The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty
What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.
Set in Washington, D.C. Chris MacNeil, a famous movie star, is distraught after her young daughter Regan starts exhibiting strange and destructive behaviour. After doctors rule out any physical causes to her condition a priest suffering from a crisis of faith is consulted in a desperate attempt to cure her from a suspected demon-possession.
The literary style of The Exorcist is written in a suspenseful and striking fashion that never seems to let up. A perpetual sense of dread and foreboding doom seeps from its pages and Blatty masterfully directs this device in establishing a chilling yet thought-provoking experience. Narration, dialogue, and character thought are often intertwined giving the novel a rapidity that works very well in engaging the reader and adding weight to its events and characters.
Despite its heavy religious overtones it never came off as preachy or overly reliant on the reader being familiar with scripture or prayer. In fact the entire religious aspect of the novel is almost pushed into the background in place of rationality and deduction, with these conflicting traits ever-present in the character of Kerras – a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist.
Probably the most striking aspect of the novel is just how well realized it is given its supernatural genre. The characters are very believable and react to the given situation in a way that you could easily imagine, both in shock and denial. One iconic scene has two doctors called to the house to check on Regan, where they witness her demonic voice change and a feat of impossible contortion, in that moment they are shocked, frozen in astonishment, afterwards they give sober diagnoses of possible psychological conditions that they admit they don’t know much about, grasping at straws to explain what they’ve just witnessed.
Only after the possible medical diagnoses have been exhausted and all hope is lost is the act of an exorcism suggested. This starts off the latter portion of the novel as we follow Kerras on his research on exorcism and mental illnesses, while Regan’s condition becomes more and more severe.
The character of the demon comes off as highly eccentric. One moment it would be screaming obscenities, vomiting, and performing various acts of self-harm (or whatever you would call it giving that it’s possessing Regan’s body), other times it would be speaking in tongues, doing some casual acts of telepathy and levitation, and having eerie dialogues with the rest of the cast. It’s the latter events that are more interesting as we get an insight into the nature of the demon and Blatty does a decent job of creating an air of mystique and caution surrounding it.
It is never fully explained exactly what kicks off the events of Regan’s possession. From the novel it is hinted that the Ouija board that her mother finds her playing with near the beginning is the vehicle for the possession and that the prologue set in an archaeological dig site in an ancient Assyrian city, Nineveh, in modern-day Northern Iraq is linked somehow. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense upon careful consideration but that’s besides the point (or exactly the point depending how you look at it), it may sound strange but it’s an unimportant detail in the grand scope of the novel. Much more emphasis is on dealing with the unknown and the act of rationalizing it rather than coming to some sort of understanding and this creates a brilliant sense of that you’re right there with the characters as they try to figure things out.
Undoubtedly my favourite parts of the novel are the interactions between the possessed Regan and other characters as well as the investigation into the nature of possession and trying to uncover some rational reason behind it.
Near the beginning of the novel, before Regan’s latter stages of possession, there is mention of a series of occult rituals that have occurred such as the defacing of a statue of Mary in the local church thought to be carried out by a cult or perhaps a deranged priest from the local parish. These events are quickly forgotten and act as an omen for the events to come.
Now my knowledge on ancient Assyrian culture and mythology are next to nil but the prologue set in the Nineveh dig site suggests that the entity or ‘demon’ responsible for the possession is directly or related to the deity Pazuzu, a sort of god that was often summoned to fight other gods or some such. How it was released and how it ended up in America is anyone’s guess but perhaps what bothers me the most is why an ancient Assyrian deity, which predates Christianity by a couple of thousand years, would be oddly Christianity focused. Throughout the stages of Regan’s possession the entity claims to be Satan himself, gets really friendly with a crucifix while denouncing Jesus, and has an adverse reaction to ‘holy water’ and prayer specific to Christian belief in the exorcism ritual.
The Exorcist is a great example of how horror and suspense can be masterfully used to create an unforgettable experience that is both entertaining, chilling, and thought-provoking. The novel is an absolute must-read for fans of the supernatural horror/thriller genre.
~Giuseppe Gillespie February 2022