Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

‘The Exorcist’: Setting The Record Straight

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published July 19, 2012

Consider three excerpts from the readings from St. Mark’s Gospel we’ve heard at Sunday Masses this month:

  • “There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse.”
  • “Jesus took the child by the hand and said to her, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise!’  The girl, a child of 12, arose immediately (from the dead) and walked around.”
  • “Jesus summoned the Twelve … and gave them authority over unclean spirits. … The Twelve drove out many demons.”

When I heard and read these passages, I thought immediately of one of the most sensational novels and film adaptations of the modern era, “The Exorcist,” which was written by William Peter Blatty in 1971 and made into a movie by Blatty and William Friedkin in 1973. Because the novel celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, and the film will mark the same milestone next year, many people have been thinking again about this astonishing work which, like so many other books and films from the 1970s, became a media sensation and cultural phenomenon.

The genesis of the writing of “The Exorcist” began in 1949 when Blatty, while a student at Georgetown University, became fascinated by an actual case of possession and subsequent successful exorcism that had occurred that year involving a young boy in Maryland. As Father William Bowdern, one of the priests involved in the exorcism, recounted to Blatty many years later: “I can assure you of one thing—the case in which I was involved was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubts about it now.”

Blatty’s novel, and the film version for which he wrote the script and served as producer, came from a deeply Catholic perspective, a religious faith that for 40 years Blatty has insisted is at the heart of the story. Yet far more people have seen the film than read the book, and far more people have unfortunately focused upon the shocking aspects of the film adaptation than they have its profound message of sacrificial love and the triumph of good over evil.

The initial release of the film caused absolute pandemonium. People waited in line for hours, in all weather, to see the film. Legends circulated about people fainting in the aisles, or running from the theatre, sickened. Popular news media of the time devoted long segments to the hysteria surrounding the film. Evangelist Billy Graham denounced the movie as actually embodying evil. And in 1973, when the United States was facing fear and evil as far away as Vietnam and as close as the White House, the movie did seem to channel the anxiety of the time.

But even in 1973 more thoughtful critics sensed there was more to “The Exorcist” than grotesque special effects and shocking content. While the film was blamed for an increase in largely imagined possessions and acts of violence, it also received credit for conversions and an increase in confessions. Catholic News Service reviewed the film as “deeply spiritual,” and the Vatican literary journal, recognizing Blatty’s intent in writing the novel, praised the book as well. The film was screened in seminaries, as it still is today, and was referenced in homilies.

Yet even by the year 2000, when a restored director’s cut of the film was finally released that more fully realized Blatty’s original intentions for the film, Blatty and Friedkin still found themselves fending off charges from secular and fundamentalist camps that the film celebrated evil. Even now, Blatty still acts as a tireless apologist for the film, and it should be noted that he is a completely dedicated Catholic, so devout in fact that he recently announced plans to file suit in a court of canon law against Georgetown University, asserting that his alma mater is in defiance of Catholic identity and the Code of Canon Law.

Two things need to be made very clear: even 40 years after the publication of the novel and the premiere of the film—40 years that have witnessed an escalation of graphic violence in all forms of media and popular culture—the film is absolutely shocking, and terrifying. Yet, just as important is this: “The Exorcist” is a spiritual movie that demonstrates some of the most fundamental aspects of the mystery of good and evil and the truth of healing and redemption through Christ and his church.

The plot of the story is familiar to most: while filming a movie in Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil’s 12-year-old daughter Regan begins to exhibit disturbing and even amazing symptoms. Psychiatrists and neurologists subject the girl to every conceivable test; in fact, the medical sequences in the film are actually more frightening than the special effects related to the possession. As Regan’s condition worsens, Chris requests the help of Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist on the faculty at Georgetown. Father Karras—who is in the midst of a spiritual crisis of his own following the death of his mother—is adamant that Regan is suffering from mental illness, but eventually even he is convinced that Chris and the medical doctors are right: perhaps Regan really does need an exorcist. Father Lankester Merrin—brilliantly played by Max Von Sydow—is summoned to perform the exorcism while Father Karras assists. What follows in the climax of the film is unforgettable, and the 2000 revision of the film makes absolutely clear that both priests are acting fully in the spirit of the Gospel. Without revealing the ending of the film for those who may not have seen it, I will say simply that there is no doubt that benevolence and truth triumph over the evil and deceit of the devil.

“The Exorcist” persists in the popular imagination for several reasons; on the one hand, its imagery is so fully conceived and artfully presented that it becomes almost iconic. Because it now resides in the realm of popular myth it also affects us on the archetypal level of our collective consciousness. For many people, it is a film that like so many other blockbusters of the 1970s has become a rite of passage, a must-see. And, of course, people see it because it is shocking.

But for Christians, and especially for Catholic Christians, who do clearly profess both a belief in Satan and a renunciation of all his works and pomps, as well as an acknowledgement of exorcism as a legitimate rite of the Church, the film should mean much more. In an interlude during the exorcism, Father Merrin says that the demon wants to cause despair, wants to deceive us into seeing ourselves as animal and ugly. The conclusion of the film, with all its implications to the counter, affirms that we are through the mystery of Christ’s mercy capable of goodness far beyond the power of darkness.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem often recounted a parable to his catechumens: “The dragon waits at the side of the road, waiting to devour us. We go to the Father of Souls, but first it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”

“The Exorcist” forces us to confront that dragon, and to acknowledge its very real existence in the world. But it affirms for us as well a triumph over the dragon, and a deeper appreciation of the mystery of our faith. Because of this—and in spite of the sensationalism surrounding it from a secular perspective—it clearly belongs in the canon of 20th century Catholic art.