“I devoured this book—its intense cultural analysis, its candid personal history, and its philosophical inquiry—like a woman possessed. Gutsy and deeply researched, Night Mother is a keen investigation of American cinema, American girlhood, and American fear.” —Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses
Never watch The Exorcist, Marlena Williams’s mother told her, just as she’d been told by her own mother as a Catholic teen in rural Oregon when the horror classic premiered. And like her mother, Mary, Williams watched it anyway. An inheritance passed from mother to daughter, The Exorcist looms large—in popular culture and in Williams’s own life, years after Mary’s illness and death. In Night Mother, Williams investigates the film not only as a projection of Americans’ worst fears in the tumultuous 1970s and a source of enduring tropes around girlhood, faith, and transgression but also as a key to understanding her mother and the world she came from.
The essays in Night Mother delve beneath the surface of The Exorcist to reveal the deeper stories the film tells about faith, family, illness, anger, guilt, desire, and death. Whether tracing the career of its young star, Linda Blair, unpacking its most infamous scenes, exploring its problematic depictions of gender and race, or reflecting on the horror of growing up female in America, Williams deftly blends bold personal narrative with shrewd cultural criticism. Night Mother offers fresh insights for both fans of the film and newcomers alike.
Marlena Williams is a writer from Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published in the Yale Review, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Note to Readers
Part 1 Invocations
Mercedes McCambridge Eats a Raw Egg
My Mother and The Exorcist
The Loud Silence
Part 2 Summoning the Evil Spirit
Six Visions of the Devil and His Demons
James Baldwin Sees The Exorcist in 1973
Part 3 Profession of Faith
The Priests of My Youth
Part 4 Laying of Hands on the Possessed
The Operating Theater
Father Karras Dreams of His Mother
Part 5 Concluding Prayer of Thanks
An American Pharma Memoir
Sarah Fawn Montgomery
Jordan Peele’s Get Out
Edited by Dawn Keetley
Everything I Never Wanted to Know