Cultural Transmissions: The Exorcist, From Book to Film

          Based on a reported case of demonic possession in the Washington D.C. area in 1949, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971) was the second of four novels, all of which examine the question of evil. The Exorcist appeared four years after Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby (1967), a work whose subject was also demonic terror. Together these books revitalized the fantasy-horror genre, and, with few exceptions, remain the most literate and frightening works of the past twenty-five years.

         Both books were instant best-sellers and adapted into equally popular movies. But the distinction between Blatty's novel and that of Levin's remains noteworthy, for The Exorcist is no horrific account of devil worship. On the contrary, it presents a deeply religious affirmation of life within a modern-day psychomachia, or the warfare between good and evil for possession of a soul. Notably, while the Catholic Church condemned Levin's book, Blatty's was not. 

         In The Exorcist, that psychomachia, much in evidence in the fifteenth- and sixteenth century-European drama, undergoes significant change in a rationalist, post-Freudian world that has redefined the soul and, more importantly, what constitutes evil. Yet for all its cultural changes, Blatty's novel still situates its warfare between good and evil within a subtext, if you will, of the medieval morality play, while the movie, adapted for the screen by Blatty, does not. Those subtleties (for few movie-goers of the 1970s would recognize the medieval allusions) point up the vast cultural differences over five-hundred years in defining evil and humanity's relationship to God--distinctions most clearly articulated in the metamorphosis of Blatty's work from book to film. This paper seeks to argue that whereas the medieval psychomachia was based on the premise that illusion served to mock reality, our modern cultural expectations reverse the sequence; that is, reality serves to mock illusion. Blatty is not unaware of the differences: while his book emphasizes the illusory nature of the world for the greater reality of the eternal, his screenplay dramatizes the illusion of evil in a frighteningly realistic, rational world where evil takes on too many forms to be singularly understood as a battle between good and evil for the possession of a soul. As a result, the book's subtext is missing from its cinematic version, which substitutes a rationalistic terror beneath its more obvious surface of demonic power and the occult.

         In a secularized "God is dead" world, the confrontation in Blatty's novel appears grotesquely nostalgic: good and evil have apparently lost all clarity, with humanity now assuming the prerogatives of Satan. Blatty situates this modern psychomachia in a new age of faith, one where the rational, scientific mind has for the most part supplanted a theological system of belief and its counterpart, the willful disobedience of God. But the parallels remain obvious: a twentieth-century world-view figuratively expresses a medieval one. As the most fully-realized character of the novel, the priest-psychiatrist Damien Karras represents both a traditional servant of God and a post-rationalist man of science, a man tormented by guilt who struggles to reconcile providential design with the darker recesses of the human mind.

         Karras becomes the modern Everyman of the psychomachia, caught between rational experience and irrational faith. In attempting to clarify why her daughter's illness is a conflict of mind, not a battle with evil, Karras says to MacNeil:

Now imagine that the human body is a massive ocean liner, all right? and that all of your brain cells are the crew. Now one of these cells is up on the bridge. He's the captain. But he never knows precisely what the rest of the crew below decks is doing.

Karras goes on to explain that when one cell assumes command against the captain's wishes, or "waking consciousness," mutiny occurs and dual personality results, to which MacNeil responds: "I think it's almost easier to believe in the devil!" Karras's metaphor modernizes the biblical mutiny that accounts for Satan's fall and the ensuing warfare between good and evil. The unfathomable depths of the human mind, though less easily comprehended, have assumed "supernatural" powers. MacNeil's doubts are those of humanity: can evil be reduced to the chaotic intricacies of cells and neurons? Yet the demon's possession of Regan demonstrates for Karras that evil can be a force unto itself. His fatal encounter in the exorcism proves that evil affirms the existence of good, while good posits the reality of evil, and with that knowledge the necessity for faith triumphs.

         The schema for the novel represents, in essence, the psychomachia represented by the fifteenth-century East Anglia morality play Mankind (c. 1465), wherein the generic protagonist is beset by good and bad influences in warfare for his soul. All factions in the ensuing battle are human, until the evil antagonists enlist the aid of a devil, Titivillus, in pursuing their advantage. However, the priest, Mercy, prevails, emerging triumphant as a child of God who saves Mankind. The play's moral, pointedly made at the close of the drama, reminds its viewers that all life is a game—an illusion—and this particular stage game has been played in order to underscore the reality of eternity.

        In similar fashion, Blatty's novel also insists on the illusory nature of life through its depiction of the American cultural upheaval of the late '60s and early '70s: illusion masquerading as "promise." For example, the birth control pill, first available in 1960, had the subsequent effect of freeing individuals from a sexual anxiety about reproduction and promised, at least in the minds of many, a "guiltless" societal attitude toward sex. In addition, the '60s brought us slogans of peace and love, optimistically represented in the oxymoronic term "Flower Power," which implied a reinvented new age in one dynamic image, a world of harmony, fellowship, and charity. Yet what went largely ignored was the consideration of the inevitable: the attendant pain and upheaval of a revolution in a conservative society already inundated by threatening changes to its traditions.

         It is no accident, therefore, that The Exorcist has—like Levin's Rosemary's Baby—a core character, Chris MacNeil, who is an actor, one who functions in a world of illusion and serves as a generic "Everyperson" embodied on film. Moreover, the actor's persona furthers the commonality between spectator and image since she's depicted as one of us: a parent and frustrated individual concerned with the disappointments of love, career, and beset by forces beyond her control. Ironically, her own world of illusion—the movie shot at the Jesuit institution of Georgetown University (made more illusionistic, incidentally, by the fact that the movie represented in the book is a musical)—turns into reality when the same institution provides her with the means to combat the unknown terror afflicting her child. This, then, is the "real world" of priests who question their faith, of detectives who investigate the sacrilegious destruction of property, and who must consider the literal fall of mankind from great heights as an evil perpetrated against society, not God.

        In the transformation from novel to screenplay, however, these ironic underpinnings, based upon a cultural appreciation of life as an illusion, were lost. That greater subtext beneath the modernity of Blatty's novel made the novel far more profound, in my opinion, than generally recognized. Thirty years after its publication, the book still resides on the outside of a recognized canon of horror, those works of Poe, "Monk" Lewis, Mary Shelley, or Bram Stoker. The Exorcist remains more notable for its prescient observation and mirror of the modern anxieties of the '60s, when Linda Goodman's Sun Signs and similar works reawakened an interest in astrology, the occult, and metaphysical "realities," when in fact these were but additional illusory promises of health, wealth, and psychic fitness. Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) was a more scholarly counterpoint to the self-help and self-awareness books and movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Still, while situating its characters within an insubstantial, illusory world, The Exorcist gave its audience what it hungered for, but then so did its more illustrious "canonized" predecessors.

        In terms of readership, the novel was an enormous success—an instant "best-seller" that was destined for Hollywood (it made eight times its initial budget shortly after release), where the story would appeal to a larger, if not different, audience. The screenplay of The Exorcist, however, situates its horrors—fantastic, as they may appear—in the world of reality, not illusion, most notably accomplished by its appeal to the five senses. Chief among these is the emphasis on sound, from the battling dogs that Merrin witnesses before leaving Iraq, to the noise that MacNeil takes for rats in the attic of her Georgetown home, to the hideously frightening machines of modern medicine that test Regan for a lesion in her temporal lobe. The latter, in fact, has an indelible impact on an audience, which fears disease and the machines of medicine as much as the guttural sounds and raspy voice of Mercedes McCambridge as the demon Pazuzu. The terrifyingly large and deafening instruments of modern medicine convey but another form of possession: a dehumanizing violation authorized by men of science, which the film emphasizes as inquisitiveness as opposed to personal concern. Moreover, noise punctuates the action of the movie in ways that reflect transactions of modern life: the din of cocktail parties, the disturbances of social protest, sirens in the night, or the disruptions to that rarity in our culture, restorative solitude. So too, the film’s musical score, "Tubular Bells," offers a subdued yet repetitive tune that ironically counterpoises the dramatic mayhem with a condign, tortuous insistence.

         Equally emphatic are, of course, the visual changes that the screen enhances into surrealistic proportions, which are, just as certainly, what we expect from a vision of horror found in the movie theater. In his role as Frankenstein’s creation, for instance, Boris Karloff had to endure the makeup of an enlarged head and wear boots that weighed more than thirty pounds, elevating him to a height of seven feet, six inches. Our cinematic monsters are most often creatures of that tradition—if not literally, then metaphorically, for their most fearful attribute is that of power, not evil, which is more easily identifiable with the realities of life. In like manner the diminutive Regan becomes larger-than-life on the screen as a "thing," as her mother describes her, to be feared for her prowess, not as an evil entity that walks among us.

         In Blatty’s novel, however, a greater fear for readers resides in the possibilities that such evil can randomly walk among us and touch our lives more personally than the powers of good. That we can hold that book in our hands and literally touch where our imaginations lead us, as opposed to the safe distance found in the theater, undoubtedly has much to do with the phenomenon of a book having a greater impact on our sensibilities than does cinema. And for just this reason it may be that the genre of tragedy today is only possible in the novel, not on the stage—but this is obviously an area for discussion beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that evil was not always kept at a safe distance from a viewing public.

         The anonymous author of Mankind wrote into the script a place for his actors to pass the hat, a necessity in an open venue where the spectators probably gathered in the courtyard of an inn. The request is no less than theatrical blackmail: for the show to continue, especially at such an important juncture—the momentary arrival of the hideous devil Titivillus—the audience must pay for the privilege. But their money buys not only the sight of evil, but just as importantly its proximity as well, for Titivillus threatens and rages among the crowd, bringing his illusion down from the stage and into the lives of the spectators. One game mingles with the other.

        The essential difference between that culture and ours lies within the viewer: for the audience of Mankind, all life, including those forces that beset it, was illusory—God’s reality would triumph. For us, personal fears are situated on the movie screen as a vision of horror, an illusion, safely distanced from reality. What remains is a nebulous sense of evil, one based on quotidian experience and relegated to the shortcomings of society, not as a participant in the warfare for our soul. While Blatty’s screenplay emphasizes those fears of societal ills and generic malevolence, his novel closes the distance between illusion and reality, suggesting that a greater, transcendent reality is indeed possible, which makes the book all the more horrific.


Wayne Narey


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