While teaching The Exorcist to a group of high-school seniors in 2001, I began our class discussion by asking, "Why does Regan only kill men?" One student blithely replied, "Because she's got an oedipal thing." We had spent the previous semester reading Oedipus the King, and followed up with some Freud and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and now my students thought that everything had oedipal complex connotations. But when I asked the student to explain the reasoning behind his comment, I realized that he might have been correct. Why does the demon inhabiting Regan MacNeil's body only kill men? Or, more precisely, why are only single men killed? I believe that Regan does exhibit some classic signs of the oedipal complex, only with a twist: her conflict is modernized because she is the product of divorce and a more dysfunctional society that is harmful to its children.
Briefly summed up, the classic oedipal complex states that "children perceive themselves as rivals of their same-sex parents for the affection of the parent of the opposite sex" (Psychology Today, 736). Freud believed that this was the most important conflict in the psychological development of children, and that all children must experience and then grow out of this stage in order to function normally in the adult world. If this is indeed the case, then I ask: What happens if there is only one parent present in the family? Can the oedipal conflict occur? If so, how? And how is it resolved? Behind the scenes of vomiting, levitation, guttural insults and rotating heads in The Exorcist lies a much deeper threat: the demon might be manifesting itself because of Regan's family situation: a bitter divorce, a deadbeat dad, the death of a brother, and a career-obsessed mother.
According to Matthew Fee, an adjunct professor at NYU, "Horror has always--to some degree--reflected societies' nightmares" (Mclntyre,16). This seems to be the case in The Exorcist. "A more sly and subtle subtext, unnoticed by the reviews of the time, was the novel's play on crucial social issues: women's liberation and the rebellion of youth. Here was a dramatic suggestion that a woman's devotion to her career rather than the home might leave her child vulnerable--spawning the ultimate delinquent: a demon" (Winter, 90). In the film, the supernatural is deftly intertwined with the angst of a typical pre-teen whose erratic behavior could only be a cry for attention.
In one of the scenes we viewed, Regan and her mother, Chris, make plans for Regan's birthday. While debating what to do on her special day, Regan informs her mother that she can bring her director, Burke Dennings, along on what should be a special mother-daughter outing. Although the tone is light and teasing in the film, William Peter Blatty's take on the conversation is somewhat different in the novel:"Honey, why would I want to bring Mr. Dennings?" "Well, you like him." "Oh, well, sure I like him, honey; don't you?" She made no answer. "Baby, what's going on?"...