Today in his weekly blog post, the irascibly brilliant (brilliantly irascible?) James Howard Kunstler, our modern-day incarnation of H.L. Mencken, described a trip he took down to Wall Street last week to observe the currently unfolding Occupy Wall Street event in person. “It was,” he said, “like 1968 all over again, except there was no weed wafting on the breeze” (“Occupy Everything,” Clusterfuck Nation, Oct. 10, 2011).
Yes, the times, they are indeed a-changin’ all over again. And as we’ve now entered another period of confirmed cultural upheaval that will surely rival or exceed, that is currently rivaling and exceeding, the national and international tumult of the historic 1960s-70s cultural meltdown and shakedown, it’s appropriate to note — especially for us, here, with our overarching horror movie-centric purpose — that when the final film in our lineup for this year’s Dark Mirror festival was first released in 1973, it stood at the literal and metaphorical center of the transformational insanity, brutality, disruption, and enlightenment that characterized its era.
For elucidation, we refer you to a truly excellent essay: “Who’s Afraid of The Exorcist?” by John W. Whitehead, first published in Gadfly in 1998. Here’s a generous enough excerpt to get across the essay’s gist and, hopefully, convince you to click through and read it in full:
The Sharon Tate massacre was perpetrated in the midst of a cultural vortex that began in February 1964 and extended to The Exorcist phenomenon that played itself out during 1974 and the period we now know as the “seventies” culture. The events of those years are still defining our cultural acumen…It was against this societal backdrop [of the Manson murders, Beatles-mania, Vietnam, the “Death of God” movement, Woodstock, and more] that The Exorcist opened in the United States on December 26, 1973 — a year after the Pope’s controversial address [in which he emphasized his literal belief in the reality of transcendent evil at work in the world] and just seven months before the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon…Written by a Catholic, directed by a Jew, and produced by the multinational Warner Bros., the film was championed by political radicals such as Jerry Rubin, picketed by numerous pressure groups, praised by the Catholic News for its profound spirituality, and branded satanic by evangelist Billy Graham. Graham supposedly said an evil was embodied within the celluloid of the film itself.
[…] Twenty-eight thousand moviegoers saw the film its first week. Amazingly, it played in only two cities, not to mention only two theaters, because Warner Bros. executives didn’t know what to do with it. After screening it the first time, they sat dumbfounded. As one movie executive asked rhetorically, “What the fuck did we just see?” The critics may have called The Exorcist everything from “occultist claptrap” to “religious pornography,” but word-of-mouth was the film’s strongest weapon. Lines began to grow in front of theaters, winding their way around square city blocks. The Exorcist grossed over $165 million in ticket sales in the United States alone (or $412 million when adjusted to today’s figures).
The audience hysteria surprised those who worked on the film. Within weeks of the first public screenings, stories began to circulate of fainting, vomiting, heart attacks and miscarriages. In Berkeley, California, a man threw himself at the screen in a misguided attempt to “get the demon.” Others were committed to psychiatric care after seeing the film. There were even reports of young men in Boston parading naked in front of the screen, shouting they were the Devil.
[…] The Exorcist was fear in its most horrible sense—the inevitability of personified spiritual evil that can manifest itself in and through people…The Exorcist is an attempt to depict and dramatize transcendent elements of reality in a modern framework…[It] captured the critical questions of its time: Is God merely the delusion of a handful of prophets and gurus? Is Satan personified evil? Made against the backdrop of the Sharon Tate massacre and the chaotic events of the late 1960s, the film examined what happens when the insanity of evil and violence mash up against the soul.
To agree with Whitehead: Yes, the cultural cloud or matrix surrounding The Exorcist is fairly astonishing, and it repays close reflection. I’ve had my own sense of what’s really and truly going on in modern Western civilization greatly enhanced by paying attention to these things — especially, and pointedly, because the film hasn’t lost an ounce of relevance or impact in the years since its initial release.
For verification, one only has to look at the fact that The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which came out three decades later (in 2005), took pains to present almost exactly the same spiritual point, and caused quite a stir among the current generation of young filmgoers. I can personally verify this on any given day by asking my MCC students how many of them have seen it. Nearly all of them indicate that they have. And even though very few of them have seen The Exorcist, they’re well aware of its name and reputation, and their strong response to Emily Rose — many of them are fasinated and truly bothered by it — indicates that the same general message or idea of demonic possession as an indication of the reality of profound and horrifying spiritual forces at work beneath the surface veneer of modern industrial-technological civilization still resonates powerfully with current audiences.
Surely this can’t be unrelated to the fact that such themes interface powerfully with contemporary cultural events in ways reminiscent of that dense network of correspondences that occurred in the 1970s, when The Exorcist served as a nexus point for the apocalyptic psychological and sociocultural fears and upheavals gripping half the planet.
Co-Chair, Dark Mirror Planning Committee