Love it or hate it, everyone has a view on The Exorcist – whether they’ve read the book, seen the film or if they run for cover at the very mention of it.
William Peter Blatty’s tale of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil’s possession by a demon and her exorcism by a Jesuit priest (Father Damien Karras), struggling with his own loss of faith, still burns bright in the public imagination 50 years after it was published. But like so many others, the 1973 film – directed by William Friedkin, fresh from the success of The French Connection – looms large over the original text.
In the decades since the film’s release, The Exorcist became a five-film franchise, only some of it with Blatty’s approval and involvement, and has more recently had a two-season spin-off series, produced by FX, which ran between 2016 and 2017. Its throat-pincher visual effects and more shocking scenes have been mimicked and spoofed endlessly.
While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, the films that came after it don’t get close. The Exorcist is not just a horror film, it is the horror film. It is the first of its genre to win an Oscar, the highest-grossing of all time (when adjusted for inflation), the scariest and the best.
The sickening image of the twisting head and blistered face of the demon-possessed child, its rumbling, unholy croaking and the copious green vomit (in fact, pea soup) fired with improbable accuracy at priestly faces is stamped on the memory of even the most reluctant moviegoer.
Many who did go, as Blatty feared, went to be shocked. “A large section of the audience probably came because something that shocking and vulgar could be seen on the American screen,” he said, adding, “Bill Friedkin always said that would be the case; that they would come to see the little girl [perform a sexual act with a] crucifix.”
More than that, Blatty feared the audience would misinterpret the film. Indeed, the film‘s climax in a dramatic final scene – when Karras launches himself from Regan’s window to his death as the demon leaves the child and enters him, at his demand – was misunderstood by its audience. Rather than the righteous Karras offering himself in a moment of supreme sacrifice, the film implied the reverse, that the demon bade him do it. And Blatty was right, as a quick trawl through dedicated internet forums will show.
Strange to say, it was never meant to be a horror film, as Blatty and Friedkin both attested.
Amid the torrent of violent sacrilege, obscenities and desecration of church and child alike, Blatty conjures an extraordinary tale of lost sheep, guilt, shame, faith and redemption that film cannot tell in its totality.
While the horrifying practical effects of the film stay with us, Blatty’s homily on faith and despair, which he once described as a “350-page thank-you note to the Jesuits”, doesn’t translate to the screen.
It was while studying English at the Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, DC that William Peter Blatty first came across demons and demonology. One afternoon, during a theology seminar, he happened upon the 1949 exorcism of a Maryland boy, known to the papers as Roland Doe.
Twenty years later, he got in touch with one of the Jesuits present at the exorcism, Father William F Bowdern. His account convinced Blatty of its authenticity – though it’s worth noting many others weren’t. For Blatty, it was a cause for faith.
“It’s an argument for God,” he told the Washingtonian in 2015. “I intended it to be an apostolic work, to help people in their faith. Because I thoroughly believed in the authenticity and validity of that particular event.”
Added to Blatty’s public call to faith is a private push to revive his own.
Soon after he embarked on his apostolate of the pen, Blatty’s deeply religious mother died. His faith that had been so certain became more like hope.
His fictional Father Karras, like Blatty himself, was raised in poverty by a single, immigrant mother in New York and became the
focus of an intellectual battle to find God once more.
Through the course of Blatty’s tale, psychiatrist-priest Karras struggles to come to terms with the guilt of abandoning his mother to her solitary existence in a wretched New York apartment block, the immediate result of his becoming a Jesuit.
This shame is ruthlessly exploited by the demon possessing Regan, who lashes him with the haunting question in the voice of his mother: “Why did you leave me, Dimmi?”
Friedkin captures this diabolical guilt trip with cutting cruelty, but film by its nature cannot capture the depth of Karras’s doubt.
As confessor and counsellor, Karras bears an extraordinarily weighty cross – not just his own guilt, but that of all those around him. His vocation puts him at the beck and call of his fellow man, as he pushes them away, loathing them for their dependence on him. All the while, Karras rejects the hope of faith, too fearful to risk the pain of disappointment again. A reluctant Christ, he attends to all but is crushed by them.
And yet, Karras is far from the only lamb seeking the fold. Blatty’s cast of tortured souls each has their hidden grief. Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, struggles with the fear that she put career before family, and that her divorce from her husband, Howard, prompted Regan’s sudden personality change. Her housekeeper, Carl, his face an unreadable mask, has his own narcotic secret, while Sharon, Chris’s social secretary, suppresses her desire for an unattainable object.
Their guilt, steadily revealed throughout Blatty’s novel, builds to a crucendo as the demon’s rumbling mockery targets their collective, but individuated, despair. And the despair is the point, its purpose in possession.
Before the final exorcism, philosopher-exorcist Father Merrin makes his case for faith, touching on this despair at the state of existence. He recognises Karras’s struggle to find faith and his struggle to love his brother, and Blatty, with a little help from Cardinal Newman, does the rest. Needless to say, it didn’t make it into the final film – a sin by omission if ever there was one.
Sadder still is knowing that part of the sermon was actually filmed but was cut post-production – so Karras’s rediscovery of faith, sacrifice and moral victory were left to the imagination.
Though it was restored in Friedkin’s director’s cut – “the version you have never seen before” – released in 2000, first impressions are often the last, especially for the squeamish, which – let’s be honest – is most of us in this case.
As it happens, the re-release came out to mixed reviews – affirming that faith is clearly a turn-off for secular fans and critics.
It’s a little odd, really, given that Instagram and Twitter are awash with accounts dedicated to witchcraft and all manner of things occult, while requests for exorcism have risen dramatically in recent years, with over 1,700 requested in Indianapolis in 2018 alone.
If there are demons, why can’t there be angels too.
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