Welcome back to the graveyard. Since this year, we end our Halloween Edition on Halloween, it’s only fitting we conclude with a horror classic in both film and literature. Grab your crucifixes, practice your crab walk, and get ready for a pea soup barrage, as we examine the basis for the most frightening film of all time- William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.
The elderly priest Father Merrin, a veteran of past exorcisms, uncovers evidence in Iraq that a new confrontation with evil awaits him. Simultaneously in Washington D.C., Chris McNeil is filming a movie when strange occurrences began to surround her daughter Regan. Regan’s bed literally begins to shake, odd noises are heard in the house, and Regan herself begins to change, becoming angry and withdrawn, and using previously unheard of profanity. Chris believes the changes are due to her divorce, but as Regan fails to respond to conventional medicine, and the changes start becoming horrifyingly physical, Chris believes that her daughter is possessed.
Father Karras, a priest/counselor is sought out by Chris. Karras is undergoing his own crisis of faith, and at first will only see Regan as a therapist. But his sessions also convince him of possession, and he implores the local bishop for permission to perform an exorcism. However, the bishop assigns Merrin, who is more experienced, but allows Karras to assist. They begin a lengthy and draining exorcism, which eventually kills the older Merrin. Karras then forces the demon into his own body and throws himself out the window, killing himself. His last moments are as he responds to a fellow priest giving the last rites.
What Writers Can Learn: Build Up, Use of Imagery
Widely regarded as one of the staples of horror, The Exorcist is not only powerful because of its frights, but it is also prime examples of two powerful writing tools. The first is its excellent use of build up. The possession is set up beautifully throughout the novel. Father’s Merrin’s early excursions are hinted at and we get our first sense that a greater evil is coming. But the character of Regan is where the buildup truly takes place. We are introduced to a child that is happy, loved, and by all examples, an innocent. Then the changes start. We see the innocence fade away, replaced sullenness and distance. As the possession grows, we see this happy child letting out profanities that would terrify a Navy sailor. Regan is jerked around by the horrific physical possession, from her room being tossed around, to the infamous crabwalk down the stairs. As she grows sicker, her body and face becoming twisted and horrible, we are revolted by the transformation. But no matter how much we see, how much we may think that we’ve seen the worst, there is always something around the corner to horrify us further.
That leads into our second point- the use of imagery. Obviously, the film makes tremendous use of imagery. Regan is whipped around her bed, and we see her face become yellow and scarred, her body become emaciated. We hear her voice become dark and terrifying. But while the film will also work beautifully as a visual medium, the descriptions in the book are equally terrifying.
The book describes in detail certain Satanic practices, including the vilification of holy items. These are often described as sexual in nature, and it is no wonder the book caused controversy. The idea of holy implements being misused is disturbing for anyone with religious beliefs to envision, and perhaps even to those without. But there is a particular scene in the book that is impossible to forget. While I cannot fully describe it here, it involves the possessed Regan and the use of a crucifix. The scene is horrifying on several levels. It indicates the level on control the demon has over Regan, and how much she has changed. It shows the disregard and misuse of holy artifacts, and makes us wonder just how much power that evil really has. And most of all, when we imagine a child be misused and changed to this extent, one thought that comes across our mind is ‘why.’ But here, there is no why, no answer. It is a reminder of the randomness of evil and that no one, not even the innocent, are safe from its impact. It is a scene that resonates on so many levels, and while it may be difficult to imagine, it was included in the film. Because sometimes, the images that disturb us, are the ones that affect us the most.
Obviously, the film version is well worth a watch, but its sequels are hit and miss. Its immediate sequel, The Heretic is considered one of the worst films ever made, but the third film, directed by author William Peter Blatty, is a much more competent supernatural crime story. There are also two prequels focusing on Father Merrin, but they are not worth examining. There is also The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby which also focus on demonic children. Blatty himself has several other novels, including Legion and Elsewhere, for more supernatural chills.
And with that, we close up the graveyard for another year. But we’ll be back again… won’t we? Happy Halloween!