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A Filmmaker's Guide to the Horror Techniques Used in 'The Exorcist'

Study, Experience, and Analysis

The Poster to The Exorcist

(This article will contain extensive analysis on the frames and scenes in The Exorcist, so if you want to get the best insight from this article it is recommended that you watch the film at least once). 

The Exorcist is probably one of the most recognisable horror films of the modern day as the way in which it was created changed the world of horror forever. Obviously, there are going to be five main themes that we'll look at and how they have an effect on the film and audience. Let's have a look at our five main themes then: 

  • Religion 
  • Abnormality 
  • Death
  • Violence
  • Darkness

When we have a look at these themes, we're going to look mainly at the way in which the film portrays this as The Exorcist is known for having an overall effect on the audience. Let's analyse our first theme then:

1. Religion

A Still from The Exorcist

Religion is most obviously a huge theme in The Exorcist as even the title of the film references a religious figure. The theme makes for great analysis as it is primarily about a demonic possession; it has quite a lot to analyse. If you have seen the scene of the film in which the priests repeat "the power of Christ compels you" you'd be able to see the full effect of the religious theme as that is most probably where it is strongest—the power of Christ fighting the power of the demon. 

We're going to have a look at the frame above in terms of how it gives us the religious theme. Let's look at the placement of objects in the scene to begin with. Firstly, we have the priest holding the holy water over Rags, splashing it on to her and we have Father Karras holding the Bible slightly behind him. Although both are being held above her, it is not just for the effect of staying in shot but also for a short sequence of symbolism. 

Here's some advice: if you want to get the best out of your demonic possession scene, have the religious items held above the possessed character. It heightens the drama and tells us which side is really in charge here. If you don't want it over the character then have it directly in front of them (as seen in The Exorcism of Emily Rose). 

Notice how the religious figures are wearing fairly dark colours but the child being exorcised is wearing a very light colour. Obviously the dark colours are there for two reasons: 

  1. To show which characters are "doing"—as it is common for churchmen to wear black
  2. To make the whole scene seem darker as the ones "doing" are performing something considered to be "dark."

Both of these have a very similar effect over the connotations of the scene, but the reason why the young girl is wearing a light colour is to connote her innocence. 

Here's an anecdote for you: I once had a friend who said he wouldn't watch The Exorcist because it involved grievous harm to a child. 

The child's innocence is exemplified by the clothes she's wearing. They almost look like baptism clothes. 

Here's another piece of advice: when children are involved, try to make them wear lighter clothing because of the way in which it makes the child look more innocent. Notice how this is also done with the twins in The Shining and with the children of Peggy in The Conjuring 2. 

2. Abnormality

A Still from The Exorcist

Abnormality happens almost all the time during the build up and climatic moments of the film. But there are particular uses for them in particular situations. In The Exorcist, we have to realise that almost every movement is used to connote or suggest something about character, plot, or atmosphere. In this particular frame, we have quite a few of those things showing the abnormality of what is going on. 

The first thing we must notice is the great amount of blue tinting going on. This would later be used by The Conjuring and Insidious series of films in the very same way. Blue tints normally show the abnormality of a situation that is happening in the dark, normally so the audience can see what's going on to the full extent without the filmmaker having to use a light source that would light up the set too much and lose the atmosphere. 

Here's a tip: if you're looking to use tints, stick to either blue, deep orange, or a really dark green. If you do this then you must not have a light source on the set, or else your atmosphere for abnormality will be lost in the lightness. 

(Note: also notice how the blue tint is made to look like a behaviour committed by the light of the moon coming through the window behind Rags).

The second thing we have is the abnormality of the situation. The girl is levitating off the bed and almost touching the ceiling. This is used for the effect of giving the audience something visual that is possessing Rags without actually giving the audience a physical entity. As you've probably seen in more modern horror films, there is a physical entity that possesses the character and so the audience know what the possessive thing looks like. In this situation, we probably don't and so we need more physical actions and more changes in voice to be able to show us how this works and make the audience believe that Rags is actually possessed. 

The third thing about this frame that shows us abnormality is the vague patches of black or dirt on Rags's feet. For a girl who was previously only a young innocent child with an actress for a mother, it would be expected that she wouldn't have feet that were so incredibly marked. This is an abnormality that suggests to the audience that something bad is happening to Rags. 

Here's a piece of advice: obviously markings on the victim is a good idea in order to physically depict this, but to depict this in characteristics, you probably want to have incredibly stark changes in behaviours. For example: if your character doesn't eat chicken and is a vegan, have them eat a live chicken. This behaviour would be enough to suggest that something horrible is happening to your character. 

3. Death

Still from The Exorcist

If you have watched the whole film over at least once, you will know that there is one character who most represents the case of death in this film: Father Karras. One of my personal favourite characters in any horror film in history, Jason Miller's Father Karras is one of the most enigmatic and existential characters I have ever encountered. 

Even though it is true that Father Karras represents death, it is also true that the scenes in which he is in there seem to have an uncomfortable amount of atmosphere to do with coldness or lightness. In this frame, we see Father Karras sitting down next to the bed in which Rags is in and she is unusually calm for a child who has a demon stuck inside of her. She isn't moving and shifting as she was beforehand, during the exorcism. 

We can first notice in this film how Father Karras, although not always in the environment of the exorcism, is almost always dressed in black. In this particular frame, we have the light colours around Father Karras to bring out the colour black as being a lot more prominent than what we normally think of when we think of black. His depression is also exemplified when he is wearing this as he loses his mother halfway through the film. The connotations of Father Karras being related to the character of death really are dependent on the context of the film and his situation. 

Here's a tip: if you want to use these religious figures in your next project then please give them some dark backstory like Father Karras. This makes any scene that they are in seem slightly more uncomfortable and unpredictable since they may have a job to do, but there is a sense of safety within the scene. We always feel as if Father Karras wants to redeem himself and do something good for someone and so we wait for that moment that appears at the end of the film. 

4. Violence

Still from The Exorcist

Now, it may not be too important to show violence as in always showing the cuts, scars, and wounds of possession. But, in the case of The Exorcist, it was vital. The other thing that this film does is it includes suggestions of violence in possession. The suggestions could be a facial expression, a colour, or even a part of the atmosphere. 

Now, when we look at this frame, we see the suggestion of violence. In the forefront, we see the hand gestures of Rags that connote she is in pain. Here's a list of the other things that are used to connote pain in this frame: 

  • The stray ends of the clothing
  • The way in which her head is unnaturally thrown back
  • The fact that we cannot actually see her properly

Violence in this frame may be only suggested, but the suggestion is very strong in telling us exactly how much harm is coming to the character. Again, we can also see the blue tint. This suggests that the harm coming to Rags is because of whatever is possessing her. 

The effect that this has on the audience makes the viewer link the harm to the possession without even being told that this is the reason it is happening. Probably the most interesting thing about the light is the fact that it comes from directly in front of Rags (remember she is facing towards the door). 

Here's another tip: always link the lighting and camera usages of the possession scenes to those of the violent scenes. This will ensure your audience understands that there is some sort of malevolence and violence about the possession instead of just fear. This is highly effective for creating empathy, especially when there's a child involved. 

5. Darkness

Still from The Exorcist

The darkness of The Exorcist is both suggestive and physical. The physical darkness is obviously used in things such as night, a room without a light source, and dark alleyways and subways. But, in the physical sense, The Exorcist was the first film to use these suggestive and almost subliminal images. Let's take a look then:

These frames from The Exorcist show a physical character looking incredibly frightening. The character has black lips, a shadowy face, and would probably give Valak a run for her money in terms of the eyeshadow. But the amount of time this character has on screen is almost equated to a single second. The character flashes on screen in a strange unsuspecting manner, probably scaring the absolute daylights out of anyone who was watching this in the cinemas when it first came out. The most obviously intimidating thing about this character is not to do with the way it looks—it's the way it's looking. 

Within the pitch black darkness, it is peering down upon the scene. We notice that this is because it seems to be watching something intently. The physical darkness and the suggested darkness are therefore fused together in this confusing surprise of horror which is, in all aspects, a lot more frightening than any jump scare when you see this for the first time. 

Please note: do not use this technique in your films, no matter how up-to-date your technology is as this, I believe, is no longer legal. BUT, you may experiment with the aspects of this strange character peering down upon the scene. 

The main question is: in all of this darkness, in all of this horror, what or who are they watching and why? 

This is the very question that fuses together those two types of darkness. I would suggest experimenting with this character archetype in your next project as not many people have ever used it again. 

Conclusions: 

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and exploring five of the main horror techniques used by the classic film, The Exorcist. If you're looking to read deeper into this, you could have a closer look at these three techniques in the film and try to find your own conclusions of how they're used: 

  • Space and Depth
  • Facial Expression 
  • Temperature 

Good luck on your next project!

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