by William Peter Blatty
If you’re only familiar with the (original, 1973 version of the) movie, it might surprise you that The Exorcist is not a horror story. It a tale with horrible events, but like those that beset Job, these distressing events have a deeper purpose than inflicting fear.
The story begins in dread and ends with death. But since all life ends in bodily death, this should not be frightening. The true horror is experienced not by little Regan, who by the end of the book has recovered and suffers no memory of what happened to her, but by Regan’s mother, actress and atheist Chris MacNeil. As the book opens she awakens shaken from a nightmare in which she experiences the worst thing possible. This isn’t death or punishment of the body. It is her eventual non-existence, the utter annihilation of what Chris MacNeil was. “God, it can’t be,” she thought, “But it is.”
It is the question—eventual non-existence versus life everlasting—and faith, everywhere faith–the priest Karras’s emaciated faith, Chris MacNeil’s nascent faith, the sure and absolute faith of the priest Merrin—that animates the story and drives it forward. Blatty asks the reader no less than he asks of himself. He does not tell you a demon takes over Regan. It is up to you to believe through faith in the actual possession of Regan. For believing in that means believing in God: you can’t have one without the other.
Missing from the movie but present in the book is the reality of non-spiritual psychic and paranormal phenomena. When a drawer of a bureau is opened at a distance, untouched by hands, Blatty allows Karras to posit a force that originates from Regan’s brain, an entirely physical and mundane force. When the voice inside Regan understands and answers questions put in fluent Latin, Karras first imagines this is definite proof of possession since there is no way Regan could understand that language. But then Karras realizes that Regan could have been reading his mind, seeing the answers he had formed to his own questions and then merely parroting them.
Psychokinesis is real, as is telepathy, in this universe. Both are matters of science here, in the same way that EEG tracings and schizophrenia are. This was a natural supposition for Blatty to make given the time in which he wrote (1971). Psychic phenomena were (at least somewhat) seriously considered then. Leading journals spoke of it. Research was conducted and sponsored by sober agencies.
As Dickens tells us at the beginning of A Christmas Carol these facts must be distinctly understood, or “nothing wonderful” can come of the story Blatty relates. Every astonishing event is given a naturalistic explanation; that is, the possibility of one. Did Regan’s head spin completely around, or did fatigue and dim lighting cause her mother to imagine it? Writing that wells up on Regan’s skin is explained in the terms of case histories of other mentally ill patients where it has been seen before. The cold in Regan’s room: auto-suggestion. The strange voices: mimicry is not unusual in hysteria. Neither is unusual strength or precocity. Talking English in reverse? Mozart did that, too. Karras repeats to himself: The exorcist will simply be careful that none of the patient’s manifestations are left unaccounted for.
When the detective Kinderman approaches Karras for the first time he asks Karras for help in identifying likely culprits to a string of church desecrations. Kinderman asks if a “witch coven” might be operating. Karras gives a smart ass answer. Kinderman retorts, half jokingly, “That’s defensive. You’re afraid you’ll look gullible, maybe: a superstitious priest in front of Kinderman the rationalist, the Age of Reason made flesh and now walking beside you!”
When Karras finally meets Regan, or the demon or demons within her, Karras asks for a sign, of definitive proof that the demon is real. The demon/Regan replies:
“No, nothing would prove anything at all to you, Karras. That is why I love all reasonable men. How splendid! How splendid indeed! In the meantime, we shall try to keep your properly beguiled. After all, now, we would not wish to lose you.”
When Karras figures Regan, not a demon, could be reading his mind for answers to questions put to her in Latin, he felt “an instant dismay as his certainty crumbled; felt tantalized and frustrated now by the nagging doubt that had been planted in his brain.” The demon/Regan is well pleased and repeats that he loves “all reasonable men.”
Some time later, Karras splashes on Regan water in a vial which he announces is holy water. Regan or the demon writhes in agony. This seems to be the proof Karras is after: a real demon would not have reacted violently to tap water. But Blatty is aware that this subterfuge works in both directions. On his subsequent visit, the demon/Regan says to Karras, “I’m surprised. I would think that embarrassment over the holy water might have discouraged you from ever returning.”
The demon/Regan teases Karras, giving him just enough to keep him on the knife’s edge of deciding whether the possession is real or is the result of profound mental illness. After one session, the demon/Regan says, “Ah, well, that’s sufficient excitement for now.” The brilliance of the ploy is obvious: produce sure signs and Karras’s faith would be too strong, so strong that perhaps the demon could be overpowered. But to withhold all signs would convince Karras that Regan is merely ill and should be institutionalized.
Karras found his answer, the answer, by the book’s end, as did Chris MacNeil. But Blatty gives last word to Father Merrin: “For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love.”
Interview with Blatty on why the second draft, this edition, is necessary. The second version of the film is also better than the original.