The Fear at a Horror Film the Exorcist
How it works
The late ’60s and early ’70s were a period of controversy and turmoil. The civil rights movement had just ended, the Women’s ERA had passed Congress but was never ratified, and America was in the middle of the Vietnam War. In addition, high economic stagnation and unemployment rates were adding misery to people’s plight. Numerous Americans were against the government and its policies, so they used their voices and actions to reflect their opposition. The “New Left” was rising, which signaled the beginning of a new political and cultural era.
People turned to art, music, and movies to distract themselves from the current political climate. In December of 1973, towards the end of the Vietnam War, the film The Exorcist was released to theaters across America.
Every review and movie-goer dubbed it as the scariest movie of all time. People waited for over 4 hours in line just to see the film. Most, once inside the theater, found the goings-on on the screen so graphic that a number of moviegoers vomited. Others fainted or left the theater nauseous and trembling before the film was half over. Horror films weren’t new to society during the ’70s, but The Exorcist was the first movie to explore demon-possession via a child. Prior to The Exorcist, most horror films featured a malignant entity that was independent and separate from the individual. William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, and William Peter Blatty, the writer of the script and the novel, uncovered a fear that society never knew it had: a fear of children. Children are seen as innocent, harmless, and open-minded beings, yet when it comes to horror movies, we are absolutely terrified of them. The angelic-faced child with the bold eyes always knows how to find our weak points and inflict fear upon us. Children are almost always the characters targeted by spirits or demonic figures in horror films.
After the production of “The Exorcist,” the horror movie industry has tended to cast children as victims because society can’t psychologically fathom or control their fear of children who appear evil or corrupted — especially when they possess character traits such as vulnerability, purity, innocence, and compassion. The character of Regan, the young girl who undergoes an exorcism, revolutionized the horror film industry and terrified millions. “You feel contaminated when you leave the theater. There’s something impossible to erase. I’ve had nightmares ever since I saw it.” The main reasons that moviegoers are so viscerally afraid of Regan lies in the fact that figures symbolizing safety, protection, and sanctuary — such as parents, physicians, and priests — are helpless in their efforts to protect her from unspeakable horrors that had never been witnessed on the screen previously. As a result, our initial empathy and fear for the suffering Regan are replaced by terror of the demonic child. Until “The Exorcist,” the scariest child characters on the screen were Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” (1956) and Niles in “The Other” (1972). But unlike “The Exorcist,” their horrific activities were not graphically displayed to viewers. Instead, the audience was left to imagine their unspeakable crimes.
The stigma of horror movies is to get people’s adrenaline flowing, their hearts pumping, and their brains stuck in a state of fear for two hours. Most people, even before they go into the theater, set their minds up to being scared because they understand the stigma of horror films. Through a process called potentiation, one’s fear response is amplified if they are already in a state of fear. When a person is primed for fear, even harmless events seem scary. If someone is watching a documentary about venomous spiders, a tickle on their neck will startle them and make them jump out of their seat in terror. If someone is afraid of flying, even the slightest turbulence will push their blood pressure through the roof. And the more terrified a person is of demonic children, the more paranoid they will feel when they are watching a horror film like “The Exorcist.” Fear is a fundamental aspect of life that we encounter in a wide range, quite often.
The psychological process of fear is key to understanding how Regan inflicts terror upon her viewers. Dr. Javanbakht and Dr. Saab, professors of psychiatry, researched why people enjoy horror movies and what triggers people’s fear reaction during them. The answer to these questions lies in the human brain. “Fear reaction starts in the brain and spreads through the body to make adjustments for the best defense, or flight reaction. The fear response starts in a region of the brain called the amygdala. This almond-shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobe of the brain is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of stimuli – how much something stands out to us. For example, the amygdala activates whenever we see a human face with an emotion. This reaction is more pronounced with anger and fear. A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which then activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers the release of stress hormones and the sympathetic nervous system.”
This leads to bodily changes that prepare us to be more efficient in danger. The brain becomes hyper-alert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate, and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and the stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival, such as the gastrointestinal system, slow down. A part of the brain called the hippocampus is closely connected with the amygdala. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in higher-level processing of context. Similar to other animals, we often learn fear through personal experiences, such as being attacked by an aggressive dog or observing other humans being attacked by an aggressive dog. However, an evolutionarily unique and fascinating way of learning in humans is through instruction – we learn from spoken words and written notes.
“If a sign says the dog is dangerous, proximity to the dog will trigger a fear response. We learn safety in a similar fashion: experiencing a domesticated dog, observing other people safely interact with the dog, or reading a sign that the dog is friendly. Our brain reacts quickly when we encounter or see something that scares us; it jumps straight into irrational thinking which causes the fight-or-flight reaction to occur. Our individual fears are conjured and shaped by personal experiences and through others’ experiences. We learn from societal norms that we are supposed to be afraid during horror films. Our brain knows to trigger fear when we perceive a threat, but why are we terrified of children, such as Regan specifically in horror movies, when in reality they are small and innocent? It’s because in the ’70s when people saw “The Exorcist” for the first time, it was also their first time seeing a child possessed and graphically abused on the big screen.”
According to the LA Times’ “Most Influential Horror Films Timeline,” 15 out of the 30 movies listed feature at least one child who is possessed, harmed, or in direct contact with demonic spirits or creatures as a pivotal role. “The Exorcist” was number one on that list and for good reason. “The Exorcist” defined the succeeding generations of horror movies as a staple in the industry. This movie influenced hundreds of subsequent films to use children in order to instill fear in its viewers. “The Exorcist” is known for featuring a child who is creepy and commits terrifying acts, which has been deeply ingrained into our society’s consciousness. As stated by Dr. Javanbakht and Dr. Saab, we develop fears from experiences and observations. Therefore, after watching this influential film, a fear of children can be created in viewers. “Horror films completely engage the audience’s collective limbic brain through escalating visual spectacle and narrative crisis.”
Movies usually channel generic conventions that the viewer can relate to or understand. The deployment of generic elements to appeal to the whole audience isn’t new to Hollywood. Hollywood has traditionally acted upon the principle that viewers have a connection to “human traits and experiences.” These human traits and experiences include having or being close to children. We look at children as naïve, innocent, and helpless beings that need adults to protect them. The Exorcist turned this stereotype on its head. The presence of children in horror movies automatically makes the experience relatable in their minds. This connection between the movie and the audience’s life experiences induces fear, discomfort, and guilt quickly.