The Devil You Don’t Know: Possession, Race, and Innocence in ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Angel Heart’

Noah Berlatsky / December 20, 2018

Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987)

If you’re possessed by the devil, you’ve been corrupted—and if you’ve been corrupted, that means you were innocent to start with. Demonic possession isn’t so much about the evil that enters you as it is about asserting that the evil comes from outside. The devil exists to tell us we’re pure. That’s why, as James Baldwin explains, “At the end of The Exorcist (1973) the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing.”

That quote comes from the end of Baldwin’s remarkable The Devil Finds Work (1976), a memoir of the author’s life with, and near, film. One of the book’s central themes is the self-deception, and the grimly hoarded ignorance, of white America. What he says of In the Heat of the Night could also be said of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or Birth of a Nation, or any of the dozen other films he discusses: “It is not that the creators of the film were inspired by base motives, but that they could not understand their motives, nor be responsible for the effect of their exceedingly complex motives in action.”

The film adaptation of Lady Sings the Blues (1972), for example, loosely based on Billie Holiday’s 1956 autobiography of the same name, erases her own testimony that she sang the song “Strange Fruit” to commemorate her father. A jazz musician, he died on the road in Dallas, Texas, when he could not get treatment at a hospital for pneumonia because he was black. In the movie, Holiday is on tour in the South when she comes upon the aftermath of a lynching; she is traumatized, and her white bandmates have to save her from a mob. Racism becomes a gothic aberration from which white saviors rescue black people, rather than a banal day-to-day brutality, which white people indifferently inflict. “Blacks perceive danger far more swiftly, and, however odd this may sound, then attempt to protect their white comrade from his white brothers: they know their white comrade’s brothers far better than the comrade does,” Baldwin writes. The point of Lady Sings the Blues is, in Baldwin’s view, not to capture Holiday’s testimony and voice, but rather to make sure that white people can continue not to know what their white brothers are capable of. You watch so as not to see what those hands are doing with that rope.

The Exorcist, released three years before the book was written, is the last movie discussed in The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin reads the film as a supernatural distillation of white American dishonesty. The plot centers on Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a successful actress shooting a film in Georgetown when her pre-adolescent daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is possessed by the devil. This possession causes Regan to vomit great gouts of green bile, spin her head around like an owl, masturbate with a crucifix, and (offscreen) murder her mom’s friend, director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). After consulting doctors and psychiatrists to no avail, Chris decides that her daughter needs an exorcism. This is provided by handsome, young, modern psychiatrist/priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and old warhorse Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow). Both priests die in the attempt, but the girl is saved, and the devil is banished evermore, or at least till the sequel.

What is terrifying about the film, in Baldwin’s view, is not the vomiting or the head-turning or the crucifix-masturbating. Rather, what frightens him is “the mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented” in it—the conceit that evil manifests via gothic fluids and superhuman strength. “The Americans,” Baldwin writes, “should certainly know more about evil than that; if they profess otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children—can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”

A “subliminal” image of pasty-faced demon Pazuzu, who has possessed the daughter of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) in 1973’s The Exorcist

Of course, the reason that “white children” might recognize the devil, in the context of 1973, is that white children—as well as disproportionate numbers of black children—were being sent off to Vietnam to die for reasons not much better explained than the devil’s motives in inhabiting Regan. In fact, The Exorcist is often read as a response to anxieties about Vietnam protest and youth culture. The movie within a movie that Chris is shooting involves some vaguely defined protest movement, and she refers to the plot with some scorn as “kind of like the Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story.”

The Exorcist, too, presents youth rebellion Hollywoodized. Regan becomes a kind of parody of delinquency: foul-mouthed, hypersexual, possibly an addict. (One psychiatrist asks Chris with diffident condescension whether she keeps any drugs in the house.) Even the spirit that Regan contacts through the Ouija board, “Captain Howdy,” sounds like a nickname for a hippie dealer. As Stephen King writes in his Danse Macabre (1981), an exploration of the horror genre, Regan under the influence of the devil “would have responded enthusiastically to the Fish Cheer at Woodstock.” The infirm, pious exorcist Merrin, tremblingly clutching his heart pills, is a symbol of the sclerotic status quo, about to be replaced by the rebellious, scruffy, prematurely corrupt youth.

The film, then, can be seen as a panicked demand that young people refrain from corrupting—which is to say, educating—their elders. But that panic is also a kind of pleasure. The selling point of the film, after all, is all those gross effects; watching Regan transform from an aggressively cheerful, spunky teen into a bloated, oozing monstrosity is what you’re there to see. Like The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and other youth exploitation films, the overt moral condemnation is a thin veneer over voyeuristic pleasure. You tut-tut at evil in order to stare at evil. “Lick me!” Satanic Regan bellows at her mother, and at the film audience too, the latter of which is surely supposed to react, not just with horror, but with prurience. When Karras demands that the devil abandon the little girl and enter him, he’s not so much sacrificing his life as he is speaking the buried, disavowed wish of the movie. He takes evil into himself—and then immediately throws himself from a window to his death, demonstrating his innocence and purity. He chose evil, but only to preserve the good.

Karras is an adult, but it’s important that, within the film, he is insistently placed in the role of a child. His most important relationship is with his aging mother, who he is unable to attend to as he wishes because of his lack of money and his duties as a priest/psychiatrist. The devil plays on these regrets (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” may be the film’s most vivid dialogue) as part of his diabolical master plan to leap from one dutiful child to the other. Satan corrupts innocent children—or, alternately, children provide the innocence whereby Satan is de-corrupted and his sins forgiven, or at least blamed on somebody else. The devil “does not levitate beds or fool around with little girls: we do,” Baldwin says. But in The Exorcist, we don’t, because we are those sweet kids Regan and Karras, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, or napalm a country. It must be someone else’s fault (probably the commies’.)

For Baldwin, The Exorcist is a bad film because the devil inside is a lie. He never, to my knowledge, wrote about Angel Heart (1987), which was released a few months before his death. I think, possibly, he would have seen it as a more honest portrait of possession, and of innocence.

* * *

Angel Heart, despite a couple of significant changes, is a faithful adaptation of William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel. The movie is set in 1955, and centers on Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a shabbily charismatic private detective. Angel is hired by a mysterious, rich, long-nailed Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro, radiating ego). Harry’s task is to find a missing singer named Johnny Favorite, whose career ended following a disastrous stint in the army, which resulted in the reconstruction of his face. Favorite has supposedly been in a sanitarium since, but it turns out he left there and disappeared. Everyone Angel interviews to try to track him down ends up murdered—and Angel is increasingly worried that those deaths will be pinned on him. The twist ending is that Angel is Favorite. The singer made a deal with the devil, aka Cyphre, for power and success. He then tried to avoid paying with his soul by using a black magic ritual to switch lives with another man—a returning soldier named Harry Angel. Favorite tore out Angel’s heart and ate it, transforming himself into the other man. So the Angel we follow through the film is really, unbeknownst to him and us, Angel’s murderer.

It’s significant that the murder is of a veteran of the Greatest Generation, returning home. World War II was, and remains, a central symbol of American virtue; it’s the period of US history implicitly summoned by the phrase “Make America Great Again.” In murdering Angel and cutting out his heart, Favorite is defiling and corrupting the American dream. In Angel Heart, though, that corruption is an illusion, insofar as innocence is always already torn from itself, in great gouts of blood. There is no pure Harry Angel; the man on our screen, making jokes about his fear of chickens, or self-deprecatingly pooh-poohing magic with the repeated line, “I’m from Brooklyn,” isn’t actually from Brooklyn. He’s a sorcerer cosplaying as the schlub whose heart he ate.

We never see that schlub. Instead, in a repeated quasi-dream image, we see the back of the head of a man who is presumably Harry Angel, turning towards us. But the shot is always cut before we can make out any features. We can never see what innocence looks like. Harry (who isn’t Harry) experiences the vision of the turning face of Harry as a terror. Innocence frightens him—as well it should. In fact, you could say that Harry is possessed by innocence. This possession is an innovation in the movie. There are hints in the novel that Harry is a dangerous man who is hiding secrets from himself: “Cruelty comes easily to you, yet you find it inconceivable that you are so gifted at hurting others,” a fortune teller informs him. He wakes up in bed to find himself choking Epiphany Proudfoot, a young black woman with whom he falls in love. But the true source of violence in the novel is the devil himself, Mr. Cyphre, who dogs Harry’s footsteps, murdering the fortune teller, and Epiphany, and everyone else Harry talks to as well. Harry leaves a wake of destruction behind him, but the violence is Cyphre’s doing, not his own.

The film, though, is more ruthless. Harry does not know who he is; logically, therefore, he can be anyone, which is to say he is capable of anything. In a chillingly effective scene at the end of the movie, we see a flashback sequence of what Harry has forgotten—a montage of him committing a series of violent, terrible murders. In one he licks a knife after castrating a black man, an atrocity that intentionally recalls lynchings and racist violence. In another he cuts out the heart of that fortune teller (Charlotte Rampling). Cyphre supposedly possessed Harry in these moments, leading him to murder and then forget. The flashbacks have such an impact not because they are discontinuous with what we know of Harry, but because they aren’t. Like many a noir detective and/or action hero, Harry’s shabby charm is draped over casual brutality. He gets Favorite’s old doctor, a morphine addict, to talk to him by threatening to take away his drugs. The coercion is almost loving; he puts his face against the doctor’s and croons threats—a lullaby of sadism. For Harry to then shoot the doctor in the eye (as we learn at the end that he did) is a logical consummation, just as it makes sense that the bullying sexual suggestions to the fortune teller should culminate in a bloody end. We forgive Harry’s cruelty over the course of the film because he’s the white male designated protagonist, pursuing good ends. The genre conventions tell us he’d never cross those lines. But we, like Harry himself, should have known better.

Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel/Johnny Favorite

Harry’s last victim is Epiphany (Lisa Bonet), the 17-year-old leader of a voodoo circle in Louisiana, where Harry’s search leads him. Harry hides in the swamp and watches her lead a religious ritual with sacrificing of chickens and group sex. Epiphany is arresting and sexual, and the blood of the chickens recalls the earlier murders, not to mention racist Hollywood tropes linking voodoo to violence and black magic, from 1943’s I Walked With a Zombie to 1973’s Live and Let Die. As Baldwin says of the scenes of The Exorcist in Iraq, the sequence evokes “the uneasiness one cannot but feel when touched by the energy of distant gods, unknown.” The white hero watches the chaotic thrashing of non-white peoples. He will draw forth their secrets, plumb their mysteries, and restore order.

Those secrets, however, are his secrets, and the only ugly, supernatural thing he finds in the swamp is himself. The girl is, it turns out, Johnny Favorite’s daughter—which means, unbeknownst to Harry, that she is his daughter. He sleeps with her and then murders her by shoving his gun into her and pulling the trigger. Her son, his grandson, is left behind. The movie’s last striking image is of the boy gesturing at him, his eyes lighting up with the unearthly glow we first saw in the gaze of Mr. Cyphre. It’s a scene that seems expressly designed to illustrate the closing passage of The Devil Finds Work:

The grapes of wrath are stored in the cotton field and migrant shacks and ghettoes of this nation, and in the schools and prisons, and in the eyes and hearts and perceptions of the wretched everywhere, and in the ruined earth of Vietnam, and in the orphans and the widows, and in the old men, seeing visions, and in the young men, dreaming dreams: these have already kissed the bloody cross and will not bow down before it again: and have forgotten nothing.

The people white men harm may not forget, but Angel does. “I know who I am” he says, over and over, almost weeping. But he doesn’t know. Angel is possessed—not by the devil, and not even by his own doppelganger, but by his refusal to know himself. The devil does not corrupt the innocent; the devil is innocence, which is a kind of corruption. Not knowing can be both deliberate and a sin. Harry has forgotten he isn’t an Angel, and so he wades in blood up to his elbows; it is because Johnny believes he is a Favorite that he is justified in consuming a beating heart. The devil is as white as the egg Cyphre eats with such slow relish, and as without stain. If there is blood on his hands, he forgets it so completely he does not even need to wipe it off.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

One thought on “The Devil You Don’t Know: Possession, Race, and Innocence in ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Angel Heart’

  1. Wow, this is sch an astute an inspired commentary, you’ve done just a wonderful job here. Not only in addressing the issues in these movies, but in breaking down and explaining Baldwin’s commentary of them. This is just stellar, thanks for sharing it!

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