It is strange, and fundamentally American, that The Exorcist steps are an official tourist attraction. Let’s break it down: Father Damien Karras, a priest and Jesuit psychiatrist, pleads with a demon named Pazuzu to stop possessing a little girl, possessing him instead. In a moment of clarity – I cannot think of a better word – the possessed Karras throws himself down a flight of stairs, killing himself and forcing Pazuzu to leave our mortal plane. That staircase is in Georgetown, near the Key bridge, and The Exorcist director William Friedkin has participated in honoring the space.
The Exorcist has a striking climax, but it’s nowhere near the most memorable in the film. Who can forget the pea soup, or Max von Sydow repeating, “The power of Christ compels you”? That’s always been the secret to the film: it’s an exploitative horror film masquerading as high art. The casting of von Sydow is brilliant. He was a mainstay of Ingmar Bergman, a deeply serious and spiritual filmmaker, and so the expectation is that he is serious and spiritual in this film, too. All that is window dressing, however, for a film that acts like a geek show.
Hereditary, a new horror film that opens this week, scratches the same itch as The Exorcist. It looks serious, it sounds serious, but that’s all in service of something that has no aspiration beyond disturbing its audience. There is value in that because horror, like all film, is all about provoking an emotional response. Horror rarely gets us to think – maybe The Shining gets close – but it the feelings it inspires (when it works) are genuine. That is why The Exorcist steps are celebrated. It is not the most D.C. film, but it’s the film set in D.C. that people will never forget.