Who is the Central Character of The Exorcist?
The Exorcist will forever be considered one of the greatest horror films ever made, and for good reason; it set a benchmark for horror films at the time and is still very much a consequential addition to the genre. Still, nearly fifty years after its release, the argument over which character is the protagonist still persists. The easy answer might be Regan, the innocent girl possessed by a dark entity through which all characters intersect. However, after a brief prologue, it is Chris, Regan’s mother whose path we follow closely from the beginning. Still, we find no resolution through Chris as the narrative is eventually shifted through the eyes of another character. Father Karras, though seemingly disconnected to the main narrative, takes center stage after Chris’ plea for help, leading us to the final confrontation. By looking deeper into basic story structure, and putting a microscope up to our three main characters, the answer becomes clear.
What is a Central Character?
In film as well as in literature, the central character, or protagonist, is traditionally defined as the character for whom the story revolves around and whose own conflict sets the stage for the final resolution. So who does The Exorcist revolve around and who brings about resolution? To answer this question it must first be stated that this film does not, and did not, follow the conventional method of film narrative – mostly because it is not a conventional story. In conventional terms it would seem as though the story revolves around Regan, since the film’s main conflict directly involves her, and is the direct conduit from which all other character’s storylines intersect. While true, from the very beginning of the film (after the prologue) we are immersed into the character of Regan’s mother, Chris. In fact, the entirety of the first act is mostly told from Chris’ point of view. So, is Chris the central character then? Not exactly. Though it is the witness and actions of Chris that lead us through the first half of the film, it becomes apparent that she does not have the ability to save her daughter. It is Father Karras who decides to battle Pazuzu, the entity inhabiting Regan’s body, driving the demon from out of Regan and into his own body, ultimately sacrificing himself in the process. However, Father Karras’ own narrative has absolutely nothing to do with Regan’s Possession until deep within the second act. So, perhaps the better question to ask would be what is the main catalyst that sets the problem in motion, and which character is given the ability and desire to fight this problem? To get a better handle on answering these questions, here is a quick breakdown of each character’s personal narrative.
Regan is a happy, pre-pubescent teen with close ties to her mother. After befriending an entity she encounters through a Ouija Board, the demon Pazuzu slowly begins to take control of Regan until there is no resemblance left of that sweet girl we met the first act. Like a prisoner in her own body, Regan is nearly destroyed until Father Karras frees her soul from the grasps of the demon.
Chris, a successful actress and dedicated mother has her world flipped inside out when Regan becomes possessed by a demon unwilling to let her physical body go. Abandoning her career to care for Regan, Chris becomes overwhelmed when doctors are at a complete loss for what ails her daughter. With nowhere else to turn, she summons Father Karras as her last hope to save her only child.
Father Karras is a Jesuit Priest in the throws of an existential crisis after the death of his beloved mother. After meeting Regan/Pazuzu he enlists the help of an Exorcist, Father Merrin, to drive the demon from Regan’s body. When Father Merrin is killed by Pazuzu, Father Karras commands the demon into his own body and flings himself out of the window, killing himself and leaving the parasitic demon without a host.
Judging from each character’s synopses, it is clear that Father Karras has the most complete story. So, what is the film’s main catalyst, and who is best suited to successfully fight this problem? The possession of Regan by the demon Pazuzu is the main catalyst, and it is Father Karras who is given the motivation and the tools to fight the demon and bring about resolution. One could again bring up the argument that Father Karras’ character development is spotty through the first two acts in accordance to the main narrative, and almost completely unrelated. While this cannot be disputed, we have to remember that the script was written by William Blatty, the author of the very same novel, so the film’s structure straddles the line between book and screenplay. While Father Karras seems more of an accessory in the first act, he himself has his own first act, giving his character much needed depth. Father Karras is consumed by guilt. He feels guilty for not taking care of his mother, and he feels guilty over his loss of faith. A dream sequence near the midway point of the film perfectly depicts his internal struggle of HIS first act and gives us crucial information about Father Karras’ motivation moving forward:
Father Karras’ Dream
Here we see the image of St. Joseph’s medallion in the act of falling. There is much debate about the significance of this medal in Father Karras’s dream since we also see a similar medal during Father Merrin’s excavation in the prologue. Some will say that this image is an omen, and that its meaning lies in the eventual battle between Father Karras and Pazuzu. While I am not discounting that possibility, it may be better explained by finding its significance in regards to the overall sequence. First, who is St. Joseph? St. Joseph, seen in the medallion holding baby Jesus, is Mary’s husband and Jesus’ stepfather. The story of Mary is the single idea that holds the Catholic faith together. Mary was visited by an angel and was impregnated by God in order to let his son walk the Earth. Without Joseph’s faith that his wife, a virgin, was impregnated by God, then Mary’s story becomes obsolete. The image of St. Joseph falling is directly related to Father Karras losing his faith in the Catholic institution.
An important motif supporting Father Karras’ loss of faith are the constant images of stairs. Here we see his mother, now dead, ascending to street level. Her ascending the subterranean steps signifies how he sees his mother; angelic.
The very next image is of Father Karras stranded in the middle a busy intersection. He sees his mother in the distance so he shouts and frantically waves at her. This is in relation to the guilt he felt for being too far away from his mother to help her, and him standing in an intersection shows that he feels torn in his faith and unwilling to make a decision about the leaving his position within the church.
His mother finally makes it to the top step. She seems frail and tired. She mouths “help me” to her son. Helping people is the very thing that drew Father Karras to the church, and if he cannot help his own mother, then how can he be of assistance to anyone else.
Father Karras makes it out of the intersection and is now running as fast as he can to be by his mother’s side. The distance is great but he knows that if he can get to her then he can save her.
It is too late. His mother turns and descends back into the underworld. Father Karras feels that his indecision leave Washington D.C. to be near his mother has somehow caused her death, and that his loss of faith has doomed her soul to hell.
By the time Chris comes to Father Karras, we already know that he is grieving and having a serious crisis of faith. Then, something happens in the film that finally, though subtly, reveals Father Karras’ tie in with the main narrative. Pazuzu, through Regan, lets Father Karras know that the two have met once before, and that in all likelihood the demon has been following him for quite sometime. Pazuzu summons the voice of a homeless man that had asked Father Karras for change in the first act, and then later perfectly mimics his own mother’s voice. Though Father Karras is at first unwilling to believe that Regan is actually possessed, the audience is given ample information that not only is this demon real, but according to a popular fan theory, that its target is quite possibly Father Karras. This theory is later enforced when Father Karras commands the demon into his own body before jumping to his death.
Sure, the waters are muddy, but our central character is clearly Father Karras. Regan’s conflict is the film’s central conflict, but she is never in a position to carry the story forward, nor do we see much from her point of view. While Chris is a main character in her own right she is certainly not the hero, and is missing throughout most of the third act. Even though Father Karras is not seemingly involved in the story’s overall throughline until late in the second act, his character is carefully built on its own. It is finally revealed in the second act that Father Karras’ own conflict is perfectly linked to Regan’s, but it is he, and only he that is able to bring full resolution to this timeless horror classic.