Retrospective: The Exorcist (Novel)
By George Case
Novels which become cultural touchstones are generally those which also earn serious critical consideration – On the Road, The Catcher In the Rye and Catch-22 have enjoyed both significant social impacts and secure positions in the belletristic establishment. Yet it is another postwar American work of fiction which might claim a greater influence than anything by Kerouac, Salinger, or Heller, which at the same time has never won the rarefied literary status of its contemporaries. That novel is The Exorcist, whose author William Peter Blatty died on January 12, at age 89.
Published by Harper & Row in May 1971, The Exorcist eventually sold over 10 million copies in multiple languages, has been adapted for stage, audio, and most successfully film, with William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster, which Blatty wrote and produced. In addition to generating numerous print and cinematic sequels and prequels of its own (Blatty wrote Legion in 1983 and directed Exorcist III in 1990), The Exorcist lives on, in recent fiction including Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts and Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism, the movies The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, and The Devil Inside, and an eponymous TV series currently airing on Fox. Few writers have seen their stories spun out into such folk-pop archetypes as Blatty did in exploring what he called “the mystery of goodness.” That he chose to illustrate his exploration with an unprecedentedly graphic depiction of demonic possession was, to him, almost incidental. “I have no recollection of intending to frighten anyone at any point in time,” he later confessed.
“Faulkner, Blatty is not,” admitted reviewer Webster Schott in Life magazine in 1971, the same season R.Z. Sheppard in Time called the book “a pretentious, tasteless, abominably written, redundant pastiche of superficial theology, comic-book psychology, Grade C movie dialogue and Grade Z scatology.” Only after the initial sensations of Blatty’s novel and Friedkin’s picture died down did readers pick up the subtler messages behind the shocks. Some saw in The Exorcist a parable of generational conflict, as its vulgar, sexually precocious Baby-Boom adolescent returns to respectful health after heroic interventions by her mother and church authority. Others noted Blatty’s own conservative Catholicism, here couched in a narrative demonstrating the power of faith against supernatural cynicism and depravity. Before The Exorcist, Blatty had built a career as comic novelist and screenwriter (e.g. John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! and A Shot In the Dark), more Marx Brothers than Milton; afterwards, he wrote haunted memoirs about his late mother Mary (I’ll Tell Them I Remember You) and his deceased adult son (Finding Peter). The Exorcist was Blatty’s testimony of religious conviction, framed as an exercise in religious masochism.
His timing was perfect. Along with other upheavals, the late 1960s and early 1970s were experiencing a resurrection of obscure beliefs that had long been dismissed as superstition but which then seemed to make more sense than the underlying ideology of space-age progress: astrology, mysticism, witchcraft, and other phenomena classed under “the Occult.” Blatty’s genius in The Exorcist was to set a medieval tradition into a Twentieth Century urban environment, where an outdated mythology is confronted by sophisticated people – doctors, a detective, an atheist actress, a dubious priest – until evidence of the mythology’s reality becomes convincing. Symbolically, a crucial point in the drama that tilts reason toward revelation comes when the demonic entity inside Regan MacNeil is heard via the modern technology of a tape recorder. The basis of the plot was famously inspired by a news story publicized when Blatty was a student at Washington’s Georgetown University in 1949, the details of which he later obtained from some of those who administered the ritual of exorcism to a fourteen-year-old boy; Blatty credited a diary of the affair as a “thoroughly meticulous, reliable – even cautiously understated – eyewitness report of paranormal phenomena.” In 1971, such rational engagement with the irrational was a fashionable trend and a big business.
But The Exorcist significantly embellished the symptoms of “possession” documented in 1949 (the boy’s normal personality was never completely erased, for example), and subsequent analysis suggested the whole case was a combination of hysteria and credulity. So plausible was Blatty’s version, though, that aside from scaring the hell out of its original audience, the novel may have scared several generations toward belief in a real Hell and a real God, fulfilling the writer’s purpose yet yielding contentious results in the political and social climate of the last forty years. The Exorcist also helped create the seemingly permanent suspension of doubt which informs contemporary discourse, wherein wild allegations and conspiracy theories find acceptance precisely because of their official unlikelihood. Still, for the countless numbers of us left intellectually skeptical but emotionally shaken by William Peter Blatty’s masterpiece, we can only hope he, like the agonized Jesuit Damien Karras who served as his fictional stand-in, has now found “something mysteriously like joy at the end of heart’s longing.”
The power of Christ compels you,
George Case is an author of several books, as well as numerous articles which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and online. Some of his titles include Here’s To My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture, 1966-1980 (2016), Calling Dr. Strangelove: The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece (2014), and Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man (2007).