There will never be another Exorcist, but not for lack of trying. By now it’s fair to say William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel and William Friedkin’s 1973 film version have become folk archetypes, spawning numerous sequels and prequels of the book (Legion, 1983) and movie (Exorcist II: The Heretic, 1977; Exorcist III, 1990; Exorcist IV: The Beginning, 2004; Dominion, 2005), as well as more recent fiction such as Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts and Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism (both 2016) and the movies The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Devil Inside (2012). The Exorcist has been adapted for radio and theater, has formed the basis for a ride at the Universal City Studios theme park, and was reimagined by Fox TV as an ongoing series which lasted a couple of seasons. Just last year, Netflix announced an upcoming Exorcist trilogy package, in a deal worth over $400 million. Cue the head-spinning jokes.
Yet none of the latter-day treatments of The Exorcist‘s themes – anguished parents, conflicted priests, demonic entities – have matched the initial public impact of the original. To understand why, it’s helpful to consider the sociological messages first teased out from the bestseller and the blockbuster in the early 1970s and busily elaborated upon since. Many analysts have noted that, despite its shocking scenes of desecration and defilement, The Exorcist was an inherently conservative story, affirming the power of faith and depicting a misbehaving adolescent’s tortuous journey back to decency and respectfulness (on the late author Blatty’s Facebook page, the staunch Catholic posted anti-abortion and anti-Obama messages). Such a subtext found a responsive audience after the tumult of the protest generation had died down, and in his 2015 history The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rich Perlstein even suggested The Exorcist‘s huge success foreshadowed America’s eventual Republican revival.
Perhaps more subtle was the novel and picture’s matter-of-fact portrayal of what was essentially a medieval superstition. Publicity handouts at the time emphasized The Exorcist‘s basis in an authentic episode of alleged possession and exorcism from 1949, but didn’t mention that the narrative grossly (in every sense) exaggerated them. This premise was effective upon its debut because of the directness with which the writer and filmmaker confronted the very implausibility of such events in the rational, post-Freud world. The Exorcist was not set in a Transylvanian castle but a modern American home, among educated, secular cosmopolitans, and when Regan MacNeil intones “You’re gonna die up there” to an astronaut guest at her actress mother’s dinner party, she symbolized the clash of reason and revelation that was then shaking the wider culture. To people for whom science and materialism had by then brought very mixed benefits, the idea of deeper, darker truths lurking beyond the bounds of orderly reality was enormously intriguing. The possessed Regan herself poses little physical danger – rather, it’s the metaphysical implications of her condition which made The Exorcist so influential in its day.
Those implications, when restated in all the reboots and ripoffs, don’t have the same potency now. To the old questions of spirituality versus secularism, the answers are apparent in our tech-glutted society: even if children can be taken over by disembodied, malevolent spirits, well, we still have Google and Twitter; even if religious rituals can cast demons back to hell, well, we still have to face Donald Trump and dismantled statues; even if ancient evils still stalk humanity, well, they can’t do more damage than we’ve already done to ourselves. No remake can be as relevant now as its inspiration was fifty years ago. The Exorcist may be an endlessly recyclable pop classic – a known property whose basic concept is familiar to millions – but its future audiences and exploiters may discover it’s also an artifact of a lost era.