"The Exorcist" on Halloween.
Georgetown has at least two great Halloween traditions. One of these is the "Healy Howl," a midnight gathering of undergraduate students for the purpose of howling at the moon like wolves. When I was on the Hilltop, the Healy Howl took place at the gates of the Jesuit cemetery on campus, an appropriately spooky setting under the circumstances. As an undergrad, I used to wonder what the Jesuit priests, brothers and scholastics buried in Georgetown's cemetery would make of this yearly ritual. I finally came to suspect that, given their centuries of accumulated experience teaching undergraduates, most of the Jesuits buried at Georgetown probably had good senses of humor and would chuckle amusedly at a superficially transgressive but ultimately harmless ritual like the Healy Howl.
Georgetown's second great Halloween tradition is the screening of The Exorcist in Gaston Hall. Scripted by Georgetown alumnus William Peter Blatty and shot on and around the university campus, The Exorcist is the Georgetown movie - much more so than the bland and forgettable Brat Pack flick St. Elmo's Fire, which is ostensibly about a group of young GU alumni but makes only generic references to the university and wasn't even filmed there. In my experience, Gaston Hall viewings of The Exorcist could take on a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show quality - not only would students applaud whenever the Georgetown campus appears in the film, but some would come in costume and offer shouted responses to the film's dialogue. Hoyas viewing The Exorcist would respond to the film as only Hoyas could. For example, a scene in the film in which dialogue between two characters is drowned out by the sound of plane flying overhead was greeted with uproarious laughter by the Gaston Hall audience for the simple reason that Georgetown students could relate to the experience given that their university sat directly beneath the flight path for airliners taking off and landing at Washington National Airport.
The Exorcist is also a quintessentially Catholic film that takes a sober look at the reality of evil and offers a challenging representation of sacrificial love. The heart of the film's message comes in a quiet scene between Jesuit priests Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who have been called upon to perform an exorcism on twelve-year-old Regan McNeil (Linda Blair). Having wrestled throughout the film with a deepset crisis of faith, Father Karras ponders a profound question and gets a sage answer from Father Merrin:
KARRAS: Why this girl? It makes no sense.
MERRIN: I think the point is to make us despair - to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.
This exchange was cut from the film's 1973 theatricial release by director William Friedkin, who regarded it as "a commercial for the Catholic Church." Restored to the film nearly thirty years later, this brief bit of dialogue gives The Exorcist a crucial context that is missing from most contemporary horror films. The possession of Regan McNeil isn't a random event, but a contest in a larger battle between good and evil. As Father Merrin realizes, the presence of evil in the world tempts us to deny the essential truth about ourselves - that we are human beings with a transcendent destiny, made in the image and likeness of the loving God who desires eternal union with us. The Christian response to despair is to reaffirm our belief in the loving God and to follow the example of self-sacrificing love offered by Jesus Christ. Father Karras does this in a particularly striking (and even shocking) way, giving up his life to save Regan's.
Faithful to Georgetown tradition even as I study at Fordham, I plan to watch The Exorcist again this evening. Though I'm viewing the film on Halloween, I'm conscious that the struggle between good and evil reflected in the film isn't limited to this or any other single day. Though the evils we encounter in the world may tempt us to despair, we must always be mindful of the joy and love offered by the God who is with us even in the darkest hours of night. AMDG.