Sunday, September 18, 2016

Uncle Sam's Secret Sorcerers V

In 1969, screenwriter and novelist William Peter Blatty began work on a new piece of fiction. His previous book, Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane!, wrestled with existential issues of life and faith and was set in a military-operated mental institution (it would be made into a film in 1980, retitled The Ninth Configuration). There was more than a vague whiff of MK-ULTRA about the project.

With Satan in particular and diabolism in general infecting the atmosphere (especially in the wake of the media frenzy over Anton LaVey, Charles Manson and the hit film Rosemary's Baby), Blatty set about to fictionalizing a case he had heard about from a Jesuit priest during his school days at Georgetown University:
Recent investigative research by freelance journalist Mark Opsasnick indicates that Blatty's novel was based on an actual 1949 exorcism of a young boy from Cottage City, Maryland, whom Opsasnick refers to using the pseudonyms Robbie Mannheim and Roland Doe. The boy was sent to his relative's home on Roanoke Drive in St. Louis where most of the exorcism took place.
Blatty had a specific agenda in mind in the creation of The Exorcist. He intended it as a work of evangelism:
“It’s an argument for God,” he says today of the novel more often considered an entertainment. “I intended it to be an apostolic work, to help people in their faith. Because I thoroughly believed in the authenticity and validity of that particular event."
If so, it's a very strange argument. God doesn't seem to be around very much in the novel and less so in the film.

But with "God is Dead" theology a hot topic in seminary dorms and the Second Vatican Council reforms draining the church of its ancient mystery, many felt that the issue of existential evil was no longer being addressed by contemporary religion. Whether in response to the popularity of Blatty's novel or not, the Pope himself chose to tackle this topic of evil:
(I)n November 1972, Pope Paul VI urged Catholics to return to the study of the Devil: ‘Evil is not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting. A terrible reality...’ 

One thing a lot of fans of The Exorcist may not realize is the character of "Chris MacNeil" is based on a real person too, in this case the actress and New Age figurehead Shirley MacLaine (oh, the irony). And the character of Regan may or may not be based on MacLaine's daughter Sachi, depending on whose story you believe. 

And despite MacLaine's claims that she was a late-comer to the New Age-- she'd write of her alleged "conversion" in her 1983 book Out on a Limb-- Sachi claims that her mother was already well-immersed in esotericism in the late 1960s- as was William Peter Blatty:
Every summer, Sachi visits her famous mother Shirley MacLaine in Los Angeles. Shirley is already deeply immersed in exploring her spirituality, channelling spirits from here, there and everywhere: Tibet, Atlantis, Ancient Egypt, the lot. 
To relax, Shirley likes to invite William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, around to chat with the spirit world on a Ouija board.
Indeed, according to Sachi, MacLaine is prone to stretching the truth to its reasonable limits:
Sachi, who became an actress and is a mother of two, says Mac-Laine doesn't exactly lie in her books but engages in "artful stretches of the truth. With her, a simple trip to the supermarket becomes a search for spiritual enlightenment". 
When Sachi was 17 MacLaine informed her that her father was not Steve Parker but a mystery man named Paul. "Right now, he's in outer space," MacLaine told her. "He's on a mission for the government. A secret mission, sweetheart. All I know is, he's in the Pleiades. The Seven Sisters," she said, pointing to the stars. 
And Sachi claims her mother confided that: "Steve was created by the government. He's a clone."
Well, let's hope that's an exaggeration.

But apparently Blatty also modeled Chris MacNeil's vicious temper on MacLaine as well:
And MacLaine could be ferocious, claims Sachi. When she thought her daughter was lying, she allegedly locked Sachi in her room without food for three days.
MacLaine would later claim that the cover photo on the first edition hardcover of The Exorcist was a photo Blatty had taken of Sachi. 

MacLaine would turn down a role in the high-profile adaption of The Exorcist but instead would accept one in a low-budget knockoff released the year before the film came out. There's something very strange about this career move here but I can't quite put my finger on it yet. 


As fate would have it, The Exorcist didn't set the world afire when first released. 
According to Blatty, his book was initially a disaster. It was so bad that his publisher went so far as to treat him to a farewell lunch. But in the middle of lunch, Blatty got a call from The Dick Cavett Show. They had lost a guest at the last minute and wanted him to fill in. 
"I came out onstage, and Dick Cavett said, 'Well, Mr. Blatty I haven't read your book.' I said, 'Well, that's OK, so I'll tell you about it,' " he recalls. "I got to do a 41-minute monologue. That was it." 
The next week, Blatty picked up a copy of Time magazine at the airport and found that his book was No. 4 on the best-seller list. Not long after, it reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list — and it stayed there for 17 weeks.
Dick Cavett is one of these old time show business personalities whose apparent ubiquity totally mystified me when I was young. I could never quite work out why he was famous. He seemed to pop up all over television, but never struck me as being particularly talented or charismatic. But he always seemed able to land the plum gigs, regardless. Maybe he was a gas at parties.

Cavett would struggle as an actor, but was given a role in a production financed by the Army Signal Corps (who we've met time and again around these parts). Finally, he seemed to make his name as a talk show host when Watergate broke.

But he had enough of an audience to launch The Exorcist when it had been struggling. And the rest was history. (Strangely enough, Cavett began his career as a stage magician)


Up-and-coming director William Friedkin (The French Connection) was chosen to direct The Exorcist movie, which would star Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow. Child actress Linda Blair beat out a small army of applicants for the role of Regan.

And expert opinion would be sought in order to ensure doctrinal accuracy. In fact there were a number of key consultants from the Society of Jesus involved in The Exorcist (Blatty himself was Jesuit-trained personnel), which is rather unusual for a secular film filled with such vulgarity and horror:
The project was sufficiently plausible for three Jesuits to give their services as technical advisors to the film; two of them, William O’Malley SJ and Thomas Bermingham SJ, even acted in it (playing Father Dyer, a friend of Karras, and the president of Georgetown University respectively).
The same attention to detail would apply to the production itself. Friedkin, another Hollywood young turk who peaked too early, was at the height of his powers as a filmmaker. It was his visual sophistication that sold a story that could otherwise have come off as extremely silly. The film still holds up today as a piece of cinema, thanks to his remarkably subtle yet insidiously creepy visual vocabulary:
The characters all live and remain in a state of mutual alienation. By failing to deliver emotional resolution, the film successfully keeps viewers ill at ease. The city in which the characters live is introduced as an emotional desert: the camera first cuts to Georgetown from the prologue amid desert ruins in Iraq, as sounds of dogs fighting and an evil screeching blend into what is clearly meant to be their modern equivalent, the traffic noise of a contemporary American city.
But perhaps it was too successful. Because The Exorcist would have the same effect on adult audiences that the matinee showings of Night of the Living Dead had on children.

And did so even before the film was released.
When William Friedkin’s The Exorcist was released back in December of 1973, audiences simply did not know how to handle it. They vomited. They fainted. They ran from the theater in terror. It was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, instantly immortalized as the scariest movie of all time. 
And actually, it achieved that status BEFORE it was even released.
The so-called "banned trailer" nearly sunk The Exorcist with theater owners before it even hit the streets. The trailer is more than a little misleading- a stark sequence of harshly strobed, high contrast images (that don't actually appear that way in the film), accompanied by a screeching soundtrack composed by Lalo Schifrin. The combined effect instills an immediate sense of alarm in the audience:
(T)his trailer literally made audiences sick when it was shown. It’s unclear if the sounds and images were simply upsetting or if the flashing images actually caused seizures in some viewers.  
The combined effect of the intense strobing, disturbing imagery and the music- undoubtedly played at very high volume- seems engineered to play on the brain waves of the viewer, if not alter the brain chemistry itself. It looks very much like the kind of thing you read about in MK-ULTRA horror stories.

In fact, it's not entirely dissimilar to this brainwashing reel from A Clockwork Orange.

And it seemed to have a powerful effect:
By March 1974, the film had sold 6 million tickets in the United States and was poised to sweep the world. At one level The Exorcist phenomenon was just a skilfully mounted spectacle, stretching the limits of a newly liberal Hollywood. Yet the scale of the reaction suggests that the film – like William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, and on which it was based – had hit a nerve.

The Exorcist touched on issues that were all too alive for the world of 1973. This was not a coincidence. It was more than a product of its time; it actively sought to shape that time.
If that was its intent, then it certainly succeeded:
(F)ans waited in lines that stretched around city blocks to catch the first screenings; some even tried using battering rams to force their way into theaters.
But many who made into the theaters would wish they hadn't:
Media alarm ranged from criticism of the relaxed ‘R’ certificate attached to the American release, to lurid accounts of viewers being driven to breakdowns and suicide. As a result, the film was picketed by some clerics...
Soon mental health professionals were being consulted with as to the film's effects on its viewers:
Many others who have seen the film experience nightmares, hysteria and an undefined, but nevertheless profound apprehension. “It is dangerous for people with weak ego control,” explains Dr. Vladimir Piskacek, a Manhattan sociologist and psychiatrist, “but it would not cause psychosis.” Small children may suffer from hallucinations after seeing The Exorcist, but Dr. Piskacek doubts that the film would permanently impair even an immature mind.

In fact, reaction to The Exorcist would become an even bigger story than the movie itself. Unlike the overblown, largely mythic reaction to Orson Welles' radio adaption of War of the Worlds, The Exorcist's effects on it audiences were real and widely documented. And would become the topic of later academic studies:
Following the distribution and release of the movie, "The "Exorcist," much publicity concerning the psychiatric hazards of the film was reported. Numerous cases of traumatic neurosis and even psychosis were supposedly noted. This report confirms the hypothesis that traumatic "cinema neurosis" can be precipitated by viewing the movie in previously unidentified psychiatric patients. 
This movie seems to be directly related to traumatic neurosis in susceptible people. Classical symptoms and disability were observed following viewing the movie. There are elements in the movie, such as possession with resultant loss of impulse control, that are likely to threaten people with similar problems, and to exceed their "stimulus barrier."  Cinematic neurosis following "The Exorcist",  Bozzuto, JC.
But was it simply the film itself? More and more work is being done on the psychological effects of trauma experienced through recorded media on the brain. Despite the usual protests from filmmakers and their apologists, the parade of increasingly explicit and sadistic gore in horror films that followed in the wake of Night of the Living Dead had measurable psychologic effects, particularly on borderline personalities.

But curiously, later audiences (the film would enjoy a number of revivals) wouldn't experience the same reaction to The Exorcist. Were they simply jaded?

Or was there something else at work, something encoded or embedded into the film, that created such hysteria?

Certainly the trailer is not only unusual, but it seems to be somehow weaponized. Was this intentional? And were similar- yet more subtle- techniques used in the original release of the film? It's worth making note of this story:
At one showing, a woman was so frightened she passed out in the theater and broke her jaw when she fell. She later sued the filmmakers suggesting that subliminal messages caused the accident. 
Warner Brothers settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Now why would they do a thing like that?

Probably because there were subliminal images encoded into The Exorcist. Several of them. And it wasn't just imagery, it was also sound.
The terrified squealing of pigs being slaughtered was mixed subtly into the sound track. The buzzing sound of angry, agitated bees wove in and out of scenes throughout the film.
That's what we've been told about, or has been discovered by fans. What don't we know about?

Was The Exorcist in fact a movie or an experiment?

This is probably a good time to look a bit more closely into William Peter Blatty's background. It's very...interesting:
(Blatty) interviewed with the FBI and the CIA, he says, but didn’t get far because the sheer number of address changes before college rendered a background check impossible.

He enlisted in the Air Force...He spent four years in uniform, landing in the Psychological Warfare Division, where his bilingual skills made him valuable.

By the mid-’50s, Blatty was stationed in Beirut as an editor for the US Information Agency. 

"Psychological Warfare."


The thing that's always bothered me about The Exorcist-- although I recognize what a well-written story and well-made film it is-- is how it portrays the nature of Good and Evil.

Ask yourself, who seems like the winner in the battle between Pazuzu (the possessing demon) and pretty much everyone else?

Good seems pretty weak and impotent in the face of Evil, as we see both exorcists easily killed by Pazuzu, who seems to vacate Regan more out of simple boredom than anything the priests had actually done. The priests and the doctors - Faith and Science- seem very much like helpless bystanders in the presence of this demon, who can pretty much do whatever the fuck he wants.

Quite an advertisement for demons, if you really get down to it.

Statue of Pazuzu installed at London's ICA:
There's some comforting symbolism for you

And like so many of these landmark horror films, The Exorcist comes complete with its own curse:
Shooting was delayed after the set caught fire destroying what was supposed to be the MacNeil’s home. During filming, actress Ellen Burstyn, who played Reagan’s mother, was actually injured when the possessed Reagan throws her to the ground.   
Actors Jack MacGowran, and Vasiliki Maliaros both died while the film was in post-production. What makes their deaths strange is that their characters died in the film as well. 
Other deaths that occurred during the filming of THE EXORCIST include Linda Blair’s grandfather and Max Von Sydow’s brother, who died on Max’s first day of shooting…the son of Jason Miller who played Father Damien Karras, was nearly killed when a motorcycle hit him… after the film’s release, Linda received so many death threats that the studio had to hire bodyguards to escort her for the next six month… 
Mercedes McCambridge, who played the demonic voice of Pazuzu, was the victim of a horrific tragedy when her son murdered his wife and children before taking his own life. 

William Friedkin would never equal the artistic or commercial heights he reached in The Exorcist. His next film, Sorcerer, went directly up against Star Wars and was virtually ignored. Cruising, an Al Pacino vehicle about a serial killer stalking Greenwich Village's gay S/M underground, would run into a brick wall of protests, bad reviews and disappointing box office.

He'd survive a heart attack in 1981 but his career as an A-list director was finished.

So with all of this death, trauma and manipulation in The Exorcist's jacket, what could you possibly do for an encore?

Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answers to.
At Universal Orlando Resort, guests will see, hear, feel – and even smell – every iconic levitating, head-spinning, vomit-wrenching, skin-crawling moment from the film. 
They’ll be paralyzed with fear as they witness the power of the supernatural, scream uncontrollably as they become part of Regan MacNeil’s possession and run in terror as they try to escape the horrific battle between innocence and evil. 
Universal Studios Hollywood’s “The Exorcist” maze will resonate as a real life interpretation of the demonic film, daring “Halloween Horror Nights’” guests to live the nightmare experienced by a tortured Regan and her determined mother. 
The maze will recreate some of the film’s most haunting scenes, ushering guests into its unparalleled terror as if their very souls were possessed by the devil.