“Why this little girl?” Exorcising Existential Despair after the Holocaust

Director William Friedkin & actress Linda Blair on the set of The Exorcist

William Friedkin never intended to direct a horror film when he decided to explore the details of the 1949 exorcism of Roland Poe and adapt William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist. “I attempted to make it as realistic possible,” he said, “At the very most, I think it could be called a work of the inexplicable. By now, I accept that The Exorcist does belong in the horror genre. At the time, I didn’t. But I had an obligation to deal as straightforwardly as possible with it because of my attraction to this unusual but factual event.”[i] An accomplished director of action and drama films before becoming a master of horror, Friedkin claimed being Jewish never influenced his choice of films. As Forward journalist A.J. Goldman writes, “It’s hard to disagree. I mean, who’d have seriously expected a Jewish kid from Chicago to make ‘The Exorcist’”? Goldman asked Friedkin in 2016 if he ever thought about confronting the Holocaust. “It’s hard to say something different about the Holocaust . . . If I were able to do anything about that it would be about the Germans and the madness that overtook a sophisticated, intelligent population.” It seems Friedkin’s experience with The Exorcist colored his worldview on the human experience more generally, describing the rise of National Socialism as “demonic possession on a massive scale . . . That’s the only thing that explains it. That all these people from all walks of life, laborers, doctors, lawyers, writers, journalists, secretaries, everybody followed this madman into Hell. Now that’s what intrigues me.”[ii]

We live among haunted spaces

In the interview with Goldman, Friedkin harped on various haunted spaces that resonated with him, such as Hitler’s childhood home in Austria and one of Mussolini’s homes outside of Rome. “These places seem to have both unsettled and fascinated him,” Goldman observed.[iii] It is no wonder Friedkin’s The Exorcist centers on another seemingly innocuous house, a space where evil preys on the mundane and the innocent. The film’s only explicit connection to the Holocaust is Friedkin’s claim his inclusion of a white demon face in a character’s dream sequence was inspired by Alain Resnais’ use of subliminal editing in Night and Fog.[iv] Film scholar Barry Langford noted the urban myth that Friedkin used flash frame images of concentration camp victims “encapsulates the uneasy symbiosis of the horror film and the Holocaust.” However, in Friedkin’s case, the choice had more to do with borrowing a great director’s technique than evoking the Holocaust.[v]

Friedkin was inspired by Night and Fog when editing this dream sequence

The true horror of The Exorcist is the sense of helplessness and vulnerability audiences experience watching Regan transform from an innocent girl into a putrid demon. “Every time out, I wanted to come in with something new like here’s the weird way she’s talking or here’s some vomit or a little levitation shot, but nothing too long,” Friedkin explains, “The whole idea is to put you off guard. You are uncomfortable with that which you are least familiar.”[vi] For all the stunning and resonant scenes involving Regan’s possession, Friedkin considered Regan’s arteriogram at the hands of white-coated doctors “the most disturbing scene in the film.”[vii] Friedkin researched the procedure and carefully filmed it to be as realistic as possible, concluding the cold, white room “appears to be a torture chamber for a child.”[viii] Indeed, watching Regan suffer extraordinary pain is more harrowing to watch than anything the demon subjects her to, mostly because we know it is a real procedure and utterly worthless in her case. Regan is brutalized by medicine and a legion of male doctors who assume Regan’s problems are psychological. We also feel for Chris (Ellen Burstyn), who is frantic and weeping as the taciturn doctors casually discuss more painful tests without end. It is difficult not to associate this extended scene with Nazi medicine’s inhuman treatment of involuntary patients, despite the lead doctor having the Jewish surname Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman). The Exorcist does not necessarily privilege the power of faith over science in contending with Pazuzu, a theme Friedkin certainly was careful to avoid, but the film does suggest modernity (science, capitalism, etc . . .) is incapable of ameliorating misery and social and psychological ailments.  

Medical science torments Regan as much as the demon.

Friedkin believed Father Karras’ (Jason Miller) spiritual crisis illustrates the tragedy of human suffering as much as Regan’s ordeal. Karras is wracked with guilt over his mother’s mental and physical decline because Karras chose the priesthood over psychiatry, forcing his mother to wither away in her cramped Brooklyn apartment instead of living in an expensive facility. When she dies alone in the apartment, Karras is close to rejecting God, a development the demon exploits with precision. The Exorcist unnerves audiences because a terrible thing is happening to a sweet girl, and there is no explanation as to why. A deleted scene included in the film’s 2000 director’s cut has Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Karras contend with this. An exhausted and desolate Karras asks, “Why this little girl? It doesn’t make sense.” Merrin, who suffered the same crises as Karras and more, answers, “I think the point is to make us despair, to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.”[ix] Friedkin originally wanted to avoid this “showstopper”, especially amid the intense third act of the exorcism, but he changed his view. “The audience is longing to hear that!” Friedkin explains, “The audience wants to know, ‘Why am I being subjected to all this bestiality; what is the point?’ It’s part of the message of the film. They think it was a series of shocks with no point at all otherwise.”

The Exorcist does not resort to cheap thrills, gore, or exploitative violence, which is why the film takes its place among the best of the genre alongside Rosemary’s Baby. Friedkin succeeds in his stated goal of “making a movie that …enters the mind of those who see it” and affects audiences years later.[x]

[i] William Friedkin quoted in Thomas D. Clagett, William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press 2003), 137.

[ii] A.J. Goldman, “Director William Friedkin Finds His Jewish Connection,” Forward, June 21, 2016, https://forward.com/culture/342166/director-william-friedkin-finds-his-jewish-connection/ [accessed July 3, 2019].

[iii] Goldman.

[iv] Gilbert Cruz, “30 Things You Didn’t Know About the 5 Exorcist Movies,” Vulture, https://www.vulture.com/2013/10/30-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-exorcist-movies.html [accessed January 7, 2019].

[v] Barry Langford, “Globalizing the Holocaust: Fantasies of Annihilation in Contemporary Media Culture” in Alex Bangert, Robert S.C. Gordon, and Libby Saxton, Holocaust Intersections: Genocide and Visual Culture at the New Millennium (London: Legend, 2013), 118.

[vi] William Friedkin quoted in Clagett, 146.

[vii] William Friedkin, “Director’s Commentary,” The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, (1973: Warner Brothers), DVD.

[viii] William Friedkin, “Director’s Commentary,” The Exorcist, DVD.

[ix] The Exorcist, DVD.

[x] William Friedkin quoted in Clagett, 155-56.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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