The rite of exorcism is not one of the seven official sacraments of the Catholic faith. Church leaders don’t discuss it very often, and the general perception is that it is rarely performed. But perhaps not quite as rarely as you might assume.
A priest in my neighborhood recently admitted that he had been called in to perform an exorcism. A local teenager’s devotion to Satanic rock had precipitated a personal crisis, marked by mental instability and substance abuse. After having exhausted other options, the distraught family asked the priest to perform an exorcism. When he interviewed the parents, the priest was surprised to learn that they weren’t Catholics. “Why did you contact a Catholic parish?” he asked. Without hesitation, they responded: “This kind of thing seems to be your specialty, no?”
I never heard how the case turned out, but I imagine many priests have been involved in similar situations. Yes, exorcism is in their line of work. As recently as 1999, the Vatican revised the ritual, and issued an 84-page guide entitled Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. An update was certainly in order: the previous revision had taken place in 1614! This version was slightly amended in 2004. An English translation was authorized by the US bishops—by a vote of 179 to 5, in case you are interested—in November 2014. However, an anonymous practitioner of the rite admitted to a reporter: "I think many exorcists will stick with the Latin translation. There is some belief among exorcists that the Latin prayers are more effective in driving out demons.”
Author William Peter Blatty first encountered the basic plot for his bestselling novel The Exorcist during his student days at Georgetown University. Blatty was twenty years old—and the publication of his most famous book was more than twenty years away—when he read, in the August 20, 1949 issue of the Washington Post, an account of an alleged demonic possession in nearby Cottage City, Maryland. The case was also discussed in Blatty’s class on the New Testament by Professor Eugene Gallagher.
A German Lutheran couple had strange tales to tell about their 14-year-old son. In his presence, objects would levitate or fly through the air. Inexplicable noises reverberated in the house. Messages appeared in rashes on the boy’s skin. Neither the family doctor nor the Lutheran minister, Luther Miles Schulze, managed to halt the disturbances—Schulze would later describe furniture and blankets moving in the boy’s bedroom, as if impelled by some malevolent force. After both Lutheran and Anglican rites of exorcism were attempted, without success, the family brought in Father Edward Hughes, a Catholic priest. Eventually after somewhere between 20 and 30 exorcisms, witnessed by dozens of people including nine Jesuits, the symptoms disappeared, and the boy reportedly went on to lead a normal life. The case continues to stir up debate, and various parties have alleged that the underlying cause of these disturbance might be mental illness, a prank, or a real-life instance of demonic possession.
Blatty went on to pursue a successful career as a screenwriter and novelist, but the story of the possessed youngster stayed with him. Finally in 1969, he started work on The Exorcist, which would eventually sell thirteen million copies and inspire one of the highest-grossing films (in more ways than one) of the era. Both the book and the movie invariably rank high on lists of chillers and thrillers. Just a few months ago, The Exorcist came out on top of a bracket competition conducted by NBC’s Today to pick the scariest film of all time— some forty years after its release! (It defeated The Shining in the finals.)
This is perhaps all the more surprising given the large dose of theology in Blatty’s conception of his story. Much of the tale revolves around a crisis of faith. There’s little actual bloodshed in The Exorcist, and—in place of the typical arsenal of the slasher films that flourished in the aftermath of The Exorcist—the weapons at play here are little more than holy water, a crucifix and some lines in Latin. The horror is mostly existential…but perhaps all the more unnerving for that very reason.
Father Damien Karras has been called in by actress Chris MacNeil, who is concerned about the violent and unpredictable behavior of her 12-year-old daughter Regan. MacNeil is not a Catholic, or a believer of any sort, but the failure of medical experts has forced her to look for help elsewhere. Father Karras is also a trained psychiatrist, and he is initially reluctant to accept a diagnosis of demonic possession. Despite his priestly vocation, he has struggled with doubt, although his encounters with the child eventually convince him that an exorcism might be the only option. The bishop, however, intervenes, and calls in an old Jesuit, Father Lankester Merrin, who has first- hand experience with the old rites. These two colleagues join forces to confront the oldest adversary of them all. But the Devil, as they say, is in the details, and they will find that he is determined to probe and exploit each of their weaknesses. Defeating the demon requires, in a very real sense, a victory over their own vulnerabilities and doubts.
Perhaps all stories eventually represent the battle of good versus evil. But seldom does this conflict emerge in such bold relief as in The Exorcist. The intensity of the public’s reaction, to both the book and the film, is all the more striking when one considers that The Exorcist arrived on the scene after a decade of marked secularization of American life. In the ten years following the assassination of the nation’s first Catholic president, we saw the secularizing tendencies triggered by the Second Vatican Council, the end of film censorship, the legalization of abortion, the spread of no-fault divorce, and numerous other milestone events that would seem to undercut the very premise of Blatty’s story. Why would the Devil have such power to terrify in an age which, by most external measures, the general public had moved on to more tangible fears—environmental decay, Southeast Asian war, runaway inflation, nuclear proliferation, rising interest rates?
But sometimes the old stories are the best ones. Perhaps we are hardwired to respond to them, whether in our DNA or that part of our being once called the soul. From this perspective, The Exorcist succeeds precisely because it avoids the Hollywood formulas for horror. Blatty nixed those campy villains in monster makeup or dressed up like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and went back to basic metaphysics. After all, you can run away from Frankenstein and the Wolfman, but the horror that comes from inside offers no escape.
Put differently, The Exorcist still can terrify because possession is not just nine-tenths of the law, but perhaps nine-tenths of our worst fears. Even in a culture of individualistic humanism—perhaps above all in such a setting—the total abandonment of self to a negating force within remains the epitome of true terror. That’s the definitive scare story, straight out of Freud or Sartre or (but, of course!) Aquinas. The Exorcist captured its baneful essence in fictional form, and terrifies us for the simple reason that these kind of existential collapses or possessions don’t ever disappear, even in the most sober and skeptical secular age.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.
This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of 2016, and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations. Check back each week for a new title...but remember to bring along garlic, silver bullets and a protective amulet. T.G.