The Anatomy of The Exorcist

Anatomy of The Exorcist

The Exorcist Poster with the iconic image of Father Merrin standing under the street light

In both our second and tenth episodes of the Anatomy of Horror series, we explore the depths of possibly the most iconic film of all time The Exorcist. In our second episode, we focus on the theme of loss of faith. The character most associated with this theme is Father Damien Karras. In the first act we learn that Father Karras is torn between the position the church has set for him and caring for his elderly mother. When his mother dies, Father Karras’ guilt drives him deeper into doubt.

The Crucifix Scene

If you’re interested in reading more about our tenth episode of our Anatomy of Horror series, our second video about The Exorcist, then read this: https://the811.net/2020/07/06/the-exorcist-the-crucifix-scene/ . This article is more of a cultural analysis whereas the video is about film language.In this video we break down what makes this infamous scene so visceral.

Father Karras

In the second act, as Father Karras is mourning the loss of his mother, he has a dream. Now, in the film Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, Mr. Friedkin claims that this film was the only film he’s ever directed where he knew exactly how to shoot it right after reading the novel. He says that many of the hidden meanings people have attributed to him were not intentional.

The one scene he does discuss in detail is the dream sequence of Father Karras which we will be discussing. Since William Friedkin claims he gave no forethought into the symbolism of the film, and adding to that, many film critics believe that though a director would like to control the meaning of a film, once it is available to the public, it is open to interpretation. William Friedkin is a product of American culture, as was William Blatty, so it is very possible they made many sub-conscious decisions.

The Dream

The St. Joseph's medallion falling

The very first image we see is a St. Joseph’s medal falling toward the ground. 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 first act. 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 ends with her being killed for adultery. The image of St. Joseph falling is directly related to Father Karras losing his faith in Catholic institution.

Father Karras' mother ascending the subway steps

An important theme and motif regarding Father Karras’ loss of faith are the constant images of stairs. Here we see his mother, now dead, ascending to street level. Her travelling up the steps signifies how he sees his mother; angelic.

Father Karras frantically waving at his mother at a crossroads

Between Heaven and Hell

The very next image is of Father Karras stranded in the middle a busy intersection. He sees his mother in the distance, but she is so far away. 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.

Father Karras' mother at the top step of the subway entrance

His mother finally makes it to the top step. She seems frail and tired. She mouths “help me” to her son.

Father Karras runs to his mother

Running Out of Time

Father Karras makes it out of the intersection and is now running as fast as he can to be by his mother’s side. He is frantic and he continues to shout for her. He runs as fast as he can to make up for the distance caused by his indecision.

It’s too late to save her. His mother turns and descends back into the underworld. Father Karras feels that his indecision to be by his mother caused her death, and his loss of faith has doomed her soul to hell.

The Infinite Eleven’s Anatomy of Horror is a video series dedicated to the celebration of the best of the horror genre. By analyzing film language and breaking it down for the viewer, we hope to demystify the film making process, and prove just how talented these masters of horror are.


The Exorcist: The Crucifix Scene


Brian Robert Oliver
I love horror films. From time to time I'll make a short horror film or I might write about something horror related.
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