A Semiotic Analysis of The Exorcist

From the beginning of the cinematic venture into the horror genre there has been a need for the film director to find new ways to keep his/her audience enthralled. One factor at work in making the impossible seem plausible is the director’s ability to lead the viewer out of the real world and into the fantastic kingdom of their story. When dealing with material that is unbelievable, there must be "a semblance of truth sufficient enough to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." (Boggs 22) A semiological analysis of The Exorcist reveals signs and code violations that point to the possible desensitization of the film audience with violence in films.


Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre that by the early seventies the fears expressed by the general culture were mostly "sociopolitical." A fact, King suggests, that gives pictures like The Exorcist a "crazily convincing documentary feel." King further explains that when horror movies begin to wear their "sociopolitical hats" they serve as "an extraordinarily acute barometer" of the things that trouble the thoughts of a whole society. (131) If this is true then it might explain why The Exorcist was such a box office success in the United States. The social normalcy of the country was in turmoil over the war in Vietnam and a large social rift had arisen between the young and older generations. On the subject of The Exorcist, King writes:

It is a film about explosive social change, a finely honed focusing point for that entire youth explosion that took place in the late sixties and early seventies. It was a movie for all those parents who felt, in a kind of agony and terror, that they were losing their children and could not understand why or how it was happening (169).

The signs in the film suggest that maybe evil can prevail even in the presence of good. The severity of this notion carries much weight in the "real" world. In real life, evil can win, at least that is how it is portrayed every night on the evening news. The documentary-like and gritty feel of the film also gives an added realistic mood and that might signify the reality of everyday life.

An interesting scene in The Exorcist occurs when the doctors (rational thinkers in their own right) suggest to Mrs. McNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn) that maybe she should try exorcism (a ritual practiced by primitive cultures believed to expel the possessing entity from the host body) as a means of curing her daughter. This was one of the major signs in the film, a convergence of two worlds: science and religion. Although science in this case does acknowledge the possibility of a religious cure, religion does not acknowledge the validity of science. When Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who is both a psychiatrist and a priest, tries to explain to the exorcist, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow), the number of manifestations inside Regan (taking a strictly scientific approach to the matter) Merrin brushes him off rudely and explains that "there is only one." Meaning that the only manifestation inside Regan was Satan. (The Exorcist, dir. Friedkin) Merrin is not appreciative of what the younger priest has to say. This is also a case where young (Karras) and old (Merrin) philosophies are not fully able to relate to each other, hence the social rift explained earlier. Friedkin toys with this idea throughout the film making the audience aware of the difference in attitudes as well as the two separate paths the two priests take in trying to save Regan.

The exorcism scene shows us the differences between the two priests' philosophies. Merrin signifies older conservatism. He prepares to go to great lengths to exorcise the "demon" from Regan. This bears an uncanny resemblance to conservative politicians censoring material they feel is inadequate for a younger generation. For instance Merrin, as explained before, certainly did not seem to bother with Karras or what he thought about the exorcism. On the other hand, Karras who signifies the younger, more liberal generation, is very reckless and tries to get things over quickly. He jumps into the exorcism without the slightest idea of what he is getting himself into. When Merrin dies, instead of taking over and finishing the exorcism, Karras attacks the object of his frustration: the demon inside Regan that signifies the evil within us all. By welcoming the demon into his body Karras tries to stop it the only way he knows how: self sacrifice. He cures Regan and the viewing audience from the evil running rampant in their lives thus ending--at least for the moment--the rift between young and old. The only reason this coming together works is because Karras is forced to view the evil through Merrin's eyes. In a sense he becomes aware of the older priest's religious beliefs and in the process regains the faith his rebellious young nature had lost.

Code Violations

The trend towards more graphic violence in movies parallels the transition of the general viewing audience to a higher shock level. In analyzing The Exorcist, I became aware that I had nothing to base my code violations on. So I constructed what I refer to as the "shock-tolerance" scale below. Although it mostly deals with different scenes in The Exorcist, it can easily be applied to other movies.

The Shock Tolerance Scale
(Increasing from 0 to 10)

0 -- No tolerance
1 -- Shocked by physical harm (fist fights, slapping, etc.)
2 -- Shocked by strong language (when used by an adult)
3 -- Shocked by strong language (when used by a child)
4 -- Shocked by movie monsters
5 -- Shocked by urination scenes and/or vomit
6 -- Shocked by gratuitous blood scenes
7 -- Shocked by desecration of religious articles
8 -- Shocked by graphic domestic violence
9 -- Shocked by documentary film violence (executions, car crashes, etc.)
10 -- Ultimate tolerance (impossible to achieve)

There are several code violations that fall into certain levels on the shock tolerance scale. Each of these code violations has to do with three states: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual.

On the physical level we have a violation of the decency code signified in several instances throughout the film: the radical behavior which Regan manifests (level 1), the strong language used against the priests by Regan (level 3) and by her mother (level 2), the desecration of the Virgin Mary statue (level 4), and the crucifix masturbation scene (level 7). In the mental state, we see a violation of the normalcy code: priests drinking, smoking and attending parties (level 0.5). On the spiritual level we have a violation of the faith code: Father Karras’ loss of faith(level 0.8), and Mrs. McNeil’s (Regan’s mother) lack of respect for religion (level 0.2).

The shock tolerance level for the code violations on the spiritual level certainly must be much lower for those filmgoers who had a strong religious upbringing. When taken as a whole these code violations seem to be signifiers of the film audience’s attitudes and beliefs. They represent a decline in physical, mental, and spiritual states that parallel the current rise in violence in films. If one were to dig further into the meaning of certain code violations one could easily find that there is a fine line dividing fantasy in films and the film audience's reality.

Code violations such as these rely on the film audience’s experiences. For example, a person who watches The Exorcist for the first time and who does not have any religious beliefs would not find anything wrong or shocking about the code violations listed. However a person who does have strong religious beliefs would certainly notice and feel that something shocking had just transpired. Religious beliefs have much to do with the shock The Exorcist tries to promote.

On a much larger scale we can certainly fit all these signs and code violations into the present status of films. We are beginning to see instances where a horror film must contain enough gore to shock an audience. While most filmmakers have taken shock in horror movies to new levels using this technique, there has been a wide range of boredom that has set in among filmgoers. Blood, it seems, no longer shocks. S. S. Prawer writes in Caligari’s Children:

From the emergence of the Hammer horrors on, however, films have tested their audience’s shockability further and further...the fact that evil is so often allowed to triumph at the end of more recent films is as much connected with this change in the tolerance threshold as with the incidence of a darker, more pessimistic outlook on life (43).

So where do we go from here? Certainly there will always be things that the film audience has a tolerance for. Sidney Pollack once said that "before they can be anything else, American movies are a product." (Petracca 500) Selling a product depends on needs. If there is a large need someone will definitely try and exploit it. Such is the case with violence in films. As of this writing there has been talk about executions being televised. If executions are televised in the near future it would prove my hypothesis is correct. We have become a desensitized culture not only with violence in films but other things as well. We are now looking at filling our need for violence with real life mortality. If there is a single piece of evidence to help prove my hypothesis is correct it was from a question I asked two young boys perusing the horror section of a local video store. I asked them why they liked watching horror films. Their response: "'Cause of all the blood and 'cause they’re not really scary." Whether or not their answer speaks for the entire pop culture is something that can definitely be debated. We will just have to wait and see.

Works Cited:

Boggs, Joseph M. The Art of Watching Films. California: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.

Exorcist, The. Dir. William Friedkin. With Max Von Sydow. 1973.

King, Stephen. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. New York: Berkeley Books, 1981.

Petracca, Michael F., Madeleine Sorapure. Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1995.

Prawer, S. S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.


Many thanks to the members of the HORROR list who participated in my thread: "How do you rate a good horror movie?" Your comments were instrumental in the angle in which I approached this topic.

Special thanks to my instructor, Catherine Wadbrooke, for letting me write this in the first place. Hopefully I didn't massacre the movie too much. Thanks for reading and remember to keep your feet well above the edge of the bed when you go to sleep at night. You never know what might be lurking down there.

M. A. Mora
April 1996

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© 1996. It is unlawful to reproduce any part of this work without the expressed written consent of the Author.