I just recently joined the 21st Century by finally getting broadband internet. So I’ve been spending a lot of time playing around on YouTube now that I can watch streaming video. Just tonight I stumbled over video of footage taken in 1973 when The Exorcist had its first run in theaters. A lot of it showed the sold out showings and lines stretching around the block. But there was also footage of people crying and fainting.
One of the comments on the video was that the 1970s hair-dos are scarier than the movie, which made me laugh. But of course a lot of other comments were along the lines of “I’ve seen it and it’s not scary.”
This is something I’ve heard a lot over the years. Usually this change in how the movie is perceived by younger audiences is attributed to things like modern movie audiences being desensitized by the many gore-filled movies made since then, and also how movies in the 1970s pushed boundaries and broke taboos (in ways that modern movies don’t), so audiences back then were often unprepared.
Those things are both true, and I do believe they contribute to the more blasé attitude exhibited by younger people now. But too many people leave out what I think is the single most important factor. The manner in which the movie is viewed.
My personal history with The Exorcist comes in three main parts, each one experiencing it in a different way.
The first was in 1973, experiencing it as a cultural phenomenon. I was only in sixth grade when the movie was released, so I didn’t see it then. But do I have distinct memories of the hype and hysteria. I was fascinated that a movie could make people freak out, vomit, or faint. I avidly read newspaper articles and watched coverage on TV about what was going on. At the Fox Theater in Spokane (where I was living at the time) they even handed out barf bags.
Fast forward to 1979, my senior year in high school. The Edmonds Theater was running a midnight horror film series on Saturday nights, and my best friend and I went to some of them. I hadn’t been interested in horror films prior to that and The Exorcist was only my second. (The other memorable movie I saw in that series was The Haunting.)
The Exorcist scared me shitless. At one point I actually felt nauseated, and I couldn’t stand that growling voice anymore. So I plugged my ears and closed my eyes to get some respite from the onslaught to my senses. I mentally took back every scoff and disdainful laugh I’d uttered about barf bags.
Then there was the aftermath. The fear of turning out my light at night because I thought I might see eyes glowing in the dark. Lying in bed, stiff with tension, afraid my bed would start shaking. Coming home from school to an empty house and having to slide around with my back against the walls so nothing could creep up on me.
No other movie has ever affected me like that.
About three years later I saw The Exorcist for the second time, on TV. It wasn’t very scary. The movie was the same, so what was the difference?
It was how I was watching it. I was in a dorm lounge with several other people who were occasionally talking. The TV was high up on the wall and had a normal size screen (meaning not that big). The lights were on. There were commercial breaks.
All of these things combined to dilute, and sometimes even eliminate, the tension. It was absolutely nothing like viewing the movie with no break from start to finish, in a dark theater, on a huge screen, with a big sound system. In a theater you sit there in your own little bubble as the movie relentlessly hammers at you visually, aurally, and psychologically.
When people pooh-pooh something as not scary, or no big deal, they need to take context into account. Watching a DVD in your living room with a friend, or streaming video on your computer, simply cannot duplicate the theater experience.
I watch movies that way all the time and get a lot out of it. But there are some movies that lose a great deal in the shift from one type of viewing to another. Another two movies I can think of off the top of my head in this category are Alien and Jaws. Interestingly enough, also both movies from the 1970s.
I’ve seen The Exorcist twice more in more recent years. Once on DVD, and once when it was re-released into theaters in 2000 as an extended version. By then I was mostly inured to the stark horror. Once you have seen a movie there is no way to unsee it and experience it again as if it were the first time.
But it does allow one to look at the film in other ways, and in the case of The Exorcist, appreciate that it’s an excellent movie even when stripped of its ability to absolutely terrify. Well…it ceases to terrify as long as you don’t let your mind dwell on it too much after the final credits roll… As Hitchcock understood, the viewer’s imagination is where the truly scary stuff takes place.
I just ran across this excellent post by Ron Scalzo about his experiences with The Exorcist as a horror film, and his thoughts about it as a movie in general. I recommend reading the whole thing, but am going to include a brief excerpt here:
…it’s probably my favorite horror movie of all-time simply because once the devil shows up, the movie never lets up until he’s gone. And before he shows up, and in the rare moments of solace in between the pea soup, an unorthodox use of a crucifix, and levitating tricks from possessed 8 year old girls, it’s still creepy and foreboding.
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