An Interview with Marlena Williams

Happy birthday to “The Exorcist,” which premiered 50 years ago today!

An Interview with Marlena Williams

I first saw “The Exorcist” (based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name) in high school. And by “saw,” I mean I watched most of it with a pillow covering my eyes. The first glimpse of this cherubic girl (played by a chubby-cheeked Linda Blair) looking more like an exhumed corpse — eyes rolled back and teeth bared — convinced me I’d seen enough. But that didn’t stop my friend Amy and me from what we called “doing the voice.” One night, we spent hours on the phone talking like an evil Harvey Fierstein and repeating lines from the movie. The next morning, when I could hardly swallow, my mother brought me to see my pediatrician. “How did you get blisters in your throat?” he wanted to know.

I wanted to know how a movie could worm its way into my life and continue to do so (Amy and I still talk this way when we see each other). Which is why I jumped at the chance to read Marlena Williams’ fascinating new book, Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of The Exorcist. In a series of essays, she explores her own relationship to and with the movie, along with documenting everything from its specific soundtrack, the voice of the demon (performed, shockingly, by a woman named Mercedes McCambridge), and the film’s many subliminal messages.

The Exorcist arrived at a particularly raw moment in our nation’s history,” writes Williams, citing its December 26, 1973, release against the backdrop of the Watergate hearings and Roe v. Wade. As she and I discussed our current moment, equally raw, I began to wonder if the devil is primed to make another appearance soon.

You mention that even before you were writing this book, you had watched “The Exorcist” umpteen times. It would be too easy to say that you’re possessed by the movie, but do you think you’ll ever be free of it?

“The Exorcist” is a pretty intense movie to watch — it’s not casual viewing — so I would be very intentional about when and how I watched it. I’d wait until I’d completed enough research or writing so that I had a list of questions and things I wanted to look at more closely or double check, and then I’d watch the movie with a notebook in hand, kind of scribbling furiously and taking notes as it played. I’d approach the movie with a very academic, almost clinical attitude, which in a way helped vanquish some of the power it had over me. It doesn’t terrify or disturb or obsess me like it used to. Which is also kind of ironic. By writing this book, I simultaneously freed myself from the film’s power and ensured that I will probably be talking about this movie for the rest of my life. 

You reveal that you watched the movie to be closer to your mother, which is a surprising statement. Can you explain?

My mother saw “The Exorcist” when it first premiered in 1973, and it completely traumatized her. She was 14, growing up in the small, rural town of Canby, Oregon, in a very religious and conservative household, so she was pretty much primed to be terrified by a movie about a prepubescent girl who is possessed by the devil. When she had me about 20 years later, she banned me from ever seeing the movie. I didn’t watch the movie until after she died of cancer when I was 18 years old. After that, I really wanted to try to understand why this movie terrified her so much. To do that, I had to look at the history of the film and where we were at as a culture at the moment it premiered. But I also had to think more deeply about my mother and empathize with her in a way I’m embarrassed to admit that I never really had before. 

What I found especially interesting is your position that “The Exorcist” is a film that “vividly and gruesomely” reflects men’s fear of the women’s liberation movement. Can you say more about when you began seeing this film as more than just a scary movie?

For me, I didn’t have to look at the film too closely to understand that its portrayal of women, young women in particular, was problematic. I mean, you have this adorable, vivacious prepubescent girl being raised by a successful single mother who is suddenly possessed by the devil and becomes outrageously sexual and violent in a way that, if I’m being honest, could only be imagined by a man. But once I studied 1973 a bit more, it made even more sense. The film premiered at the height of second-wave feminism, basically a year after Roe v. Wade established the constitutional right to an abortion, when feminists across the country were fighting to reimagine women’s role in society. And then here comes this film where a young girl turns into a monster and must be saved from damnation by two religious men.

I think things really clicked into place for me when I read Stephen King’s great nonfiction book Danse Macabre. In it, he talks about writing Carrie (another bloody horror story about an adolescent-girl-turned-monster) in the early 1970s and seeing it as a kind of masculine reaction to women’s liberation. He admits, with refreshing honesty and self-awareness, that the book reflected his own fear of women getting more power, and also his disgust. I think something similar is happening in “The Exorcist,” only I think it is arguably worse in “The Exorcist” because, while Carrie is the powerful character in her book/movie, Regan in “The Exorcist” is little more than a silent, freakish body tied up to a bed, waiting for the men to save her.

Did you always intend to write a book of standalone essays?

That’s a great question. The book was never going to be a straight memoir. I originally envisioned it as a “hybrid memoir,” which was something a lot of people were talking about at the time. I guess it just means a memoir that also has some type of more research-based, external-facing element to it. I initially saw the book as the chronological narrative of my life and my relationship with my mother “blended” together with an analysis, critique, and history of “The Exorcist.” But it just wasn’t working. I think the memoir format required me to cover too much narrative ground, and I couldn’t logically weave all the different aspects together in a way that flowed well, was tonally consistent, and remained interesting from start to finish. Once I decided to break it up into essays, everything came together. I could skip around, play with form, and ignore entire parts of my life that didn’t feel relevant or urgent. And I could organize the book by theme rather than by time and not worry so much about presenting the truest possible account of myself and my life. I really did like writing the more traditional memoir sections of the book, but it wasn’t a feat I could pull off in a longer form without juxtaposing it with something outside of myself. In the end, I think this is how I understand myself anyway.

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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