The Exorcist, both the novel and the film, have been subject to various misconceptions, some of which this post attempts to correct.
Father Merrin’s archeological dig disturbed the ancient sleep of the demon Pazuzu, who went on to seek vengeance on Merrin via the demonic possession of Regan Macneil.
This is wrong for several reasons. First, Pazuzu is not a demon at all, but rather an ancient Neo-Assyrian deity. His functions are to bring pestilence and to control the southwest wind. His most famous act was to vanquish the evil goddess, Lamashtu, who was considered to be the cause of miscarriage and childhood illness. Hence the Iraqi museum curator’s comment on seeing Merrin handling the Pazuzu amulet he has uncovered from the dig, “Evil against evil.” Neither author Blatty nor director Friedkin suggest that Pazuzu is a demon or is any way involved in the MacNeil possession.
Second, the Pazuzu amulet and later the large Pazuzu statue, figure in the Prologue as projection carriers for Merrin’s mounting sense of dread. Merrin’s unconscious mind seizes on these ancient pagan symbols, which begin to trigger premonitions and feelings of dread within the old priest. They are the stimuli, not the causes, of his apprehensions. The Iraq dig becomes for Merrin an omen, a foreshadowing that he must soon “face an ancient enemy”. This enemy is not Pazuzu, but a nameless demon that Merrin confronted and defeated in Africa some twelve years previously. Nowhere in the novel or the film is the demon named. Certainly if Merrin thought the demon was Pazuzu, he would have called it by that name. Instead, Merrin c0nsistently refers minimally, curtly, to the possessing entity merely as “the demon”.
Film director Burke Dennings was molesting Regan MacNeil.
This is wrong because Blatty goes out of his way to depict Dennings’ murder as despicable and inexplicable, and to portray Dennings as a genuine friend of the MacNeil household. In point of fact Blatty describes Dennings as a kind and thoughtful person, except when inebriated. Moreover, even when inebriated, Blatty describes Dennings as a loud, insulting, obnoxious drunk, not a child molester. In one scene Blatty has the film-wrap dinner party hostesses remove (a briefly unsupervised) Dennings from the premises (i.e., before he would have time to sneak up to Regan’s room for nefarious purposes). But perhaps the most telling argument against the Dennings molestation theory is Regan’s own attitude. Her only objection to Dennings is that her mother might marry him and therefore further displace Regan’s father, Howard MacNeil. Even so, Regan tells her mother Chris that “Mr. Dennings” is welcome to attend her birthday celebration. Obviously, Burke Dennings is no molester. The Exorcist’s only molester is the demon itself.
The pale “demonic” face-flashes seen in Father Damien Karras’s dream and during the exorcism represent Pazuzu.
This is incorrect because Pazuzu, as mentioned above, is not a demon and is not possessing Regan MacNeil. The demonic face is that of actress Eileen Dietz, who was a body/stunt double for Linda Blair (who played Regan). Therefore it would be preferable to call the “flash face” instead “the Dietz Face,” in order to avoid the confusion of calling it “Pazuzu” or “Captain Howdy”. Moreover it must be noted that the Dietz Face in no way resembles the Pazuzu amulet and statue.
The Dietz Face represents Captain Howdy.
This is wrong, at least in terms of the film’s original release. “Captain Howdy” is the name that Regan calls the demon during its initial introductory phase. It is unknown if the name is Regan’s own title or if the demon has so introduced himself. In any case, it is unlikely that the face could represent Howdy, because Karras dreams of the same face, which shows up later in the exorcism. We have no idea what Captain Howdy looks like (if indeed he even has human features). Director Friedkin never visually takes us inside Regan’s mind. We only know that a demonic face – the Dietz Face – appears to Karras in a dream and then later on in the exorcism. Again, this applies to the film’s original release.
However, in The Version You’ve Never Seen (TVYNS), Friedkin does enter Regan’s mind just once, during her initial medical examination, during which her eyes widen and she “sees” the Dietz Face. This establishes that the demon manifests internally at least once to Regan, and at least once to Karras, and it is wearing its Dietz Face.
Even so, there is no reason to think that the Dietz Face is Captain Howdy, since – again – the same face also appears in Karras’s dream. There is no reason that Karras should be seeing the face of Regan’s “imaginary” (demonic) playmate – he has not yet even met Regan or heard her Howdy fantasies; moreover: obviously, Karras is a sophisticated adult, and the demon would likely appear to the priest in a much different form than it appears to the child Regan.
Perhaps the Dietz Face is the demon’s archetypal linkage or interface with the human psyche, or perhaps this is how the human psyche reacts to the demon’s presence. And in any case – as already mentioned – the Dietz Face bears no resemblance whatsoever to Pazuzu, a fact which further strengthens the claim that the demon and the ancient deity are two entirely separate individuals.
Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) finds fragments of a clay Pazuzu sculpture at the base of the Hitchcock Steps outside of the MacNeil house. How did the Pazuzu amulet get from Iraq to Georgetown?
This is incorrect. What Kinderman finds at the base of the steps leading to “M” Street are simply Regan’s innocent clay sculptures; they are not heads, amulets, or any other representation of Pazuzu. Presumably these were knocked off her window sill when Dennings was defenestrated. The film does not make clear, but the novel does, that Kinderman takes a sample of the sculptures for analysis, which reveals that the same clay was used to desecrate a Marian statue in a nearby Catholic Church (Regan, possessed, or semi-possessed, was carrying out this “satanic” abuse of holy objects).
How does Karras’s mother die in the hospital when the script has her dying at home?
Mary Karras does not die in the hospital. Rather, Karras comes to visit her and to tell her that he is getting her out of the hospital. It is only after a stay of unknown time at home that Mary sickens again, this time fatally. This is what Father Joseph Dyer refers to at Chris’s dinner party in saying that Mary had been dead for several days before it was discovered that she had passed away.
How does the Saint Joseph medal get from the “Pazuzu hole” in Iraq to Damien Karras’s neck?
It doesn’t. These are two separate medals. Assumptively, the first has been reverently placed in the “Pazuzu hole” by some Christian in order to ward off evil influences of what, to that Christian’s (or Christians’) mind, was an unholy pagan shrine. The second is simply a medal worn by Karras, a Catholic priest, and as such is unremarkable. It’s there to provide resonance with the Prologue’s medal. On a purely symbolic level, once the Iraq medal is removed from the hole, Merrin discovers the Pazuzu head and begins to experience a feeling of growing evil; once the possessed Regan rips away Karras’s medal, the demon manifests “full force” and Karras pulls the demon into himself. This obviously signifies the removal of a symbol of holy protection, followed by the appearance of unholy presences.
The demon killed Merrin, which means that the demon won.
This is erroneous because the demon did not kill Merrin, and the demon considered Merrin’s dying a cheat and a defeat for itself (the demon). Merrin simply died of heart failure. The demon had no influence on Merrin’s death (despite the ludicrous assertions of Exorcist II: the Heretic). Moreover, the demon wanted to kill Regan in Merrin’s presence and in spite of Merrin’s best efforts. That Merrin died before the demon could defeat him (the demon rages that Merrin “would have lost”) galls the demon mercilessly – i.e, Merrin’s dying before the demon could kill Regan is a huge defeat for the demon, not for Merrin.
Karras lost because he was possessed and killed himself.
This is wrong because Karras deliberately invited the demon to possess him. Possession by invitation is not the same thing as (for example, in Regan’s case) possession by sheer victimization. Karras wanted to fight the demon himself, and the demon 0bliged.
That Karras won the fight is obvious because when first possessed, Karras’s features take on the demonic “look” that has haunted Regan throughout her own possession. In this possessed state, Karras advances on Regan – who is now no longer possessed. Friedkin shoots this scene with Regan framed between Karras’ would-be strangler’s hands. Then the shot moves to Karras’s face, as he shouts – in his normal, non-possessed voice – “NO”.
Immediately, the demonic scourge vanishes from Karras’s face, and while Regan is still unpossessed, Karras leaps through the window, taking the demon with him. When Karras impacts at the foot of the steps, it is clear that both he and Regan are now free of the demon.
To underscore this fact, Friedkin shows us Karras making “a good act of contrition” to Dyer, and also shows Regan, once more herself, crying and talking to her mother in her normal voice (this is witnessed by Kinderman as well – as if to cement the objective reality of Regan’s liberation).
Therefore it is clear that Karras won over the demon. In a valid sense, what has happened is “demonicide,” not suicide. Karras has taken on the demon, freed Regan, saved her life… at the cost of his own. To Karras goes the accolade of a self-sacrificial, even Christlike, death. The demon has lost. Human love, and in the novel especially, divine love, have won. Any doubts about this issue can be removed by Blatty’s own repeated statements that the demon did not win, and he does not want readers and audiences thinking that the demon won.
I’ll try to address other misconceptions about this film as they come to me, but for now I believe the major questions have been dealt with.