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The Exorcist & The Silence of the Lambs (film essay)

Posted on November 2, 2012 at 8:20 AM

Horror films often portray images of intense violence and gore. This filmic technique is not unique to the genre of course, as action films, thrillers, and especially war dramas also depict scenes of violence. However, in those cases, the violence is contextual. The threat applies to the characters in the film, and works more as a plot device than a subject of examination. In horror films, the violence is universal. It reaches past the screen, and affects the audience members viscerally, rather than aesthetically. It gets under their skin, and crawls into their thoughts long after the credits have rolled. The best horror films speak to something old and primal inside people. It may be the fear of physical and psychological abuse, or the fear of possession, person or otherwise. It may be the fear of watching a loved turn against you, of being corrupted or defiled before your eyes. All of these fears are expressed through The Exorcist (Friedkin 1973) and The Silence of the Lambs (Demme 1991), two films concerned with the horror of abduction and possession. Both films focus on female victims, and explore the imagery of masks and the wearing of another’s flesh. The editing and mise-en-scene of both of these films contribute to the horror of the narrative, and evoke a sense of dread in both the characters and the audience.


The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs each address the audience’s fear of possession. In The Exorcist, the possessor is a demon, a supernatural entity, which seduces a young girl, enters her body, and makes her an instrument of his treacherous will. In The Silence of the Lambs, possession takes on a physical and psychological component. A young girl is kidnapped and held hostage in a serial killers basement. Parallel to that, a young FBI agent is manipulated and ensnared psychologically by the brilliant, but insane Dr Hannibal Lector. In both films the motif of female skin is used as a symbol of possession. In The Exorcist, the demon inhabits Regan’s body, slowly poisoning and flaying her from the inside out, while Regan herself cowers within the prison of her own flesh. And in The Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill seeks to transcend his hideous soul, by replacing his “ugly” masculine body, with a “beautiful” female body, fashioned from the skins of his victims. While the mere description of these plots is enough to induce nausea, it is interesting to note that the violence in these two films is less pronounced than one might presume, even after viewing them. While The Exorcist certainly portrays sequences of gore and bodily fluid, the source of danger, Regan, is usually tied up, so as not to harm herself or others. The violence she inflicts on others is emotional violence, taunting Father Karras’ guilt, and exposing her mother Chris to an intensely sexualised aggression. In The Silence of the Lambs, not a single murder occurs within the frame of the film. Certainly we are exposed to the grisly aftermath of killings, but the closest we get to seeing one is the shot of Hannibal Lector swinging a police baton back and forth across the lens, and spotting his shirt with flecks of blood. Instead, the horror lies in the violent and damaged psyches of these characters, and the arduous dissections of their crimes.


The imagery of horror films, particularly modern horror, favours the depiction of graphic violence and gore. The intensity of the imagery is designed to disgust viewers, as much as frighten them. When The Exorcist was first released in 1973, newspapers reported incidences of public vomiting and mass panic. The shot of Regan, a young girl assaulting Father Karras with a jet-stream of green sick remains, for better or worse, one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. While it is tempting to dismiss such filmic techniques as cheap and literally (rather than thematically) repulsive, there is an aesthetic strategy to The Exorcist’s “gore moments”, especially when contrasted with the handsome and measured cinematography that embodies the rest of the film. Likewise, The Silence of the Lambs, while omitting certain acts of violence from the audience, offers fleeting images of intense horror, such as the water-bloated corpse of one of the female victims, and a shot of green, peeling human flesh, sewn together over a mannequin. In their exposure to these “dark sensations”, the audience is no longer experiencing imagery on an aesthetic level, distanced by the fictionality of what they are viewing, but rather they are viscerally frightened or nauseated by it, thus blurring the boundaries between what is “real” and “imaginary”. Though the act of vomiting is generally regarded as undesirable, audiences seem to derive a morbid fascination (even pleasure) from frightening themselves to the point of somatic release. The stimulus of fear, like lust, seems to be sought out by people, in an effort to overwhelm themselves with emotion, literally “possessed” by the visual experience. Along with the shots of projectile vomiting, The Exorcist also sees Regan scratching open her face and wrists, cursing her mother, twisting her neck and limbs at bone-snapping angles, and stabbing at her crotch with a crucifix. These explosions of physical and emotional abuse are made all the more shocking in that such a sweet, loving girl is made to commit them. Perhaps Regan’s violent possession echoes the involuntary fear and disgust we are made to feel as an audience. Beyond our primal bodily responses, however, the horror of the film also raises our curiosity, through its transgression of established cultural norms. Specifically, the film violates the sanctity of religion, and the safety of the family home. The demonic entity invades and corrupts both of these institutions, transforming them from sanctuaries into cages of torment. The resulting terror is the price we pay for gazing upon such monstrosity.


The reason the horror is The Exorcist is so effective, is because it takes place within an otherwise calm and thoughtful family drama. The audience spends time with Regan and her mother, and the film develops them into real and sympathetic characters, observing their caring and loving relationship. Similarly, Father Karras spends the early part of the film dealing with his aging mother, and struggling with his faith. The supernatural elements emerge gradually, and are treated with scepticism by the characters. As Regan’s behaviour becomes more unstable, such as wetting herself at a party, her mother turns to science and medicine for help. This grounds the film in a reality that the audience recognises, and behaviour that is believable. In illustrates a new world response to an old world power. These establishing scenes contrast sharply with the horrific imagery of Regan’s possession, and the spiritual and emotional violence that it necessitates. We are forced to watch this sweet-natured girl become corrupted and defiled by a demonic entity, and her mother reduced to tears, as the one she loves most in the world is turned cruelly against her.


This juxtaposition of order and chaos is exemplified in the film’s prologue. Set on the other side of the world, in the deserts of Northern Iraq, archaeologist Father Merrin unearths an ancient holy relic. The ruins of the dig site are grey, craggy and dusty, closer to rocks than bricks. The sun blazes enormous in a glowering yellow sky, baking the sands an arid red. The heat is dry and oppressive, and the environment portrays a stillness that contrasts with the busy desperation of the diggers. Windburnt men hack and hammer at the rocks, probing deeper and deeper into the ancient world. Even when Father Merrin returns to town at night, there is a feeling of age, not just in his laboured movements, but in the land and people who surround him, with their long beards and weary eyes. The prologue ends with Merrin happening across a statue in the dig-site, a winged monster with a snarling face, some ancient people’s grasp at capturing monstrosity. As soon as he lays eyes on it, the tone of the scene shifts drastically; the stillness gives way to frenzy. The sun shines angrily through the statue, making it appear black, and then a screeching sound begins to rise as Merrin approaches. The camera, previously steady, begins to shake back and forth, and the frame seems to speed up and pivot, as a second man appears behind him. Two dogs begin fighting viciously nearby, and the screeching becomes louder, mixing with shrieking violin chords. The camera zooms in on Merris and then the statue, implying a profound spiritual connection between the two. Time seems to shift, and they continue to stare each other down, their figures silhouetted against the swelling desert sun. The screeching grows even louder, sharp and unnerving, and braids with the growls of the dogs. Chaos and violence seem to have erupted out of nowhere, and as quickly they appeared, the scene fades and dissolves into an image of a modern American city – Georgetown. Friedkin has transported us from the old world to the new world, giving us a very frightening sense that a violent and evil presence has passed between the two. Subliminal images of the demon statue, as well as a white-faced androgynous creature, are intercut throughout the course of the film. Their ambiguous placement, while not explicit, creates a sense of uneasiness within the viewer, and fosters the idea that the evil portrayed in the film is reaching out, and toying with their mind.


Decay and corruption are prevailing motifs throughout the The Exorcist. As Regan’s possession progresses, her skin becomes green and flayed with cuts, her hair grows long and tangled, and her eyes glow a misty yellow. These external changes echo the internal decay of her soul, as the demon takes over and forces her to do and say awful things to the one’s she loves. The demon exploits her disintegration of innocence and virtue to attack Father Karras’ faith in God, and taunt her mother’s love. The horror of this transformation lies in the suggestion that institutions of safety and moral order can be infested from within, and changed into places of torment and pain. This is likely a very real dread in many people’s lives, especially those who have experienced family breakdown or institutionalised abuse. There is also a disturbing sexual element to the possession. Regan exposes her genitals to doctors, demanding sex, attempting to castrate them when denied. She masturbates violently with a crucifix, and even tries to force a sexual encounter with her mother. This sexualised violence imposed by the demon may be a mockery of Mary’s Virgin birth. It may also imply a sense of sexual vulnerability that the pre-pubescent Regan felt, which was quickly seized upon and exploited by the domineering demon. The sequences would likely have deeply disturbed Catholics and parents alike.


As mentioned above, the horror in The Silence of the Lambs comes less from acts of violence and “jump-scares”, and more from psychological dissection, and the building of tension. By not showing the audience certain things, such as the nurse Dr Lector attacked, or the front of Buffallo Bill’s rotting victim, the film allows the audience to build up terror in their own imaginations. The violence is alluded to, recounted, dissected, and re-enacted throughout the film, but the acts themselves, the serial killings of Lector and Bill, occur off-screen and out of frame. They remain mysterious and enigmatic, festering like a cancer in the back of the audiences mind, hanging like a shadow over the characters of the film. Demme knows that nothing he could show could compare to the monstrosity the viewer is building up in their own minds. In a sense, “jump-scares” and acts of violence are antithetical to this kind of horror film, as they provide a release of tension. Demme is far more interested in drip-feeding fear to the audience, providing them with dribs and drabs of the horrible truth, article headlines such “Bill Skin Fifth” and “New Horrors in Cannibal Trial”, and allowing the audience to piece together and assemble their own dread. The horror also comes from our association with the victims, particularly with the shots of one of their empty bedrooms. Their normality is our normality, and we cannot ignore the fact that it could easily have been us. This fear may be even more pronounced in female viewers, since the film deals specifically with misogynistic violence, and the depiction of women as prey for serial killers; lambs, so to speak, to the wolves of Lector and Buffalo Bill. Demme knows that people have a morbid fascination with true crime, and the grislier the better. Once again, it plays in with the audiences desire to gaze into the darkness of the soul, and observe the transgressors of cultural order. However, Demme takes it a step further, by actually locating us in the perspective of the killer, at the climax of the film. As Clarice Starling fumbles around in the darkness, terrified and vulnerable, we see perfectly, through the predatory night vision goggles of Buffalo Bill. In that moment, we slip into his skin, and feel the power of stalking a helpless woman. It is both intoxicating and horrifying.


One of the most iconic scenes of the film is the first meeting of Starling and Lector, and a prime illustration of building tension and dread in the audiences mind. Through the film, Starling is constantly exposed to a form of leering masculinity. Her male FBI colleagues gaze at her with a mixture of desire and contempt. As she first enters Baltimore’s prison for the criminally insane, she is immediately objectified by Warden Dr Chilton, who regards her as little more than a pretty airhead. But as she descends into the bowels of the prison, her feelings of isolation and otherness become far more pronounced. Red lights flash as she reaches Lector’s floor, signifying her arrival into Hell. The camera at this point takes on a point-of-view perspective, as we look around the cells from Starling’s perspective. The prison guards, with the exception of the courteous Barney, look down on her with expressions of disdain. The prison door slams shut behind her, further cementing her isolation, and she makes her way slowly down the row of cells. The lighting here is dark, and the brickwork more akin to a medieval dungeon than a state-of-the-art prison. The third cell holds Miggs, perhaps the embodiment of all masculine sexual violence. His misogyny cannot be contained, and literally bursts out through the bars to latch itself onto Starling. However, the final cell holds Lector. A stark contrast to the other rooms, Lector is imprisoned by glass, rather than bars, signifying a higher, perhaps more elegant, form of sociopathy. His walls are decorated with beautiful sketches, and Lector himself is clean, groomed, and well-dressed. He greets Starling courteously, and offers her a seat. Slowly, however, his true monstrosity begins to spill out. He reaches into her mind, probing her upbringing and manipulating her psyche, before outright threatening to eat her liver. Lector is everything Buffalo Bill wants to be. He is a hideous soul, contained within an elegant shell. What makes Lector most frightening of all is that his mask is so perfect that it raises questions within the audiences mind. How many others like him are out there, hiding behind this mask of sanity? Finally, this mask is made literal, when Lector slices off the face of a police officer, and places it upon himself, to curry the empathy of actual human beings.

Categories: ESSAYS, Cinema

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