William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel captured our imaginations with its tale of ancient evil and demonic possession striking at the heart of a vulnerable newly divorced American family. But before we talk about the Exorcist phenomenon's cultural significance, let's begin with a quick synopsis of the story."Evil against evil"
The novel's opening scene is a sun baked archaeological dig in the desert near Mosul, Iraq. Father Lankester Merrin, a Jesuit scholar (whose character was reportedly based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), is taking part in the 'dig' when a worker rushes to tell him the local laborers have found something at the base of a mound.
Merrin is struck with deep fear when the artifact turns out to be an ancient clay figurine depicting the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, the "evil spirit of the southwest wind" - the entity he battled in an earlier African exorcism (this earlier storyline is the basis of the new Exorcist:Dominion prequel screenplay). Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Georgetown, DC, actress Chris MacNeil is living with her charmingly innocent pre-teen daughter Regan, when strange things begin to happen at their rented Prospect Street home. Captain Howdy
Regan shows her mother a Ouija board she had found in the attic and has been secretly using, and tells of a 'spirit' she has been 'conversing' with - "Captain Howdy". Chris brushes off the incident as a case of the 'imaginary friend' or Regan's longing for her absent father, whose name is Howard. But soon, frightening noises and poltergeist-type events start to occur, and Regan begins a startling psychological and physical change - acts of violence, obscene outbursts and precocious sexuality - for which neither doctors nor psychologists have any explanation.
Doctor: "Pathological states can induce abnormal strength. Accelerated motor performance. Now, for example, say a 90 pound woman sees her child pinned under the wheel of a truck. Runs out and lifts the wheels a half a foot up off the ground - you've heard the story - same thing here. Same principle, I mean."
Chris: "So what's wrong with her?"
Doctor: "We still think the temporal lobe."
Chris: (hysterically) "Oh what are you talking about, for Christ's sakes. Did you see her or not? She's acting like she's f***ing out of her mind, psychotic, like a... split personality or ..."
Doctor: "There haven't been more than a hundred authentic cases of so-called split personality, Mrs. MacNeil. Now I know the temptation is to leap to psychiatry. But any reasonable psychiatrist would exhaust the somatic possibilities first. "
Chris: "So, what's next?"
Parallel to the MacNeil's troubles, Jesuit priest/psychologist Damien Karras is suffering a crisis of his own: he has lost his faith, and feels he can no longer minister to other troubled priests in the Order. He also blames himself for the recent death of his ailing Greek immigrant mother, who lived alone in New York. Meanwhile, ritual church desecrations and a bizarre witchcraft-style murder bring police Lieutenant William Kinderman into the picture, looking for a killer.
Doctor: "There is one outside chance for a cure. I think of it as shock treatment - as I said, it's a very outside chance...Have you ever heard of exorcism? Well, it's a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest tries to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It's been pretty much discarded these days except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of an embarrassment, but uh, it has worked. In fact, although not for the reasons they think, of course. It's purely a force of suggestion. The victim's belief in possession is what helped cause it, so in that same way, a belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear."
Chris: (uneasily) "You're telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?"
An atheist, Chris is at initially unwilling to turn to the Catholic Church for help. She eventually decides to approach Father Karras, whom she has seen at her film shoots at Georgetown. They meet surreptitiously at the C&O canal, but when she finally musters the courage to ask, Karras reveals he isn't a believer in exorcism himself.
Chris: "So, how do you go about getting an exorcism?"
Karras: "Well, the first thing - I'd have to get into a time machine and get back to the 16th century...Well, it just doesn't happen any more, Mrs. MacNeil...since we learned about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia...Since the day I joined the Jesuits, I've never met one priest who has performed an exorcism. Not one."
In desperation, Chris begs Karras to at least see her daughter, since "every shrink and doctor in the book has seen her, and can't find what's wrong." Karras agrees, and is shocked - the once lively girl has been reduced to a drugged, restrained invalid, tied to her bed and tube-fed. She has scars and open wounds on her livid face and body, and for a child, uses an unbelievably colorful range of obscenities. Eerily, she seems to know details of his private life, including his mother's recent death, and Regan - or the being within her - claims to be the Devil himself, which in Karras' words, is tantamount to a "mental patient claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte."
Being in a crisis of faith, he does not believe supernatural forces are at work. As a test, Karras sprinkles the girl with tap water from a holy water dispenser, to which she reacts by writhing and screaming in pain as if struck by a scalding object. Later, when he speaks privately with Chris, Karras reveals the 'tap water' trick and tells her that Regan's reactions don't support a case for exorcism.
Then, as a favor to Karras, a Georgetown University language researcher listens to a tape recording of Regan's bizarrely altered voice and makes a startling discovery."Nowonmai...nowonmai"
With new-found evidence that falls under the Church's strict criteria for possession, Karras approaches his superiors and files a request to perform the exorcism himself. The officials reluctantly agree - under the condition that Father Merrin be summoned to lead the ritual, with Karras assisting. Everyone's lives converge and culminate in a terrifying exorcism that claims the lives of several of the characters, while it reinforces and renews the survivors' faith in the end.
Rather than being solely a heavy-handed "religious horror" book, The Exorcist is laced with poignant moments, humanistic observation, philosophical reflections and Blatty's trademark dry humor (most noticeable in the dialogue between Lt. Kinderman and Fathers Dyer and Karras).
It is a well-written, original and engrossing book; equal parts detective story, theological mystery and horror novel. But in many ways, I believe the spirit and events of the early 1970's era had much to do with the book's (and the film's) runaway success as its entertainment value. Something we'll discuss later in depth - but is worth mentioning right now - is that the book and the novel do not, as many people who have not read it assert - promote demon worship, Satanism, or what have you. In actuality, Good triumphs in the book, not Evil, and many sources have called The Exorcist one of the "best advertisements for [the] Catholic faith". To see just why Blatty's book struck such a nerve, it is important to look at the 'demons' our country was battling back then, as well. Zeitgeist
The bogeymen of the 1970's seem far different from those inhabiting our collective, post-9/11 fears today. Back then we were facing the betrayals of Watergate afresh, and the country was spinning headlong into recession. Mores were changing rapidly, and cultural standards were shifting in ways we had never seen before. The sexual revolution had passed from ingenuous Sixties 'free love' into randy Disco-era adolescent excess, and drug use (and abuse) was at an all-time high.
We had seen chaos and death in the shocking riots of Watts and Chicago, and at Kent State. The Manson 'Family' cult brought icy fear to national headlines with a series of cold-blooded, occult-themed killings in California. Protest placards and magazine covers lamented, "Is God Dead?"
The 'Rights' movements unquestionably produced beneficial social progress, but they also stirred national tension at the time as we struggled to adjust to new ways of thinking and living in our communities. Neighborhoods around the country underwent a painful period of change, and values we held sacred in the 'postwar boom era' were melting into uncertainly. On a national level, divorce, crime and unemployment rates skyrocketed, and our children seemed to be "slipping out of our hands", almost as if they were - possessed by a malevolent force outside our control?
Perhaps there lies the key: The Exorcist effectively crystallized the anxiety many parents felt at the upsetting transformation their children's generation was undergoing. Think of exactly why we found the images of sweet, innocent Regan MacNeil lashing out with obscenities and abusing herself so shocking: they served as a gruesome nightmare vision of the times' spiraling social changes.
Many of the "shocker" scenes in the original novel and film seem almost tame or humorous today, considering the gory graphic visuals used in most current genre films - but today's horror movies owe a large debt to The Exorcist for breaking that barrier. Nonetheless, many of the most frightening aspects of The Exorcist are the things we don't see on-screen: this is where the novel can be said to be arguably superior.