This article was originally published on Maccabee Society, and can be viewed here.
Horror isn’t just for the shameless. Sure, right now a lot of mainstream horror media are lustful images of blood, gore, and sadism, but some of the greatest works in the western world were steeped in horrific imagery. Have you read or William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Dante’s Divine Comedy? Each book – a darkly vivid penetration into what makes us human – is worth a read from any conservative man.
I thought carefully about how to reintroduce a generation of men into “good” horror art without throwing them straight into the deep end of Gothic novels or Italian epic poems (because men should step out of the realm of childish stories and sink their teeth into some manly stuff). After considering it carefully, I went back to the one film I always recommend that straddles the fine line between digestability and intellectual stimulation: The Exorcist III.
Why The Exorcist III?
The Exorcist III is a great horror movie that is severely underappreciated. Does it fly under the radar because it’s outright terrible? I don’t think so at all. Rather, it’s probably because its take on the ideas presented in the original are subverted, subdued, and a little bit more philosophical than the original film – and a multi-million dollar studio hellbent on making millions more dollars would likely bury such a meaty horror film than give it the treatment it deserves. That isn’t to say the original film is overrated or less than great. 1973’s The Exorcist is a seminal classic, refreshing the ancient concept of the conflict between God and the Devil and the human souls they fight over for the modern film-going audience.
If you don’t know too much about how The Exorcist III came to be, here’s a quick primer: author William Peter Blatty believed his original story – one of an innocent girl possessed by a malevolent demon – was complete. However, the film studio behind the original film didn’t believe so, and forced The Exorcist 2: The Heretic without the original creative team behind it. Unfortunately, it put a huge dent into the franchise’s reputation. Feeling morally obliged to resurrect his mythos, Blatty wrote a direct sequel to the original story, initially publishing it as the 1983 novel “Legion”, which focused on the original’s supporting characters of Lieutenant Kinderman and Father Dyer in a new case of supernatural serial killings by the so called ‘Gemini Killer’ (Reagan and the demon Pazuzu aren’t front and center this time, and the events of the second film aren’t even mentioned). It was a bestseller, and, proving to studios that his take on his world still has some legs, he was allowed to adapt it to the screen himself under the title of The Exorcist III.
Unlike the original film, this isn’t a simple story of God vs Devil; of the Supreme Good vs Absolute Evil. Rather, it explores the idea of evil and its apparent conflict with God’s plan for human salvation. The question ‘why does evil exist in the human heart?’ is a philosophical question that has inspired tomes of material from all eras of civilization. This is sizable stuff to sink teeth into then, and no amount of visceral head turning, green vomit, or demonic faces can truly capture the psychological terror dwelling within the darkest recesses of humanity.
I’ve always wondered why director William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty fell out over the direction of The Exorcist III. But my educated guess is that Friedkin — who is generally a visually shocking person with little in the way of heady ideas — came into conflict with Blatty’s interest in the internal machinations of the human mind. It was the author’s desire for a less literal approach to filmmaking that gives The Exorcist III the unique critical and popular reception it’s received since its release, and the reason this article came into existence.
How Philosophy Influences Art
In classic western philosophy, there are two types of knowledge: speculative knowledge and practical knowledge. Practical knowledge (ethics, politics, the natural sciences), deal with our application of them in the real world, and therefore visual literalism is perfectly acceptable in conveying such truths that only deal in material ideas. Most of the films today (especially Hollywood movies) only deal in a practical understanding of reality, and this also includes the original Exorcist film. So, for example, a demonically possessed little girl morphing into something grotesque before our eyes is enough to get the point across to the audience that something is materially horrific in the world and needs to be resolved in the end, and we know that she will be okay when she physically returns to normal.
In contrast, speculative knowledge (such as metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology) is usually best served with analogical reasoning; or, to put it plainly, not being literal. Think about the concept of Plato’s cave: when Plato is describing the cave, he’s not describing an actual cave somewhere in the Mediterranean where prisoners haven’t seen the sun their whole lives; he’s merely illustrating a concept about how knowledge and philosophy can can make men understand the world around them.
How does one convey speculative knowledge in film, then? Blatty attempted to try this by employing metaphorical approach to mis-en-scene and editing, as the information he wants us to receive can’t rely solely on our five senses, but in our ability to comprehend them in the mind. He may have been onto something:
If you take a look at the opening credit sequence (watch the video I have for this only after you have read this article), you’ll notice that it’s essentially a wordless sequence that illustrates the big idea of the film. You have shots of the interior of a church that is peaceful and tranquil, then all of a sudden a violent gust of wind smashes through the front doors and turns the place upside down. Blatty carefully chooses the shots of solemn statues in a tranquil setting, then through careful timing and splicing, slowly introduces the weirder elements like a priestly roman collar suddenly stained with blood, and an image of a Christ statue opening its eyes when the place is being vandalized by an unseen force. The church itself isn’t integral to the plot of the film, but it symbolizes the central theme of a goodness being corrupted by encroaching evil.
He repeats this trick again in later scene taking place at a Jesuit university. The two characters in the scene are having a solemn discussion on Damien Karras, and it’s a conversation that wouldn’t look out of place in a Godfather movie. Slowly, but surely, Blatty starts injecting images of a clock that stops ticking, to rustling paper, to an opening door to get our mind racing, before climaxing with the bizarre when a statue relocates and is morphed into something evil looking.
The Link With Ancient Christian Art
What Blatty achieves here is not an image to be interpreted by our five senses alone, but an image created from the mind. In the Eastern world of Christianity, there is a movement of art called “Icons”, and it’s rather famous for its flat panel depictions of biblical imagery and saints, because the philosophical notion is that the more “realistic” art is (like three-dimensional sculpture), the more it remains trapped in the realm of the physical senses.
Take a look at this icon of the Theotokos of Kazan. A lot of people mistakenly believe that due to a lack of anatomical knowledge, the subjects in the image are disproportioned, which isn’t the case. In many of these images, The Blessed Virgin takes up most of the real estate as if she’s a true giant. However, when taking into account that she is the ‘Theotokos’ or God-bearer, her relative hugeness makes sense. Furthermore, in many of these images she’s pointing to her son Jesus (not in this image, however). Interestingly, in many depictions the child Jesus doesn’t look like a one year old fat baby? Is it because the artist doesn’t know what a baby looks like? Of course not. The artist is painting the Incarnate God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Jesus, as depicted the way he is in Eastern iconography, conveys His spiritual perfection and completeness in a way that a realistic proportioned child Jesus arguably does not.
The style of filmmaking in the Exorcist III works in a very similar way. In the opening sequence, was the church really upturned by a demonic spirit? Did the university statue really transform from an image of a saint to something that looks like the Batman supervillain the Joker? The truth is that it really doesn’t matter, because it’s not to be taken literally, but metaphorically. It allows the mis-en-scene in each individual shot to be composed for maximum surreality, and gives our minds an image that our eyes and ears alone possibly wouldn’t comprehend.
Here’s a link to an edited video where you can see the sequences I’ve stringed together with a bit of commentary. If you haven’t seen the film, however, and yet you’re a fan of the original Exorcist, do watch the film, because there’s so much more symbolism and deeper meaning than could possibly be written in an article.