Primitivism, Modernity and The Exorcist Soundtrack

by Craig Martin

Warner Bros. 2000 re-release of The Exorcist (Friedkin 1973), dubbed The Version You’ve Never Seen (1), adds an extra ten minutes to the original running time of 122 minutes, reinserting previously excised footage. The most significant sequences reinserted include the bittersweet denouement in which Lieutenant Kinderman strikes up a friendship with Father Dyer (a relationship explored extensively by director William Peter Blatty in his 1990 sequel The Exorcist III based on his 1983 book, Legion), early medical examinations that show Regan growing increasingly distant and hostile, and the infamous “spider walk” scene that Friedkin had earlier insisted served only to detract from the shock revelation of Burke Denning’s death. (2)

The re-release also introduces composite shots of the demon Pazuzu flashing briefly onscreen just prior to the spider walk sequence – once over Chris’s right shoulder as she pauses in the kitchen while the lights flicker on and off, and moments later inside Regan’s bedroom against the door, just before Chris opens it to find her daughter uncovered and the windows wide open. But reinserted footage and computer composites are not the only additions to The Version You’ve Never Seen. A complaint levelled against the narrative coherence of the 1973 film concerns the opening Iraqi sequence and its relevance to Regan’s possession in Georgetown, USA. It is really only the brief appearance of Pazuzu in Regan’s bedroom during the exorcism ritual that has provided the narrative joiner. The re-release of The Exorcist attempts to close the gap between Iraq and Washington D.C. through sound. Augmentations to the soundtrack draws us back time and again to the archeological dig, the marketplace, the foundry, the statue of Pazuzu, and, in the final moments of the film, as Father Dyer and Lieutenant Kinderman walk away, the muslim call to prayer that opens the film’s Iraqi-based sequence at the start of the film. In this brief discussion of The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, I want to explore the ways that sound is used in the film to reinforce clearer links between the events that unfold in Iraq during the film’s prologue, and the subsequent possession and exorcism that takes place in Georgetown.

Sound design in The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973) can be roughly divided into two groups: primitive, or pre-industrial agrarian in which emphasis is upon the extensive use of manual labour, and modern (not modernist) industrial capitalism where mechanised labour is foregrounded. Throughout the lengthy opening sequence of the film, the soundscape in Iraq can be described as primitive. In using the term primitive, I refer to diegetic sounds that are derived from either low-tech sources, such as pickaxes and hammers, or from natural sources, such as human or animal voices. In referring to the voice as primitive, in the context of this essay the human voice can be divided into both ancient and modern categorisations. The human voices heard in the opening sequence at the Ninevah excavation site in Iraq are exclusively arabic, a language that, in it’s modern canonic incarnation dates back to the seventh century CE, although earlier incarnations and linguistic roots date back to the second millennium BCE (3). Although primitivism is not the correct term to describe the human voice in the section of the film set in Iraq—a more appropriate term might be “ancient”—I employ it here to distinguish the use of Arabic in the opening sequence in Iraq from the modern colloquial American language used through most of the rest of the film (with the exception of the Modern Greek used by Mrs. Karras and Pazuzu, who also speaks in French and Latin).  Modernity, it can be argued, is almost altogether absent from this earlier section of the soundtrack. From the solitary call to prayer through to the disturbing crescendo that accompanies Father Merrin’s discovery of the unearthed statue of Pazuzu, the soundtrack consists of almost entirely of primitive and primal elements. The pendulum clock and Merrin’s briefly heard jeep are the only two sonic exceptions belonging to the modern world. Both of these are connected to Merrin and one of these, the clock, is quickly – and ominously – silenced.

At the other end is the modern. The moment we cross-fade to Georgetown, the sounds of modernity dominate: trains, cars, motorbikes, jet engines, radios, megaphones, telephones, a fish tank filter, a steam iron, doorbells, light switches, police sirens, medical machinery and the specialist rational language of medical science. These sounds of modernity dominate the film. That is, until Regan’s (Blair) possession eventually overwhelms, engulfs, destabilises and silences the rational, technical, mechanical, medical, jargonistic, automated sounds of the modern age. The sounds of modernity are rendered mute and impotent by the primitive. Muteness is emphasised in Tim Semmerling’s analysis of the film, in which he observes how its protagonists “lose control over language and succumb to the point that they are rendered speechless.” (4)

The Iraqi sequence begins with the busy sounds of multiple pickaxes, shovels, barrows, footsteps and the din of voices at the archeological dig in Nineveh. Later we hear the cacophany of the marketplace, the rise and fall of voices in the crowd, the unending sound of drums, and from a foundry, the synchopated high-pitched clanging of metal on metal as three labourers stand at an anvil, skillfully hammering away in a fast rhythmic sequence of carefully timed repetitive triplets. Later still we hear a horse and buggy clopping and rattling on stone paving, distant at first, then arriving with a sonic boom as Merrin narrowly avoids being struck by the galloping animal. Returning to the dig, Merrin confronts the Pazuzu idol and layer upon layer of sounds are combined, creating an alarming and overwhelming crescendo intended to denote the lurking presence of a powerful supernatural force. The source of these sounds are in keeping with the sequence’s primitivity insomuch as their origins are likewise drawn from the natural world, rather than the world of machinery. Jay Beck describes how musician Ron Nagle developed his sound effects for the sequence “by agitating several bees trapped in a jar, getting his dogs into a fight, and recording his girlfriend’s stomach while she drank water.” (5)

Ron Nagle’s soundtrack adds layer upon layer

As the unearthly crescendo diminishes with the cross-fade from Iraq to Georgetown, the first noise heard is the whirring scream of airplane engines. The frame shows an extreme long shot of the McNeil house across the other side of the Potomac river. As the shot slowly closes in on the house, the jets fade and the rumble of cars crossing the Potomac bridge is clearly heard. The soundscape has substituted the primitive for the modern. Eventually this will reverse so that the only thing that can be heard on the soundtrack is Regan’s horrific moaning and howling filling the Georgetown house. Technology is powerless against this demonic auditory force: distressed by the incessant wailing, Sharon seeks comfort from her radio which she uses to try to drown out the omnipresent voice, but it proves to be utterly ineffective.

The moment the medical establishment bows its head in defeat takes place not when they suggest Chris (Burstyn) take her daughter to a priest, but much earlier when Dr Klein is examining Regan’s initial cranial x-rays. The critical moment occurs as the doctor is analysing the film against an automated x-ray screen. The screens are attached to a motor that whirs loudly as it raises and lowers them. At one point, an x-ray screen moves down and out of the frame, leaving the cinema screen empty. In this moment, the audience has nothing to look at but whiteness. The blank screen seems representative of the failure of sight – the most privileged of senses – and conflates sightlessness with the inability of rationalism and medical science to provide any explanation for Regan’s condition. In this image, the doctors quite literally draw a blank. Indeed, as the next x-ray rises in close up on screen, Klein declares, “I don’t see a thing.” But the bare white screen also implies that cinema itself – that most modern of Western mechanistic marvels – has also been rendered powerless, sightless, broken, inept. Struck as blind in both eyes as the one-eyed man slaving over an anvil in his Iraqi foundry.

The medical segment of the film ends with the doctors suggesting to Chris that she take her daughter to see a priest. Chris’ reply sums up the failure of modern medicine to help her daughter, and formally introduces the theme of primitivity intruding on the modern age: “You’re telling me to take my daughter to see a witch doctor, is that it?” This theme of the primitive invading the modern is also reinforced during Chris’ initial meeting with Father Karras, who recommends a modern solution for Regan and explains to Chris the Church’s censorious policy on exorcism. Karras refers to exorcism as an historical embarrassment for the Church and answers Chris’ question, “How do you go about getting an exorcism?” with the reply, “You’d need to get in a time machine and go back to the middle ages,” emphasising the primitive nature of the practise.

Throughout The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, Friedkin regularly returns us to Iraq and its primitive soundscape. When Father Merrin, having returned to America, is walking up a forest path and is presented with a note by a younger priest, as he reads the note summoning him to Georgetown, the triplets of syncopated foundry hammering can be faintly heard on the soundtrack. This hammering sound operates as a reminder of Merrin’s time in Iran, as well as a prescient indicator of the hard work ahead of him. When Merrin walks by the foundry in Iraq, the worker with one blind eye stops hammering, wipes his forehead with his kufi and looks directly at the passing priest. Behind the worker, partially concealed by shadows, we see – although more importantly, we hear – his two colleagues still hammering away on the anvil, perhaps establishing a relationship between the primitive work to be performed by the priests and the manual labour of the foundry workers.

During the exorcism, when we are locked in the room with the priests and Regan, the soundtrack completely reverts to a primitivity that echoes the earlier Iraqi soundscape: the muslim call to prayer becomes the Catholic ritual of exorcism; the multiple voices emanating from Regan recall the cacophany of arabic voices in the marketplace (and perhaps the rebellious rioting students drowning out the megaphone during the filming of “Crash Course”, the movie Chris and Bert are shooting in Washington); the thumping of the bed evokes the various rhythmic sounds of tools digging, tapping and hammering at the Nineveh excavation site. And as Pazuzu appears at Regan’s bedside, elements from Nagle’s sound design – most prominently the agitated bees trapped in a jar – can one again be heard.

The droning of bees can once again be heard as Pazuzu appears in Regan’s bedroom

The modern is altogether displaced or removed, just as Regan’s bedroom is stripped of all bourgeois commodities. It is as though Father Karras’ assertion that in order to perform an exorcism, one would need a time machine to return to the 16th century, has been literalised. Indeed, when Karras first meets Regan, we find that her bedroom has been transformed. Previously the room was full of modern comforts and furnishings: fish tank, plants, a record player, a bookcase, and so on. As Karras opens the door, we see the room has been stripped bare and no longer contains any of its modern trappings. It is now just a bed and side table. In stepping into the room, Karras is in fact returning to a time that physically and ideologically predates industrialism.

The modern, it is supposed, can only return once the demon has been expelled and the exorcism concluded. However, following Regan’s deliverance, we never again see the inside of the Georgetown house. We are thus denied a satisfying return to normality. Instead, Chris decides to flee the house. Thus in the film’s denouement the sound of modernity finally reasserts itself as Chris and Regan are noisily driven away in a black Mercedes. Father Dyer then walks to the top of the stairs where Karras met his death, and we can hear the faint sound of traffic as cars busily cross the Potomac bridge in the middle distance. Moments later, Lieutenant Kinderman invites Father Dyer to the movies and modernity, it seems, reasserts its dominance, albeit uneasily and unconvincingly as the final sound we hear before the closing credits is the muslim call to prayer.

Works cited

1. The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen, Dir. William Friedkin 2001, DVD, Warner Home Video.

2. In the documentary, The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist, Friedkin explains that he cut the spider walk sequence from the film because he felt that the shock of Burke Denning’s death was overshadowed by the alarming spectacle of Regan scampering downstairs backwards, upside down, back arched, on her hands and feet.

3. For information on the history and development of Arabic, see Verstregh, Kees. The Arabic Language. Second Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

4. Semmerling, Tim Jon. “Evil” Arabs in American Popular Film: Orientalist Fear. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. p.40. Semmerling’s study argues that an East/West ideological struggle is visible in contemporary American cinema. He describes The Exorcist as an “orientalist-imagined struggle between an Eastern bogeyman and the Western hero, with the American cowboy figure failing” (p.31). Semmerling calls Merrin the fallen hero of the film and likens him to the cowboy of the classical Western. While the Western hero is typically accustomed to being the master of they survey, Semmerling observes that in The Exorcist, an “Arab boy stands above Merrin and stares down upon him when Merrin is first introduced to the audience. Merrin must look up, squinting under the boy’s gaze” (p.38).

5. Beck, Jay. “William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and the Proprietary Nature of Sound” Sound on Screen 6.1 (2010): 4-10.



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