“Well,” I said, “there are quite a few, but one of them is so scary that even its name is too terrifying to say.”
No eight year-old would ever let me off that easily, and when it became obvious he was not going to give up, I said that I would only tell him when he was eighteen. For now, all I was prepared to say was that it began with an ‘e’. “The rest is too frightening to think about,” I repeated.
“Excalibur” he said without hesitation, trying to guess.
“I don’t think there is such a ....”
“Yes there is,” he said, “what about The Executioner?”
“Even if it was I wouldn’t tell you,” I said after again having been corrected about the existence of such a film.
“Excrement,” he guessed. I really doubted that one, but not wanting to risk being found ignorant a third time I simply repeated what I’d said already.
This continued on and off for the next few weeks, with him trying out the names of various films, or anything he imagined might be the name of a film, beginning with ‘e’, and me continuing to repeat I was not going to tell him until he was eighteen.
“I’m not saying.”
“I’m not saying.”
Wherever did he learn these words?
“The Exorcist,” he said one day, eyes bright in triumph.
“Look, I’ve already said, I’m not going to ...”
“Oh! For goodness’ sake,” my wife said, “just tell him and then we can put an end to this stupid game. Otherwise we’ll all have gone mad long before he’s eighteen, assuming we’ve not strangled you first.”
“It’s too frightening to think about,” I persisted lamely, “even the title.”
It must have been around April, 1974, that I first saw ‘The Exorcist’ at the ABC Cinema in Leeds, soon after its U.K. release. Masses wanted to see the most talked about film of the year, and Leeds audiences were swelled by swarms of Bradfordians whose local council had banned it.* Three of us from the rented house we shared, myself, Nick and Brendan, joined the queue that stretched along Vicar Lane, creeping slowly forwards. A clergyman and a couple of helpers walked up and down handing out leaflets, trying to persuade us that the film was the work of the devil. I saw no one leave the queue. Upon reaching the door we were told “Sorry there’s only one seat left, and it’s the last one”. Nick and Brendan pushed me forward and went off to the pub trying to conceal their relief at the reprieve. I nervously went inside to see the film on my own.
I have never been so petrified in all my life. I sat in the dark clutching the arm rests, flesh creeping, my face twisted into a rictus grimace, involuntary tears streaming from my eyes. It is the quality of the sound as much as the images that makes cinema so powerful, and they had the volume right up, especially as the nauseating voice of the ancient demon Pazuzu rasped from the throat of Regan, the twelve year old girl possessed by his spirit.
Nick and Brendan saw it fairly soon afterwards, and a few weeks later we decided to see it again. The second time the cinema was three quarters empty. A few rows in front of us, on her own, was an old witch of a woman rustling a big bag of popcorn, cackling loudly at just about everything she saw and heard.
“Whoa! What a shot!” she shrieked as Regan’s vomit blasted Father Damien Karras, the exorcist, in the face, lodging behind his spectacles like a clump of porridgy green pus. “Bet you can’t go round again,” she squealed after Regan’s head had spun full circle, cracking and crunching the neck. And she just snorted hysterically when the demon told Karras how his mother spent her time in hell.
It put the film in an entirely different light. For the next few weeks our house grated to the sound of Exorcist impersonations. Loud rasping shouts of “Karras, Karras,” scraped like sandpaper from room to room as Brendan raucously yelled “your mother cooks socks in hell” all the way down the stairs from his attic bedroom. It is a good job the walls of our terraced house were thick enough to avoid disturbing the neighbours. It was very rare to hear any sound from them at all.
It truly was a shocking film, but it also has hilarious aspects some will always refuse to acknowledge. In Miami, Father Mark Karras, an Orthodox priest who had conducted exorcisms for real, sued the creators of the book and film, alleging they had based the story on him, having fictionalised his name, personality and professional life. He claimed that some characteristics of the film were so offensive he had been exposed to public humiliation, embarrassment, scorn and obloquy. William Peter Blatty, the book’s author, was forced to testify that he had never previously met nor heard of him.**
And then there were the town councillors and eccentric individuals who wanted the film banned, such as the outspoken Dr. Rhodes Boyson, a Conservative Member of Parliament with unruly mutton-chops and a pantomime Lancashire accent (all Lancashire accents are pantomime to Yorkshire ears), who had previously been a headmaster. Indeed, in a large number of towns, including Bradford, the film was banned, resulting in ‘Exorcist Bus Trips’ taking groups of people to neighbouring towns where it was showing. Later, the video version was not officially cleared for sale in the U.K. until 1999.
But my favourite proscriber has to be the Tunisian government who banned the film on the ground that it presented “unjustified” propaganda in favour of Christianity.***
* * *
In the end I did hold out without revealing the film’s name until my son was eighteen, in spite of his repeated assertion “It’s The Exorcist, isn’t it?” and my refusal either to confirm or deny it.
“Only someone with an autistic spectrum disorder could be so obstinate,” my wife kept complaining. I know they secretly think I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome, and I also know they must be wrong, because if I did have Asperger’s Syndrome, I would find it difficult to empathise with people, and I wouldn’t know what they were thinking, would I?
Shortly after conceding that my son had been right all along, the film was shown very late one night on television, and I videotaped it.
“Don’t you dare watch that while I’m in the house,” my wife said. I wondered whether I dared watch it while she wasn’t. Eventually, one morning when alone, I found the courage to put it on. I could only bear it for ten minutes before I had to turn it off due to boredom.
* It was rather inconsistent of the two city councils because two years earlier we had to go to the Bradford Odeon to see ‘A Clockwork Orange’ which had been banned in Leeds.
** The Times 30th May 1974 page 9. Father Mark Athanasios Constantine Karras later became the Archbishop of Byzantium.
*** The Times 11th March 1974 page 2 and 25th February 1975 page 6.
Reproduction of The Exorcist poster is believed to constitute fair use.