What exactly does it mean to be terrified? Are you shocked at something—a supernatural killer, perhaps? Or are you chilled to your bone, trapped in your own body as you watch something unfold?
I will admit I was terrified to see this film, billed the scariest of all time since its release. But I was also desperate to know if it actually was. I’ve seen a few of the “scariest films” ever recently, and I wasn’t afraid in the way I’d imagined.
Yes, this film is terrifying. But it’s not trying to make you jump, so much as it’s trying to make you sit perfectly still.
The Exorcist, written for the page and screen by William Peter Blatty, is about the possession of a little girl named Regan (played by Linda Blair). Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress, and at first she gets the girl tested for mental illness. Contrary to what I’d expected, demonic possession was far from the first thing considered—in fact, it was the last.
What really makes this film scary is the fact that it’s all laid out for you. If things go bump in the night, you know where they are. When the demon starts speaking through Regan’s mouth, you’re watching it all right there. For a large chunk of the film, the girl is actually tied to her bed, so you know the rest of the house is safe.
It’s grounded in the real world. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is a psychiatrist, and most of the film is dedicated to finding a scientific explanation for Regan’s misbehavior. Yes, she is possessed by a demon, and yes, her head turns completely around, and yes, I was trapped in my body with terror.
But what makes this film special is that it’s not sensationalized. It deals more with the humans than with the clever demon in Regan. Plus, with truly masterful makeup by Dick Smith, it is more believable than you might yourself believe.
The Exorcist is terrifying, but I’m not sure what would qualify as the scariest of all time. Your run-of-the-mill slasher might work for me. This film is not trying to scare you, and that’s what makes it so frightening. The material, openly presented, is scary enough. In the end, it’s a film about faith, doubt, and a little girl named Regan. And it’s exceptional.
The Exorcist is available on Netflix.