September 25, 2000
REVIVING THE EXORCIST
A 1970s horror classic gets a new lease on life
JOHN J. MILLER
There’s a scene in The Exorcist — the book, not the movie — in which a motion-picture director shares a trade secret: “Darling, all you really need is a brilliant cutter.” Many readers of William Peter Blatty’s novel believe The Exorcist — the movie, not the book — suffered from too much cutting.
That’s because the book makes clear something the motion picture leaves a bit opaque. Did the priests who performed an exorcism on a 12-year-old girl defeat the demon that had taken possession of her, or did the demon defeat them? In the book, there’s no question: Good beats Evil, even though there’s a casualty list. Some moviegoers, however, come away with a different impression. “The Devil is the victor in the film,” said Juan Cortes, a Jesuit psychologist in a 1974 Newsweek cover story on the movie, which will be re-released in theaters on September 22, with eleven minutes of new footage salvaged from the cutting-room floor.
The confusion emanating from the original film is understandable, even though the movie is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book. Blatty himself, in an interview for the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary, complained, “Many people to this day interpret The Exorcist as a downer. . . . I don’t want them to think the Devil won.” In the new version, it will be difficult to come away with this thought — or to interpret The Exorcist as anything but a deeply felt expression of Catholicism.
The basic storyline by now is well known: A demon surreptitiously takes over the mind and body of Regan MacNeil (famously played by Linda Blair). Her mother, a well-known actress living temporarily in Georgetown, watches her sweet daughter’s behavior transform over the course of several weeks, with increasingly grotesque results as Regan turns into a cursing, convulsing, and crotch-grabbing hellion. Doctors run test after test, but can’t explain her condition. Finally the mother, an atheist, looks in desperation to the Catholic Church for an exorcism. After some deliberating, a pair of priests performs the old rite on Regan in her bedroom. At a climactic moment, Lankester Merrin, an experienced exorcist, dies from a heart attack. Damien Karras, a younger priest who recently has doubted his faith, must then complete the ceremony.Here’s where matters become muddled. Karras invites the demon into his own body — “Come into me!” he shouts — and it does, vacating Regan. The priest then crashes out of an upstairs window — it’s not clear whether he jumps of his own will or whether the devil makes him do it — and drops to his death. A third priest arrives on the scene to perform last rites on Karras, who is taking his final breaths. In the book, Karras’s “eyes [are] filled with peace; and with something else: something mysteriously like joy at the end of heart’s longing.” In the movie, however, the last time viewers get a look at Karras’s eyes is right before the defenestration, and they glow with demonic intensity. It’s a creepy sight, and no wonder it leaves plenty of viewers guessing.
Regan immediately recovers, and has no memory of what she’s just gone through. Anybody who has watched the movie, of course, never forgets the shocking aspects of her possession: the guttural cussing that staggers even today’s jaded sensibilities, the pea-green projectile vomiting, and, perhaps most unsettling, Regan’s bloody masturbation with a crucifix.
By pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable to put in a film, The Exorcist launched a generation of gross-out flicks. Many of them felt free to exploit the trappings of Catholicism. The Omen, released in 1976, may be the best example of this phenomenon. In it, an adopted boy turns out to be the Antichrist. And where was he adopted? At an Italian hospital run by priests and nuns who knew his real identity.
In the American imagination, there’s still something vaguely exotic about Catholicism, with its all-male priesthood, confessionals, Latin Masses, rosary beads, saints, and statues of Mary — all set to the backdrop of an ancient religion that considers itself authoritative. Exorcism contributes to the exoticism by formalizing an encounter with sinister supernatural forces. Toss in the horror genre’s residual anti-Catholicism — stretching back to the 18th century with Gothic novelists like Anne Radcliffe and finding a home as recently as last year in the appalling film Stigmata — and it’s no surprise Catholicism on screen can easily be made to seem menacing. It’s hardly a coincidence that Showtime’s Possessed, an original movie about the 1949 exorcism that Blatty used loosely as the basis for his novel, will premier on Halloween.
Catholics are not the only Christians who practice exorcism, of course. Yet the ritual remains most closely associated with Rome. Earlier this month, Pope John Paul II made headlines for conducting one in St. Peter’s Square when a girl went into hysterics. (It is said to be only the third of his entire papacy.) Exorcism remains a key part of the adult initiation ceremony, and is even a routine aspect of the faith. When I converted to Catholicism three years ago, the priest conducted an exorcism by blowing air form his mouth into my face. (Exorcisms may also be performed on infants during baptism, but this is less common.) Many denominations wholly reject the idea of exorcism. When The Exorcist first hit the theaters, the Christian Century lambasted the film because it “uses the human fear of evil to create an emotional response and then provides — by our Protestant standards — a completely impossible solution.”
At least it’s a solution. A film like The Omen ornaments itself with Catholicism for distinctly non-Catholic purposes. Its message is hardly spiritual, and it ends with evil ascendant. It wants us to think the Antichrist walks among us, to quiver as we clear the theater, and to turn on a nightlight when we go to bed. The point is not to inspire or even instruct, but to freak out for the sake of freaking out. The religious dimensions are incidental — a religious means to a non-religious end.
Catholics have had a difficult time embracing The Exorcist because of its blatant blasphemies. (Portions of the book are even more revolting than the film, especially a description of the Black Mass.)
The new movie version, however, makes clear the point of the blasphemies by restoring a critical piece of dialogue between the two exorcists immediately before their showdown with Regan’s tormenter. “Why this girl? It makes no sense,” mutters Karras. “I think the point is to make us despair — to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us,” replies Merrin. The demon’s purpose is not to humiliate Regan, but to spread hopelessness like a contagion among the rest of us. We can fight it off only through faith.
Both priests finally give their own lives to free Regan, which has always cast a dark shadow over the conclusion of The Exorcist. Yet the girl remains the moral center of the work. Her liberation from the demon, on both page and screen, ought to be regarded as a triumph.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” wrote the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft in the 1920s. In The Exorcist, the devil certainly moves in mysterious ways — he’s as terrifyingly unknowable as the Blair Witch. Yet for all its dabbling with the fear of the unknown, The Exorcist does say, forth-rightly and in an age of skepticism, that confidence in faith will see us through.