Feature Four Frames

The Pazuzu ‘subliminals’ in The Exorcist (William Friedkin 1973)


Back in the days before The Exorcist‘s long-delayed UK commercial home video release – February 1999 if you’re wondering – we had to rely on poor-quality VHS copies purchased at record fairs, car boot sales and the like from gentlemen wearing AC/DC T-shirts who answered to the name of ‘Dog’. “Yeah, it’s a copy taken from the Dutch release, bit rough at the beginning but it plays fine, ten quid to you mate.”

With no apparent formal video release in the offing thanks to the delicate sensibilities of the BBFC we probably took a chance on Dog’s offer, although we might have declined his 3 for 2 pitch that would have included a couple of other knock-offs with the words ‘holocaust’ and ‘cannibal’ in their titles. The pirate copy cultural appreciation of the film back then usually revolved around spotting the smattering of supposedly subliminal images that, Dog would have you believe, had variously led to vomiting/sudden death/religious conversions among US audiences.

So we’d take the tape home and watch the movie through. Then we’d rewind and do our bit to burn out the heads and main motor of our Ferguson Videostar toploaders by over-exuberant use of the Pause button to try to capture those ‘hidden’ frames in order to see what effect they had on us. Of course they had no effect at all on us (if you discount your mate Dave’s stories about his brother having an epileptic fit/his dog running off and getting run down by a car/his grandmother slipping and breaking her hip at the cold meat counter in Sainsburys, etc. as a result) but their very presence in The Exorcist was central to the film’s mythology.

The four frames presented here show four instances of the face of Pazuzu, the Assyrian demon that possesses poor Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). There’s a small liberty taken here; the appearance in the kitchen behind Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) was added for the augmented 2000 theatrical release The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen along with a couple of other overlay effects showing brief composites of Pazuzu’s face mixed with Regan’s. But these four are the clearest sights we get of the beast, so enjoy, but if anything bad happens to you after looking at them don’t blame us, blame director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty, okay?PAZUZU1

Some folks, including subliminality expert Wilson Bryan Key in his 1976 book ‘Media Sexploitation’, incorrectly identified the face as that of Jason Miller who played Father Damien Karras in the film (look more closely next time Wilson), but in fact the face belongs to Eileen Dietz who has been dining out on these flash frames for years and purportedly has a book about her Exorcist experiences due out later this year. Apart from this misidentification, Mr. Key and others are also technically incorrect for referring to these images as subliminal. They typically occupy three or more frames each in the film and frankly you would have to slow-blink or turn away from the screen completely not to see them, which backs up Blatty’s assertion that “There are no subliminal images. If you can see it, it’s not subliminal.”

By Jez Conolly

Jez has contributed to numerous film-related books, magazines and websites. He has co-edited three books in Intellect's World Film Locations series, covering Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool and has contributed pieces to many more volumes in the series. His monograph on John Carpenter's The Thing in Auteur's Devil's Advocates series of books was published in 2013. He is currently working on another book in the same series, concerning Ealing Studios' Dead of Night.

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