With spooky season in full swing (and less than 2 weeks until the Halloween Sale!) I have been eagerly devouring all sorts of ghoulish content, and recently I decided to revisit a horror film I hadn’t seen in over 20 years— The Exorcist. Based on the 1971 novel of the same name, director William Friedkin’s 1973 film stands as one of the rare horror films to ever be nominated for multiple Academy Awards, certainly a testament to the filmmaking. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, and Jason Miller, the movie follows the demonic possession of pre-teen Regan (Blair) and the rescue efforts of her mother Chris MacNeil (Burstyn), first via medical treatment and later an exorcism performed by priests, Fathers Karras and Merrin (Miller and Max von Sydow, respectively). [SPOILERS FOLLOW!]
As I said, it has been over 20 years since I watched this movie, and I remembered very little about it, beyond the most shocking moments (ie, Blair’s projectile vomiting and violently masturbating with a crucifix). In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll say that I have a lot of less-than-positive feelings about the Catholic Church, and act one’s fetishization of Middle Eastern / North African culture is dated and uncomfortable at its very best. But rewatching the movie as an adult I was surprised by something completely different: the queer subtext!
Admittedly, in the past I have been accused of imagining queer undertones in media where no subtext was intended— blame it on my queer desire to see oneself represented in the stories with which we engage, however oblique that representation may be. That said… Father Karras is totally gay, right?!
The film introduces Karras as a priest struggling with his faith and with feelings of shame surrounding the death of his mother. Addressing the former, the priesthood’s vow of celibacy sometimes served as a means of denying not just sexuality as a whole, but specifically queer sexuality. Without any exposition from Karras about heeding a prior call to become a priest (indeed, his character is a former boxer), viewers are left to ponder what drew him in the first place. Further, while never overtly stated, Karras’s conflicted feelings about his mother are reminiscent of the false belief that over-bearing mothers “turned” sons gay— a popular notion at the time the film was made.
More directly, though, the relationship between Father Karras and his friend Father Dyer invites scrutiny. Played by real-life priest William O’Malley, Father Dyer is introduced as a friend of MacNeil, singing and playing piano at a party she’s hosting. “My idea of Heaven,” Dyer coyly declares, “is a solid white nightclub with me as a headliner for all eternity, and they love me!” This campy declaration alone may not have caught my attention, but the allusions to greater intimacy between Karras and Dyer certainly did, including the scene in which Dyer comforts Karras after the death of his mother, helping the bereaved priest into bed.
Further, Dyer’s reaction to Karras’ death struck me more as how one might react to the death of a lover rather than a colleague or friend. (Admittedly, I’d be wrecked by the death of a friend, but the emotional display feels particularly atypical for a man at the time the film was made.) This intimacy seemed to only be confirmed by MacNeil later gifting Karras’ medallion necklace to Dyer (a scene not present in the theatrical version but restored in a subsequent director’s cut).
To me, this all begs the question… is Karras conflicted about his sexuality, ultimately sacrificing himself in an early example of the “kill your gays” trope? Friends who have seen the movie: what are your thoughts? And to my fellow queer readers: do you find yourself lending queer subtexts to somewhat ambiguous stories? Share your thoughts in the comments!
(PS: Needless to say, YES, I felt incredibly validated by and was thrilled to see the inclusion of The Exorcist in It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror, a collection of essays edited by Joe Vallese.)