I freely admit that my education in the horror classics is decidedly lacking. In an attempt to rectify this, I’ll periodically read or watch a tried and true classic. In my efforts, I recently watched the theatrical cut of The Exorcist. A few weeks later, The Exorcist came up again in a quick conversation I had with actor Sam Trammell (True Blood) at Eyecon. He insisted that it was the scariest book he had ever read and he would recommend it to any horror fan. So I trotted on down to the book store and picked up a copy.
The Exorcist, written in 1971 by William Peter Blatty, is based on an alleged 1949 exorcism of a child that Blatty learned of in 1950 while attending courses at Georgetown University. The story of The Exorcist doesn’t particularly follow the exorcist himself as the main character, but the trials and tribulations of famous actress Chris MacNeil and her daughter Regan. The beginning of the story is slow-moving as you follow Chris through her job and interactions with her daughter Regan. But their idealistic lives are soon tossed into upheaval when the sweet, innocent Regan is taken over by an ancient demon. Paralleling Chris and Regan’s story is that of Father Damien Karras. He is a Jesuit priest and the psychologist on call for the resident Jesuits at Georgetown. Karras finds it hard to balance the woes of his fellow man and his own overwhelming sense of guilt that he carries for his mother. While a talented doctor, Karras decides he and his faith are no longer fit to counsel the other Jesuits and he asks for a transfer to a teaching position.
Throughout the book I bounced between liking Chris and hating her. She moved her household and daughter to Washington D.C. to film a project at Georgetown University. Recently divorced and raising her young daughter on her own, Chris relies heavily on her personal staff. She is a classic starlet. Wrapped up in her career and hosting parties, she is used to having assistance in the daily running of her life and care of Regan. This ongoing theme makes the character of Chris out to be rather selfish. While she obviously loves her daughter, she may love her career more. When things start to get really bad for Regan, Chris is still making career negotiations and refuses to keep Regan in an institution where she can be monitored and cared for in fear that the public will know. Chris is impulsive, demanding, and rash when she starts to realize that something is seriously wrong with Regan. When things get tough, Chris snaps at her staff, makes demands, and is surprisingly rude. The two housekeepers and Chris’s personal assistant, Sharon, experience all the horror along with Chris, yet they do most of the labor in caring for Regan. I found that the film version of Chris was more likable than the book version because of this.
One of the aspects of the novel that is equal parts brilliant and infuriating is that you learn very little about Pazuzu, the demon. The barest history is explained about the demon and you never learn how he came to find Regan. This is brilliant, because the reader is kept in the dark almost as much as the other characters of the story are. You have no idea how the demon got to this one house to inhabit this specific child. It is also infuriating! You never really know anything about the cataclysmic character of the story. Almost like the cause of the horror is only incidental. I wanted to know more.
With whispered allusions to Black Mass and a glossing over of murder for spice, the real horror is in the actual possession of Regan. Through the course of the novel, Regan’s behavior is that of a thoughtful, kind, if a bit simplistic child. This deteriorates as the novel progresses. In the early stages it’s rather innocuous, but soon it takes on a more fiendish bent until Chris can no longer rationalize that a medical condition or behavioral issues are causing Regan’s problems, but maybe something more supernatural. There are a few episodes that are positively disturbing because they are being performed by a demon in a child’s body. The theatrical cut of the film missed a number of these completely, while the “Version You’ve Never Seen” cut restores some of these scenes, but none of them really grasp the stomach turning detail of the book. One aspect that the book expanded further on was the dialog between Karras and the demon. The psychological manipulation would have done Hannibal Lecter proud. The demon is much more eloquent, intelligent, and frightening through the conversations that Karras has with “Regan.”
Two particular instances in the book were probably the most disturbing I’ve ever read due to the nature of the content and the fact it is being perpetrated by a child. The first being the infamous spider crawl. This scene was removed from the theatrical cut of the film because there was concern that it was too disturbing. It was returned in the “Version You’ve Never Seen.” Personally, I feel that the filmed scene does not even closely scratch the surface on how positively unsettling the written scene was. The description was so detailed and just wrong that my imagination provided something significantly worse than anything they could have filmed in 1973. The other was Regan’s masturbation with the crucifix. Obviously, due to the sensitive nature of having a child actress, this is greatly watered down in the film. It really is! It happens so fast in the film, that you almost think Regan is stabbing herself with the cross more than anything. In the book it’s so much more twisted and blasphemous in every sense of the word. For that matter, the sexual undertones of the novel are much more prominent. Regan’s language is fouler, her actions more… vile. The demon not only possesses this poor child, he desecrates everything about her body and soul.
Blatty breaks the story down into parts which are essentially the stages of Regan’s possession. This creates an easy to follow time line, so to speak, of Regan’s deterioration. Blatty’s writing style is reasonably smooth to read but there were a few hiccups. The first line of the novel after the prologue struck me as maybe the worst opening line ever. I understand that Blatty was going for a rich descriptor of how something so terrible and horrible has happened and goes unnoticed but, “Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes…” was so overcrafted that I truly feared for the rest of the book. Luckily that was the worst offender. There is such a thing as over-describing. Blatty’s characters are fully fleshed out the moment they step onto the page. This makes it so much easier to fall into a story. I never felt like I needed “more” from the main characters to get them, though I did want more from Pazuzu. I estimate this was intentional. To keep the reader always in a state of uncertainty. My only real complaint to the story telling was that there may have been too many underdeveloped subplots along the way. While they were all interconnected, I felt that if they had been fully developed they would have added more to the story instead of being vague bits of filler. Most specifically of these was Detective Kinderman’s involvement in the Black Mass and murder investigations. These were two subplots that just sort of faded. While the murder was obviously attributed to Pazuzu, the Black Mass was left hanging. In the end though, the story of Regan makes The Exorcist as horrific as it is. It truly is one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read and not because of fear or suspense, but because of the evil of the demon.
As far as book to film translations go, it was surprisingly decent. Linda Blair does an amazing job as a child actress. At 14 she tackled insanely difficult topics and makes them believable. Unsettlingly so. I thought the casting was well done and I liked that they made Chris MacNeil more sympathetic. The film covers the majority of the highlights of the novel as best to the the ability of the time. If you enjoyed the movie, you’re missing out if you haven’t read the novel. I would highly recommend it for any bookworm horror fan. While not fast-paced or explosive, it is truly disturbing on a spiritual level. 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist and it has lost none of it’s potency with time. Blatty followed The Exorcist with Legion, which I will read one day. After I recover from this.