William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist doesn’t shy away from wading into controversial political debates, like the clashes between progressive and family values, between science and religion, and between atheism and faith. The ending of The Exorcist makes it clear where the film’s own politics stand. Here’s our Take on the deeper messages and themes of The Exorcist’s ending, and how to still appreciate this movie if you don’t happen to agree with its values.
The Surprising Politics of The Exorcist‘s Ending, Explained
When you first watch The Exorcist, you might most notice its shock value, its iconic scares, and the artistry of its subtle, realistic horror aesthetic. Yet what might not be as obvious on initial viewing is what the film is really saying.
The 1973 film about the demonic possession of 12-year-old girl Regan is really an exploration of deep theological questions: Why does evil exist? Why are the innocent punished? And why would a loving God allow such unfair suffering? The Exorcist also doesn’t shy away from wading into controversial political debates, like the clashes between progressive and family values, between science and religion, and between atheism and faith. And the ending of The Exorcist comes down with a noticeably conservative pro-faith and pro-patriarchy stance — suggesting that science is no substitute for God, families suffer without strong father figures, and Christianity is the only thing that can heal us.
William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel The Exorcist is based on, described his story as “an argument for God” and “an apostolic work, to help people in their faith.” Here’s our Take on the deeper messages and themes of The Exorcist’s ending, and how to still appreciate this movie if you don’t happen to agree with its values.
Karras and Merrin: “The power of Christ compels you!” – The Exorcist
The Conservative Politics of The Exorcist
One key aspect of The Exorcist’s story is the absent father, on both the literal and spiritual levels. We’re repeatedly reminded that Regan’s dad is out of the picture. So, on one level, Regan’s demonic possession represents a larger fear about what happens when the nuclear family is disrupted and lacks a father figure. You could even read the film as a dire warning about the dangers of raising children without a stable male influence.
Dr. Klein: “Your daughter’s symptoms could be an overreaction to depression.”
Chris MacNeil: “My daughter isn’t depressed.”
Dr. Klein: “Well, you mentioned her father… the separation.” – The Exorcist
To be fair, it doesn’t feel that the movie is trying to blame Chris for being a single mother. This successful, well-off actress loves being a mother, and her home life with Regan is actually shown to be very happy. But Regan’s fatherlessness is really about a bigger symbolism: the family’s lack of religious belief. God, the Father, is absent in this little girl’s life, and the film implies this may be what made her vulnerable to demonic possession in the first place.
In the end, the victor in the movie is fatherly love, both human and divine. Father Merrin and Father Karras perform an exorcism on Regan, and these priests come to fill the patriarchal role for her, refusing to desert her like her dad did, and even sacrificing themselves totally to save her. In the last scenes of the film, Regan kisses the cheek of another priest, and it’s as if she’s declaring her faith, marking God as the true Father in her life and all priests as a proxy for Him. Chris gives Father Dyer Karras’ medal, implicitly acknowledging that he and Karras are two interchangeable manifestations of the same Spirit. In the director’s cut, Father Dyer’s final insistence that she take it instead acts as an encouragement for Chris to embrace religion and accept a token of protection from the Holy Father who’s now present in Regan’s life. As Yale film professor Marc Lapadula told us, “And so two lives for one life to be saved, and it’s worth it as far as the church is concerned… Two men die trying to save one young girl, and in the end they do.”
Onset of Sexuality
Regan’s possession can also be read as expressing our culture’s fear of young girls being spoiled by the onset of sexuality. We’ve seen the horror convention of an innocent child overtaken by an evil force before, but Regan’s behavior here is especially shocking and explicit. She goes from being a sweet child to someone profane, violent, and inappropriately sexual.
Dr. Klein: “She advised me to keep my fingers away from her goddam c—-.”
The battle between innocence and sin takes place on the battleground of a young girl’s body — a physical form that most people are inclined to feel protective towards. We see how hard Regan resists the demon’s influence, and her intense symptoms emphasize that she’s being physically hurt from the inside and robbed of her normal personality. It’s like the demon is molesting her.
All this could symbolize that puberty and sexual urges are like violations of a child’s inherent purity. This sexual demon perverts everything, from the love between mother and child to the help that authority figures try to provide. At the end of the film, everyone’s relieved that Regan has no memory of her demonic possession, so it’s as if she’s been restored to the innocent little girl she’s meant to be. But this regression sends the troubling message that Regan maturing into a young woman is unnatural and horrific, and must somehow be prevented.
As Sadie Doyle writes for Rookie Magazine, “Once you realize that The Exorcist is, essentially, the story of a 12-year-old who starts… going through puberty — it becomes apparent to the feminist-minded viewer why two adult men are called in to slap her around for much of the third act. People are convinced that something spooky is going on with girls; that, once they reach a certain age, they lose their adorable innocence and start tapping into something powerful and forbidden… And the moment a girl becomes a woman is the moment you fear her most.” The happy ending of Regan’s regression to a childlike state of girlhood suggests that to be godly and virtuous, females must reject sexuality and mature womanhood at all costs.
Regan: “I’m the devil.” – The Exorcist
The Healing Power of Faith
Another key message The Exorcist leaves us with is that science is no substitute for the centuries-old function of religion. The film frames the medical community as arrogant and inept. Doctors misdiagnose Regan, speculatively prescribe pills, subject Regan to harrowing tests, and for all their sophistication, have no idea what’s going on. As Lapadula summarizes, “The medical community has totally given up on her. I mean the greatest institutions in the world, the Johns Hopkins of the world, whether it’s the physiological or the psychological side of medicine, none of them can help her.”
Ironically, the doctors are the ones who first raise the idea that Regan’s problem may be spiritual — needing a spiritual solution.
Doctor: “It starts with a conflict or a guilt that eventually leads to the patient’s delusion that his body’s been invaded by an alien intelligence; a spirit, if you will.” – The Exorcist
They’re the ones who first suggest an exorcism. Even Father Karras, who’s trained as a psychiatrist, tells Chris that exorcism is outdated and inferior to modern medicine. But the story comes to the conclusion that, however far we think science has progressed, there are still certain things beyond our rational understanding, that need an old-fashioned approach. The most modern, up-to-date medicine is no match for the demon’s ancient form of evil, while Catholicism works precisely because it is archaic and timeless.
Karras: “I could see her as a psychiatrist—”
Chris: “Oh, not a psychiatrist! She needs a priest. She’s already seen every f—-ing psychiatrist in the world!” – The Exorcist
The Exorcist’s opening scenes of Father Merrin’s archaeological dig in Iraq show him unearthing a statue of Pazuzu, a demonic god from ancient Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. And we later see Pazuzu in Regan’s bedroom during the exorcism, confirming that this is the demon that has possessed the girl. The message in this opening is that evil perseveres across culture and time — it’s a universal thing that’s always existed, and the way that we fight it doesn’t change over time either. Father Karras jumping out the window in the exorcism scene recalls Mark 5:1-20 in the Bible, in which Jesus casts the demons possessing a man into a herd of pigs, and the pigs run off a cliff to their deaths. The man shouts, “My name is Legion, for we are many,” just as Father Merrin claims that the specific name and form of a demon doesn’t matter — they’re all versions of the same evil.
Karras: “I think it would be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, there seems to be three. She’s convinced—”
Merrin: “There’s only one.” – The Exorcist
Ultimately, the film argues that this primordial evil can only be defeated by the priests’ “medicines” of belief, sacrifice, and selfless love. As Lapadula puts it, “Now, my doctors care about me, but I don’t have any doctors that are willing to die for me…. What those priests are called to do in this story is to make the ultimate sacrifice.” Still, in promoting the power of faith, The Exorcist also ends up sending some strikingly anti-science messages that, in a modern context, appear dangerous.
Why Demons Test Us
The Exorcist suggests that the purpose of demons is to help us face and purge our doubts and our distance from God. And the exorcism isn’t just a battle for Regan’s soul, but for Father Karras’ — it brings his crisis of faith to a head. At the start of the film, he feels guilty over his inability to adequately care for his mother in the lead-up to her death and unqualified to counsel his parishioners when he’s so lost himself. The film humanizes priests, showing that they struggle with the same questions and doubts we do.
When the exorcism starts, Karras is visibly unsettled, unlike the confident older priest Merrin. But it takes someone who’s struggling with doubt to finish the job, to be more vulnerable to the demon and therefore more triumphant in rejecting it. Merrin warns Karras not to be sucked into the demon’s mind games, and sure enough, the demon preys on Karras’ worst thoughts. But when it takes on the voice of Karras’ mother, Karras is forced to confront his regret and guilt head-on, and he can finally mourn. Karras eventually commands the demon to leave Regan and enter him instead, before finally killing the demon by killing himself. And though he loses his life, Father Karras finds peace in his self-sacrifice because his faith is restored. Lapadula notes, “In that moment he’s redeemed. He’s gonna take on the cross of what this girl’s gone through, even though the demon inside her just murdered this fellow priest, and in order to stop it he’s gonna sacrifice himself.”
Merrin: “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.” – The Exorcist
Through Karras’ struggle, the film spoke to the doubt and confusion many people were feeling at the time of its release. Blatty’s novel came out in 1971, in the wake of JFK’s assassination and during the Vietnam War. The 1973 film implicitly taps into the pervasive sense of “evil” and disillusionment people may have felt as the idealistic Camelot passed away and Watergate unfolded. Some have even interpreted the demon — who speaks in strange languages, including backward English, and threatens a wholesome American way of life — as representing U.S. fears of foreign communists. Meanwhile, like the film’s characters, fewer people were turning to the church to cope with their modern problems. In the film, the old-fashioned Father Merrin and modern, independent woman Chris represent the extremes Karras is torn between. But Karras, a priest who’s also a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, finds a medium way between those two poles of the old and the new. Though Karras, the story is trying to show that faith can (and must) still play a role in modern life.
One of the reasons The Exorcist works as a movie and can affect us regardless of our beliefs is that it’s not lecturing at us about faith. It’s not judging its characters who aren’t religious. Yet it is sending several overtly conservative messages, and even putting forward what some might consider reactionary views of female sexuality, single parents, science, and atheists. This opens up a larger conversation about why exorcism movies (and arguably much of the horror genre in general) do tend to lean to the right. As Alex Mar wrote for Salon, “the exorcism film is profoundly conservative, and terrific propaganda for the church.” Mar also writes, “...in the exorcism film: Perversely enough, to believe in the devil is the key to salvation.” And this is exactly what we see in The Exorcist. In presenting an example of true evil, the film argues for the existence of the opposite: true good, total self-sacrifice, and the urgent need for faith in a benevolent higher power.
Father Moore [reading Emily’s letter]: “People say that God is dead. But how can they think that if I show them the devil?” – The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Stephen King wrote that “the horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary,” in the sense that we look to it to “re-establish our feelings of essential normality.” He writes that “good liberals often shy away from horror films,” but that “the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time.” Viewers who might enjoy The Exorcist as a piece of cinema but don’t relate to its Christian message may find the movie’s religious agenda a little disturbing. Yet even if you’re turned off by its politics, and it’s not about to convert you, there are also some more universal truths to take away from The Exorcist: there are always going to be deeper, mysterious things that our savvy, modern establishments can’t understand; many of the same fundamental trials of human life continue to plague us across the ages, and there will always be evil and suffering in the world, but the most powerful way to overcome difficult times is through the kindness of human beings who do great things for one another.
“Human beings can also rise to certain occasions, and they can actually surprise everyone.”
– Marc Lapadula