Girls grow up, no matter what you do.
I will say, up front, that the first season of The Exorcist has a major twist about halfway through. There’s no way to talk about the season in any depth without discussing that twist, and, while it’s the kind of twist that seems obvious in retrospect (I guessed at some version of it early on, and was examining different side characters throughout to see if my suspicions were correct) I also clapped and said “YAY” aloud when it finally happened, so.
I would not, for my life, ruin this twist for you unless I had to. But I have to, so if you want to save it for yourself, close this tab — I mean, right now; don’t go past the next asterisk — open Hulu, and watch at least five episodes of The Exorcist. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there.
Until you do, consider this: The key message of The Exorcist, the kernel of ugliness that has made it the subject of countless complaints about misogyny in the horror genre, is that little girls should not be allowed to grow up. Puberty and sexuality are invasive, demonic forces that ruin children by turning them into women.
But girls grow up. No matter what you try to stop them. They have to, and so they do.
The Exorcist plays, initially, as more of a “spiritual sequel” to the original than anything else. We have a young priest, who’s harboring doubts about Catholicism (Father Tomas, played by Alfonso Herrera from Sense8; fittingly, his struggle is not his old, dying mom, but rather the fact that he is extremely handsome and thus has a standing invitation to sex with his ex-girlfriend). We have an older, meaner, more British priest (Father Marcus, played by Ben Daniels, also handsome — look, a lot has changed since the ‘70s) who just happens to be a skilled exorcist in the midst of hunting down a demon. We have a blonde, innocent young girl peeing herself and growling.
We have the girl’s mom. Geena Davis! If for no other reason, I would have watched this show to see Geena Davis play the Ellen Burstyn role. Like Chris MacNeil, Angela Rance is somewhat problematically portrayed as a high-powered career woman (“I supervise 400 people,” she tells Father Tomas, as proof that she can’t be “crazy") who has allowed demonic forces to infiltrate her family through neglect. Like Chris, she knows something is wrong with her daughter, and in her house, no matter how many times medical professionals tell her different. Unlike Chris, Angela immediately knows the name of what is wrong, and she also knows how to fix it. The first episode isn’t even halfway over before she demands an exorcism.
I should have noticed this. The original Exorcist is a slow burn. The exorcism doesn’t take place until the final act; Father Karras spends most of his scenes jogging and feeling bad about his mom. The showrunners had ten hours to fill, and could easily have spent half of them building up the suspense around whether Casey Rance was possessed, instead of giving us Casey in full floating-around-the-house mode by the end of the first episode. But I figured that was just the difference between 1973 and 2016. We don’t do slow burns any more.
So I didn’t notice how instantly sure Angela was about the demons, or how she knew about the possession without ever seeing her daughter do anything strange — when it was just mood swings, absent spells, weird noises in the house. Who hears scratching in her attic and thinks ah, yes, my daughter is clearly possessed by Pazuzu and not we’ve got rats? Angela does, that’s who. Angela also thinks this without necessarily believing in God; she attends church, but it’s her husband who’s the believer. Everyone else in that family gets a flashback or a focus episode, but Angela — Geena Davis!!! The top-billed actor of the series! —just hangs out on the sidelines.
But, hey, Hollywood is sexist. It wouldn’t be the first time a great actress got wasted playing someone’s concerned mother. And that tough old nun has some suspiciously familiar face scars. Wouldn’t it be wild if we actually got some characters from the original in this thing? Like, what if that nun is…
Oops. Here’s Geena:
I can’t remember most of it, thankfully. Post-traumatic amnesia, it’s called. Afterwards, I just wanted to move on with my life, put it behind me… I reinvented myself. But it didn’t matter. No matter what I did. I chose “Angela.” Like a name would protect me. I dreamed that I could have a life, a chance. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t done with me. It’s coming for me, father. I know it. My name is Regan MacNeil.
Because girls grow up. Because we talk about these categories like they’re separate entities: The Girl and the Mother, the Demon and the Career Woman. The woman who gives into sexuality and the woman who gives into ambition, the woman who is too young to matter and the woman who is too old to count. We pit them against each other until it’s hard to see how they have anything in common.
But this is a cycle, not a war. Girls become mothers and mothers are girls who’ve taken new names. They remember who they were, when they look at their daughters. They remember how their mothers failed them, even if (especially if) they fail in all the same ways.
I may give you the impression I loved everything about this show. I didn’t. When it works, it really, really works — the first episode closes on the scariest “demon possession” scene I’ve watched since, well, The Exorcist — but there are parts that never come together. For instance: I do not now care, have never cared, and never will care about Father Tomas boning his ex-girlfriend. The two of them could have sex right in front of me (and they do! On multiple occasions!) and still not generate any narrative momentum.
Then, there’s Chris MacNeil. She’s back, too. Sharon Gless does a good job with the character as written: A salty showbiz broad who, hey, so sue her, wrote a best-selling book about her daughter’s deepest trauma and put her on the talk-show circuit. It was the ‘70s! Parenting was different then! She could have been at Studio 54 doing coke with Warren Beatty and instead she was stuck at home dredging the Satan out of her kid! Etc.
The problem is that this has never been a great character. Chris MacNeil fulfills a very specific role in a very 1970s morality play: The divorced working mother who puts her career over her child and pays the price, specifically through having Satan pee on her carpet. The Exorcist (2016) emphasizes Chris’ ambition and selfishness, making this version of the character a far worse mother than the original. Though there’s clearly some effort put into making Chris a more nuanced or specific character — making her selfishness play as a condemnation of this working mother, not all working mothers — there’s still an element of mean-spiritedness in how little respect Chris’s struggle to save her daughter is given. It leaves a bitter aftertaste. The adult Regan, after all, also has a job that she cares about. And her daughter also gets possessed.
Maybe it was a mistake to include Chris at all, particularly if the writers couldn’t find a way to salvage her. Because, at its best, The Exorcist (2016) is not about questions like “should women work” (yes) or “should sexy priests get to bang” (indubitably). It’s about how women pass down their trauma.
“I know, you had to say no,” the grown Regan tells her daughter. “I mean, that's the game, right? But, at a certain point, you asked for it.”
This is the cruelest thing that happens over the run of the show. It is also, for what it’s worth, more or less the thesis of The Exorcist (1973), and of most of the “possession” genre. Actual Catholic doctrine is wordy and confusing, but, as boiled down by “experts” like Ed and Lorraine Warren, and fed to you by horror movies, demonic possession is something you “invite,” something that can’t happen unless you let it. You use a Ouija board, buy a graven idol, refuse to go to church on Sundays, get a job instead of staying at home with your children, and bad things happen.
And, if you know your Catholics, you know there’s a specific gender we associate with those bad things. 75 percent of the people exorcised by the Catholic Church every year are female, and most are sexual assault survivors. This is a story that started with Eve in the garden: Women let bad things into the world, into their bodies, because women are bad people.
The Exorcist (1973) framed demon possession as almost a facet of femininity: Some disgusting possibility contained in the female body itself, something that made girls bleed, masturbate, talk about sex. Something that can only be cured by bringing grown men in to shame and scream at the girl who “lets” it happen to her. The Exorcist (2016) at its smartest pushes back on this metaphor, strips it back to its parts. If a girl child is suddenly pressured into doing sexual things she doesn’t want to do, knowing things about sex she doesn’t want to know, if her body is literally taken and used for purposes that horrify her, is that her sexuality? Or is that her sexual abuse?
Tomas’ boring girlfriend is not this show’s only loud subtweet of the Catholic church, it turns out. This is a show in which the Catholic clergy’s most pressing problem is facing down and halting a legion of hidden pedophiles. When you learn there’s a whole faction of the Church in league with the demons, well, it’s not subtle.
But it also casts a sadder light on how instantly Regan/Angela jumped to the conclusion that Casey was possessed. She associates her daughter’s adolescence with horrific abuse, with pain and guilt and bad things invading your body, because that’s what it was for her. She cannot look at her daughter without seeing her own pain.
Even as Regan wants to protect Casey, she cannot help re-living her own trauma — or just inflicting it on her. She cannot help passing down what she was told, about being dirty and deserving of what happened to her.
“So much shame for enjoying it,” Regan says to Casey. “And the dirty little secret is you fell in love with [the demon]. Then when he left, the loneliest feeling in the world. But we've both been through it, and now we have each other, right?”
This is the horror of it all: Regan’s abuser still, sometimes, talks through her mouth.
But an exorcism, in older stories — in Regan’s story — was a message about who deserved to control women’s bodies. Not demons, certainly. But not women, either — they couldn’t take care of themselves, they “asked for it,” they let bad things happen to them. Women needed superiors to look out for them and keep them in line; men, or God, or (preferably) a priest, who conveniently combines godliness and maleness. The exorcism is a ritual in which the male priests take control of a woman’s body away from her demons, but also away from the woman herself.
I’ve spoiled enough for you, and I won’t spoil any more. But I will say that there comes a time when Regan’s trauma is uncontrollable, when it’s destroying her family. A time when the priests cannot help her, when there are no men to put her in line, and the only question is how strong Regan can be. Regan has been saved, but not healed. She gets to a moment when no-one can save her any more. A point where she’s the only adult left in the room, the only mother, and she has to do what all girls do eventually: Grow up.
Reader, I clapped again.
The Exorcist (2016) is available to stream on Hulu.
Reminder: This movie was chosen by Lynn Y. We’re currently accepting reader nominations for next month’s private letter. Send your picks along by responding to this e-mail, or Tweet them at me.