October 29, 2014


Why the Exorcist Endures (MARK JUDGE, Fall 2014, University Bookman)

Exorcist author William Peter Blatty based his 1971 book on a real case of demonic possession that occurred in Maryland in the 1940s. Yet the most important part of the novel was left out of the film. This section was so important to the story that it caused a rift between Blatty and director William Friedkin. Near the end of the book version, Father Lankester Merrin, an older priest, is explaining evil to Father Damien Karras, a young Georgetown Jesuit. The demon's target, Fr. Merrin says, is not the innocent girl he takes over. The target "is us." He continues: "I think the point is to make us despair, to reject our own humanity, Damien, to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; unworthy." Fr. Merrin then explains that the devil is not so much in wars or on great geopolitical dramas, but in the small, quotidian cruelties: "in the senseless, petty snipes; the misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends, between lovers." Enough of these, he says, and "we don't need Satan to manage our wars."

In The Exorcist, the demon refers to Regan's mother, a famous actress named Chris, as "Pig," and to Regan as "Piglet." Part of this is carried over to the film, where the demon calls Regan "the sow." This is part of the dehumanization that Fr. Merrin talks about--the way evil attempts to make us despair and consider ourselves animals unworthy of God's love. This theme is effective in the story because Fr. Karras is having a crisis of faith--he both doubts the existence of God and feels his sins have made him unworthy of love. The demon, as Fr. Merrin notes, "knows where to strike."

No one who was alive when The Exorcist was released the day after Christmas in 1973 will forget what the cultural atmosphere in America was like, and how the film detonated like a neutron bomb. The United States was in the middle of a cultural revolution. The country was trying to extract itself from Vietnam, the Watergate story was blowing open, and the sexual revolution was at hurricane force. In January 1973, Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court. It wasn't long before abortionists and their allies were comparing young humans to lower life forms, including, yes, pigs.

The Exorcist was part of this milieu, yet it was also quite traditional--indeed, it argued for the unchanging age-old reality of good and evil.

Posted by at October 29, 2014 7:14 PM

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