This essay is part of a Public Books capsule by Eleanor Johnson on feminism and horror.
1973 was a banner year for American feminism. Roe v. Wade was decided in the Supreme Court in January. The Equal Rights Amendment had passed through Congress. News media decried wage disparities between men and women. Grassroots feminist activists were working to raise awareness about domestic violence—then called “wife-battery”—and to change public attitudes and policies about it. Things were looking up for American women.
1973 was also the year that William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist was released in theaters across the country. It premiered on December 26, 1973—that is, 50 years ago next week—like a horrifying Christmas gift wrapped in a thick layer of blood, urine, and, famously, vomit.
Film scholars and critics rarely link The Exorcist to feminism, but their connection is more than coincidental. The film begins by showcasing women’s liberation and its potential dangers; but it then veers—sharply and shockingly—into a brutal, unflinching look at domestic violence, unlike any to have ever appeared before in Hollywood films.
Early on, the 1973 film introduces viewers to a beautiful woman, writing notes in bed. This is Chris, an actress, played by Ellen Burstyn. Chris is shooting on location in Washington, DC. She swears a lot. She’s bossy. She trades brash repartee with her director. She embodies a social category invented in the 1970s: the liberated woman. The film prompted viewers to feel excited and unsettled by Chris: she’s powerful, she’s profane, she’s sexy, she’s bitchy, she’s dynamic.
She is also a single mom, with a tween daughter named Regan, played by Linda Blair.
Still early in the film, liberated single mom Chris hosts a fancy party at her home. Regan, who has been monkeying around with a Ouija board, comes downstairs in her nightgown and urinates on the floor. The scene is designed to be shocking. In an extreme close-up shot, we see a stream of urine rocketing down between Regan’s legs, and we hear it splashing on the carpet. Loudly. Seeing a pubescent girl urinating on the floor was a shock then; it would still be a shock now. Chris models the audience’s shock with a horror-stricken expression, leaves her own party in haste, and rushes Regan upstairs to give her a bath and get her back to bed.
In the bedroom, Regan’s bed starts to shake under her. Violently. Uncontrollably. Inexplicably. Even though we know the shaking is supposed to be supernatural, the shaking bed feels sexual. Watching Chris try to still the shaking bed with her own body, but being unable to, invokes the idea of a too-early, too-violent sexual awakening in Regan—one that her liberated, single mother is unable to check.
As one would expect in an allegory about the dangers that liberated women pose to children, Regan’s physical and mental health deteriorate rapidly. At one point, Regan screams “you fucking bastard!” at one of her doctors, another shocking moment that discloses something preternaturally mature and oversexualized about Regan. Worse still, when two doctors visit, Regan shouts, in a demonic voice decidedly not her own, “Fuck me, fuck me!” lifting her nightgown to reveal her genitals to the doctors (though not to the camera). When a psychiatrist comes to hypnotize her, she grabs his balls and forces him to the ground. Regan is becoming a nightmare version of what many Americans feared women and girls would become in the wake of women’s liberation: lascivious, foulmouthed, promiscuous, aggressive, dysregulated ballbusters.
Through the puke-glazed veneer of supernatural horror, “The Exorcist” helped exorcise what had been a demon at the heart of American domestic life: the unfettered battery of women and children.
Look to your women, America, the film seems to say: liberated women whelp bad girls.
That idea takes on its most horrific form later when the demon causes Regan to stab herself in the vagina with a crucifix. The demon in her shouts, “Let Jesus fuck you! Let Jesus fuck you!” Possessed by the demon, Regan then grabs Chris’s head and shoves it down to her now bleeding genitals, screaming, “Lick me!” The demon/Regan then slaps Chris, throws her across the room, and refers to Regan as a “cunting daughter.” Viewers of the film in 1973 watched a 12-year-old girl—clearly possessed by an agent of evil and an enemy of Christ—engaging in sexual self-mutilation, committing forcible lesbian incest, beating up her mother, and using the words “fuck” and “cunt” onscreen. Look to your women, America, indeed.
But, counterintuitively, the film’s panicked antifeminism is in lockstep with a searing feminist critique of domestic violence. Where is the domestic violence? Everywhere, hiding in plain view.
Regan is the most obvious victim of torture and abuse in her own home. But Chris, too, is imprisoned in her own home, being tortured. Furniture is thrown at her, she’s hit, she’s pushed, she’s thrown. She’s forced to commit sexual acts with her own child. Like Regan, Chris is being battered in her own home. Even as it brutally meditates on the potential dangers of the Liberated Woman, The Exorcist offers a blistering exposé of domestic violence as a phenomenon in American life.
One might object that what we see in the film is not really domestic violence (in the traditional sense of “wife-beating,” or even “child abuse”), because it’s the daughter who’s doing it, not some evil husband. But remember, this daughter is possessed by a demon—a demon described in the film as “a very powerful man.”
Okay, so a powerful, male demon has taken hold of Chris’s home to brutalize her and her daughter. Sounds a little more like domestic violence now, right?
Domestic violence was pervasive in American culture in the 1970s, and was supported by Anglo-American law and Christian ideology, both of which understood it as a man’s job to keep his wife and children in line. This was the doctrine of “correction,” which relies on two more fundamental principles. First, there is the idea of the paterfamilias: the man as the ruler of the household. Second, the idea that women and children were the man’s property: ancient Anglo and Christian doctrine held that a woman became “one flesh” with her husband when she married him. This gave him total legal control over her, her body, her children, and her property. The concept of the union of flesh made it exceptionally difficult to punish domestic violence: How do you prosecute a man for punishing a body he owns? A body over which he has uncontested and uncontestable possession?
The genius of this film is that the demon possession narrative simply literalizes the actual lived reality many women and children suffered through in the 1970s: they were possessed by powerful men, who had near-total autonomy over their bodies and freedom. The demon clearly understands himself to be “correcting” Chris and Regan. He is subjugating them and breaking them. The demon clearly sees himself as the paterfamilias, whose stranglehold on his domestic subordinates is absolute.
The horrifying, supernatural possession plot of The Exorcist is not separable from its feminist critique; it is the film’s feminist critique. It’s through demonic possession that the film performs the actual circumstances of women in situations of domestic abuse: they are owned by their tormentors, and as a result, they are in the hell-come-to-earth of their own homes.
But by rendering the possession demonic, the film does something radical: it forces viewers to witness a version of domestic violence in which the woman is in no way at fault for the physical battery she and her child endure. However liberated Chris may be, however foulmouthed, however unpleasant she may have appeared to some antifeminist viewers in the early ’70s: regardless, we cannot say that she or her daughter deserve to be punished by their abuser.
The male tormentor has no moral complexity: he is the embodiment of evil, who possesses and cruelly violates a little girl and then sadistically tortures her mother. He is a child rapist, a sociopath: a literal demon whose actions cannot be justified even by Christian marital norms. Instead—as performed by a demon—the norm of “one flesh” comes to seem anti-Christian and unredeemable. Regan has been forced to be, literally, “one flesh” with the demon, and now she and her mother must pay the hideous price for that union of flesh.
But anyone can see that they don’t deserve to be brutalized: the film enacts the “one flesh” theory that justifies “correction” precisely to debunk it. There is no room for sympathy for this particular devil.
In making audiences witness the sexual and physical torture and abuse of two women by a malign, inexcusable, demonic male force, The Exorcist tapped into a vein in American culture. The film was on screens across America for two years.
I have interviewed women who were domestically abused in the 1970s, women who were not abused but saw the film in the 1970s, and women who have been abused in the 2020s and have since seen the film. All have noted that the most horrifying thing to them was the subordination or “breaking” of Chris and the sexual torture of her daughter, as well as Chris’s powerlessness to prevent it. All noted the unspeakability of what Chris endured—in the film, she can barely come to grips with it herself, much less seek outside help.
The Exorcist came out simultaneously with the massive uptick in protests against domestic violence and sexual abuse of women and the explosion in women’s shelters that the movement so profoundly depended upon. Between 1970 and 1972, the New York Times had run zero articles about the problem of domestic violence against women. There were almost no dedicated trade press books about wife battery. The Exorcist came out at the very end of 1973. In 1974, Violence in the Family was published. In 1975, activist Del Martin started publishing her findings in the New York Times, and in 1976 she published Battered Wives, an influential trade book about domestic violence. In 1975 the National Organization for Women formed a task force on domestic violence. In 1975 and 1976, numerous articles ran in the New York Times about battered wives and the challenges they faced. These articles clamored for change at local, state, and federal levels; they clamored for more resources, more shelters, changes in social awareness and in legal policy.
Through the puke-glazed veneer of supernatural horror, which drew people in actual busloads to watch the film, The Exorcist helped exorcise what had been a demon at the heart of American domestic life: the unfettered battery of women and children.
But the film’s feminism is complicated by its ending. Chris finds help in the very place from which the logic of the union of flesh originated: the Roman Catholic Church, in the person of Father Damien, a disenchanted Catholic priest. When Chris meets him, we see her radically physically transformed from her first appearances in the film. Initially, she was brash, loud, sexy, and free. In the scene where she meets Father Damien, she speaks quietly—haltingly, fearfully. She’s not sure of herself anymore. She wears a headscarf, tucked tight to her face, and a coat, collar turned up. She wears big, dark sunglasses to cover her eyes and cheekbones. Then, at one point, she pulls of her glasses, and we can see clearly that her face is in fact all bruised. This scene is an iconic and visually unambiguous revelation of domestic violence.
Pitying Chris, Father Damien agrees to meet Regan at their home. The demon cannot tolerate Damien’s presence, so he, as Regan, projectile vomits all over him. It makes sense: the demon’s structural role is that of the paterfamilias, “correcting” those whom he has taken possession of, whether bodily (Regan) or psychologically (Chris). When Father Damien enters the domestic sphere, a true “father” challenges the demon’s right to exert his patriarchal power over Chris and Regan.
And that’s a troubling place for a feminist film to turn. The movie doesn’t end up questioning the necessity of a “father” in the household; instead, it confirms it. Chris, the liberated, foulmouthed, professional mother, has to be reinscribed within the norms of Christian patriarchy in order for her and her child to be saved, soul and body.
So, can we call this film a feminist masterpiece, showcasing the true horrors of the domestic abuse of women and children in the United States? Yes. Can we also call this film an antifeminist screed, determined to showcase the dangers women’s lib posed to the family, dangers that can only be contained by a benign paterfamilias? Also yes.
Because fundamental to the film—and to American culture in the 1970s writ large—is an ambivalence toward women. Like 1970s America, The Exorcist feels panicked by women’s increasing rights, but horrified by their domestic vulnerability. The movie revels in disciplining Chris for her liberation. But it also forces us to align with her in her grief, pain, and fear.
Watching The Exorcist in the 1970s, audiences may or may not have liked Chris—that would surely depend on where they stood on women’s liberation in the first place—but they surely wanted her and Regan to get the hell out of their hellish situation. And they did get out, helped by Father Damien.
So did thousands of other women and children in the mid- and late 1970s, but not with the help of the church. Instead, they got out because they were helped by other women, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and activists who kept the public’s attention focused on the problem and pervasiveness of domestic violence, starting in 1973 and 1974. They got out because they learned to name and abhor what was happening to them and to their children—because they learned to see their abusers precisely as demons. They learned that what was happening to them was unambiguously wrong, and that they did not bring it on themselves. They learned what we learn by watching Chris’s experience in The Exorcist. Domestic violence is demonic.
Fifty years later—despite the widespread recognition that domestic violence is a terrible social ill, that the doctrine of “correction” is bogus, that women and children have independent legal personhood, and that domestic abuse can take many forms—domestic violence surged horrifically during the Covid pandemic. People were trapped alone in their domestic spaces with their abusers over long periods of time. In 2020–21, 214,736 instances of domestic violence were reported to the police in New York City alone—excluding instances of abuse that went unreported. In 2022, an estimated ten million people were the victims of domestic violence in the United States. And new modes of domestic violence are proliferating: domestic abuse occurs through social media, through tech surveillance, through stalking, through financial malfeasance, as well as through sexual and physical violence and coercion.
America urgently and desperately needs another exorcism. But I, for one, would like to see it happen without the intercession of Father Damien.