I’ve been afraid of many things during my life, but for some reason the idea of being possessed by a demon has always horrified me. It’s right up there with nuclear winter and Donald Trump becoming president. With all the other evils in the world, I have to worry about demon possession because let’s face it: I don’t think I have a soul. If there’s some wisp of a soul it’s pretty weak and I’m almost 100% certain it’s gas.
William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, was a comedy writer. Probably still is. I don’t know. I’d have to look it up. He read an account of a teenage boy who had been showing symptoms of an odd and inexplicable illness. The boy’s bed would levitate and he would rise from the bed like Lazarus from the dead at a beer pong competition. Words would be written on his skin-but from the inside. The kid’s parents were a mess. Was their boy gravely ill or was it a spiritual matter?
They called in a couple of priests to do an exorcism on the boy and whip bang, old Split Hoof was out of there. Later, there was a story that the boy had been molested by his aunt. Whether the ‘possession’ was a side effect or a cry for help, I don’t know. Maybe in the 1940’s (and sometimes now) it’s easier to talk about being possessed by a demon than it is about sexual assault.
The story stuck with Blatty for years and the outcome was The Exorcist. Here’s the lowdown: Father Merrin is on an archaeological dig in Iraq and uncovers a small statue of a demon he’s come up against in the past. He knows – in the way that priests and prescient children seem to know – that evil is nearby. In the movie, this whole part never made a lot of sense to me, but then again I was six when I first watched it, so a lot of things didn’t make sense.
In the novel, Regan MacNeil is a sweet 12-year-old daughter of a movie star. Regan’s father isn’t in the picture and the mom, Chris, is an actually with-it famous movie star single parent. She and Regan have a very close bond. But while her Mom is filming a movie in Washington, DC something strange is beginning to happen in their house and to Regan herself. Weird noises are coming from the attic. The housekeeper convinces Chris there are rats up there because hey, who would hear scratching noises in the attic and think ‘Is that you Satan?’ (By the way, demonic possession is never by Satan himself in a lot of books and movies. He’s too busy juggling campaigns and suicide bombs and which Kardashian is going to have a “hard” year because her nude selfie didn’t break the Internet).
Regan begins speaking in a language she’s never spoken before. She vomits green stuff. GREEN stuff. That ain’t natural. Chris thinks her daughter is going through a period of pre-teen angst over the divorce of her mother and father. She does what every mom does, takes her kid to get tested for everything and when the doctors can’t find anything wrong, well, maybe her kid is having a breakdown. It doesn’t occur to Chris to search for spiritual support. She is an atheist. Luckily, the place where she’s wrapping up filming is rife with Jesuit priests. She turns to Father Damien Karras for help.
Father Karras is enduring his own struggle: his mother just died and he’s having a bout of ‘Are you there God, it’s me, Damien.’ He sees Regan as a psychologist at first, shooting down the idea of demonic possession until there is no other explanation. I guess once a little girl brags that your mother’s soul is in hell and you actually hear the weak voice of your mother coming from her mouth, there’s not much else to turn to. So he goes to the bishop and the God Network begins to gossip and Father Merrin gets wind of it and says “Hey, that’s the asshole I battled long ago in Africa!”
Regan is aggressive and speaking in tongues and using swear words that would make a sailor blush. Yeah. This is beyond psychological. What ensues is not only a battle for a young girl’s soul, but also for restoring faith – not just religious but in humanity. What I loved about the novel was the fact that Blatty didn’t shy away from things he knew would be controversial – much like the 1973 adaptation of his novel that shocked and sickened theatre goers. There’s a scene with a cross and….well….if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. You’re going to a movie called The Exorcist, people! Not Fluffy Puppies on Clouds. And yeah, I even liked the restoration of faith stuff in the book, not the Roman Catholic ritual of Exorcism (although that is pretty gnarly) but the idea that dark matters can be overcome. At least for a little while. Or shipped off to the next unsuspecting soul.
But I do embrace my own darkness and demons, isn’t that right, Beelzebub? Bubs? Oh damn. He’s been exorcised again. Damn it.