Marked as a Monster: A Conversation Between Marlena Williams and S. Trimble
When writing my essay collection Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of The Exorcist—which explores the legacy of the horror classic through the lens of my own personal experience—I lived in perpetual fear that someone else would get there first, making the project to which I devoted so much time and energy suddenly redundant or irrelevant.
Not surprisingly, I was both excited and nervous when the anthology It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror, edited by Joe Vallese, came out in October 2022. Upon the book’s release, I learned there was an essay in it about The Exorcist, written by the feminist cultural-studies scholar S. Trimble. I love all things Exorcist-related, so of course I wanted to read it, but I was hesitant to encounter something that might cover much of the same terrain as my own work: the girl as monster, the horror of adolescence, the struggle to build a self in the face of a crushingly sexist and homophobic dominant culture.
I waited until It Came from the Closet had been out for about a year—and until my own copyedits had long been finalized—before diving in. Once I did, I realized that T’s and my work were very much in conversation. We were both deeply impacted by The Exorcist, a film about an adolescent girl who becomes possessed by the devil and must be saved from damnation by two religious men. But the way we made sense of that impact, and the way we used film criticism and gender theory to do so, was incredibly different. As soon as I finished the essay, I knew that T and I had to talk.
In the fall of 2023, just in time for the premiere of the latest reboot The Exorcist: Believer and the 50th anniversary of the original film’s release, we sat down.
MARLENA WILLIAMS: In your essay “A Demon-Girl’s Guide to Life,” you write about discovering horror as a young queer person and sensing, consciously or not, that the genre wasn’t just about “monsters doing bad things”; it was also about people “doing gender badly” and the pleasure and peril of that transgression. When you saw the film as a kid, after seeing it parodied dozens of times, you found it silly and fun. But when you watched the film again as a teenager, it disturbed you in a deeper and more complex way: “I saw a revolting girl revolting against the little-girl box in which she was stuck—and I saw an army of men working to put her back in.”
How did something that so amused you as a kid end up terrifying you, or at the very least seriously unsettling you, as a teen?
S. TRIMBLE: A couple of things shifted my relationship to The Exorcist. First, the film itself changed: the version I saw as a kid was cut for TV and missing some key scenes, so I didn’t really have to reckon with, for example, Regan “masturbating” with a crucifix and then shoving her mother’s face into her bloodied crotch.
But, more importantly, I changed. As you note in your book, part of the pleasure and interest of the rewatch is that we notice new layers of meaning each time, that our understanding of a film “changes as we do.” In the span of five or six years, I grew from a kid who barely understood that I was butch into a teen who’d been through not just a coming-out process but also coming out in the context of an evangelical, “pray the gay away” Christian church. I was older and starting to experience the cost of being different, and this shifted my focus from Regan—whose monstrosity transfixed my 11-year-old self—to that “army of men” working to fix her in the name of God.
I know this sounds weird, but Regan wasn’t very horrifying to me. She was a badass super-demon who blew apart the norms of white girlhood. And since I was failing to embody these anyway, this was something to revel in. For me, the horror of The Exorcist really emerged when I started noticing what the men around her—and me—were up to.
As a queer kid coming of age in the mid-1990s, I became very adept at reclaiming monsters and stereotypes because without them there was almost no queer representation at all. But I recognize there are limits to this approach. You probe them beautifully in your book, framing Regan as, from one point of view, “the heinous end result of women’s liberation,” and wondering if there’s “radical potential” in the masturbation scene or if the horror is too much, too wounding.
Can you say more about how you navigate your ambivalence about The Exorcist? What do we do when we love a film—or even a whole genre—that doesn’t seem to love us back?
This was definitely an interesting tension to play with when I was writing. On the one hand, I genuinely think The Exorcist is an incredible movie that embodies so much of what was exciting about filmmaking in the late 1960s and 1970s. It’s bold. It’s dark. It’s not afraid to be vulgar and sacrilegious. And on a technical level, it’s pretty excellent, even if some of the special effects might strike us as cheesy today.
But The Exorcist is very much a product of its time. It hit theaters at the height of second-wave feminism, almost a year after Roe v. Wade had legalized abortion in the United States. Here comes this major movie about an atheist single mother whose adolescent daughter becomes possessed by the devil and turns into a violent, unattractive, outrageously sexual monster who can only be saved by two Catholic priests. It’s not hard to view The Exorcist and so many other films from that era as reactionary male nightmares about what would happen if we allowed women to have more control over their bodies and their lives.
I think there is plenty of room in The Exorcist for a more radical, or reparative, interpretation. I love the idea of Regan as a badass heroine who smashes the norms of white girlhood and spits in the faces of everyone who tries to control her, including her own mother. I do believe The Exorcist is a pretty conservative film at its core, but in a way I’m also kind of glad it isn’t some flawless, straightforward masterpiece of female empowerment. To be honest, I don’t have much interest in watching flawless masterpieces of female empowerment these days, because what do you have to work with there? As a writer, I like when a movie doesn’t quite sit right with me because then I have to think about and explore why that is. If I’d just declared The Exorcist irredeemably sexist from the start, I would have missed a lot of other, really interesting things going on in the film, like the relationship between Regan and her mother or the character of Father Karras.
You also write about Father Karras. What do you think we are missing about the film when we only focus on Regan?
When I sat down to watch the film again for my essay in It Came from the Closet, I found myself strongly identifying with Father Karras. Suddenly, he seemed queer. His most intimate relationship is with the show tune–singing Father Dyer, and Lt. Kinderman pointedly compares him to the actor Sal Mineo, who came out as bisexual in 1972, the year before The Exorcist was released. But for me, the queerness of Father Karras is less about identity and more about what my friend and colleague Dina Georgis calls “queer affect.” Queer affect is about the feelings we can’t admit, the stuff we renounce in order to be socially intelligible and acceptable—the disavowed feelings that haunt the stories we tell about ourselves. This is connected to what you describe in your book as “something roiling and untethered” in Karras, that sense that his guilt overpowers his faith, which leaves him askew to the institution he serves.
There’s something potentially powerful in his emotional alienation from the church. You get at a similar idea when you write about your own identification with Karras, noting how his guilt is messier, more unruly, than dominant cultural narratives about grief and loss allow. We talk about grief more readily than guilt, as if to evade the reality that, as you put it, “failing to do what is right seems like a feature, not a bug, of being alive in this world.” That’s what interests me about Father Karras: that he’s alert to his complicity in what he’s starting to see as a flawed institution—that he comes from a place of non-innocence but takes action anyway.
For me, Karras’s guilt haunts the ending of The Exorcist, which tries to restabilize the guilt/innocence binary by giving Regan amnesia. She doesn’t remember anything that happened while she was possessed, her mother tells Father Dyer, and we’re supposed to be reassured by this. The white girl is “good” again because she can’t remember what she did when she wasn’t. The myth of childhood innocence is restored, which also means the need to protect children from evil, from strangers—from strangeness—remains a viable cultural narrative.
You write about this too. Can you talk about the politics of this myth? What or whose interests does it serve?
I have so much to say in response to this question. I really like the way you talk about Regan’s amnesia at the end of the original film—she is considered “good” again because she can’t remember anything she said and did while possessed. This is meant to comfort viewers, but in wiping Regan’s slate clean, it deprives her of the opportunity to reckon with her possession, to wrestle with it, maybe even to truly heal from it. You can’t heal from something you’ve forgotten or refused to acknowledge.
James Baldwin, in his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), sees The Exorcist as exemplifying a particularly dangerous white American delusion. In his view, the film was emblematic of a nation refusing to look at itself in the mirror, instead projecting some vague philosophical concept of “evil” onto the body of an innocent little white girl. I think his arguments still ring true today. Certain segments of the United States still cling to the myth that ours is some good, upright, moral country, while actively repressing the cruelty, racism, and violence of our collective past. As long as we continue to do this on a broad, cultural level—by, say, banning books about racism in schools—we’ll never really be able to move forward.
So, it makes perfect sense to me that the film hinges on restoring an innocent white child’s innate goodness and purity. That’s another cultural myth: that “our” children, which of course only ever means white children, are somehow constantly in grave danger and in need of saving. We’ve seen this narrative play out again recently in Sound of Freedom (2023), about an FBI agent (played, funnily enough, by the same actor who once played Jesus Christ) literally journeying to the jungles of South America to save a white girl from an evil—child sex-trafficking—that is really more invented than real. In a way, Regan is the ultimate imperiled white child. The devil, the quintessential “bad man,” has taken her over and the community—her family, the church, the police—must come together to solve the case.
I was honestly surprised when I saw that the new movie, The Exorcist: Believer, is about two adolescent girls (one white, one Black) who disappear after school one day and are found in the woods days later, presumably possessed. On the one hand, I was disappointed that the franchise was once again taking the easy way out and deciding to possess adolescent girls. Why not possess, I don’t know, a dude in his forties for a change? But I’m also interested in how the film seems to be playing with the kidnapping/stranger-danger/true-crime plotline. We are obviously having this conversation before the new film premieres, but I wonder if you have any thoughts on any of this.
I think the horror of the demonic possession film is all about the transformation of the possessed, their “fall from grace.” All those myths of innocence and purity attached to girlhood mean that young girls have a longer, harder fall than, say, a middle-aged man. I’m curious to see how the new film navigates race, since Black girls have never been afforded the notions of innocence attached to white girlhood.
But in general, the horror of the possession story derives from how far the possessed deviates from cultural expectations of “normal” behavior, which is why an adolescent girl becoming violent, foul-mouthed, and sexually aggressive registers as more horrifying than a fortysomething man doing the same things. Your question about Believer’s evocation of stranger-danger/true-crime plots got me thinking about this because when I was reading your book, I deeply related to your reflections on some of the real-life kidnappings you remember from your childhood. For me, the formative memory is Paul Bernardo, a serial rapist and killer whose trial became a media sensation in the early 1990s. I was about 12, and two of his victims were only a couple of years older than me, and this was all happening in a suburb of Toronto not far from where I grew up.
But what I remember most is the media treatment of Bernardo’s wife, Karla Homolka, who participated in the killings. In some ways, it was as if she was more monstrous than he was—and I think that was partly about gendered expectations, about her spectacular failure to be a nurturing, “nice” white woman. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Homolka wasn’t so bad—they both did horrifying things that will live in my psyche forever—but I was curious even as a kid about how and why the media spotlight on her felt different, more intense, than the one on him.
This has been on my mind lately, because I know what it means to be on both sides of the equation. As a young white girl during the Bernardo trial, I lived with that sense of imminent violation you describe in your book, though I also vaguely understood that I wasn’t ticking all the “good girl” boxes. Now, as a gender-nonconforming adult—albeit hugely sheltered by my whiteness—I find myself cast as “dangerous” to children by transphobic, homophobic parents who are fighting against more inclusive (and more accurate) sex-education curricula.
Anyone who’s been cast in this role knows how dangerous it is to be marked as a monster. Maybe this is why Regan’s metamorphosis affected me so much: it’s not just the freedom it represents, for her, of breaking out of the good-white-girl box; it’s the fleeting possibility that the box itself won’t survive, which might help free the rest of us.
This has been on my mind a lot lately too. In addition to the new film hitting screens this October, the 50th anniversary of the original Exorcist is approaching in December. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the parallels between 1973 and now—how we are in a cultural and political landscape that feels both vastly different and eerily similar. 1973 was the year of Roe v. Wade and the Watergate hearings and an ongoing racial reckoning after the Civil Rights Movement and the racial uprisings of the late 1960s. There was also a continued push for more expansive and inclusive ideas about gender, sexuality, and the family. Throughout all of this, there was a very serious concern that the nation’s youth were all transforming into drug-addled, blindly liberal, directionless “others” who were going to take a sledgehammer to traditional values and norms, to that “box” you talk about.
Now, in 2023, Roe v. Wade has been reversed, Donald Trump has been indicted many times over, and the United States is still very much in the midst of an incomplete and long-overdue racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And once again, we are seeing all of these sensational news stories about how our children are in peril. It’s there in the moral panic about gender-affirming care, or in attempts to limit what children are learning in schools—and who gets to teach it. To an extent, I even think it is there in some of our conversations about the way social media is completely destroying our kids’ lives. Once again, we are being told that the kids are very much not alright. And, once again, we have a horror story about possessed girls returning to the big screen.
T, your writing and thinking about horror and The Exorcist gives me so much hope. I don’t think possession stories have to be read as so dreadful and reactionary. They can also be a way of smashing all the oppressive boxes that are supposed to hem us in. I think of this fabulous quote from horror critic Robin Wood about the power of horror: the implication of the genre is that “the norms by which we have lived must be destroyed and a radically new form of organization (political, social, ideological, sexual) be constructed […] What our civilization needs is a cinematic William Blake, capable of daring to imagine the devil as hero.”
I’m not sure if the new Exorcist movie will achieve that, but your work certainly does, and for that, I am so grateful.
Marlena Williams (she/her) is the author of the essay collection Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of the Exorcist (2023). You can find her other work in The Yale Review, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere.
S. Trimble (she/they) teaches courses on feminist cultural studies at the Women & Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. Their book, Undead Ends: Stories of Apocalypse (2019), is available from Rutgers University Press, and other writing can be found in the Bitch Media archives.
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