The Exorcist starts in Iraq, where an old priest on an archeological dig discovers a small amulet of the Assyrian demon, Pazuzu. He returns to America in a hurry, convinced he’s about to meet an old adversary very soon. It then switches to Georgetown University where Hollywood actress, Chris MacNeil, is shooting a movie. She and her eleven year old daughter, Regan, are living in a rented house near the school while the film is in production. Regan is a sweet kid who also plays with a Ouija board and has a mysterious playmate she calls “Captain Howdy”. Soon strange poltergeist-like things start happening to Regan, and the situation gets very bad, very quickly. When the best doctors around can’t pin down the cause of Regan’s problems, they recommend she get in touch with an exorcist. Her mother, an atheist, gets in touch with the resident psychiatrist priest at Georgetown, Damien Karras, because there is literally nothing else to do.
Karras, a poor boy from Brooklyn whom the Church took in and educated, recently lost his mother. He is suffering heavy-duty guilt and has lost his faith. He reluctantly agrees to see Regan as a psychiatrist, but her mother keeps pushing for an exorcism. Chris knows there’s something horribly wrong with her child, which she’s been told is not medical, while Karras is blinded by his scientific skepticism and lack of faith in God, or Devil.
I loved this book when it came out, along with the movie which came out two years later. (Yes, people really did faint and vomit during the movie. And run out of the theater.) Even though there is a lot of dissension when it comes to comparing movies to the books that they are based on, and vice versa, The Exorcist wins either way. Because the book’s author was also the screenplay writer, it is nearly impossible to discuss the book without also discussing the movie — The characters in the book are brought to perfect life in the movie, which made everyone — writer, readers, audience and producers — very happy.
Just like all the other “true account” stories we’ve read this semester, The Exorcist is based on a true story, but unlike all those other books this one really stands the test of time. A big reason is that Blatty created some great characters in The Exorcist – Damien Karras is my favorite tortured priest. His adorable colleague, Father Joe Dyer, is adorable. Detective Kinderman is my favorite Columbo-impersonator, and Burke Dennings, the movie director, is an artistic genius in the field of profanity. Chris MacNeil and Regan are also well-drawn characters, just scaled down to more normal “human” proportions than the others. The Exorcist is also much more than a hair-raising story of demonic possession, and Hollywood shenanigans. It is a deeply felt story of faith and redemption, and one of the few books to address the question of evil in the world in a sincere and thoughtful manner. Pretty heavy tunes for a “horror story”.
Incidentally, The Exorcist is loosely based on an actual exorcism performed on a boy in 1949 in St. Louis, Missouri by a Jesuit priest. Blatty heard the story while he was a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Honestly, this book practically wrote itself.
We should all be so lucky.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. 1971. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1994. Print.