My father is a believer. He believes in the eternity of the soul, the temporariness of bodies. “You are a gardener,” he’d tell me, “and your life is a plot of dirt you’re renting.Your work is to grow the most beautiful garden you can.” That’s it? I’d ask. That’s it, he’d answer. My father believes in reincarnation, in his own visions, in Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan in the Mexican desert. My grandmother believed in Christmas, birthdays, and not knocking on people’s doors because it was rude so that made her a half-in, half-out Jehovah’s Witness. I considered Islam after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was twelve. My grandfather never mentioned God. My aunt hung rosaries from her bedposts when diabetes and lupus were gaining on her. Despite being as Dominican as plantains and salami, my uncle’s name is Moses Levy. I don’t know if he still wears it, but for many years a Star of David hung from his neck, invisible below the neckline of his shirts. My family didn’t have a unified and fixed spiritual or religious identity. Maybe that’s what made The Exorcist the most terrifying movie to me.
I considered rewatching The Exorcist to better explain what about the movie itself still scares me, but as I wrote this in the back apartment in the Kerouac House on an overcast day with that creepy-ass Spanish moss hanging off the trees and no yelling, car horns, or stereos to drown out the creaks of the house, I said fuck no. Demonic possessions, teleportation mishaps, child murderers burned alive by the PTA always happened in nice little neighborhoods like College Park. As a kid growing up in the late 80s and 90s in New York City scary movie scenarios were a relief. Poltergeists don’t go into the projects. There’s not enough real estate for a crazy caretaker. No killer sharks in the Bronx Zoo. We had drugs and crime, sure, but the ‘burbs had basements and houses with too many windows and doors that no one locked.
Other movies came close to The Exorcist, but The Fly was driven by human desire. Nightmare on Elm Street was creepy but campy. Amityville and Poltergeist made me lose sleep because the source of fear wasn’t a body, form, or face I could identify. A Freddy. A Jeff Goldblum. The people in supernatural horror films were terrorized by things they couldn’t see or explain with the worldview that kept them safe. Fear psychologically isolated people, creating the feeling that no one else could see this monster but them. It is terrifying to be alone with the truth. Even if other people glimpsed it or felt it, they could escape it or deny it, but these families in horror films could not. The Exorcist prompted more existential questions than the movies with boogeymen who attacked indiscriminately.
I asked myself some of those questions, growing up as an only child, raised by my grandparents. Playing monopoly by myself, paying myself rent for landing on Park Place, I wondered, why have I been singled out to suffer? If I have been chosen to endure torment, how will I get free? Is an end to my suffering even possible or am I doomed? These are fundamental, frightening questions we ask ourselves, God, and religion. Granted, maybe not at eleven years old, but my demons and poltergeists, the sources of my torment, seemed to be the circumstances of my life.
There’s a scene in The Exorcist where Father Damien asks, “why this girl?” Father Merrin answers, “the point is to make us despair; to see ourselves as…animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” To see the very worst of ourselves is horror. The possibility of hurt so deep, love cannot reach it, there, that is Hell.
The Exorcist raised the possibility that my family was wrong in their religious disorderliness. The pre-Conquest spirituality my dad believed true? Wrong. We lived in a cosmic version of Survivor and whatever god outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed was the right one. The Exorcist made a pretty good case for Catholicism’s version of things. Jehovah, Allah, Krishna. All wrong. We weren’t all worshipping the same being in the end. That’s what people who couldn’t handle the truth told themselves. Like a good child of the public school system, I was sure there was only one right answer and we got it wrong. What if the Devil wasn’t symbolic? What if God was unimaginatively and disappointingly literal? What if all those self-righteous, Bible thumpers I’d argued with for years were right and God is super Catholic. What if the essence of our world is unfair and the right god is a cruel, conservative one? What if choosing incorrectly, not being chosen, or casual devotion was enough to be eternally fucked? It wasn’t any demon or the Devil that scared me in The Exorcist. It was God.