Laced with brutal scenes and confronting obscenities, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist transcends the horror genre and is ‘one of the most celebrated horror films of all time’ (Jones 2012, p. 99).
It has proven to be a film of thematic and critical duality, with underlying themes and ideas that deeply affected audiences at its release in 1973, and continue to do so 43 years later. Mise-enscène is an expression of such cinematic themes, which Rohdie (2006, p.5) defines as ‘rendering of emotion and expression by decor, performance, movements and gestures, settings and the use of the camera and lighting’. Filmmakers ‘carefully choreograph’ (Smith 200, p.123) what they want to appear in their films and mise-en-scène is a part of this choreography, assisting the director in shaping understanding of the film by using certain visual cues and symbolism. In The Exorcist, Friedkin uses wind as an invisible embodiment of the ‘demon or evil spirit’ (Medhurst 1978, p. 75) in the miseen-scène in order to represent the evil within Regan, and associate her with evil.
The director uses wind as a part of the films mise-en-scène to represent the demon which inhabits Regan. From the opening scene at the archaeological dig site, Friedkin creates an ‘eerie, chilling aura’ (Medhurst 1978, p.78) which indicates that the wind may be something more than it seems. If one looks outside the context of the film, it can be seen that the wind is intimately connected with the ancient statue Father Merrin looks upon at the films beginning. The wind carries the spirit of the god ‘Pazuzu, demon of the southwest wind’ (Blatty 1974, p.132). While the name is never mentioned within the film, interestingly through intertextuality one can see the intimate relationship between the demon and wind.
Hence, as Medhurst (1978, p.79) explains, it is a demonic or evil spirit that the wind depicts and which the audience tracks through the auteurs lense from the archaeological dig to Regan MacNeil’s bedroom. One can then come to the assumption that ‘if the wind is equal to an evil spirit, and the wind is linked with Regan, then Regan personifies an evil spirit’ (Medhurst 1978, p.80). From this point forward Regan embodies the spirit of evil which had earlier been associated with the wind. Nearing the film’s climax the miseenscène of Regan’s room suggests that Regan’s evil is at its most potent, as the cold draft is so severe during the exorcism that both Father Merrin and Damien are ‘bundled in coats and exhaling steam columns’ (Creed 1993, p.78).
Once the evil is passed on to Regan through the wind, it is of equal importance how the mise-en-scène portrays that evil, and how the evil is defined within the little girl. A key element of the representation is the performance by Linda Blair. Both Blair’s physical performance and the transformation of Regan’s appearance provide a series of ‘performance queues through which the narrative is articulated’ (Taylor 2007, p.15). Clover (1992, p.80) explores how her skin explodes with oozing blistery sores, she urinates on the carpet, spews green bile, bleeds from her genitals and she masturbates with a crucifix. What violates our expectations and terrifies audiences is that ‘these senseless acts come from a tender little girl’ (Saks 1974, p.86). The mise-en-scène of the movements and gestures performed by Blair intimately and confrontingly explore the evil’s corruption of Regan’s body.
The clearest confirmation of the demon’s embodiment as wind comes at the film’s climax. As Damien exclaims “take me, come into me!”, Friedkin cuts to the window showing the billowing wind entering precisely as the evil proceeds to transfer to Damien’s body, leading to his demise. In a direct Christian allegory, Karass ‘chooses death so that another might have life’ (Medhurst 1978, p.85). It is a common misconception that evil forces Karras out the window, though Blatty testifies that regardless of any unintended ambiguity, the finale is ‘a triumph for Karras’ (Elliot 1974, p.66). Thus, in perhaps the most overhanded example of the wind as evil in the mise-en-scène, Friedkin makes it apparent that the wind billowing through the window marks the transfer of evil between Regan to Damien. It’s important to note the mise-en-scène of Damien’s body as he lay dying. The air is still, not a hint of wind troubles the night as paramedics rush to his lifeless corpse.
In adapting William Peter Blatty’s original novel, Friedkin brought his auteurial eye to the project to create a masterpiece of modern filmmaking. Through his masterful use of mise-en-scène in particular, Friedkin helps shape the audience’s understanding of the film through almost imperceptible visual cues and symbolism. The mise-en-scène of the wind image as a literal and figurative spirit of evil associates Regan symbolically with the appearance of evil, and is an integral part of the film’s imagery. While the physical mise-enscène performed by Linda Blair ensures that the film terrifies and unnerves audiences with her physical manifestation of evil to this day.
Blatty, W 1974, “There is a Goodness in The Exorcist,” America, 23 February, 132.
Clover, C 1992, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Princeton University Press, New Jersey. 7682.
Creed, B 1993, The Monstrousfeminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, Oxon, 7079.
Elliott, O 1974, “The Exorcist Frenzy,”. Newsweek, 11 February, 60.
Jones, M 2012, “Shock horror: Genre, audience and the anatomy of fear,” Screen Education, №65, Autumn, 9699
Medhurst, M 1978, “Image and ambiguity: A rhetorical approach to The Exorcist,” Southern Speech Communication Journal, Vol. 44, Iss. 1. 7085.
Saks, M 1974, “The Exorcist Film Review,” Society, May 1974, Volume 11, Iss. 4, pp 8687
Smith, G 2001, “It’s Just a Movie”: A Teaching Essay for Introductory Media Classes,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 41, Iss. 1, Fall, 127134.
Taylor, A 2007, “Twilight of the Idols: Performance, Melodramatic Villainy and Sunset Boulevard,” Journal of Film & Video, Vol. 59, №2, Summer, 1331.
Rohdie, S 2006, “Studies,” Screening the Past, Iss. 19, March, 410.