Horror Literature Exorcised Through Paradigmatic Adaptations

Charles McDonald
Charles McDonald

Although ‘The Exorcist’ remains one of the major cinematic landmarks in the United States of America. The industry touted the movie as one of the most influential films in the horror genre. Most studies do not extend beyond it, leaving a contemporary collection of strikingly similar films generally unexplored. This study seeks to illuminate a collection of films that I identify as the exorcism subgenre. In this article, I will build my foundation by reviewing the scholarship on the horror genre, especially literature concerning ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) and related films.

One of the fastest growing areas related to communication studies is “new media,” which includes culture’s relationship to film. As scholarship related to our complex relationships with technology expands, research dedicated to the horror film has also increased. Jason Zinoman, author of ‘Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror,’ observes that horror genre scholarship has substantially increased over the past three decades, from book-length studies, such as Carol J. Clover’s ‘Men, Women, and Chainsaws,’ to peer-reviewed journals, like ‘Horror Studies’ (2010) and the Irish ‘Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies’ (2006).

Exorcism as a horror subgenre, however, has only been minimally explored. Most discussion relegates exorcism to a trope or gimmick without considering how the concept fits into a particular network of narratives. As the field of horror studies continues to take shape, so do attempts to define the problems related to its discursive limits. Researchers may have difficulty overcoming the temptation to simply confirm established theories. Noting some of the landmark contributions to the field, Aalya Ahmad and Sean Moreland offer a pointed criticism worth citing at length: “While these studies have contributed much to the academic recognition of the importance and complexity of the horror field, each has also tended to subordinate horror texts to particular conceptual or methodological schemes such as psychoanalysis, implicitly suggesting that horror fictions are important only insofar as they reveal the truth, or the use, of a particular theoretic system.”

Horror texts often serve as examples for particular theories, but these applications offer little insight into the films themselves. Rather than using theories to pry open and access meaning in particular cases, researchers continue using cases to support exhausted theories. Several questions remain about the horror texts themselves. At best, previous scholarship has demonstrated that horror texts are complex and significant cultural artefacts. At worst, horror films are used as props to further support the “validity” of established theories — reaching vague conclusions that reproduce the very frameworks previously applied.

Despite fascinating developments for the horror film, the critical discussion remains stale and fragmented. The scholarly reluctance to engage reiteration in horror films stands as one particular stumbling block. Film scholar Steffen Hantke contends that critics are too bound to classical horror works and hastily dismiss any instance of a remake. With 2013 highlighting ‘The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary’ theatrical release, the film has endured as a mainstay of the horror film genre and continues to influence a growing subcategory of exorcism films in the twenty-first-century. Yet, this subcategory has been dismissed by horror filmmakers; Eli Raphael Roth dubbed the recent slew of films as “exorcism-exploitation,” in which young filmmakers replicate various elements of ‘The Exorcist’ to “make a quick buck.” Critical discussion interprets so-called knock-offs or the “remake rut” as symptoms of capitalism rather than grappling with persisting elements embedded in these cinematic texts. Critics quickly dismiss repetitive elements as outdated gimmicks, rather than consider why certain forms and content remain viable. Rather than asking why people keep making these movies, critics should be asking; “Why do people keep seeing them?”

Steffen Hantke argues that in order for academics to get out of our own rut, we must expand the boundaries of criticism: “A radical re-evaluation of the aesthetics and politics of the remake, for example, might break the genre out of its current slump.” By spurning remakes, reiterations or revisionings, academics stifle discussion and divert attention away from asking deeper, more complex questions about the persisting elements in recent horror films. Scholars should discuss these persisting elements. If the horror film and daily life do not exist in isolation from each other something is more at work than exorcism-exploitation.

Few scholars have attempted to understand exorcism as a generic form. Although Craig Kallendorf maps out a “rhetoric of exorcism,” the study only provides a taxonomy of exorcism as rhetorical practice — a mode of persuasion — based strictly on holy texts. Joshua Gunn argues that exorcism “as a violent, ritual cleansing of a body, has reemerged as a significant generic form of demon-making in three interrelated domains: the mass media; the ritual practice of Catholics and Protestants; and presidential speech craft.” Perhaps the exorcism film features more than just a movie plot, more than just a series of embodied practices. Perhaps exorcism has been appropriated as a specific type of framework or metaphor.

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