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Limitation As Transgression: The Subversive Politics in The Exorcist
By Shinjini Bhattacharjee
Truth is a matter of the imagination.
-Ursula K. Le Guin
One need not be a chamber to be haunted
Ourself behind ourself concealed
Should startle most.
William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist, first published in 1971 and later given a cinematic interpretation in 1973 by William Friedrich, became a massive cultural phenomenon: It propelled the horror genre within the ambit of mainstream discourse by using its stereotypical tropes to bring to surface the deep psychic anxieties arising from the various socio-political discourses in the-then society in a terrifying and violent form.
The discourse of childhood has been an integral part in the horror genre. By presenting a child as the subversive Other who disrupts the normative society with its disruptive chaos, it belies the stereotypical idea of children as the epitome of innocence and ideological neutralization. As Dani Cavallaro in The Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror And Fear puts it, children are “associated with innocence, simplicity and the lack of worldly experience…unsullied by the murky deviousness of socialized existence. On the other hand, precisely because children are not yet fully encultured, they are frequently perceived as threat to the fabric of adult society.” Paranoia about child sexuality became even more prominent in the 1960s, mainly due to the breakdown of family structures and various sexual liberation movements which posed a threat to the heteronormative construction of family.
It was also around this time that Phillippe Aries published his groundbreaking book Centuries of Childhood (1960), which put forth the idea that the concept of childhood is not a natural given, but a social construction that emerged during the Renaissance and gained prominence in the nineteenth century, and which advocated the theory of innocence, which emphasized the protection of children against adult reality, including the entire gamut of birth, death, and sex.
The character of Regan MacNeil dissolutes these quasi-mythical and symbolic boundaries which construct and confine the definitions of childhood by exhibiting infinite malleability, augmented by her position on the verge of adolescence. Occupying a luminal space between childhood and nascent womanhood, she not only defies the dominant patriarchal code that defines a child’s normative growth in the form of a progression from sublimated infantile desires to an incipient adulthood, but also displays an un-childlike rage, deviant sexuality, and employs language considered taboo by society. The horror this subversive figure evokes finds a metaphorical representation in her repulsive body covered in blood, urine, excrement, and bile.
The opening chapter of the main narrative marks Regan’s latent sexual transgression by presenting her relationship with her mother, Chris, in almost sexualized terms through the acts of holding, kissing, and caressing: “Beaming, Chris caught [Regan] in a bearhug, squeezing, then kissed the girl’s cheek with smacking ardor. She could not repress the full flood of her love. ‘Mmum-mmum-mmum!’ More kisses.” Though Chris initially participates in this semi-erotic relationship with her daughter, she, despite being a New Woman, is not fully able to transgress the normative sexual boundaries because she is also limited by the ideologies of the age in which she had been brought up. The friction between these two does not give her complete ideological liberty to subvert the dominant order, which manifests in her increasing discomfort with her daughter’s “abnormal energy,” which finally forces her to take help from the patriarchal authorities.
The first notable ‘supernatural’ occurrence takes place in the very beginning of the novel when Chris, in the middle of the night, hears “odd,” “muffled,” and “profound” rapping sounds coming from the attic, which, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously note, acts an alternative space away from the main home, which allows females to perform their repressive sexualities. Later in the novel, Chris is confronted with another ‘unnatural’ occurrence—the violent shaking of Regan’s bed, which took place several times and, as Blatty puts it, “was always followed by Regan’s insistence that she sleep with her mother” (emphasis mine). Through this latent incestuous desire for her mother, Regan not only deconstructs the normative structure of the family defined by fixed relationships between its members and, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet points out, a rigidly demarcated and mutually domains of desire, but also introduces Chris to an alternative discourse which promotes multitudinous possibilities of such relationships.
While the first part of the novel focuses on Regan’s incipient subversive sexuality, the subsequent parts vividly describe the gradual estrangement of Regan from the hegemonic discourse through a rampant performance of tabooed erotic desires, which not only denounce parental authority, but also challenge patriarchal regimes of normative laws and religion.
The first act of stark defiance of the hegemonic discourse occurs during a party thrown by Chris. Regan is found standing “urinating gushingly onto the rug,” transgressing boundaries which define the gender order of the society. This projection of an absent penis in all its base performativity also offers a horrific parody of the ‘exalted’ function of the penis in gender construction. As Bakhtin puts it in Rabelias and His World, the discourse of the grotesque involves the “lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract to the material level.”
Regan not only transcends physical boundaries dividing genders, but also linguistic ones. Robin Lakoff, in her landmark text Language and Women’s Place, puts forth the idea that gender determines language, by arguing that the manner in which heterosexual, white, middle-class women use only specific features of a language is because they are denied means of strong expression, including coarse language or expletives in the patriarchal society.
In The Exorcist, only the male figures employ sexual abusive language, which women like Chris confine within the realm of thought. Regan, however, uses the realm of demonic possession, which legitimizes her symptoms, to hurl sexual abuses at the patriarchal figures. She further adopts polyphonic voices in the novel, the plurality of which allows her to dwell in the freedom of hybridity. However, this linguistic transgression reaches it pinnacle with her use of backward English during her interview with the psychiatrist and Father Damien Karras. Cora Kaplan in Language and Gender argues that “language is the most important thing of all forms of human communication. Through the acquisition of language, we become human and social beings…social entry into patriarchal culture is made through language.” Thus, by employing inverse language, Regan refuses to participate in the normative discourses which construct both sex and gender ideologies.
Apart from transgressing gender boundaries, the ‘possession’ also allows Regan to perform divergent sexualities, enabling her to deconstruct the normative ideology which constructs specific sexualities in order to uphold and maintain its hegemonic superiority. While doctors try to comprehend Regan’s condition as she flings herself up and down in bed, she pulls up her nightgown and screams, “‘Fuck me! Fuck me!’... and with both her hands began masturbating frantically,” thereby indulging in a sterile erotic pleasure which not only defied the dominant conservative discourse of the day, which advocated sex as a means of procreation, but also exposed the limits of a heterosexual act of sex.
As Luce Irigaray discusses in This Sex Which is Not One, the female body, comprising of both lack and excess, allows multiple sites for sexual pleasure, and therefore enables women to redefine themselves. This self-touching, as Irigarey puts it, “gives women a form that is in(de)finitely transformed.” Regan further subverts the normative discourse by exhibiting a monstrous heterosexuality when she squeezes the psychiatrist’s scrotum “with a hand which gripped him like an iron talon,” a ‘perverse’ eroticism deriving pleasure by inflicting pain on the partner, thereby questioning the very idea of heterosexuality as ’normal’ and ‘natural.’
Regan also performs homosexuality in the novel in a scene where she is “gliding spiderlike, rapidly, close behind Sharon…her tongue flicking quickly in and out of her mouth while she hisse[s] sibilantly like a serpent…[Sharon] screamed as she felt Regan’s tongue snaking out at her ankle.” Reminiscent of King Lear’s Regan, who is also described as a serpent, and therefore a symbol of base sensuality, the figure of Regan MacNeil defies patriarchal authority which had tried to control her by using the phallus-like syringe by sexually liberating herself by experiencing a lesbian jouissance.
But perhaps her most radical sexual transgression takes place when she stabs herself in the vagina with a crucifix, yelling, ”Yes, you’re going to let Jesus fuck you, fuck you,” and when Chris tries to stop her, Regan “reache[s] out a hand, clutching Chris’s hair, and yank[s] her head down, pressing her face hard against her vagina, smearing it with blood while she frantically undulate[s] her pelvis…Lick me, lick me, lick me! Aahhhh!” By engaging in a sexual act with her mother, Regan not only uses her identity as a possessed girl to act out the incestuous desires she could not fully exhibit in the beginning of the novel but also simultaneously brings forth the idea that the relationship between family members is not ‘natural,’ but are cultural constructs intended to control and regulate sexual activities. In fact, as Marshall Sahlins in the Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology argues, “human conceptions of kinship may be so far from biology so as to exclude all but a small fraction of a person’s genealogical connections from the category of ‘close kin,’ while at the same time, including in that category, as sharing common blood, very distinctly related people or even complete strangers.”
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