Demonology In Dixie

On the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, Noel Murray ruminates on the film’s unique significance in the religious South, where he grew up:

The popularity of The Exorcist had the effect of popularizing exorcism itself—or at least that was what I heard around my school, where there were rumors of parents setting their children on fire because they thought their kids were possessed.

Give some credit (or blame) for this to [writer William Peter] Blatty’s studiousness, and [director William] Friedkin’s gifts for documentary like realism, which lent The Exorcist plausibility. Even though the demon in The Exorcist isn’t Satan—and isn’t even part of Christian mythology—the film does reinforce the idea that there are dark forces at work, requiring the righteous to remain vigilant. …

I’ve identified this mentality with the South, because that’s the part of the world I know best (and love, honestly). But The Exorcist is set mostly in Washington, D.C., and is heavily Catholic. The Catholic strain of devil paranoia differs from Southern Baptist devil paranoia. (Wine-drinking vs. teetotaling may have something to do with that.) Some religious people see The Exorcist as merely metaphorical, capturing the spiritual rootlessness of the 1970s, while others see it as much more black-and-white, and love it for that. Down here, we’ve worked “wariness of Satanic influence” into a way of life far removed from the more academic approaches of the fictional Father Karras and the real Father Gallagher. Down here, we stew in it.