March 7, 2011


by William Peter Blatty
368 pages, Corgi Books

Sympathy for the Devil by Pat Black

It’s still very difficult to watch, isn’t it?

When I attended a screening of The Exorcist a few years ago, little pockets of the audience sniggered at certain scenes. I had a wee titter or two myself; a child roaring at a priest to “SUCK SATAN’S C*CK!”does have certain comedic possibilities, one must admit.

But I was still hesitant to click off the light once I got home. Some of what I’d seen earlier just would not leave my head. I was freaked out not by the “marquee” moments, which I knew all about, like that nauseating bit with the crucifix, or the pea soup shower, or the Satanic interpretative head-spinning dance; instead, it was the smaller touches that disturbed me most. Like poor Regan being subjected to painful medical procedures as the scientists attempt to find a rational explanation for what’s happening to her. Or Father Karras being haunted by his dead mother. Or that spooky, malevolent white face glimpsed only in lightning-quick cuts. You know the one I mean. Blink and you might even see it now.

I daresay, I had the willies.

Blame my Catholic upbringing, if you must. Being raised a Roman’s like having good luggage, or herpes; once you’ve got it, you’ve got it for life. The Exorcist played the papist’s ingrained fear of the supernatural and Satan’s dark designs like a fiddle, and Catholicism runs right through William Peter Blatty’s book. This dualist tale of demonic possession as tug-o-war, with Christ and the priests on one side and the devil and his underlings on the other, allegedly saw church attendances increase as people rediscovered the Fear of, well... something.

Re-reading the novel after a gap of some 20 years brings home to me some old fears which I hadn’t encountered in a long time, but also some extremely disturbing things which passed right under my radar in 1991.

The film adaptation has been examined, essayed and reviewed to death and beyond (I do recommend you catch Mark Kermode’s masterful BBC documentary The Fear of God), so I don’t wish to revisit it in any great detail here. William Friedkin’s movie followed the plot of William Peter Blatty’s book to the letter; all the major scenes are included, and a lot of the dialogue, too.

Blatty, apparently a practising Catholic, chose to bring a biblical struggle into an almost mundane modern-day scenario; the battleground wasn’t in some Gothic cathedral or in ancient, torchlit catacombs, but in a modern, spacious, blood-red-ink-on-yer-mortgage upper-middle-class house. This juxtaposition of utter evil and cosy domesticity was already a well-worn path when the book was released, mainly thanks to Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and the subsequent movie version. If the devil has all the best tunes, then it seems he had all the best movies, too, in the late sixties and early seventies.

We start off in with a prologue in Iraq – now there’s a kick in the pants – where an elderly man is excavating an archaeological site, apparently a shrine to an extremely rude demon named Pazuzu. It turns out that the digger, Lankester Merrin, is a Jesuit priest who once carried out an exorcism in a documented case of demonic possession. Although it seems to be a given on some movie blogs and websites that the demon concerned in The Exorcist was Pazuzu himself, I’ll set my stall out right away: that’s not how I read it. For me, the baddie in this book – the one that takes hold of the little girl – is the Devil, caps intended. As in, the opposite of what Christ, or God, is. It seems silly to me that Merrin would excavate an archaeological site dedicated to something that turns out to be his mortal – immortal – enemy; despite some of Merrin’s own suspicions, I read this as merely symbolism, a way for the priest to reconnect with his final reckoning with auld nick himself.

I have now written six hundred and sixty six words.

So from there we leap to chilly Georgetown in Washington, where eleven-year-old Regan Macneil, an actress’s daughter, is undergoing some odd changes in behaviour. These aren’t the usual symptoms of a hormonal child as she reaches adolescence (although I daresay there are some parents of teenagers who might disagree). These episodes escalate in violence and creepiness, driving Regan’s mother Chris to her wits’ end and then completely baffling psychiatrists’ and doctors’ attempts to write it off as a physiological or psychological problem. Completely unnerved, they all bugger off, before leaving Regan’s mother with the chilling diagnosis: “Have you ever heard of demonic possession?”

Looking to make God her co-pilot, Chris contacts Father Damien Karras, a second-generation Hungarian immigrant who, on top of rattling rosaries, also happens to be a qualified psychiatrist. When he appears on the scene, Father Karras is undergoing problems with his faith; interestingly, we never get any details of this crisis, although we do know he’s been severely damaged by the illness and death of his elderly mother.

An initially-sceptical Karras is given the full-on willies by Regan’s deviant behaviour and apparent supernatural powers. Satisfied that he’s taking on Team Pope’s very own Darth Vader, Karras hooks up with Lankester Merrin and they get an exorcism going to drive the evil one out of Regan’s increasingly-frail body.

They do so... but only just. Blatty makes it clear that if you really want to beat Satan, you have to make some sacrifices, including the ultimate one.

So much for all that. Let’s spool back a little, though. And – this is where it gets really scary – let’s try to take the Devil out of the equation.

The old story still packs a punch. You know, Devil meets little girl. Devil possesses little girl. We’re all appalled, etc. And in considering it, we’re confronted with some apparently simple choices; on the one side, there’s the light. Goodness; common humanity; God. It doesn’t have to chime with the idea of Christ or Christianity, but it certainly helps in this story. And on the other side, there’s the Devil, malice, evil, all the bad stuff.

I really don’t think Blatty wanted to do much more than provide a somewhat banal modern framing for the Book of Revelations’ lakes of fire. But in spiritual terms, The Exorcist is a very uplifting book. In its central argument that you can boil some humanity down to ultimate evil, then its polar opposite must exist in people, too.

This is hopelessly reductive, but Blatty was aiming for a modern parable – a place where you could sift out the indistinctiveness and actually focus in on what we can say is utterly, irredeemably bad in us, either as a society or as individuals. America took a long, hard look at itself in the 1970s, and The Exorcist is a creepy foreshadowing of this process. Watergate was yet to happen when The Exorcist hit the bookshelves, but Kennedy was less than 10 years in his grave and Nixon’s darting eyes were already peering at black ops reports in the Oval Room of the White House; for Americans, there’s a very clear line to be drawn between the horror of a nasty entity taking control of your mind, and that of a nasty element creeping into the heart of your government.

What also fascinates me is how Blatty shines a light into other kinds of evil; ones that we see every day in the newspapers. By way of illustration, let’s start with the book’s most shocking scene – where Regan, under the control of the blaspheming demon, violates herself with a crucifix. While we’re appalled by this open and blatant corruption of the innocent, it perhaps reflects a very important and rarely-explored theme of this book: the sexual abuse of children.

Let’s look at the odd, off-the-page murder of the flamboyant film director, Burke Dennings. We are given to understand that this man’s head was completely turned around by Regan, presumably acting under the influence of “Captain Howdy”, as she terms her unwanted guest. The murder acts as a driving force for the plot, allowing the police, under the guise of wily Detective Kinderman, to get involved with what’s happening in the house and raise the tension for our protagonists.

But this incident begs a couple of unsettling questions. First of all, what was Dennings doing alone in Regan’s room, anyway, while her mother was out? It would appear that Dennings is gay, but even so the circumstances of his being there seem a little odd.

So let’s enter the hypothesis that Dennings is a child abuser. Why, then, should Evil Regan carry out... well, if not divine retribution, then certainly poetic justice? If we agree that a child abuser is evil, and he wants to abuse a child, and that child happens to have been possessed by the very essence of evil, then surely Satan would want to help him in some way, rather than giving him a very nasty come-uppance? Vengeance may well be the Lord’s, but if we’re buying into the idea of Dennings being evil (and I believe he was), then doesn’t that seem in some way... just? Are we expected to have sympathy for a child abuser? Or do we in fact, if not in method, have sympathy for... well, you know?

In this book, I think that Satan might be a little bit like the Joker in The Dark Knight. “Kill you? I don’t want to kill you!” he tells Batman, incredulously. “What would I do without you? You... complete me.” This Satan isn’t as crude as a comic book baddie; his aims are sophisticated. He wants to test faith. Like the Joker, he wants to take established notions of what is deemed good and right, and to turn them back upon the believers; to find out how deep their faith in society’s schemes and designs really goes.

With this in mind, I suspect the Devil’s target, through the whole ordeal of The Exorcist, isn’t Regan and her family, but Damien Karras. That’s a soul worth having, he thinks. And he means to have fun with his quarry; in driving Merrin, the older, wiser, and perhaps more powerful exorcist to his death, the Devil leaves Karras alone, the last man standing. So what spiritual weapons does the priest bring to the battle?

We know Karras’s faith is sorely lacking. But we don’t know why, exactly. Is there a problem with his belief in God? Has his mother’s death given him a moment of doubt and pain? Or is it something else that’s causing him to question his calling in life? We are never told what this test amounts to; it’s never even hinted at. A mischievous part of me thought Karras might have known the Straight Priest’s Nightmare. When Chris Macneil first sees him, she never quite says that she finds Karras attractive, but his dark good looks and athlete’s physique are well described to us. Karras, in turn, would be inhuman if he wasn’t flattered in some way by a movie star’s entreaty for help.

Oldest sin of them all, mate!

Whatever Karras’ struggle, we’re certainly left in the dark as to whether or not he’s resolved it by the end. We only know that in tackling the Devil, he’s perhaps come face-to-face with some inner darkness that we’re never privy to. While Karras and Old Nick duke it out, Regan is, mercifully, left alone.

Inner darkness is something the Devil, or whatever the entity which possesses Regan is, wants to uncover and exploit. Its brand of evil isn’t really a grinning, shrieking, swearing demon at all, but perhaps something a little more mundane. A face you wouldn’t notice, until a mugshot appears in your papers.

So, for me, what may be the most frightening proposal of William Peter Blatty’s book isn’t the idea of one’s body being possessed and mistreated by something else entirely – it’s the notion that evil is not only all around us, but within us. We can see this from page one, where a couple of epigrams take us through some horrifying true-life wiretap conversations between two gangsters in the wake of bloody murder. The horrors of Nazi Germany – less than 30 years’ distance from The Exorcist’s first print run - is also touched upon. With that in mind, did anyone else wonder about the German husband-and-wife housekeeping team Chris employs? You have to say, they’d be the right age for Nazi absconders in the early 1970s. When the Devil mocks them, is he only really reflecting what’s been on everyone else’s minds regarding this most unusual pair?

This adds to the Devil’s very nasty way of absorbing negative aspects of people’s lives and throwing them back at them. The entity taunts Karras in the voice of his dead mother – “why you no visit me, Dimmy?” – and also in the voice of a bum in the street who had asked for his help – “can ya help an old altar boy, faddah?” Rather than just taunting or unsettling his foes and targets, the Devil is tweaking that most Catholic of sentiments – guilt – and using it as a weapon, much like a priest on a school visit terrifying children with tales of hell.

But more than this, it gives the Satan in this book a disturbing level of omniscience. He knew about the ex-altar boy. He knew about old Mrs Karras, dying alone. And he knew all about cackling, shrieking Burke Dennings, his nuances, his very character. These seem more like the powers of God, or at least, a god, to me. The main characters’ psychological flaws are revealed, and reflected back at them, made potent. What a horror.

Like Karras and Regan’s mother, at some points you wonder whether there’s anything anyone can do to stop such malign forces.

But there is. And, good lord, it’s a very Christian course of action, too: Turn the other cheek.

Or maybe we should strip both God and the Devil out of the argument, and do away with the dualism. Let’s step aside from Judeo-Christian or Islamic ways of thinking and go with the idea that we create our perception of evil spirits from within our own minds. Let’s accept that these things may not exist in the outside world. They’re products of ourselves; reactions to our own fears, dreads, woes and bad experiences.

We are as well to reject these negative things, to turn away from them. We can have wrongs done to us; we can be wronged by truly malicious people in life. Never mind Pazuzu; we probably all know people whose morals make him seem like a Sunday school teacher.

But the true triumph of will, or the soul if you prefer, would not be in retribution or revenge, to allow our grievances to possess or consume us. It is, rather, that the goodness that exists within us should not be crushed, harmed or excised. To keep our candles lit, to always be positive, accepting and wise – that’s true exorcism, in the face of true evil. We all have our inner demons, but we don’t need to listen to them.

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