It is now 50 years since the 1971 publication of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist, inspired by a 1949 case of demonic exorcism (it took two priests) that was a news story when Blatty attended Georgetown University in the 1950s. To date there have been two novels, around four films, a television series, a video game and even a 2012 play. There have also been many parodies and imitations, including a cartoon version in 1987 called the Duxorcist in which spirits possess Daffy Duck.
So what is the reason for the cult of TheExorcist and its appeal on the popular imagination, including many millions who are not believers? Whilst many Catholic writers – like Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo and Donna Tartt– remain at the forefront of modern literature, their Catholicism is not easily apparent. Yet with Blatty, like Graham Greene, his own deeply-rooted faith and experience of Jesuit upbringing is integral to his writing. Blatty’s Catholicism was not merely metaphor or symbol; it sustained his worldview, shaped his understanding of character, and offered him eternal themes. For Blatty, demonic possession was not fiction or fantasy but all too real.
The novel’s narrative power arises largely from its setting: a rented “brick colonial gripped by ivy in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C.” There, the actress Chris MacNeil’s agnosticism is shaken by the devil’s attacks. Demonic possession is typically the stuff of legend and antiquity, but not in Blatty’s vision: here the devil enters the family home and possesses an innocent child. The Exorcist’s portrayal of domestic evil chilled readers: believers were given flesh to their existing abstract fears, and non-believers wondered: might all of this, somehow, be real?
Blatty’s novel of demonic possession and faith stands out as singularly memorable for its brutal portrayal of redemption through suffering, and was further embedded in the public mind by William Friedkin’s 1973 film (see p. 42 for a dive into the contrast between film and book) – which resulted in sold-out theatres and stunned viewers. Like the best Catholic stories, The Exorcist is a balancing act of moral choice. Faith is restrained by doubt, belief doesn’t absolve us from fear and pain. But amid the crippling despair and the depravity of beastly man is the redemption of human love.
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