Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Memories of seeing The Exorcist, 1974

I’ve been enjoying Leo Ruickbie’s article in the latest Fortean Times celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, which opened in the UK in March 1974 (‘What Possessed Us?, FT April 2014, pp.30-35).  Forty years, how time flies.  I particularly remember the film because I saw it that summer in Edinburgh, on a school trip to Scotland. We had spent the bulk of our time near Aviemore (featuring a visit to Loch Ness, as well as the first and last time I ate haggis) and had stopped at Edinburgh for a final couple of days before travelling back to London.  The film, as the FT article indicates, had received a huge amount of publicity and debate, and some friends and I decided that as we had the opportunity we ought to see what the fuss was about.

This was far from being the first horror film I’d seen.  I used to go with my mother to the cinema occasionally, and she was happy for us to see X films as long as they weren’t sexual in content.  The first of these was The Travelling Executioner in 1970, which was the support feature on a double bill with House of Dark Shadows, the film I was there to see.  Later I remember going with school friends to see A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, other controversial films and not ones to see with my mother.  Being underage was never a problem, and I don’t recall ever being turned away from a film because I looked too young.

Fortean Times, April 2014

That night in Edinburgh we were primed to expect a terrifying experience by being handed a copy of a leaflet as we walked in.  ‘The Exorcist shows the reality of evil power’ it shouted; that was a promising start.  ‘It portrays this power in a way which is likely to affect you adversely’ it continued.  By the time we read ‘The viewing of this film may lead to unusual fears, depression or mental stress and it is possible that physical, mental and spiritual breakdown may result’, we knew we were in for a great night.  The choice between paying attention to earnest Christians handing out leaflets on the pavement or witnessing the power of Satan in action didn’t seem much of a contest.

I kept it, but didn't need it

The lurid newspaper reports of cinema-goers experiencing adverse reactions had raised expectations that we were in for an intense experience.  A lot of the hysteria whipped up by the film’s publicists related to people being sick in the cinema.  We happily thought we might be physically ill at the horrid sights on screen, so we all sat in the back row just in case, because then we could vomit in the gangway behind us and not over our neighbours.  We were that keen to be revolted.

Helping to whip up the frenzy

In the event not only did we not see anyone be sick, I don’t think anyone in the audience even fainted.  Certainly nobody fled screaming, though perhaps for some the mental and spiritual breakdown threatened by the leaflet came later.  We sturdy South London school students all enjoyed the film, but felt a little short-changed it had not had the promised physiological effects that would have represented extremely good value for money.  Yet despite falling short of the hype I think we agreed that it was scary enough, and nicely wrapped up a very pleasant trip.

Nowadays when such material is easily available there is no sense of achievement in seeing a particular title.  You can watch Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom uncut at home, whereas when I first saw it at the Brixton Ritzy it was in a cut form and the audience had to join a ‘cinema club’ for the night.  As a result it felt a big deal.  I would not want to go back to the times of a censorious BBFC (when the C pre-1984 stood for Censors rather than Classification), a time when the phrase ‘Festival of Light’ made you think of Mary Whitehouse rather than Diwali.  But convenience does come with a price.

That easy availability has made us blasé.  The heightened feeling of anticipation experienced by those audiences for The Exorcist in 1974, so strong that in some cases they resulted in severe psychosomatic effects (if reports are to be believed), could not be replicated in 2014.  Something, an intensity of engagement, is lost when on the whole we can see what we want when we want.  Is the flipside of accessibility a greater sense of disposability?