The Secret Message of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist
October 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of the supernatural thriller The Exorcist. The 1973 film version of the novel, starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair, became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time and inspired not only a series of less interesting sequels but dozens of other horror movies in the 1970’s and 1980’s. For many filmgoers and readers, The Exorcist set the bar for horror and, decades later, still sparks the occasional sleepless night.
“A Novel of Faith”
Yet the novel’s author, William Peter Blatty (who also penned the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the film), marked the 40th anniversary of the novel’s appearance by writing a column for FoxNews.com, in which he reveals that “I haven’t the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying scale.” Rather, Blatty, the son of devout Lebanese Catholic immigrants, reveals “‘The Exorcist’s Secret Message”: It is “a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story—in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through.”
Principalities and Powers
That is not, of course, the way that the novel and the subsequent film have been portrayed by either their fans or their detractors. Indeed, many Christians have accused Blatty of opening up readers and filmgoers to demonic influences—missing not only the point of the novel but misunderstanding Christ’s own teaching regarding the principalities and powers of this world. Demons hold no sway over those who are firm in their faith; but they do, in the words of Pope Leo XIII’s Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, “prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls.” By denying their existence, and treating the world of spiritual warfare as a parlor game, we open ourselves to their influence and even, in extreme cases, to possession.
That is why I find the most chilling scene in the film version of The Exorcist to be one of the briefest. It does not involve vomit or demonic voices or Regan spider-walking, but a simple Ouija board that Regan finds in the basement. While many viewers might well think that the scene would have been better left on the cutting-room floor, it is clearly the pivotal point of the movie, in which the demon finds his entrance. The spiritual horror of the moment is made all the greater by the fact that the scene is so understated, short, and lightly played.
“Not About Shivers But Rather About Souls”
In his column, Blatty does not directly address those who have, over the years, missed the point of his novel, but he does make a connection that I have made in reminding Catholics of the Catholic origins of Halloween (and the anti-Catholic attack on Halloween):
[E]very year on [Halloween] I put out the pumpkin with the cutout eyes and nose and face and the basket full of Snickers and Mars Bars beside it; but I do keep wishing—oh, ever so wistfully and—let’s face it, hopelessly—that “The Exorcist” be remembered at this time of the year for being not about shivers but rather about souls, for then it would indeed be in the real and true spirit of Halloween, which is short for the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day.
“If There Were Demons . . . Why Not God?”
And in addressing the persistent rumor that he had based The Exorcist on a 1949 case of possession that occurred near Georgetown University while he was a junior there, Blatty makes much better a point that I tried to express in “Halloween: A Catholic View”:
I remember thinking, “Someday, somebody’s got to write about this, because if an investigation were to prove that possession is real, what a help it would be to the struggling faith of possibly millions, for if there were demons, I reasoned, then why not angels? Why not God?”
Blatty “in fact did not base my novel on the 1949 case,” but the case led him to investigate the history of demonic possession and to the conclusion
that in every period of recorded history, and in every culture and part of the world, there have been consistent accounts of possession and its symptoms going all the way back to ancient Egyptian chronicles, and where there is that much smoke, my reason told me, there is probably fire—and a lot of it, if you get my meaning. Do you? My faith is strong.
“My Faith Is Strong”
“My faith is strong.” In the end, that is the secret message of The Exorcist: The presence of evil in the world points also to the presence of good and indeed of God. The prospect of Hell spurs us on to seek Heaven.
As Christians, we reject Satan and all of his works, and all of his empty promises, but rejecting Satan is something very different from denying his existence. Reducing evil merely to the sins of man—or, worse yet, a sociological phenomenon—does not make us safer. Like Regan’s Ouija board, it opens us up to the horrifying reality of evil from which only faith can save us.
First published on About Catholicism in October 2011.