, some known and some unknown, yet all of which predate my ever seeing or understanding what we now comfortably call a movie. However much I have matured in the long interim of adulthood, there they are, these teary stormy pangs, and to them I return—the inner child living in my stomach, looking up through my eyes and bringing me back down to a more immediate and immersive level of guttural experience. Having passed through the film’s slow series of character introductions and subtle build-up of tension, and of course dreading what’s to come, I pause the film on the threshold of the first possession scene and dare not enter Regan’s room. (Fig. 9) While I don’t clearly recall the scenes leading up to the demon’s horrific arrival, and while director Friedkin has tried to catch us off-guard with a sudden shift from the mother-doctor discussion to Regan at home, my body remembers all too well. (The title of a book eyes me from the top shelf in the corner of my office as I look for reasons not to watch: The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. If unread books judge, this one laughs.) The inner child who lives in my stomach starts to grow restless and apprehensive, sounding an alarm that blocks my sense of curiosity and objectivity from bearing witness to the scene before me (site of trauma). With my finger planted on the pause button, I try to summon the necessary courage—perhaps I can face the (my) demon and see it all for what it is. When I conceived of this diary project I very much believed I would be able to watch the film all the way through, not without difficulty of course, but surely, I thought, my adult sense of reason and trained capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality in all its boredom would prevail. Reluctantly—against every nerve in my body—I resume the film and cross the threshold of Regan’s room with mother and doctors, all of us completely unprepared for the scene awaiting on the other side. I can see her whipping-snapping back and forth on the bed; the demon is wrestling her body back and forth, trying to break in. But she is still human. Her scream is actually reassuring, because it is still hers. (Fig. 10, 11, 12) But not for long—I know (my body or stomach remembers) that here the demon will possess her completely, and that means it will speak through her mouth, disfigure her face, roll back her eyes—and all that will happen very quickly, instantaneously. I just can’t face the moment when the demon enters her (spiritually rapes her). Such unwanted and malicious invasions of mind and body can occur in an instant and yet have lifelong consequences—and if you’re a religious believer, in this film a Catholic, the consequences outlive you and are eternal. If I were to press the play button to watch the scene through, I could be undone by it all over again, reopening old wounds no matter how much I try to distance myself, analyze and interpret, like a good film scholar. Don’t return to the site of trauma unless you are properly prepared with some sort of plan. What sort of training or exercises have I done to deal with this? As soon as I press the stop button mid-horror, I will have done nothing except aggravate the primary wound. And as soon as I avert my gaze, the sounds will become amplified to better worm their way through my defenses. It occurred to me that my resources for handling cinematic PTSD are limited because generally I want movies to affect me deeply.

Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11
Figure 12

August 22, 2020 – Night.

I asked my wife to watch the first possession scene by proxy. I remained in the room still undecided whether or not to watch. I knew that if I were to leave the room out of earshot, the sense of isolation and dark side of imagination generated by horror may become overwhelming, if not paralyzing. I would be worse off being in another room by myself knowing that the scene is playing out uncontrollably in my home. Her presence is comforting. I tell her there are things I must do to remain in control of the situation, like keep the sound off. “But I want to hear what the doctors are saying.” (My wife is a nurse, by the way.) “So do I, but I’m afraid it’s impossible. The sound must be off and I can’t look at the screen either.” The experiment: I can’t watch but I can watch someone else watching. In watching her watch, I realize I am watching someone who can watch it normally, someone who is not bothered by it at all. Amazing. In the corner of my eye, just past the edge of my overly thick glasses where everything is a blur, I see a frantic rush of movement, wild color, and fast cutting. Hell breaking loose in a bedroom; dreary Georgetown comes to life; the mother-actor witnesses something straight out of the movies… All in less than a minute. I could feel what was going on. My wife was taken aback by one moment. It triggers something. My finger never left the pause button. Remarkable the power the film still holds over me after all these years. (Fig. 13)

Figure 13

August 23, 2020 – Morning.

Forty-eight minutes before the unveiling of the film’s first major horror episode is simply unheard of in the genre nowadays. Even Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, USA, 1968), which emphasizes social psychology and paranoia over supernatural horror, delivers shocking imagery of witches, devils and rape as part of the main character’s drug-induced nightmare by around the 20-minute mark of the film. From early on, Polanski ensures that viewers are never free to forget that the fears entrenched in Rosemary’s mind may turn out to be real—and all-too real they are. Part of the reason the demonic possession is so agonizingly delayed in The Exorcist is due to the three parallel storylines the film puts into motion, a network narrative quite out of the ordinary for a genre whose effects depend so heavily on spatial confinement (i.e. the haunted house) or psychological confinement (i.e. the possibility of madness). The storylines are as follows: Father Merrin’s rediscovery of the demon through archeological relics excavated in Northern Iraq; a single working mother and her daughter living in Georgetown; Father Karras’ crisis of faith triggered by deepening guilt over his ailing mother (both also reside in Georgetown). The archeology prologue soothes us with the gay spirit of adventure (I know I am repeating myself here but it is my “happy place” in the film) in which the blazing desert sun, ocean blue sky, and large swells of bustling activity are just too vibrant and wakeful for the gloom of evil to ever descend. The slow and intricate intercutting between the two Georgetown narratives establish themes of loneliness, loss and self-questioning in a somewhat circuitous manner that prevents suspense or dread from overtaking the narrative and with it the spectator’s contemplative mode of engagement, one which may very well test the patience of horror audiences today. We may suspect something awful is going to happen, must happen for the film to be called “horror”—but what could possibly happen amidst such banality? At the beginning of the Georgetown segment, we are lulled into the encompassing safety of the bird’s eye view from which everything in the quaint town appears clear, small, and out in the open, and yet this is presumably the demon’s point of view homing in on this and only this open window to Regan’s bedroom. (Fig. 14, 15) If the demon crashes into her room like an errant bird blown way off course, the angel of death mistakenly striking the house of innocence, Friedkin refuses to allow the demon to manifest itself through the standard crescendo of inexplicable events in which things go bumping in the night with no apparent cause. The mother goes in search of the strange crashing and gurgling sounds in the attic and of course finds nothing. The team of doctors employ the empirical methods of science (angiograms and MRIs) to track the root cause of Regan’s convulsions, and of course find nothing. Father Karras looks inside of himself for some glimmer of his vocational calling, and sadly finds nothing, just when he needs it most with his mother facing end of life. It really seems as if nothing could happen in this film. The complacency of the medical and religious institutions—the lack of imagination on both sides of the Western paradigm—is depressing. Everyone’s guard is down, including Karras who used to be a boxer.

Figure 14
Figure 15

August 23, 2020 – Noon.

Since PTSD confines me to the film’s opening act, I was able to catch a few noteworthy patterns that would surely have flown over my adolescent head, though had I been able to see them at the time—and the film as a text—I might have averted psychic catastrophe. 1. Merrin writes notes about the day’s archeological findings—mother writes notes in the margins of a script she is studying in preparation for her upcoming role. 2. Regan and Karras are “only children” without fathers. 3. The large demon statue in Northern Iraq resembles Regan’s handmade clay sculpture—a large birdlike creature with drooping beak and wings. 4. A pair of nuns walk hurriedly side-by-side in both the Iraq prologue and Georgetown. 5. Karras dreams of artifacts directly observed and handled by Merrin at the archeological site. They have yet to meet. 6. Karras’ mother and Regan are bedridden beings facing their own deaths. Normally I would leap on such patterns as catalysts for analysis and interpretation, relishing the interlocking system of tunnels, as it were, in a thoughtfully made film, but this is far from a normal situation for film scholarship as I understand it. Clearly, I am not writing about this film out of any aesthetic or thematic intrigue it might possess. I suppose I am not even writing about it as a film at all. (Film as religion? As memory? As crisis?) Regarding it as somehow not a film allows me to see how I saw it as a youth, and apparently how I continue to see it despite my profession. I can then ask questions like the following: Did I believe in God when I saw it, or was such a belief shaken? I don’t think so—I doubt I gave such things much thought (or much feeling) at that time. Did I believe in the devil after I saw the film? Probably a bit, but I wouldn’t have called it a belief. I might have felt that the devil is more interested in us than God who remains remote and indecipherable. If I were pressed and asked what I thought the devil actually is, what might I have said? Chance. Why, you could wake up dead tomorrow; you could look at yourself in the mirror one day and find a total stranger staring back at you. But no one asked because I dared not speak of it.

August 24, 2020 – Morning.

Deep into the film, long into the interminable night of the demon’s brutal reign of terror, I distinctly remember Regan—her soul, I guess—surface, pleading for help by writing “help me” on her bruised, swollen, stolen body. (Fig. 16) Her soul is not gone but trapped and oppressed by a greater power. It’s as if the demon this whole time has had Regan’s head pinned down beneath its grizzly foot and sharp eagle-like talons. Was I in any way relieved when I saw Regan emerge as words impressed from inside her stomach, or further horrified by the sudden realization that the young girl has been repressed throughout the entire possession, and that to be possessed, to lose one’s mind, voice and body, is to undergo repression of the worst, most invasive kind? Well, as I had cause to mention before, it is phenomenologically true in my case that the stomach is a brain whose thoughts are feelings. I think films affected me so much when I was younger because I experienced them as much in my stomach as in my mind, perhaps more so. The joy, sadness, or terror of characters reverberated in my gut, less from empathy or vicariousness—because I didn’t always understand what was going on—than a certain visceral naivete; and only after the film came to an end would I be able to think about what I felt and make some sense of the strange and often dangerous worlds I experienced—and to a certain extent still do—as real. Perhaps I thought that Regan lived in her stomach, that is to say, in the mire of her feelings and intuitions, and that’s why her soul could be swept away so easily—because the film equates soul with mind and tongue, thought and speech, leaving intuition to waste away in the cages of reason. If adult consciousness tends to concentrate soul within mind, then perhaps adults are beings perpetually possessed by the inner child who lives in the stomach—the “underground” of embodied selfhood, the mute and hollow pit of being—electrified constantly by sensations and mixed messages originating from the active centers of brain, heart and genitals.

Figure 16

August 24, 2020 – Noon.

Because so much fear and trembling—pathologized today as anxiety—is experienced in the stomach, Regan’s “help me” must have struck me as a longing to be released from her entrapment within the uncertainty that youth always feel deep within themselves, even if they don’t quite know what to call it. The uncertainty that is felt deep within may be the absence of depth, of life experience. In this scene, does Regan want to be helped back into her mind or out of her body altogether? If she is relegated to living inside her stomach on account of the demon’s possession, then she is all fear and trembling, all reaction and no action. The stomach is a truly helpless organ. It’s where many of us feel anger boil into rage, or shed our invisible tears. It is the only part of ourselves that we touch or hold in such a way as to suggest that something must be held back for fear of breaking, like a dam.

August 24, 2020 – Evening.

No, I no longer fear being possessed. Does that mean I can no longer look forward to the possibility of becoming someone else, radically changed? “Be yourself.” “Stand up for yourself.” “Rely on yourself.” “State who you are and what you believe.” “Show the world what you’re made of.” Whatever we may think of these values, they are airborne, they course through the myriad veins of Western culture. Of those who transform—regularly or intermittently or even just once—we have too little news. They disappear of their own accord. Such a life is best described not as a process of becoming oneself but rather no one at all, of ceasing to be identifiable and locatable. While it may seem that we have much to lose in this world, the fact is that we really don’t possess anything that we would call “alive,” hence anything of real value, try as we might to hold on (for dear life). A life-affirming form of self-possession might be the willingness to let go of old conceptions of self. “We have nothing to lose,” as the sports commentators are so fond of saying of the player who doesn’t yet have a name, freely flitting about the field like a butterfly. The risk for such a player is suddenly being possessed by the following realization: “I’m on the verge of becoming a somebody, and it’s so clear to me now that’s what really drives me.”

August 24, 2020 – Night.

When Father Karras is possessed at the end of the film, it happens very fast, much faster than it did for Regan. The only thing protecting him was his amulet (I always assumed it was a regular crucifix). He made a deal with the demon, insisting on being taken in exchange for Regan, to spare her at last. And the demon agrees by abruptly seizing on the opportunity to possess a professional soul, as it were. Karras’ instinct at this point is to throw himself out the window, and he acts on this while he still can, while he is still in possession of himself—to let go of himself. But in that decisive moment we will never know for sure if he sought to kill himself or the demon, or both. Does his instinct say, “I would rather be dead?” Or “I am already dead?” Does his facial expression of pained shock reveal a hidden truth: “My faith did not protect me, after all. My soul is susceptible because I have reduced my body to a vessel. My sacrifice ought to have been more of a struggle.” (Fig. 17) The trouble with religion in this context is that the soul is deemed the most valuable and essential—in need of saving—yet it has no proof and leaves no trace. That which defines us lacks definition. One may even get the feeling that one’s soul wants to escape and be free of the worldly rather than be constantly tested by its many obstacles and temptations. Do you ever get the feeling that life in the body is stuffy and claustrophobic, that you have the sudden urge to crawl out of your skin?—The body has just as much cause in wanting to escape a self/soul that deludes itself into thinking that it is always in control.

Figure 17

August 25, 2020 – Night.

Karras undergoing possession casts himself out of the same window that the demon used to come crashing in. Another pattern about which I have nothing to say. But I will say this instead: It’s as if evil casts itself out. The root of all evil is self-destruction. The good is a poor match for evil, but evil is an even worse match against itself. “Just wait. The good will come. Goodness is always closer to us than we think. Patience brings roses.”[5]

August 26, 2020 – Noon.

Writing about these film memories alive and twitching in my bodily tissue does not bring me closer to the film or convince me of its quality. What is the aesthetic value of a film whose primary objective is to shock and disturb, to burrow under the skin? Yes, children are not necessarily the innocent and harmless creatures they appear to be, and parents are at a loss when it comes to guiding their children through puberty, even though they went through it themselves, they don’t really remember it. But does it take scenes of Regan swearing and flashing her body to make that point? Does the intensely visceral horror treatment allow for a more tactful exploration of such a complex theme, which is undoubtedly of interest and worthy of contemplation: the adult mythologizing of childhood or the adult amnesia of the uncertainty and loneliness of being a child, especially when living in a broken family? Approaching similar subject matter, I greatly admire Jack Clayton’s efforts in The Innocents (UK/USA, 1960) to avoid the spectacular and shock-effect trappings of the horror genre, opting instead for the mild-mannered temperament of the ghost story. In that film, a governess becomes convinced that the two children under her care are possessed (her word is “corrupted”) by her predecessors. Near the end of the film the eldest child, Myles, launches into a grotesque verbal tirade as if channeling the spirit of his former master Quint, the man who corrupted the innocents with inappropriate displays of anger, alcoholism, and other lewd behavior. The sudden shift in Myles from good-natured boy to a bullying vindictiveness well beyond his years flirts with possession without substituting or distorting his voice with Quint’s. Instead, Clayton shows the specter’s sinister face hovering in the background, peering through a window above Myles’ shoulder and laughing supportively, as if the corruption of innocence derives from the rational sobering of a mere tantrum into an art of cruelty. And like any good Henry James adaptation, the reality of events, in this case the possession of the children by negative adult influences, is filtered through the governess’ own mental instability over tensions between her religious belief in childhood innocence and the truth that children often know more about sex, certainly power, than adults are willing to admit. To come back to The Exorcist, the filmmakers are more concerned with the reality of the events (that we believe them) than in their significance (that we think about them in metaphorical or allegorical terms). I feel entitled to make this claim because the reality of the events quite literally blocks me from reading them, not to mention seeing them (I write from memories I wish I didn’t have). I would like to hear what the demon actually says (he is restrained yet left ungagged) but I just cannot bear the voice. (Fig. 18) I would like to see what the demon does, or can’t do, in Regan’s body, and how her mother copes with it all (Ellen Burstyn in a great performance, I’m sure), not to mention how the institutions of modern medicine and religion struggle to come to terms with evil incarnate, the ritual of the exorcism saving the day. But it seems to me that the construction of these scenes is just as aggressive as the demon itself. Horror films systematically strive to break through the strongest defenses, to appease the desensitized, which is why defenseless children should never be allowed to see them. They wound the open mind, amuse the safeguarded mind, disappoint the closed mind, satisfy like a shot those who benefit psychologically from the fictional framing of pure terror. But the powerful elixir of movies is a power easily exploited if the goal is to turn fear into fact, to give us back, as it were, the most painful part of our childhood.

Figure 18

August 27, 2020 – Night.

Young and impressionable viewers can be led to believe that evil exists, that religion can protect you from it, that souls are lost insofar as they are losable. The life of a child is filled with so much concentrated change and restlessness that demonic possession can seem like the worst symptom of identity formation. The horror film wants to turn the process of becoming who you are, of finding yourself, against you. The situation is different for adults: they know who they are, have accepted who they are, whether their identities are fully formed or have stopped forming. We have ceased to grow in this sense, try as we might, this is what we have to work with. While the horror film cannot fool the average adult into believing that his or her identity can suddenly be lost or forgotten, allegorized by being taken, the genre can pose something equally devastating that joins the supernatural with the existential and moral registers: fear not the monster will come get you, but that you may be the monster so feared. Fear that what you are and what you’ve become is a force that seeks, perhaps unconsciously, to make the world its own—to possess. Fear, finally, the masks in your closet for every occasion in which you know how to appear human. We’ve heard it all before: we are guilty of something. Horror films generally provide neither explanations nor solutions for such condemnation, only that the human condition must be redeemed so life can start over from scratch. The ideal ending is nothing more than the dawning of a new day.

August 28, 2020 – Dawn.

In The Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman, USA, 1977), Regan is a mature teenager, all grown up and suffering from PTSD. From what I recall (yes, I saw this one too at a young age), she returns to the bedroom where she lost her soul, the supreme site of trauma for her, and faces her past and her fears, a journey I was not able to complete in full. Behold the incredible courage of movie heroes, a courage rarely worth imitating unless it is danger—and possibly death—that you seek. In our defense as mere mortals with much to gain by hiding from truths which may turn out to be unbearable, there is no single site of trauma to revisit and conquer. I would look it in the eye if I knew that was it, but in reality our closets and drawers are manifold and teaming with renewable pieces of life. Let’s go on digging! (Fig. 19)

Figure 19

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Cecile Cristobal for preparing all the stills from The Exorcist and in some cases designing them to illustrate those parts of the diary based solely on memory and repression. I certainly could not have done it alone. I would also like to thank the editors at CineAction, especially Scott Forsyth, for having an open mind in supporting a project that is both unconventional in form and deeply personal in content.

  1. The VHS copy at the time would have featured the original theatrical version and not the director’s cut released in 2000. This VHS would probably also have featured a “full-screen” presentation, the right and left wings of the widescreen image cropped and formatted for the square dimensions of the television set, thus allowing the film to fill the frame at the expense of the peripheral dimensions of the image. Despite these shortcomings—apparent to us now in the digital age of high fidelity and instantaneous access—VHS tapes, and to a lesser extent Beta, were for me the movies themselves. The theater only showed new movies, coming and going every week, whereas video stores and their labyrinthine interiors of colorful racks were my first glimpses into the strange world of movies. These uniformly shelved VHS boxes resembled books, and I might have called them “living books.”
  2. Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis,” in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 139.
  3. See Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. John Ciardi (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1982), pp. 265-288.
  4. James Agee, A Death in the Family (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), p. 7.
  5. Robert Walser, “Snowdrops,” in Selected Stories, trans. Tom Whalen and Trudi Anderegg (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2002), p. 130.

Trevor Mowchun

Contributing Writer

Trevor Mowchun is a filmmaker, Assistant Professor, and director of film studies at the University of Florida. His latest short film, Drink Some Darkness, is an experimental adaptation of a poem on “the doors of life” by the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. He recently published “Pedagogical Adventures in Cinematic Space” with the online edition of New Review of Film and Television Studies. Mowchun’s first book, Metaphysics and the Moving Image, is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.

Keep Reading