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Scott P. Richert

The Exorcist, Horror, and Faith

By October 29, 2013

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October 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of the supernatural thriller The Exorcist. The 1973 film version of the novel, starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair, became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time and inspired not only a series of less interesting sequels but dozens of other horror movies in the 1970's and 1980's. For many filmgoers and readers, The Exorcist set the bar for horror and, decades later, still sparks the occasional sleepless night.

Yet the novel's author, William Peter Blatty (who also penned the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the film), marked the 40th anniversary of the novel's appearance by writing a column for FoxNews.com, in which he reveals that "I haven't the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying, scale." Rather, Blatty, the son of devout Lebanese Catholic immigrants, reveals "'The Exorcist's Secret Message": It is "a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story—in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through."

That is not, of course, the way that the novel and the subsequent film have been portrayed by either their fans or their detractors. Indeed, many Christians have accused Blatty of opening up readers and filmgoers to demonic influences—missing not only the point of the novel but misunderstanding Christ's own teaching regarding the principalities and powers of this world. Demons hold no sway over those who are firm in their faith; but they do, in the words of Pope Leo XIII's Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, "prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls." By denying their existence, and treating the world of spiritual warfare as a parlor game, we open ourselves to their influence and even, in extreme cases, to possession.

That is why I find the most chilling scene in the film version of The Exorcist to be one of the briefest. It does not involve vomit or demonic voices or Regan spider-walking, but a simple Ouija board that Regan finds in the basement. While many viewers might well think that the scene would have been better left on the cutting-room floor, it is clearly the pivotal point of the movie, in which the demon finds his entrance. The spiritual horror of the moment is made all the greater by the fact that the scene is so understated, short, and lightly played.

In his column, Blatty does not directly address those who have, over the years, missed the point of his novel, but he does make a connection that I have made in reminding Catholics of the Catholic origins of Halloween (and the anti-Catholic attack on Halloween):

[E]very year on [Halloween] I put out the pumpkin with the cutout eyes and nose and face and the basket full of Snickers and Mars Bars beside it; but I do keep wishing—oh, ever so wistfully and—let's face it, hopelessly—that "The Exorcist" be remembered at this time of the year for being not about shivers but rather about souls, for then it would indeed be in the real and true spirit of Halloween, which is short for the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day.

And in addressing the persistent rumor that he had based The Exorcist on a 1949 case of possession that occurred near Georgetown University while he was a junior there, Blatty makes much better a point that I tried to express in "Halloween: A Catholic View":

I remember thinking, "Someday, somebody's got to write about this, because if an investigation were to prove that possession is real, what a help it would be to the struggling faith of possibly millions, for if there were demons, I reasoned, then why not angels? Why not God?"

Blatty "in fact did not base my novel on the 1949 case," but the case led him to investigate the history of demonic possession and to the conclusion

that in every period of recorded history, and in every culture and part of the world, there have been consistent accounts of possession and its symptoms going all the way back to ancient Egyptian chronicles, and where there is that much smoke, my reason told me, there is probably fire—and a lot of it, if you get my meaning. Do you? My faith is strong.

"My faith is strong." In the end, that is the secret message of The Exorcist: The presence of evil in the world points also to the presence of good and indeed of God. The prospect of Hell spurs us on to seek Heaven.

As Christians, we reject Satan and all of his works, and all of his empty promises, but rejecting Satan is something very different from denying his existence. Reducing evil merely to the sins of man—or, worse yet, a sociological phenomenon—does not make us safer. Like Regan's Ouija board, it opens us up to the horrifying reality of evil from which only faith can save us.

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October 30, 2011 at 6:45 pm
(1) Kirt Higdon says:

“A sermon that no one could possibly sleep through” indeed! I began reading the book on a Sunday evening and finished at about 4:00am Monday morning and I had to be at work by 8:00am. I was deeply impressed with the Catholic message of love and faith. When the movie came out, I waited in line three hours to see it. At the time it sparked a lot of inquiries about the Catholic Church on the part of non-Catholics. Unfortunately, the sequels and imitations over a period of time caused the message of the original to be obscurred.

November 1, 2011 at 11:14 am
(2) Beatrice says:

may God help us to know the difference

October 31, 2011 at 8:16 pm
(3) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent reflection.

November 1, 2011 at 10:56 am
(4) Paula A. says:

I’ll never understand why it is easier for people to believe in “evil (Satan)” than in good (God).”

I think it is harder to be “good” than it is to be “evil.”

November 1, 2011 at 11:51 am
(5) Catherine J. Murphy says:

Do you really mean to run the add for an amulet as “protection from evil”?

November 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm
(6) Catherine J. Murphy says:

I see it is no longer their. Than k you, Jesus.

November 6, 2011 at 4:49 pm
(7) Daniel says:

Scott Richert, thank you for your lucid commentary on the book/movie The Exorcist as it relates to faith in God. …..Bravo.

October 30, 2012 at 1:37 pm
(8) Elizabeth says:

I’ve read the Exorcist many times, the first time while in high school. I am glad that I’m not the only one who sees it as intended, a story of faith and hope. In the end, God will always prevail.

October 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm
(9) Clete Purcell says:

“…if there were demons, I reasoned, then why not angels? Why not God?”

I’ve been going at this the other way round for many years; it always struck me that so many people believe in angels and God but not in demons, i.e., the bad angels. And that the vast majority of Christian folks in this country who believe they’re going to heaven directly. Rarely does anyone think they’re going to the other places. I have told them that if there are angels, then there most certainly are demons, and that Satan is real, not a figment of some ancient mythological imagination. Furthermore that he exults in our disbelief. I’ve been recommending “The Screwtape Letters” to them accordingly, along with “The Exorcist.”

January 26, 2013 at 2:22 pm
(10) Kevin says:

As an enormous fan of both the original novel and film, I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Blatty’s original intention in that the ultimate message in not just “faith,” but the “mystery of faith.” It is easy – far too easy – to get caught up in the film’s production visuals: the demonic make-up and voice, the language, the special effects, etc., but overlook that and you will find an incredibly deep, powerful (and yes, even moving) examination of the what the belief in God, his love, and power can achieve. As a Catholic, I honestly believe that the novel is far better than the film, yet the film is far scarier than the novel. Either way, the ultimate message is never lost; in fact for a further and much deeper study into Mr. Blatty’s examination on faith, I higly recomend some of his other works, “Legion, The Ninth Configuration,” and “Dimiter.” He words read and speak like no other. Thank you, Mr. Blatty for your gift (through literature and words) to your fellow Catholics/Christians. And Happy Birthday!

June 26, 2013 at 1:17 am
(11) michelle says:

My name is Michelle Fragomeni and I am in my senior year of high school in South Australia. As a part of my religion subject, we are required to discuss a religious argument, issue or phenomenon. I decided on the topic question: “Should all priests be given the right to perform exorcisms?”

In the process, we are also required to gain as many primary sources as possible to validate our information on our final outcome.

So, if you have a spare moment, please fill out my survey as best as possible, and recommend it or email it to anyone you think would be knowledgable of this topic.

Thank you

October 29, 2013 at 11:26 am
(12) MJK says:

“…the scene is so understated, short, and lightly played..”

…and yet as you describe Scott, so very instrumental in openning the gates to hell…

Terrific piece…Blatty also wrote and direct another profound movie, The Ninth Configuration, that explores faith and sacrifice and is itself a reworking of an earlier version of a novel, first published in 1966 as Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane!

October 29, 2013 at 5:14 pm
(13) Salvy says:

Back in the 60′s me and my little juvenile delinquent friends played with a ouija board for I think a short time probably, like in 5th or 6th grade and nobody really batted an eye–parents or grandparents.
I do remember, though, at times that dial really got going quickly around the board and all us little wise guys would be accusing the other guy of pushing it, until it was apparent it was incredibly moving by itself.
Just like kids in those days, we’d play it for a few minutes then go out and ride our bikes or play football out in the street–stuff like that.
But I’ll never forget that board and how that thing would spell out words and sometimes swear words without any help from us, I do believe.

October 29, 2013 at 9:22 pm
(14) nita says:

I.was once a practicing Wiccan…a “witch”. At the time I didn’t believe in Satan, Wiccans only believe in evil or dark forces. I know now, returning back to the Church how wrong I was. Thank you Christ for forgiving me before it was too late!! Don,t let Satan fool you he is real,dangerous, and killer of souls!!

October 29, 2013 at 11:43 pm
(15) Jim says:

Scott Richert thank you. That was an excellent article. One of your best.

October 30, 2013 at 10:58 pm
(16) R.W.E. Smith says:

I started reading the book in my early to mid teens.
It started out as a captivating novel, but I put it down when it became to graphic for my taste at the time.
I have never read the whole book, and I have never seen even a clip from the movie.
I may look for the book again after reading this.

- Reg.

October 31, 2013 at 9:51 am
(17) Dave says:

“The prospect of Hell, spurs us on to seek Heaven”, in that one sentence the Exorcist is summed up, the belief in evil, and the belief that evil can be conquered, two strands of faith which were the basis for the novel The Exorcist,

Is demonic possession real…? it appears not these days in the eyes of the catholic church, who seem to be at pains to discredit such a claim, and see such a notion as an embarrassment, like a skeleton in the cupboard, a point touched upon in Blatty’s novel, and yet the belief in the occult, witchcraft and demonology is at an all time high, what is it that accounts for such beliefs, probably an overexposure to many ills in the world, the negative social climate, whatever the cause it cannot be ignored and treated as a mere social disorder,

the Exorcist is indeed a commentary of faith as much as a spine tingling horror.

October 31, 2013 at 12:23 pm
(18) Salvy says:

The church believes in demonic possession and always has and always will, so I don’t know what makes you think, otherwise.
They just don’t want to sensationalize it and come off like sounding crazy.
The church is completely rational on this issue.
And, by the way, I say it’s way more demonic these days supporting and voting for the likes of people like Obama and Nancy Pelosi than playing with some damn Ouija board–been there done that.

October 31, 2013 at 11:06 pm
(19) Gerard says:

Pope Benedict had ordered that every diocese and archdiocese in the world must have an exorcist trained and installed there. Only the bishop or archbishop knows who that priest is. I asked a deacon of my archdiocese if we had one, and he stated with an affirmative. Interesting.

December 27, 2013 at 4:27 pm
(20) Rockygurl46 says:

I saw the Exorcist when I was about 28, while living in Oak Harbor, WA. I went with a friend from work, who wasn’t Catholic like I was. We both hung onto each other during the very realistic scenes. I had left my kids with a sitter, and my now ex-husband, was across the ocean on an aircraft carrier.

I had converted to Catholicism when I was 18 as my Dad wouldn’t let me convert until I had turned 18. We had been living in Japan at the time. At any rate, it scared me so bad, I went to confession the next day, and started sleeping with my bedroom light on after that. It was so realistic and one of the most realistic horror movie I had ever seen. I often looked over my shoulder to make sure the “devil” wasn’t trailing behind me for so long, although I had never been unfaithful or done much wrong either. I talked to a couple of my Catholic friends, who also saw it on a different day and also went to Confession the day after seeing it.

I recently learned that although I had divorced my husband and father of our two kids,. I had remarried a nice guy at a wedding chapel in Los Angeles. During a recent hospital stay when the Priest came by to give me Communion, he asked me if my second marriage was by a Minister and I said no.

He then told me in the eyes of the Church, my first hisband who was Catholic and never went to Mass except for our Wedding, and when both our two kids were baptized are still married in the eyes of the Church. Since his second wife was only eight years older than our son, and suffered from “First Wife Syndrome”, meaning she was always jealous of me. She was frumpy when I first met her, and still was when our daughter got married.

The kids never did like her during their two week stay with their Dad every summer, who my Dad got him his job at a large aerospace company, would probably freak out to learn in the eyes of my Church and beliefs, we are still married. Everytime I think about it, I chuckle to myself, although I have a strong belief about my Church.

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