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This author’s mother banned her from ‘The Exorcist’, now she's written a book about it

Marlena Williams is the author of 'Night Mother," published on the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist.
Marlena Williams, Ohio State University Press, Warner Bros.
Marlena Williams is the author of 'Night Mother," published on the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist.

A half-century after it upended the world of entertainment and shocked moviegoers across the globe, The Exorcist still triggers endless reactions.

“It's one of those movies. You mention it and someone is going to have a personal relation to it … whether it's they saw it and they were terrified, or a lot of people are telling me, ‘I've never seen that, I'm never going to see it,” said Marlena Williams, author of Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of The Exorcist. “It does play a large role, maybe an outsized role, compared to other movies in people's lives. I feel like that's certainly the case in my life and in my mother's life.”

Just as Night Motherhits bookshelves around the United States, Williams visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice, and each shared their own connections to what some still consider to be the most terrifying story in film history.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Hi. I'm George Prentice. We're going to talk about one of the most provocative movies in film history now, as we approach Halloween… a film that many consider to be the most terrifying film of all time. For those of us old enough to recall when The Exorcist opened 50 years ago, wow. This year it is not an exaggeration to say that we had never seen anything like what would happen. Yes, people fainted in New York City. Some audiences stood in long lines in subfreezing weather to buy a ticket. A medical journal would later tell us of what was called cinematic neurosis triggered by the film. Ultimately, The Exorcist would be nominated for ten Oscars. It won two, but for many of us, it has been a singular experience. Which brings us to a new book. Marlena Williams is here and in her new book, and it is titled Night Mother. She details the history and legacy of The Exorcist and interweaves her own story and her mother's story, and what the movie has to say about faith, grief, girlhood and womanhood. Marlena Williams, good morning.

MARLENA WILLIAMS: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

PRENTICE: I'm going to ask if you could read a passage from your book. It's early in the book. It begins with the words…”Before watching The Exorcist…”could you read that for us?

WILLIAMS: Yes. Of course. “Before watching The Exorcist was even a vaguely plausible option for my childhood self. My mother banned me from ever seeing it. It was just one of the rules of life. Don't talk to strangers. Don't cross the street without first looking both ways. Don't eat the raw cookie dough off the spatula. And don't watch The Exorcist. The movie had scarred her when she snuck off to see it at age 14 against her own mother's wishes, and she felt certain it would scar me, too. Not just scare scar. The distinction is important. Scare implies momentary fright. Scar leaves a mark. Though I had no conception that a movie could bring anything but magic, and joy had only ever found delight on the other side of Tristar's winged Horse and 20th Century Studios. Spotlight and drums. I heeded my mother's warning. It was something about the way she said those words. Don't ever watch The Exorcist. There was a desperation beneath them, a plea.”

PRENTICE: That said, you would defy your mother's orders, much like your mom defied her mother's orders.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

PRENTICE: At first glance, many saw the film about about a girl. But ultimately, as you write, you see, The Exorcist is about a mother and a daughter.

WILLIAMS: I think the broad cultural understanding is that The Exorcist is just a story about a little girl who becomes possessed by the devil and turns into a monster, and that's true. That's obviously a huge part of the movie. But I think when I finally watched it, I realized, oh, this movie is about so much more. There's so much more going on than just this terrifying, gruesome, sacrilegious story of a demonic possession. I found it was very much about the daughter Reagan and her single mother, Chris MacNeil, and kind of this harrowing journey they go through together to rid the young girl of the demon. And there's also the story of Father Karras, who plays one of the priests that exorcizes the demon from the little girl, and him and his mother. About halfway through the movie, Father Karras mom dies, and at that point, the movie really does kind of become the story of his grief and his guilt and his, like, deepening crisis of faith after his mother's death. And so I think, in a way, The Exorcist really is about mother daughter relationships, but also parent child relationships and losing a parent or, you know, in a way, becoming estranged or separated from one's parent and grief and guilt.

PRENTICE: And in 1973…our nation was at a crossroads. But can you speak to how, 50 years later, we are still…I think a lot of folks would agree similar cultural moment.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I agree completely. So yeah, 1973. The Exorcist premiered at the very end of 1973, so I think it premiered December 26th, 1973, the day after Christmas.

PRENTICE: To be eligible for an Oscar. Back then, the Academy said you would have to open in New York and/or Los Angeles for at least seven days in a calendar year. And  that's exactly what The Exorcist.

WILLIAMS: Oh. I didn't know that. That makes a lot of sense. I kind of thought they were being trying to be a little…I don't know, sacrilegious by premiering the Day After Christmas, but that makes much more sense, though. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Um. Very strategic. Yeah, yeah. Very strategic. A lot was going on that year. Yeah. Just, you know, almost a year to the day after Roe v Wade had legalized abortion. The Watergate hearings were taking place, the first kind of wave of POWs from the Vietnam War returning to American shores. We were kind of I think we were at the peak of the oil crisis. I think around that time there was actually like the white House was issuing advice for people not to put Christmas lights up or put lights on their Christmas trees to conserve energy. You know, it was a dark and kind of fractious time in our country. Second wave feminism was a huge topic of conversation. And so yeah, now here we are, 50 years later, Dobbs reversed Roe v Wade. So abortion is no longer legal at the federal level. Trump has been indicted many times over. And I also think the end of the 60s and in the early 70s, there was a lot of concern about what was happening to the nation's youth. People were concerned that their children were turning into these kind of directionless, overly progressive, you know, drug addled hippies. I think that's similar to some of the concerns we're having now about, you know, our children. This very what I see as a very conservative concern now for our children being threatened by what we're teaching them in schools or, you know, gender affirming care. There is this like sense that our children are in danger. And so, we need, you know, maybe like a return to traditional values to keep them safe.

PRENTICE: But yet it's a time that is ripe for backlash.

WILLIAMS: Exactly right. And I think in a way, The Exorcist can be interpreted as a very reactionary movie, a reaction to a lot of those more progressive things that were happening at the time. You know, it's the story of a single mother who is raising her daughter alone, and she's like a very successful, rich liberal actress. And you have this story of the devil, you know, penetrating that household, taking up in the body of a girl. And the only way to save her is by having these two religious men come in and save the day and save the child from… from the peril that almost, you could say, is the fault of the mother's more progressive, independent lifestyle.

PRENTICE: I have not shared this story in quite some time, but in 1975, when I was in college, I went to Saint Bonaventure University and one of my courses in theology was Psychical Research. And my professor was and a man. He was deep into his 70s. I think he was close to 80. Father Alphonsus Trabold, a friar, a priest. He was involved in the original investigation into the boy in Maryland…the case that  William Peter Blatty based his book upon. And of course, he changed it to a girl and the Georgetown suburb. But there are very many similarities. And once a year, because The Exorcist was very fresh on all of our minds… only one- day- a- year, he would agree to answer questions about it.  And indeed he did that. After college, I hosted a talk show. Again, this is quite some time ago….and he agreed to come on; and before he passed away. The bottom line was he shared with us that it was as terrifying, if not more, than any book or any movie could ever depict. By the way, the book was a modest success, right? And then the author appeared on the Dick Cavett Show. And then it became a major success. And then, of course, the adaptation was not only a box office success, but it got nominated for ten Oscars.

WILLIAMS: Wow. Yeah yeah, yeah. There are so many unexpected turns that The Exorcist took to hitting screens. You're totally right that the book was not a smash hit upon its initial release. But then by some, you know, fluky series of events, William Peter Blatty got invited onto the Dick Cavett Show after one of the earlier guests dropped out. So he arrives at the studio and then the other guest. I can't think of his name right now.

PRENTICE: Robert Shaw….who was starring in Jaws….and so everyone wanted to see him, but he was also… I think it's fair to say he liked the drink.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Robert Shaw was really drunk when he showed up. He was bombed. So I think they kind of ushered him off and said, all right, well, we've got William Peter Blatty. He's all we have. So, William Peter Blatty was able to ….he says talk for 45 minutes about his book, but also about demonic possession and all the research that he did about demonic possession, in preparation for writing the book and kind of just got to go on a monologue about it. And after that, the book became really popular. I think it sold 13 million copies. And shortly after that Warner Brothers decided to turn it into a movie, and Blatty was the producer and the screenwriter.

PRENTICE: And it was, as you referred earlier, it was a bit of a platinum age for a new age of filmmaking that William Friedkin was very much a part of.

WILLIAMS: Totally. Yeah, yeah. I think that's what's interesting about The Exorcist, because, it's a horror movie….there's no way around it. It's a supernatural horror movie.

PRENTICE: It could have been just schlocky, but it… but it wasn't.

WILLIAMS: Right, exactly. So, it's a horror movie, but it was this product of  the kind of groundbreaking early 1970s New Hollywood filmmaking. Friedkin had just won an Oscar for The French Connection. He was very much like a part of that scene, the, you know, the Scorsese;s, the Coppola;s. He had a background in documentary filmmaking, actually. That's how he got his start doing documentaries. But he, I think, is an incredibly talented director, in addition to being, you know, an amusing man to watch being interviewed. But so, I think he kind of elevated the movie. I mean, not to say that horror movies can't be, you know, brilliant works of art, but he, he kind of brought this, like, New Hollywood sensibility to the movie, too, that it has that, like, rawness and that grittiness of some of those other movies like, you know, like Taxi Driver or something like that. You know, it feels it feels real, and it feels kind of raw and.dark.,

PRENTICE: For instance, here’s a police detective investigating a quote unquote crime. And that's kind of our entree into the story. He tries to make his way into this crime scene, and yet something, something much bigger is happening.

WILLIAMS: There's a quote from William Peter Blatty saying he saw it as a supernatural detective story. So yeah, you do have this whole plot line of a detective investigating, not the possession, but investigating a death that occurs as a result of the possession. And I think that's something that's interesting about the movie, too, is it is really grounded in reality despite being this crazy supernatural story. You know, I think Blatty and Friedkin drop enough little like, I don't know, there's enough moments interspersed throughout where you could kind of be like, well, maybe there's maybe there's a realistic explanation for this, you know, there's, you know, maybe it is. Yeah. Just a girl is going crazy and pushes someone out the window and kills him. And that's why the detective's there. Or maybe she's really, really ill and really sick. I think over half of the movie is just the mom taking the young daughter to the doctor and to the psychiatrist and looking for these, you know, medical explanations for what's wrong with her. But it's possible that you, you know, you start skeptical. You start kind of don't really know what's going on here. This doesn't kind of seem like, you know, your traditional horror movie. But then slowly, after all of the other explanations are exhausted for what's going on, you're kind of left with, yeah, I guess it's I guess it's the devil. So much of the movie isn't, you know, the crazy hardcore demonic possession stuff. A lot of it is kind of this, like search for what's wrong and then, you know, I guess the final chord of the movie is kind of this, like, really intense, unrelenting kind of horror of the eventual exorcism. But there's a lot there's a lot more going on.

PRENTICE: What lens do you look through when you see The Exorcist today? Is it still incredibly personal?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, that's a good question. I actually have not watched the movie since I finished the book….since I submitted the final draft of the book.

PRENTICE: Is that by design?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I definitely went in like a clinician every time I watched it. Pretty much, you know, I was I had my notebook and I would pause it. And each time I watched it, I would be realizing new things about it. And my understanding of the movie and my appreciation for the movie would be deepened. You know, maybe that's another reason why I've kind of been hesitant to watch it, because I'm also like, well, what if I watch it again and I see something that I missed and I want to include that in the book, but now I can't because the book is out in the world. So it might be kind of like a self-protective thing.

PRENTICE: That said, we are in a very interesting time. Obviously, with Halloween, I think a lot of people revisit it, and then in December, it will be an historical landmark. It will be 50 years.

WILLIAMS: It's one of those movies. You mention it and someone is going to have a personal relation to it, to it, whether it's they saw it and they were terrified, or a lot of people are telling me, I've never seen that, I'm never going to see it. So I think it's one of those movies that is, it does play a large role, maybe an outsized role compared to other movies in people's lives. I feel like that's certainly the case in my life and in my mother's life. Yeah, I just wanted to use the movie as a vehicle for understanding, you know, understanding America and understanding my mother and understanding myself as someone who, you know, I was born 20 years after the movie came out, but I do. I still feel like it's it's still part of our culture. It's still very much alive in our culture and some of its impact and some of its repercussions are still here. And so in a way, it's almost like, God, I can't believe it's been out for 50 years. It's it's this fresh thing that keeps being revived. You know, we have the new movie and the new movie is out. Right?

PRENTICE: And in 1973 and 74, the Catholic Church was in this very interesting crossfire, if you will, while The Exorcist was invading our conversations… wasn't it one critic who said, “This film is the best PR for the Catholic Church?”

WILLIAMS: “The.biggest recruiting poster for the Catholic Church since The Bells of Saint Mary's,”, which is like an early, like 50s movie, that's Pauline Kael, and she really hated the movie. And I actually think, you know, to touch on the Catholic Church, their opinion of it was a little split in a way. You can interpret The Exorcist as being a deeply religious movie. That was William Peter Blatty's intention when he wrote the script. He wanted to, you know, show evil in order to show goodness and God triumphing in the end. And that is what happens. You know, by the end of the movie, the priests have exorcized the demon from the young girl's body. And, you know, you're kind of supposed to. At least William Peter Blatty hoped the viewers would be comforted by that, by that process. So I think, you know, the Catholic Church, I think there were some people within the church who thought, I mean, there's obviously very sacrilegious things that happen in the movie, such as one one thing that happens with the crucifix that I'm not sure I can say on the radio. The Catholic Church almost agreed with the overall message. So, in a way, it was in a kind of an interesting position. And I think, correct me if I'm wrong, because I actually do not know that much about how ratings work and how the production code works.

PRENTICE: Films had to be submitted for a rating, and it is rather stunning that it got an R rating as opposed to an X rating.

WILLIAMS: The production code, I think, had just ended a few years before. So you had the rating system was very new. Yeah. I do agree that it's kind of stunning that this movie that has some very kind of graphic depictions in it got an R. .

PRENTICE:  One of the board members actually ultimately found it incredibly powerful.

WILLIAMS: Exactly, exactly. So, he kind of thought, this movie is important and it's well made and people should see it because it's pretty much because it's a good, powerful movie. So he didn't want to give it an X, but the Catholic Church also at that time, I believe the Catholic Church was also rating movies.

PRENTICE: There were bulletins that would be printed and distributed every Sunday in Catholic churches all across North America that would list the films, and some would be ostracized. That said, if I remember right, I think the write up was see this with caution.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, the Catholic Church think one of their writings was condemned, but they did not condemn The Exorcist. They said, yeah, approved with reservations or yes, see it with caution or something like that. So that says a lot about the Catholic Church's take on the film, you know, not willing to condemn it, not willing to, you know, elevate it as something, you know, all their parishioners should see. But, yeah, maybe take a look and and if you want to see it, we're not going to tell you not to.

PRENTICE: The name of the book is Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of The Exorcist, and she is Marlena Williams. For someone who loves film and loves history, or just wants to take a deep dive into where we were and where we are, it is a must read. So, congratulations on that.

WILLIAMS: Oh, thank you so much and thank you so much for having me. This was a great conversation.

Find reporter George Prentice on X @georgepren

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