Next to Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Haunting of Hill House, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is probably the most important horror novel ever written. It and its more famous film adaptation near-singlehandedly ushered in the Horror Boom of the 1970s-80s, a period that permanently raised the horror genre’s place in public consciousness and gave us authors such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker. The entire subgenre of demonic-possession story was also brought to popularity by the book and the film, and has never since gone away (even The Babadook, an otherwise classically monster-in-the-closet tale, can’t escape its influence). It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the story’s two versions to the genre of horror and to popular culture in general. Which is why it’s a shame that both are deeply flawed, and the novel in particular simply isn’t that good.
Let me qualify the above by saying that the novel still merited three stars out of five as my Goodreads rating. Fun is a large factor in how I rate certain books, and it’s undeniable that Blatty’s novel is indeed quite a bit of fun. Even given all its flaws, it moves at a tremendous clip, and while it never scared me it did have me turning pages at a pretty tight rate. It, like books by Michael Crichton and Jack McDevitt and others like them, is a great stress-reliever; one goes into it knowing exactly what they’re getting and leaves feeling solidly entertained. But where Crichton’s Jurassic Park or McDevitt’s Polaris are also successfully told stories, The Exorcist is merely fun. It lacks a coherence and an internal logic, and this paucity of sense draws attention to itself at all the worst moments.
I can’t place the blame for this solely on Blatty, because these problems are not, by and large, with The Exorcist in particular but with the concept of demonic possession as a whole. It simply can’t be made to work in a piece of horror art, at least not the specifically Christian conception of possession that pervades nearly every such story. Below, I lay out a brief critique of the numerous problems for demons in horror literature, beginning with problems specific to The Exorcist before broadening my approach to the Christian framework of demonic possession in general.
Problems Inherent to The Exorcist‘s Depiction of Possession
The largest problem in The Exorcist that is created specifically by Blatty is involved in the incredible coincidence required for the plot to come about in the first place. Both the novel and the film open in the midst of an archaeological dig in Iraq, with the titular exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin, as our viewpoint character. Merrin is disturbed to discover that one of the artifacts that has been unearthed is an amulet bearing the likeness of Pazuzu, an Assyro-Babylonian wind demon. The priest, who has apparently beaten Pazuzu once before, senses that another showdown is imminent, and promptly vanishes before indeed reappearing in the final act to assist Father Damien Karras in driving the demon from the body of horrifically possessed little girl Regan MacNeil. Ignoring the straining of credulity required to believe that Pazuzu would have fled across hemispheres to possess a little girl who just so happens to live in the same location as Merrin’s Catholic cohorts, his ties to the old priest introduce huge internal problems to The Exorcist.
First of these is the damage that the desert opening does to the story’s atmosphere. One of the elements present in The Exorcist that became integral to the horror boom is the familiarity of its setting. Stephen King especially would learn from this, setting nearly all of his novels in a set of small towns in the state of Maine and never departing from the city limits; the same can be said for Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (which itself borrows heavily from King’s ‘Salem’s Lot) and countless other novels and films of the Horror Boom. Even today, the tactic hasn’t grown stale—placing an alien horror in the midst of an otherwise completely “normal” and familiar environment is a tremendously effective device for making a story’s central evil a much more invasive and paranoia-inducing threat than it otherwise would be. Unfortunately, Blatty undermines his own stroke of genius in this regard by deliberately opening his novel in a conspicuously exotic setting. The sense of scope this lends the narrative, though it leads to some very pretty shots in the film adaptation, is precisely what is not needed—it collapses the otherwise claustrophobic invasion of the mundane by the supernatural in a manner that cannot conceptually be recovered from.
The second problem caused by Blatty’s introduction of Merrin and his foe is the confusion it adds to the story’s internal mythology. The spirit that possesses Regan is very clearly one that fits the Christian conception of a demon (which, as is discussed below, brings with it a whole host of its own problems), answers to such biblical labels as the devil and Legion, and has a particular dislike for crucifixes and holy water. Identifying it as the Assyro-Babylonian Pazuzu, however, takes what is otherwise a purely Christian enemy and hopelessly muddles it. Are we to assume Pazuzu is lying, adapting itself to a Christian culture’s fears in order to better exploit it? Did the Assyrians and Babylonians identify as a god an entity that is in fact nothing more than one of Satan’s host (we’ll ignore all the problems of cultural disrespect this entails)? If we were given one of these answers it would at least partially repair the damage, but Blatty never attempts to offer an explanation for the cultural cross-pollination. Pazuzu simply transforms into a Christian demon, and in doing so renders The Exorcist a mythological scrap-heap.
The final problem caused by the story’s opening is one of effective horror. In this regard the film is perhaps the worse offender, in that it explicitly shows Pazuzu’s silhouette behind Regan after Father Merrin is killed by his efforts to save her. This explicit labeling of the story’s shadowy antagonist deflates a huge portion of the fear and tension that have built up prior to the silhouette’s appearance; it takes what has (in the film) been up to this moment an unidentified enemy and explicitly gives him a name and identity. The old truism that the unknown is more frightening than the known holds true here, and we find we can’t be nearly as scared of Pazuzu now that we see him as a concrete entity. In the novel, which unlike its adaptation names the demon in its opening pages, no such climax-interrupting revelation comes; and while Blatty’s text is technically the more egregious breaker of rules due to its presenting its villain’s identity up front, the impact of this flaw is felt less due to its not coming in the midst of such an important scene.
Problems Inherent to the Christian Concept of Possession
Without even considering its impact on horror specifically quite yet, the Christian conception of demon possession is inherently problematic as concerns motive. If we are to accept the Christian definition of a demon as a former angel now fallen and ruled by Satan, the actions of a demonic possession cease to make any sort of sense when considered in detail.
The first of many questions: why possess a human being at all? Blatty’s novel makes a vague comment about Pazuzu’s desire for a warm body, but this causes more problems than it resolves. To begin with, there’s no compelling reason as to why a demon would want to inhabit a body. Even if the Gnostic revulsion for the physical that still pervades a good deal of Christian theology is cast aside, there’s not a particularly large list of advantages for a former angel of God in possessing a meat-puppet. Not only does it seemingly substantially limit the demon’s freedom (rendering it firmly corporeal rather than able to flit throughout the world as it pleases, unable to utilize supernatural powers beyond vague object-moving and other such parlor tricks), it traps it in a body subject to damage, decay, and eventual death. The latter apparently isn’t much of a concern to Christian demons, however—indeed, rather than slowing those processes they attempt to hasten them! Regan is emblematic of a typical Christian possession in this regard, practicing self-mutilation, regularly shitting and vomiting on herself, and growing increasingly sickly. Even if a demon could for whatever reason take enough pleasure in inhabiting a body to regularly attempt to do so, deliberately wrecking its new home and providing it with generally miserable physical sensations rather than pleasurable ones is utterly nonsensical.
The other major question raised by Christian demonic possession: what is the demon’s goal? Presented outside of a Christian framework, possession doesn’t have to make sense; an unknown entity’s goals needn’t be limited to a certain theological system. A specifically Christian demon, though, is automatically saddled with an agenda, one that possession doesn’t seem to suit very well. Causing pain and misery to God’s creatures is a commonly given answer, but if so possession is hardly the most efficient way to go about it; surely using one’s telekinetic powers to, say, collapse a bridge or tear several people’s hearts from their chests is more effective than simply causing one little girl to mutilate herself and shriek obscenities? In The Exorcist, Father Merrin speculates that perhaps the demon possesses a victim in order to drive others to despair; if this is the case, it rather resoundingly backfires, with Pazuzu’s possession of Regan driving her firmly atheist mother to seek spiritual guidance. And if, as is commonly held among Christians who believe in demonic possession, it is impossible for one inhabited by the Holy Spirit to be possessed, isn’t it far more likely that possession would indeed frequently convince unbelievers of the power of the supernatural, rather than causing believers to doubt their faith? Once again, The Exorcist fails to provide an answer, and in this case is not alone.
More interesting than this sort of plothole-picking, though, are the implications that arise when Christian possession is the fuel for a horror novel. It’s my firm contention that all horror, or at least all successful horror, is essentially atheistic or at best maltheistic. This is not to say that horror stories cannot have happy endings (though it’s usually best that they don’t), but those happy endings cannot be obtained through divine intervention. The existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God irreparably undermines the central philosophical conceit of horror—that humans are nothing more than thinking meat, that we are alone in a completely uncaring if not actively malevolent universe, that if anyone is going to save us it must be ourselves (and even the odds of that are inconceivably slim). Once this kind of God is brought into a narrative, it ceases to be horror and becomes nothing more than fantasy, no matter how gruesome its details.
This presents a rather titanic problem for demonic possession stories, at least ones that rely on a Christian framework. We can either bring in God as literal deus ex machina to save the day, rendering our story a completely unsuccessful horror tale; or we dispense with God altogether, which retains a horrific atmosphere but begs the question: what the hell are Christian demons doing in a world without a Christian God?
The Exorcist chooses the latter option. None of the Christian rituals or invocations of Christ’s name desperately hurled at Pazuzu by Merrin and Karras are ultimately effective—they affect the demon not one whit, and Merrin, the perfectly pious saint, dies in the midst of attempting to drive it out. It is only when Karras, furious, demands that Pazuzu come into him, willingly rejecting God and embracing the demonic, that the enemy is beaten; he enters the priest, who promptly hurls himself through a window and down a flight of stone steps. This (if we ignore the book’s sequel, which I’m completely comfortable with doing) apparently kills Pazuzu (yet again bringing up the question of why the hell demons are so keen to inhabit mortal bodies in the first place). It’s a triumph, but rather an empty one; in order to achieve victory, Karras is forced to address the demon on its own terms, rather than relying on a God who is at best unresponsive and more likely simply isn’t present. The film emphasizes this; where the book depicts a priest delivering hasty last rites to the dying Karras, the adaptation shows him breathing his last before even this can occur.
In choosing this ending, Blatty makes the proper aesthetic and philosophical choice, denying any chance of an all-powerful deity saving the day. Unfortunately, in doing so he exposes the inescapable problem of utilizing Christian possession in horror: why does demonic possession occur if the demons’ foe is both good and all-powerful, and if He does not exist what are the demons doing running around in the first place?
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The monumental status of The Exorcist can’t be denied, and its merits, while they’re of a distinctly potboiler quality, are substantial. That said, it remains an essentially unsuccessful story due both to Blatty’s own choices and the constraints of the mythology upon which the novel hinges. As evidenced by its immense influence and popular appeal, it’s an undeniably powerful tale, especially in its film adaptation. Unfortunately, much of its power comes from one’s own religious belief and the accompanying terror of the forces of Satan. Once that’s left behind, fear starts to unravel in the face of questions—and those questions ultimately can’t be recovered from.