Rereading “The Exorcist” In an Age of New Demons

From a Washington Post books column by Louis Bayard headlined “Rereading ‘The Exorcist’ in an age of new demons”:

When I was a kid, my parents, bless their memories, let me watch pretty much any R-rated movie that traveled through Springfield, Va. I was present for the first runs of “Catch-22,” “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “Cabaret,” “Chinatown,” “The Last Detail.” Where my parents drew the line, for reasons I am still excavating, was “The Exorcist,” but I think I was already drawing that line myself.

The pre-internet grapevine had brought forth reports of audience members shrieking, fainting, vomiting. It felt like a stretch for a religiously unaffiliated suburban kid who still checked in with “H.R. Pufnstuf” every Saturday morning. Anybody going to see “The Exorcist” would have to bring body and soul, and I wasn’t sure I had enough of either.

“What if I just read the book?” I asked.

I knew I was home free. My parents were even more libertine with novels than movies. What their kids couldn’t understand, they figured, couldn’t harm them. For the most part this was true, and when I did see the film, some 10 or 12 years after reading the book, I found myself blasé about what unfurled before my eyes. Was this what I’d been so afraid of?

By then, of course, our culture had absorbed “The Exorcist” and everything it signified. Aliens were bursting through chests. Demons were possessing dolls. Serial killers were preying on teenagers in their summer camps, in their dreams. We were no longer a people afraid of a shock; we were a people looking for the next shock.

And so, as the film’s 50th anniversary nears, it’s worth traveling back to that best-selling 1971 novel to tease out the seeds of everything it engendered. The author was William Peter Blatty, a moderately successful Hollywood screenwriter who, until then, had specialized in frothy, undemanding comedies. The best of them was “A Shot in the Dark” (1964), the apex of the Inspector Clouseau franchise. The worst (and there’s competition) was a musical called “Darling Lili” (1970), which contrived, with the deadly precision of a U-boat, to sink the film careers of both Rock Hudson and (for a time) Julie Andrews.

Blatty by that point may have felt the need for career atonement, because “The Exorcist” is, from a certain angle, a bonfire of his vanities. The epigraph page alone gestures toward the Gospel of Luke, Cosa Nostra murders, communist atrocities and, for anyone still slow off the mark, Dachau, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Step right up, folks, it’s Evil.

After that gaudy show of metaphysical leg, the main surprise of the novel is how slowly it burns. The title character doesn’t really enter the narrative until 70 pages from the end, and anyone coming to the story for the first time might mistake it for a murder mystery. Just who is behind the death of Burke Dennings, an obnoxious British film director who has somehow or other plunged from the window of a Georgetown rowhouse? Why was his body found with its head wrenched in the opposite direction?

The townhouse is being leased by his star actress, Chris MacNeil, and suspicion falls glancingly on her servant Karl, but Lieutenant Kinderman, the Jewish Columbo figure who seems to have wandered down from Brooklyn, concludes that the only one in the room with Dennings was Chris’s daughter, Regan.

Ah, Regan. When first we meet her, she is cuddling a stuffed panda named Pookey. She has red ponytails and braces and a “soft, shining face full of freckles,” and she tells her mother things like, “Oh, I love you!” Such wholesomeness cannot stand. The build again is slow: strange rappings in the attic, a Ouija board, a fantasy playmate, desecrations at the local church. Before you know it, Regan is urinating in front of guests, swearing, screaming, kicking, writhing. Physicians swoop in with their worldly remedies: Ritalin, Librium, EEGs, spinal taps. But nothing can forestall the invader who bellows from Regan’s tethered body: “The sow is mine!”

It is a psychiatrist who first raises the idea of an exorcism. In slouches Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit psychiatrist with degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. He had a hardscrabble New York childhood that owes a lot to Blatty’s own. He drinks and smokes too much, doubts his faith, grieves his late mother. He is also, decades in advance of “Fleabag,” a hot priest, with “powerful leg muscles,” a “rock-muscled chest and shoulders,” “large and yet sensitive” hands like “veined Michelangelos,” and a “bulging, thickly muscled forearm.” A dazzled Lieutenant Kinderman compares him to Marlon Brando, but Father Karras has God’s work to do, and the book quickens into fictional life in the exact moment the film does. A priest wanders into a bedroom cold as a meat locker and politely inquires of the creature in the bed: “Who are you?”

“I’m the devil.”

To which impatient readers might be muttering half a century later: “Yeah, we know.” Even if the title hasn’t tipped us off, the book’s iconic transgressions — Regan masturbating with a crucifix, vomiting, spinning her head, recoiling before drops of holy water — are so ingrained in our celluloid memory that we simply tick them off now, tourists of the Inferno. \\

Blatty conscientiously follows the rules of thriller prose, right down to the one-sentence paragraphs and the Chandleresque swells (“He was pawing at truth like a weary bachelor pinching vegetables at market”). And his portrait of Nixon-era Georgetown, with its “hippie joints” and “hellhounds,” can’t help but amuse. (“Stay the hell away from M Street!” warns Chris. “And N!”) But the book’s chief interest now stems from its own theological muddle.

Begin with that “I’m the devil” declaration, which, with its definite article, prompts readers and viewers to conclude that Satan himself has checked in, Airbnb-style, to that Prospect Street rowhouse. But, as Blatty has already made clear in his evocative prologue, the demon is Pazuzu, a minor figure from Assyrian mythology whose main job was to harness the southwestern wind. Not the kind of chiropractic force, you’d think, who could divorce a person’s head from his spinal column, nor the kind of Manichaean presence who could make two Jesuits question their vocation.

It wouldn’t matter too much if Blatty weren’t already walking the tightrope of theodicy. Nobody has ever answered, at least to everybody’s satisfaction, the essential question raised in the Book of Job: Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to exist in the first place? Or, dragging the conversation back down to the level of “The Exorcist,” why would God let a punk like Pazuzu terrorize a young girl? And why would Pazuzu, in the book’s climax, randomly decide to possess Father Karras, who, in a spasm of martyrdom, becomes the second man to be hurled down what are now called the “Exorcist steps”? Why did Pazuzu possess Regan in the first place? Because her mother was a divorced atheist? Because early-1970s countercultural America had lost its way? Because God can be apprehended only in God’s absence?

The questions can’t be resolved because Blatty never entirely entertains them, and it is time now, perhaps, to pay homage to a more secular deity: Ira Levin, whose 1967 novel, “Rosemary’s Baby,” and its film adaptation so robustly established the mass-market potential of devils and maidens. Blatty was a devout Lebanese-American Catholic who briefly considered the priesthood, but he was also a creature of Hollywood looking for a way back in, and he found it as producer and screenwriter of the “Exorcist” adaptation, presiding over the kind of word-of-mouth hysteria that authors dream of when they’re not feeling particularly holy.

The director, the late William Friedkin, was a pretty scary fellow himself. As Nat Segaloff reports in his new book, “The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear” (Citadel, $28), Friedkin was smart enough to get the Catholic Church on board by casting two Jesuits in the film and berserk enough to punch one of them in the face to get a better performance. Shooting consumed more than 15 months and ran well past the original $12 million budget, in part because special effects in that pre-CGI era had to be created mechanically.

Today, the breath clouds elicited by Regan’s arctic bedroom could be digitally added; back then, they demanded a $50,000 air-conditioning unit. The bed and surrounding furniture actually moved, as did 13-year-old actress Linda Blair when the script required Regan to be hydraulically levitated. The demon’s baritone croak was supplied not by a voice synthesizer but by Mercedes McCambridge, a gifted and troubled character actress who went full Method during the recording — to the point of binding her hands, like Regan’s, with bedsheets.

“The Exorcist” opened the day after Christmas 1973, a monster hit in every way, and Segaloff makes a persuasive case that it never closed, though it was followed at least by two sequels, a TV series, two prequels — none of them successful. In October, the first installment of another “Exorcist” trilogy rolls out. It will be too late. We took what Blatty had to tell us — that tackling a supernatural problem is something best parceled off to specialists — and spun it in new directions: “Poltergeist,” “Ghostbusters,” “Beetlejuice,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Now we subsist in a swale of dystopian horror entertainment (see: all of zombie culture), and it’s becoming clear that we were the demons all along, that no specialist can save us from ourselves and that all we can hope for is to survive each other. Pazuzu, hold our beer.

Louis Bayard is the author of “Jackie & Me” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”

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