Last year I saw a notice that a fortieth anniversary edition of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, would be released. I struggled a bit with whether or not read it, mainly because my dad had read it shortly after it came out and he tells the story of waking one night with a strong sense that he needed to get the novel out of the house immediately. He did so immediately. Of course – and this is no credit to my generation – the novel, while certainly terrifying, is in some ways less jarring to those of us who have grown up under its shadow (the movie was released in 1974, the year I was born) and who have been vaguely familiar with the basic gist of it than it was to the generation on which it was dropped. Quite honestly many of the elements that scandalized the public in the 1970’s are pretty much available to all on prime time TV any night of the week now and have been for years. This numbing, I repeat, is nota compliment to today’s culture!
If this story is less jarring to my generation, it is only just so (and I would love to know if others around my age even agree). It truth, it remains a deeply unsettling and profoundly disturbing read. It is not without merit that The Exorcist has been called the most terrifying novel ever written.
At the outset, let me address any who think it is unwise for a Christian to read something like The Exorcist. To put it simply, it could be that no work of fiction has so shaped the spiritual psychology of a generation as this novel. My friend Calvin Miller has told me of the paranoia that gripped the culture when the movie came out and of the floods of people scared of possesion who flocked to the offices of ministers and psychiatrists at that time. Furthermore, this novel remains a widely read novel that has taken its place in the canon of truly culture-shaping works over the last half a century.
Is there a danger in reading too much on a subject like this? To be sure, if one dwells too much on it. I have read a number of books on demon possession over the years, but I have always managed to spread them out and never do so back-to-back. That’s just my personal approach, though I do not deny there are believers who study the issue consistently with profit.
Furthermore (and, frankly, I do not offer this as an apologia for my reading habits, but just as an observation), Blatty’s work, whatever it may be, is certainly not cheap horror. It is actually a very insightful and thought-provoking consideration of a very real issue. Are there problems presented in the spirituality of the book? Yes, at points, but may I point at that the book takes the reality of the devil, the danger of occult dabbling, and the power of God over evil very seriously?
As for the novel itself, it is a very well written story and very well developed. The success of the novel is not merely because of the shocking nature of the tale. It is also in no small part due to how successfully Blatty draws you into the characters and their individual plights. Father Karras and Father Merrin in particular are developed with real sympathy and with a compelling kind of appeal that deepens their encounter with the possessed girl in profound ways. Oddly, their characters are more intriguinging than even poor Regan’s. Of course, Merrin surmises to Karras at one point that perhaps demons possess their victims less because they are interested in the victim than because they want, through the victim, to destroy everybody in their sphere of influence. Blatty’s development of the characters surrounding Regan certainly bears that out.
Are there objectionable elements? Absolutely. Ragan’s speech and actions while possesed are truly disturbing and blasphemous, but Blatty is not presenting these for exhibition nor is he reveling in them. In fact, you will find a genuine shock at blasphemy in this book that our culture has long forgotten. Her actions (or, more accurately, the demon’s) are presented as tragic, as evil, as demonic and as the result of malevolent possesion. They are not celebrated or exalted. When the demon is vanquished, so are these profane fruits of his presence.
Would I recommend The Exorcist? Hmmm, that’s tough. I would not recommend it indiscriminately, nor do I think I would really recommend it per se at all. What I would say is that here is a well-told story concerning some very dangerous themes but presented within the broad contours of a Christian paradigm. It should be read, if at all, carefully and with discretion…if one feels that they can do so without causing themselves undue spiritual or psychological damage (i.e., there are likely dispostions that would not be well acclamated to reading or watching The Exorcist).