Sometime in the late nineteen sixties, novelist William Peter Blatty began work on a book he describes as “a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story.” The book? The Exorcist. It was published in 1971, and remained on the bestseller lists for fifty-seven weeks. It’s power, for me, lays in the fact that Blatty did not set out to write a scary story.
Rather, he was writing of a crisis of faith writ large within the crucible of a demonic possession. How he came to write of possession was this:
“The 1949 [possession] case was the novel’s inspiration, the jump-starting electrical jolt being the last line of my first letter from the exorcist in that case, the Jesuit priest Fr. William Bowdern. After informing me that he was bound by the boy’s family to total confidentiality, he ended: “I can tell you this. The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubt about it now.”
From that factual basis, Blatty crafted a tale which has thrilled, and terrified, readers for over four decades. And from that masterful work was crafted the much lauded, and maligned, film version of The Exorcist. Blatty’s contention, and thus the film’s, being that if demons are real, why not angels?
Why not God?
For the character of actress Chris MacNeil, this is a harrowing journey of false steps, and missteps. Not having any religious beliefs of her own (she’s an atheist), her first course of action (a very reasonable one), when faced with her daughter’s bizarre behavior, is to turn to medical science. It is, in her worldview, her only recourse.
Increasingly invasive tests are performed on Regan, but to no an avail. All medical avenues are exhausted, the limits of human reason, and explanation, are reached. How very like us–even we people of faith–to turn to everything, and everyone, but God in our quest for answers.
We, like Chris, first try our way, and when that doesn’t work make God the God of last resort. It is only when all medical, psychological, psychiatric, and even hypnotic channels have been exhausted, as her daughter’s inexplicable behaviors escalate, that Chris turns to Father Damien Karras.
She has run smack dab into the limits of human reason, ability, and capability. She asks for an exorcism.
Father Karras, a priest and psychiatrist, first tries to posit naturalistic explanations, suggesting that Regan be committed for observation to “the best hospital.” Karras, who has recently lost his mother, has his own reasons for not wanting to believe–having told a fellow priest that “I’ve lost my faith.”
But through his interactions with the clearly possessed Regan, up until, and through, the climactic exorcism, his faith is rekindled.
And it is a leap of faith Karras takes at the end of the story–having won, having beaten back the darkness through the power of love. Although some say that, because both priests die, it is a defeat–that evil has triumphed.
This is not so.
Blatty says, “Karras’s leap–done only so as to prevent the demon from re-taking control and then killing the girl–is his total triumph. It is this act–an act of love and self-sacrifice–that entirely constitutes the exorcism of Regan MacNeil. It was a writer I admire, Ray Bradbury, who saw this most clearly when he referred to The Exorcist as “a great love story.” Think about it.” (The interview from which this quote comes can be read in its entirety here: Love Story).
Additionally, Blatty has elsewhere stated that may “The Exorcist be remembered at this time of year for being not about shivers but rather about souls, for then it would indeed be in the real and true spirit of Halloween, which is short for the eve of All Hallows, or All Saints Day.”
That is what The Exorcist is about: the fight for the human soul. It is frightening because it attacks all of our sacred cows: the illusion we have of being in ultimate control of our lives, the innocence of youth, and the confrontation with an evil beyond our reckoning.
An evil which can only be overcome by the power of Jesus Christ.
Nota bene: both the book, and film, pull no punches in the depiction of evil. This is in my estimation entirely appropriate. Think of it this way: the Bible pulls no punches on showing us as we are. The hall of faith in Hebrews 11 is a litany of misfits. Not unlike us. Be that as it may, I understand that not everyone finds such depictions ultimately edifying. We must each have a clear conscience before God. That said, it’s my opinion that Christians in the arts do themselves, and others, a great disservice when they softpedal evil. For it is often out of the inkiest blackness that the light shines (in stark contrast) the brightest.
Nowhere in The Exorcist is evil glorified; rather, it is depicted in all of its vile, base abhorrence.
Thank-you for reading.
For a chance to win a copy of the 40th anniversary edition of The Exorcist on Blu-ray, comment below. This giveaway is sponsored by Grace Hill Media. The opinions herein are my own.