It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night. Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning. And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you. I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem. As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together. Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist. The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this. One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather. Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs. Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.
The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies. They both had a transformative cultural impact. Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished. I noticed the same thing about scholarship. Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright. Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did. Albright died in the early seventies. Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing. The era of individual influence was ending. Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies? A new Apocalypse Now?
You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies. We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly. Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing. Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame. Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far. It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention. The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence. And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.