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

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
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.

Publication date: February 15, 2016
The Exorcist
by William Peter Blatty
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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 survivewe 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.  
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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