Reviewed by Brian Fanelli
Fifty years after its release and after the recent passing of its director, William Friedkin, The Exorcist still maintains its cultural relevancy. Part of that has to do with the lore and superstition surrounding the filming, from injuries to an on-set fire, to rumors that the film was cursed. The Exorcist maintains its mystique.
For Marlena Williams, The Exorcist is a very personal film, one that helped her examine the relationship with her mother, who died of cancer. In Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of The Exorcist (Mad Creek Books, 2023), the author explores that relationship, while giving a broader overview and critique of the film, especially how it portrays and Others the female body, turning it into something monstrous. Yet it’s not the head spinning or pea soup vomit that stands out to the author. It’s the portrayal of a mother/daughter relationship that’s the heart of the film.
The mother/child thread is evident from the opening chapter, when Williams addresses the tragic story of Mercedes McCambridge, the voice of the demon. Her only son, John Markle, committed suicide after murdering his wife and two daughters. In his blood-splattered note, he blamed his mother for not being there enough for him. Williams writes, “Perhaps McCambridge knew what many of us learn eventually: how easy it is to blame our mothers for our problems, to pin our every downfall or misfortune on them. It’s a bitter concoction to swallow, knowing that our mothers won’t always be there when we call, that they, too, are fighting their own private demons, sometimes bound by a darkness they cannot escape or control.”
This opening chapter is so effective because it underscores the various tragedies that befell some of the cast members. Linda Blair, who played Regan, struggled with her career after The Exorcist, while Jason Miller, who stars as Father Karras, had a heart attack and died at a bar in Scranton, after years of battling alcoholism. This fact is a bit too glossed over in Williams’ book, even though she dedicates an entire section to Karras’ lapsed faith, comparing it to her own struggles with Catholicism as a teen in rural Oregon.
More importantly, however, the opening sets the tone and theme of what’s to come, this exploration of mothers and daughters and the author’s guilt that she wasn’t there enough for her mom during her illness. In fact, in a later chapter, she expresses regret that she’d often drop her mom off for chemo treatment but never went in with her. She also compares cancer to a demon that invades and corrupts the body, and it’s an apt metaphor in the context of the film. These confessions are juxtaposed with astute film analysis, but it’s all these personal anecdotes that make the book accessible to a broader audience. Half of this book feels like a memoir, and it’s better for it.
Williams uses The Exorcist to draw some commonality between her and her mom. Her grandmother warned her mom not to see the film in 1973, but of course, that made her only want to see it more. Williams’ mom also warned her to avoid the film, and it made her even more eager to see it. Williams ponders why mothers warned their daughters to avoid the film and ultimately arrives at the conclusion that it’s because it depicts the female body and female sexuality as repulsive. It’s important that Regan is 12 years old, on the cusp of 13, when the film begins. Her body is about to change. She’s initially depicted as a sweet, moon-faced girl who tells her mom she wants a horse. As Williams notes, the film is so effective because it spends a good amount of time developing the relationship between Regan and her movie actress mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). When the possession ramps up, it’s so harrowing because at the outset, we’re treated to these tender moments between Chris and Regan. Williams gives a close reading to those early scenes between the two and how far they go in establishing that mother/daughter relationship.
The author addresses the fact that the film can be seen as conservative for its portrayal of female sexuality as something grotesque. This is most apparent during the crucifix masturbation scene, which she devotes nearly an entire chapter to examining. Further, she also points out that Chris is divorced, and it’s only the white priests who overcome the evil and restore order to the house. Williams’ criticisms are valid, but they’re not entirely new. There are countless academic essays written about The Exorcist as a response and even a backlash to the free love era of the 1960s. While the New Hollywood movement Friedkin was a part of was liberal in some ways, The Exorcist can be seen as a very conservative film, so Williams isn’t far off in this analysis. However, she takes it a step further and points out the way Hillary Clinton, and other women in power, have been demonized and associated with baby blood-drinking cults and other conspiracies. It adds a more contemporary spin to a film that’s been analyzed countless times.
Yet, despite all of that, Williams conjures her mom’s memory through the movie. She recounts seeing the movie in a cold theater for the first time, writing, “After that night, I watched The Exorcist obsessively. It no longer terrified me. It fascinated me. I came to see the film as a way to connect with my mother and all the different versions of her I knew. I accepted the film and all its problems as part of me…Watching it became a way of calling her forth, of keeping her close.”
It’s these moments that elevate Williams’ book. Night Mother becomes far more than film criticism, rehashing much of what’s already been said about The Exorcist at this point. Williams pushes into deeper and much more personal territory, using Friedkin’s masterpiece to spin a narrative about her relationship with her mother.
Night Mother is, as the title suggests, a personal and cultural history of The Exorcist, successfully weaving a first-person narrative with broader film criticism. Just as the film turns 50, horror fans should enjoy this book for its personal touch and thorough research.