Silence. Fearful, Hollow Silence: Sonic Atmosphere in The Exorcist

The Twirl and Swirl of Letters

This weekend, I watched the 1973 movie The Exorcist for the first time.

One thing that struck me about the film was the use of silence, the creeping, ever present lack of background accompaniment. The theme played twice (to my recollection), once when Chris is walking past the row of houses when returning from the set, and at the very end of the film.

The lack of an instrumental soundtrack adds to the encroaching foreboding persistent throughout the entire film. I found the quiet, the still, the calm, when contrasted with Regan’s wild, possessed moments, disturbing. It was the sense of waiting, of the knowledge of something darker just around the corner, that the silence portrayed so well.

The scene that struck me most was not one of horror, but one of desperate contemplation. It is the scene where Father Merrin and Father Karras are seated on the stairs, resting after the first round against the demon.  As they sit, deep within their own thoughts, worries and fears, the silence envelopes them. The viewer, who, like the two priests, has just been through the harrowing first part of the exorcism, rests, like them. The silence that surrounds the priests surrounds the viewer as well, a perfect mirror.

Just earlier that day, I was listening to one of the music channels. On the bottom of the page, the phrase “Choose Your Mood, On Music Choice” appeared. This seemingly innocuous phrase made my mind run.

The Exorcist does a good job of effecting one’s mood, even with the minimal soundtrack. The silence that permeates throughout the film gives a sense of alienation, heightened isolation.

The visuals, too, add a stark quality to the film that mirrors the lack of sound. The colors are muted. The set decoration is largely minimal. Much of the action surrounding Regan takes place in either hospitals or in her frighteningly Spartan room. Even the basement, often a site of clutter for many families, is eerily bare.

As a writer, this stark, empty, disconcerting quiet had me thinking about creating atmosphere in my writing. How would I go about conveying that encroaching, crushing quiet? My thought is minimal dialogue, short sentences, descriptive ones. Something to explore!

Note on the title: It sounds painfully academic. I’ve been doing research for my two theses–one is on The Prisoner, which has been somewhat documented here. The other is about Psycho and that’s the first mention of it.

2 thoughts on “Silence. Fearful, Hollow Silence: Sonic Atmosphere in The Exorcist

  1. What a great review of The Exorcist. You picked out exactly the reasons why I think this is a superb film. The sparing use of incidental music makes the whole thing seem so real. I’m impressed that you singled out the scene of the two priests on the stairs as many people find this a crucial scene and, interestingly, it was a scene that was almost omitted by Friedkin as being unimportant to the story. My own fave bit is where they are shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” as Regan floats into the air. This could easily have looked ludicrous and made audiences laugh but because there is no music and absolutely no fancy camera shots the scene seems utterly real. I love this film and also like The French Connection of Friedkin’s but unfortunately most of his other stuff is dreadful (e.g. Cruising with Al Pacino which is a disaster!) Good comparing notes with ya


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