When The Exorcist was released on the day after Christmas in 1973, there were some immediate warning signs that it had the power to inflict the kind of lasting, soul-scarring damage that usually takes years to administer through the slow drip of family dysfunction. Watching little 12-year-old Regan violate herself with a crucifix and spew pea soup and profanity in equal measure was seriously messing with moviegoers’ minds and bodies. Some fainted and collapsed. Others lost their lunch. And then there were those who ran from the theater in terror and were never the same again.
I was one of those people. I was 5 years old.
The Exorcist was the first, and maybe the worst, of all the scary movies I saw at an age when most of my peers were singing along to Sesame Street or zoning out to Scooby-Doo. Things were different at my house. I was raised by a movie-buff single mom who had a fairly liberal (and, yes, nutty) idea of appropriate viewing for kids. We lived in what was then a slummy part of West Hollywood. And on most weekend nights, we’d walk to one of the local movie palaces and watch whatever happened to be playing. One night it was Shampoo; the next it was Equus. It was never The Apple Dumpling Gang.
As bad luck would have it, the most impressionable years of my childhood happened to land smack in the middle of Hollywood’s heyday of high-class supernatural horror. Top-notch directors were cranking out ultrarealistic psychological creepfests like The Omen (Richard Donner), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick), and Carrie (Brian De Palma). Each of these movies turned sweet-faced kids like me into satanic delivery systems in bowl cuts and bell-bottoms. Suddenly we weren’t watching zombies or space aliens or Godzillas. And that’s what was so disturbing about these films: Very sinister things were happening in the familiar daily grind of domestic life, and these victims were the kids next door with doting moms or distracted, divorced parents. They were me and you and everyone we knew. These movies scared me down to my stem cells and left an imprint as deep as anything that actually happened in my real life.
I managed to see every single one of these devil-child movies before I was old enough to drive — often through the slits between my fingers as I sat balled up in a velvet seat with my hands cupped over my eyes. Undoubtedly, this was a comically bad parenting blunder on the part of a loving mother who says she was doing the best she could at the time and that babysitting didn’t come cheap. Fair enough. In any case, I spent a big chunk of my wonder years convinced that I was on Satan’s short list of targets. I often couldn’t go to bed without checking in closets and behind doors for any signs of the paranormal ready to pounce. As far as I was concerned, I was constantly being bombarded with signs of my own personal apocalypse. A kid in my class was named Damon. Chillingly close to Damien from The Omen, right? Jack Nicholson appeared in my mother’s Art Deco gallery, not long after I’d seen The Shining — looking a mere day of stubble away from ”Here’s Johnny!” And Linda Blair’s head shot taunted me from the local dry cleaner’s celebrity photo gallery.
NEXT PAGE: ”I refused to swim in the deep end of the pool for fear that it was a trapdoor to hell. I refused to flush public toilets. (I can’t remember the devil connection there, but it made sense at the time.)”