Three ways to scare an audience: The Exorcist then and tonight

The TV remake of The Exorcist premieres tonight, and judging from trailers and reviews it will probably be rather unimpressive.

Stephen King has said there are three ways to scare an audience: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” The distinction between the first two levels go back to Ann Radcliffe, who defined terror in terms of a threatening potential that is unclear but present somehow, while horror crystallizes the ambiguity and brings on concrete scares. King illustrates the three levels:

(1) Terror: The gut-churning feeling of something lurking just beyond, but still unknowable. Atmospheric dread. The build up of tension. A door cracks open just a bit. The lights go out and there’s a sound behind you. Etc.

(2) Horror: The shock value of immediate dread. A door swings open and something appears (a ghost, a vampire, or hideous creature) assaulting you. Reaching out to grab something, and a fist out of nowhere grabs your arm. Etc.

(3) Revulsion: The gross-out level, or the repulsively obscene. Someone getting disemboweled. A severed head rolling down a flight of stairs. A man getting castrated and fed his genitals. The problem with this level is that it’s usually unimpressive without the supplement of at least one of the two higher levels.

The Exorcist remains the scariest film of all time because it succeeds so viscerally on all three levels. I saw it when I was 11 (about six years after its theatrical release), and nothing since has come close to matching the pulverizing effect it had on me. I suspect that tonight’s premiere will fail completely on the first level, while perhaps offering a few genuine horror shocks. Whatever it does on the basement third level will doubtfully matter.

Here is me reliving all three levels when I was 11. (Click on the images to watch the scenes.)

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Regan Hypnotized

(Level 1) Terror: Regan Hypnotized. I remember thinking how stupid Regan’s mother was to let the psychiatrist do this. Talk about batting a hornet’s nest. The tension builds incredibly in the scene as Regan begins by responding timidly to the simple questions, then admits there is “someone inside her” some of the time, but she doesn’t know anything about him, and then cuts off the shrink with a firm “no” when he asks if he can speak to this entity directly. Naturally the shrink doesn’t respect her wishes and proceeds: “I am speaking to the person inside of Regan now; if you are there, you too are hypnotized and must answer all my questions.” No demon will suffer itself to be hypnotized, and when Regan slowly turns her head up to the inquisitor (the above right image), she doesn’t look timid anymore; the other doctor can barely restrain her when she (the demon) erupts in fury.

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Father Merrin Dead

(Level 1) Terror: Father Merrin Dead. My young self was so terrorized at this point that if the movie didn’t end quickly I’d have probably ended up in a mental asylum. After the long horrifying ritual of the exorcism, Father Karras steps out of the bedroom to collect his wits, and probably his sanity too. When he returns, we first see an empty bed (where the hell is the demon?); then we see the exorcist-hero Father Merrin on the floor (is he dead? answer: yes); then, as Karras realizes he’s dead, the camera pans up to Regan/the demon, free of her restraints, sitting up against a bed post giggling sadistically, and we know things are about to get even worse though that hardly seems possible. (Sure enough it does, and Karras dies too.) I wouldn’t have been able to take any more after this final piece of terror. Enough is enough.

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“The Sow is Mine”

(Level 2) Horror: “The Sow is Mine.” Practically any scene involving the demon qualifies as horrifying. The exorcism itself is a twenty minute roller-coaster of nonstop horror, and those would be the obvious scenes to single out, but for me the pride of place goes to the earliest possession scene in which the demon first speaks. It’s still a shocker after all these years. Regan’s face isn’t mutilated yet, but the process of her body being invaded, tortured, and thrashed about as she alternates between screaming for help and the demon interrupting her with mocking obscenities is degrading and horrifying in the extreme. When I first saw it I was so poleaxed that I stopped breathing for close to an entire minute.

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Spider-Walk

(Level 2) Horror: Spider-Walk. Cut from the original and added back in the 25th anniversary edition. What makes it extra horrifying is the invasion of the downstairs “safety zone”. In the original film, after Regan urinated on the living room floor and her possession became acute, she remained confined to her bedroom upstairs. That gave us a breathing space in the scenes downstairs. I wasn’t even aware of the “famously cut” spider-walk scene when I saw the new cut released in the theater in ’98 (when I was 30), and my heart nearly burst when Regan appeared at the top of the stairs and start thundering down bent over backwards — not least because, back when I was a kid, this is actually the kind of thing I dreaded happening in one of the downstairs scenes (see the last one I describe below). My childhood trauma came flooding back to me in the spider-walk; it was that much a horrifying assault.

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Puking Green

(Level 3) Revulsion: Puking Green. This scene is so disgusting that it caused viewers to throw up, but it actually frightens on all three levels. It begins with the terror of a sinister conversation between Father Karras and the demon. Up until this point the demon has only shouted trash and vile obscenities when choosing to speak, but now that Regan has been restrained it takes a conversational approach, which is a feint and guaranteed prelude to something awful. When the demon reveals things about Karras’ mother that Regan could have no knowledge of, the terror valve cranks up even more, and Karras decides to test the demon by asking it his mother’s maiden name: “What is it?” he persists, from across the bed. The demon stares back ferociously, and then by way of a “fuck you” reply projectile vomits over the priest, which is both horrifying and nauseating at once. The scene is so heart-attack inducing because it works on all three levels of fright, a rare feat in horror films these days.

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“Let Jesus Fuck You!”

(Level 3) Revulsion: “Let Jesus Fuck You!” This one also blends the three levels. It follows the visit of Lieutenant Kinderman who questions Regan’s mother downstairs about the man who “fell” from her daughter’s window and died, offering the opinion that it was more likely the other way around — that the man was first killed and then pushed from her daughter’s window by someone strong and powerful. “Except,” he says, “no one was in the room except for your daughter, so how can this be?” The dawning look of understanding look on Chris MacNeil’s face is so terrifying that I remember expecting the demon to come thundering down the stairs at that very moment to kill the meddling detective. When he finally leaves, the silence in the living room is unbearable; we know the demon is going to unleash its fury over the intrusion, which it does in a horrifying display of telekinetic chaos in the bedroom, and of course, the infamous crucifix masturbation. Without the other two levels working in tandem, the bloody and vulgar masturbation scene would seem rather cheap and exploitative. It’s actually one of the most harrowing scenes in cinematic history.

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