This serial column revisits The Exorcist television series. Conceived by Jeremy Slater for FOX and starring Ben Daniels, Alfonso Herrera, Geena Davis, and Alan Ruck, the show ran 2016-17 and was generally well-received by critics and audiences. DIS/MEMBER returns to the show in the context of a new Exorcist franchise film, seeking insight on what made the show work and why it’s lesser-known than its film counterparts. All screencaps sourced from Kiss Them Goodbye.
There’s a material quality to Catholicism that feels alien to this post-LDS viewer–a confidence in the natural world not as a source of innate goodness, nor simply a state of matter over which to be triumphed, but as reality. It might be the trappings: elaborate or at least unmistakable garb, meaning-laden architecture, a ritual for every occasion. But it might be the instance of confession, the acceptance of an intermediary, the blithe admission of carnality, a pair of people moving in concert. Sinner, absolver. Material wrongs, corrected physically by penance, the body’s actions signifying something about the spirit.
Father Tomas’s adultery plotline is seemingly minor compared to the world-changing stakes of demonic possession, but when Jessica offers him a key to her new apartment, it becomes a metaphor for not only his struggle but Marcus’s and the Rances’. A place where there is no guilt, no shame, no marriage, no priesthood, she pleads. For a moment we believe she and Tomas can access a pure location unfettered by life’s strictures, scaffolding and most of all its labels. But in episode six of The Exorcist, “Star of the Morning” plunges from the theoretical matter of souls back to the crude, undeniable business of bodies. Both holiness and transgression are couched in flesh; sex and prayer are twinned, human organs have the power to summon demons, and evil often begets physical evidence.
But not always.
If the world of “Through My Grievous Fault” was composed almost exclusively of the Rance home and family, “Star of the Morning” casts a wider gaze. Chicago is back in action as a main character, in terms of city governance and the people who make up its citizenry. The civic body is under attack, as well as the individual bodies of people. As the episode progresses, a sinking feeling sets in. The camera’s eye and the narrative’s draw back, and back, until the audience receives a chilling glimpse at the biggest picture. After all, who believes that a teenage girl is the true target of such awesome demonic power? Angela, at least, wants to believe that the stakes remain solely her daughter… but the past has arrived to challenge that belief and everything she’s built.
Throughout the episode there’s an insistence on the duality of matter and spirit, each instance of spiritual knowledge bolstered or attacked by the carnal world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the name motif undergirding “Star of the Morning.” In flashback, a young Regan MacNeil (played by Sophie Thatcher, soon-to-be of Yellowjackets fame) visits a talk show with her mother, touring in support of a book Chris has written about the events of The Exorcist.
Upon mild challenge from the host, Regan appears not to have realized that if she continues on this path, strangers–future friends, college professors, perhaps even people on the street–will know her. Her name will be legend, denoting not her but something else: hoax, fiend, slut, traumatic, liar. In the present, Chris herself talks with her granddaughter Kat about what the Rances should call her. No “Nana” for this woman who’s come out of nowhere wielding the closest of family ties. Most devastating of all, Henry hurls Angela’s name at her, repeating Regan over and over, asking who Angela is.
There’s much occult lore behind naming conventions and practices. The childish name of Regan’s demon, Captain Howdy, belies his evil nature and intent. During a fundraiser for the intriguingly-named Friars of Ascension, Father Bennett argues with a professor of divinity about the terminology “rebel angels” versus “demons.” The mystical power imparted by giving a being or thing its true name enters the corporeal world and becomes immediately political. The Exorcist series was being developed and filmed in the years following the police murders of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, the latter of whom was memorialized in a phrase that quickly went viral: say her name.
“Star of the Morning” grounds the series in its cultural moment with a scene of Chicago police holding a press conference. Ostensibly centered on the still-missing Casey Rance, the conference’s focus shifts, along with a diegetic shift of news cameras, when a Black woman in the crowd demands the media’s attention, and the audience’s. As she names the people murdered in Englewood–a case not receiving the media and systemic attention of a missing white girl–the shot changes: hearts and eyes, brains and hands, are laid on trays and placed into ovens, the organs of the Englewood murdered being prepared for the vocare pulvare.
It’s a disturbing scene, one of the most troubling in the series so far. It’s troubling not merely for plot reasons, Father Marcus’s warnings of the vocare pulvare coming true, but because it echoes the exploitation and abuse of African-Americans as the base of US history. The darkest aspects of US dominance and hegemony are fed quite literally with blood. And as we see with the benefit or curse of hindsight, the reality imparted by media attention and cultural awareness rarely brings justice.
Angela’s case is highlighted as an example of what happens when the average person thinks they know all they need to know about a celebrity or otherwise-known figure. Once her “true” identity becomes public knowledge, she in turn becomes unreal, a mourning maternal figurehead, a body to whom something once happened. Her family members attempt to assign her reality, with Chris taking blame for not being “more present” for young Regan and Henry blaming Angela for not trusting him with her past.
Most crucially, Father Marcus broaches the notion of integration, wherein a human’s soul is so tightly intertwined with a demon’s that the two can’t be separated. The human soul is effectively destroyed. His rigorous system of action bolstered by belief is on full display as he hunts Casey and her demon through Chicago’s darkest corners. He searches for signs of disruption to the natural world that accompany demonic presence, a ripple in reality caused by something more-than-real. Yet if Angela remembers little else from her time with Captain Howdy, she remembers that her exorcists believed nothing was left of her. There’s a yawning gap between familiar possessed Regan and reserved adult Angela, one that raises doubt in the audience. How are we to know who is truly inside any of the characters? This meaning-making, of course, mimics the attacks on personhood wielded by authoritarians of every stripe.
An uncanny telegraphing occurs in “Star of the Morning,” a glimpse of what US political culture would become post-2020 as conspiratorial thinking erupted at the highest levels. The idea of the shadow government or nefarious cohort pulling puppet strings isn’t a new one, and is often a damaging one.
Yet here onscreen is evidence of the writers’ room trying their level best to get away from the notion’s anti-Semitic origins, by way of the shadow group being populated by police, Christian authority figures, and white captains of industry. Maria Walters, Police Superintendent Jaffey (Tim Hopper), and the divinity professor Rexroth (Michael Patrick Thornton) are among the inner circle comprising the Friars of Ascension. Brother Simon (Francis Guinan), whom Father Tomas met briefly on his search for Marcus, leads them. He arrives at the ritual with a perfect green apple, the serpent in the garden of all Earth, and a domineering, ghoulish folksiness familiar to anyone recovering from evangelical Christianity. If faith is required to see the humanity claimed by damaged souls, it’s equally necessary for perceiving the harmful intent of traditional leaders.
“Star of the Morning” is a name ascribed to both Christ and Satan in the Christian Bible, from words that mean “light-bringer.” When Father Bennett arrives at the fundraiser for the Friars of Ascension, his eye lingers on the HE IS COMING poster for the Pope’s pending arrival in Chicago. Each time we see the poster onscreen, it looms larger. What should be an exciting and refreshing time for the faithful is becoming–most specifically in the eyes of the fathers–a promise of imminent doom. The reveal at episode’s end is almost an afterthought: of course this coterie of rich and powerful are paving a path for the lord of all evil. Of course the vocare pulvare corporealizes every protracted assault on the country’s most vulnerable, chumming the water for Satan.
What lingers with the audience instead is Professor Rexroth’s lecture on rogue angels. If, as he claims, those fallen from Heaven are “the architects of all we hold dear,” Henry must reckon with the fact that a demon helped shape the woman he loves. Casey’s family will have to internalize–to integrate, perhaps–the memory of their daughter and sister with the demon-wracked girl about to come home.
At the heart of all possession stories is a deceptively simple question: how and to what point to trust the subjectivity of those we love.