WARNING: This review briefly describes scenes of graphic sexual violence.
What can I say about The Exorcist that people haven’t already raved about? Although I guess I should make the distinction that I’m not talking about the infamous William Friedkin movie. No, I’m talking about the William Peter Blatty novel that got a whole generation fascinated with, not to mention fearing, demonic possession. I’ve seen the movie a handful of times, and while it deserves every praise it gets, it’s got NOTHING on the book (even though Mr. Blatty himself adapted the screenplay from the book and won an Oscar for it).
Movie star Chris MacNeil lives with her preteen daughter Regan near Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where Chris is filming her latest movie. They live a pretty happy life together until Regan begins acting strange. When Regan’s behavior turns violent, Chris finally turns to Father Damien Karras, a lecturer at Georgetown University and sometime priest, to see if Regan qualifies for an exorcism. Regan is slowly dying from her possession, but Karras must wrestle with doubts about his faith before it’s too late.
I actually stumbled upon this book by accident. I was looking for something to listen to while I worked, and thanks to YouTube’s almost too-keen algorithm, I found the audiobook. I was already in the middle of another book, but the story sucked me in from the first word. It was obvious from the get-go that William Peter Blatty was a writer I could learn from.
I’ve read some horrifying and disturbing stories in my time, but no story forced me to pause and allow the horrifying reality of the story to sink in like The Exorcist. Some scenes made me gag, and others just made me feel downright unclean.
In particular, the scene where Regan, possessed by the demon, masturbates with a crucifix…
…I’m not sure if I’ll ever get such a sick, awful image out of my head: the image of a demon forcing a 12-year-old girl to sexually harm herself, crooning, “That’s my little sow,” before grabbing a horrified Chris and thrusting her head between Regan’s bloodied legs…
I truly wonder whether Mr. Blatty came up with that himself, or if that was a documented incident in a real-life exorcism. Either way, it’s one of the most disturbing, awful things I’ve ever heard of.
And yet, I could not help the gentle thrill I got from hearing that scene. It was so primal, so horrific that I was kind of in awe of it. How could someone conceive of a demon sexually violating a 12-year-old girl, whether they were possessed or not? Even writing about it kind of puts a sick, if perversely thrilling, feeling in my stomach.
That’s how I’d describe the book: perversely thrilling. The more you listen to the story, the more your horror turns to a strange kind of thrill. Never in a million years would you want to see a girl subjected to sexual violence by a demon, or a mother slowly lose hope for the person she loves most. And yet…
It’s hard to describe why horror pulls you in so much. Maybe it’s because Chris and Regan are just regular people who get worn down to their barest emotional bones. Regan screams for help from inside her own body, and Chris finds herself running out of options for helping her dear child.
Except, the story is not just about Chris and Regan. The story intercuts to Father Karras, who’s dealing with the recent loss of his mother and his own wavering faith in the Church. His doubts have grown so strong that he tries to discredit any way that points to Regan being possessed. Not even when he’s face-to-face with the demon himself does Karras think it’s real.
The scenes where Karras interacts with a possessed Regan are so interesting. Karras walks a fine line between openly mocking the whole situation and taking care not to hurt Regan. While he might not believe it, he is looking evil right in the face, and there’s something kind of badass about being so collected, and kind of nonchalant, about it.
For a while, Karras even manages to convince the reader that maybe Regan’s possession is not real. He makes a strong case for Regan having read a book all about demonic possession that merely suggested the possession to her: that she’s having a strong psychological reaction to her parents’ divorce and is acting out the possession in retaliation.
It would have been interesting if Regan just acting out were the actual case, I must admit. But the story that we get about Regan actually being possessed is just as good. It unfolds so expertly and shows how much research went into explaining the psychological phenomena behind Regan’s behavior.
Any other writer would have made that much explanation and inner monologuing boring, but Mr. Blatty makes it so compelling. It’s almost like we the reader are trying to find any reason that Regan is not actually possessed. For what if she actually was possessed by a real demon? How horrifying that would be compared to a psychotic breakdown?
Now, for all the praising I’ve done, there might be one too many subplots to the book.
At one point, one of Chris’s friends falls out of Regan’s bedroom window and dies. An investigation goes underway as to how and why he died. While it’s kind of interesting watching the characters put the pieces together, it’s slightly frustrating because we know pretty much right away that a possessed Regan killed them. I don’t hate the subplot, per se; I just don’t think it was entirely necessary to create more suspense.
That being said, The Exorcist is still a masterpiece of suspense and psychological horror. Experiencing The Exorcist for the first time will never happen again, but that only means that I can return to it over and over for the perverse thrills and masterful tension.