“The Exorcist: Lighting the Darkness” a film analysis by Chris J.Patiño
There are many ways to paint a picture of fear. For some filmmakers, it’s all in the monster, in showcasing the boogeyman at the center of the story. Others rely on suggestion and mind games to get inside peoples’ heads. Whichever way you cut, it’s all theatricality, and presentation goes a long way into how an audience will react. The Exorcist stands as one of the greatest horror films because of the filmmakers’ mastery over the language of film. Perhaps the film’s strongest element is its depiction of demonic possession. Director William Friedkin’s grounded documentary approach lends the film a sense of realism that is uncommon within the genre. He pays careful attention to making sure the world and the people in it feel authentic and believable. But that does not mean the film lacks artistry. As it happens, it’s the combination of the real with the imaginary that sells the film’s realistic vibe and accentuates the horror of it all. Of the filmmakers’ many technical wizardries, the cinematography, specifically the lighting, captures the character’s internal landscapes of fear as they contend with great evil. It lends to the film’s overall themes of faith and uncertainty. In The Exorcist, expressionistic lighting is tied directly to the human psyche, portraying the inner turmoil of doubt in the face of evil.
Light in The Exorcist plays a crucial part in telling the story of good versus evil. The first shot following the opening title card is a black-and-white sky that quickly colors into a deep orange-red, the first indication of the film’s dichotomy. The use of light to portray these opposing forces is prevalent throughout the film but plays out most effectively in the film’s showstopping exorcism scene. This final confrontation, in a sense, captures the film’s entire essence, paying off the themes and character arcs set up to that point. The lighting conveys the internal conflicts of our protagonists, using specific techniques to maximize the film’s thematic and emotional overtones, while also relying on elements of German Expressionism to articulate fear and distress.
Lighting in film is a crucial tool in creating mood and atmosphere. Horror films have a distinct lighting form that evokes a specific state of mind: fear. Film analysts from The Take state how “in a horror movie the dark, the unwelcome shadows and light coming from the wrong places fuel our feeling that something’s off, even before we have any concrete encounter with a threat” (The Take, 00:07:00-00:17:00). Horror relies on unnatural lighting to disturb the mind and unsettle the viewer. In looking at the centerpiece exorcism scene in The Exorcist, we can see how Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman tax this approach to its fullest, raising the film’s pathos and themes to a crescendo in one explosive scene. The exorcism is shot entirely with low-key light. The light is hard, painting our hero priests, Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller), and demon-possessed Regan (Linda Blair) in a harsh steely looking environment. The light source within the scene comes from two lamps on either side of Regan’s bed, allowing for deep pockets of shadow in the corners of the room. The mise-en-scène of the room is stark and barren, the bare walls reflecting nothing, their white-coloring a sharp contrast to the priests’ black uniforms (The Exorcist). This empty look is a strong representation of the void within certain characters, primarily Father Karras. Karras is suffering the worst possible crisis that a man of the cloth can: he’s lost his faith. On top of his priesthood, Karras is a psychiatrist who tends to the needs of other priests, but he no longer holds to his religious faith. His trust in the eternal has lost conviction, and his bearing on Regan’s possession stems exclusively from a scientific mindset. But this is folly. Rational thinking can’t explain what is happening to this poor girl, as is apparent through the many failed examinations of various doctors and psychiatrists. Her mother, Chris, is left hopeless as modern medicine fails to help her daughter. Their failures only work to disrupt Karras’s last standing belief in scientific reason. As Kendall Phillips observes, “Ultimately…our arrogant attempts to understand our nature without reference to the transcendent spiritual world are as reprehensible as the forces of evil themselves.” All the bells and whistles of modern medicine don’t mean a thing because they lack spirituality. The stripped-down, almost naked look of Regan’s bedroom reflects this faithless nature. The lighting paints this feeling in a blueish hue, giving the scene a cold, soulless appearance.
Friedkin’s use of light is also reminiscent of certain aspects of German Expressionism cinematography. While not traditional German Expressionism, The Exorcist implements core understandings of its style and emotional evocations, particularly with lighting and shadows. Although The Exorcist does not use distorted sets or unnaturalistic performances (save perhaps for Linda Blair’s and Mercedes McCambridge’s haunting work), the film does incorporate mood lighting in the vein of German Expressionism to affect the viewer’s sense of calm. Rick Worland, in his text The Horror Film, explains that “some expressionist works attempt to visualize (or evoke) interior psychological states and emotions, that is, subjective perceptions that cannot be ‘pictured’ as such.” Friedkin can’t necessarily “picture” the turmoil of someone who has lost their faith, but he can imply it with suggestive lighting. The icy clarity of the fluorescent-esque lighting system connects you to Karras’s struggle with faith. The shadows add depth to the lines in the actors’ faces, accentuating the terror of the scene. Jason Miller makes a show of detailing the fright of a faithless man confronting pure evil. The contrast amongst the darks and lights in this scene echoes the tug of war between belief and doubt. Father Merrin tends to be near one of the lamps in the room, the light behind him taking on a kind of halo glow. He is the film’s strongest figure of faith, standing in as an absolute authority of the Lord, or heaven. Regan is profiled in shadow, shrouded in it. She (by proxy, as she is possessed) represents the strongest character of evil. Karras is far from the light, but still visible. This mixture of scene staging and lighting techniques illustrates the film’s theme of struggle and faith.
Another lighting trick The Exorcist implements is bottom lighting or uplighting. It’s the age-old move of shining a light under your face to make it look spooky. This tactic works twofold to conjure dread and symbolism. Uplighting distorts the features of the human face whose shadowy appearance creates a feeling of “instinctive alarm” (The Take, 00:31-00:39). As a means to unsettle the viewer, it works. There is an absolute eeriness to not just the exorcism scene, but the whole film. Uplighting is frequently used in the film to create unease, such as when Chris runs into Regan’s room and sees the bed shaking violently. The look of fear on her face is even more striking because of the uplight. Figuratively, the uplighting alludes to the film’s major conflict. Lighting that comes “from below evokes the idea of light coming from the bowels of humanity, from the bowels of hell” (The Take, 00:59-01:04). This idea speaks to the quintessential battle that Karras and the other characters find themselves in. There is no worse place for a faithless individual to be than in the presence of the Devil. Uplighting symbolizes the unnatural presence of the demonic legion that has infiltrated our world. Lighting from below looks odd because “it doesn’t occur in the natural world” (The Take, 00:46-00:51). Friedkin encapsulates this notion of unnatural evil in a stellar moment of dialogue-free, visual storytelling. A single spotlight illuminates Regan in an otherwise blacked-out shot as she kneels on the bed, back to the camera, crying out and clawing upward as the statue of the demon Pazuzu shines into view for a moment. This image exemplifies the malevolent being that Merrin and Karras are facing. The spotlighting in this shot gives it an ethereal glow that lends to the film’s cosmic conflict.
Lighting in The Exorcist communicates the inner and outer terror of lost faith. It personifies the existence of evil and exacerbates the struggle of coming to grips with that reality. For if the Devil exists, surely God must too, right? It is this crucial question of belief, of hope that rests at the center of The Exorcist. The film is a bleak experience that can color the way you see it. It’s easy to view it as pessimistic or fatalistic, but ultimately the story is one of restoration. Only through facing the literal Devil can Karras rediscover his religious faith and make the ultimate sacrifice to save the innocent. The film’s lighting techniques masterfully depicts the psychological entanglement that is brought about by such a journey. It elicits literal fright that lends itself to a metaphorical meaning that extends beyond holding a flashlight under your face just to make it look scary. Horror films are never only one thing. They reflect our values and interests, working on a multifaceted level to give voice to our collective fears. Light personifies, it gives shape to two-dimensional thoughts. The Exorcist’s utilization of light, darkness and shadows breathes life into our fears of facing the existential forces of the unknown without faith. A belief system is power. To be powerless in the eyes of God, the Devil or a pleading mother trying to save her child is a worrying concept. The Exorcist explores these waters of uncertainty with an unflinching lighting scheme that highlights the brutality of a faithless world without smothering out its glimmers of hope entirely.
“Horror Lighting: From Below.” YouTube, uploaded by The Take, 26, October 2016,
Phillips, Kendall R. “The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” 101-122. Print.
Worland, Rick. “Beginnings to 1945.” The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden, MA:
BIO: Chris J. Patiño is a senior at Lewis University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the (Godzilla-sized) footsteps of the film critic and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. Student during the day, Panera Bread delivery driver by night, Chris often spends his time daydreaming about being bitten by a radioactive spider and fighting crime. In between woolgatherings, he reviews movies for The Lewis Flyer, goes to the gym and hosts game nights with friends. He enjoys just about every genre of film, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, superhero, and action movies. Favorite authors include Stephen King and Jim Butcher, with favorite novels being The Dresden Files series, the Harry Potter series, Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Strain, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and All the President’s Men.