Exorcist, The
(1971)
   Novel by William Peter Blatty based on the true story of the ST. LOUIS POSSESSION case. The novel veers away substantially from the real case, but it introduced the horrors of demonic POSSESSION and EXORCISM to a mass audience.
   The prologue describes a brief encounter in Iraq, where an archaeologist and cleric are finishing a dig of ancient Assyrian ruins. No names are given, but the reader receives a teaser of evil to come: The cleric, apparently familiar with the ways of the DEVIL, senses that the DEMON PAZUZU has been disturbed by the digging and plans revenge. Then begins the real story, which opens in a townhouse in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., where the divorced actress Chris McNeil and her 11-yearold daughter, Regan, are staying while Chris finishes filming a movie. Strange noises and incidents, most of them in Regan’s room, annoy Chris, but she does not pay much attention to them. She asks the servant, Karl, to check the windows and catch the rats she believes are making the scratching noises, but he finds none. Her best friend and the film’s director, Burke Dennings, visits often; he is sarcastically funny, self-centered, an alcoholic, and given to obscenities. Other people in the house are Karl’s wife the housekeeper, Willie, and Chris’ secretary, Sharon, who also tutors Regan.
   Portrayed as a bright, happy, affectionate young girl, Regan succumbs slowly to her possession. Alone at home, Regan plays more and more with a OUIJA™ board, talking to a Captain Howdy. At first, the house suffers from an INFESTATION: attack by the demons through the victim’s surroundings. Chris hears rapping noises on the ceiling, Regan’s room is always cold, the girl’s clothing often ends up in a wadded pile on the floor, someone moves her furniture, and there is a foul, burning smell in her room. Other petty incidents occur: Books and objects disappear, and a stuffed mouse is found in the rat traps. Now Captain Howdy not only talks to Regan but also tells her awful, horrible things, threatening pain and illness. Her bed shakes violently. Then Regan’s personality changes; she becomes introverted and argumentative and eventually becomes hostile, disgusting, and obscene. She begins to exhibit superhuman strength, contorting her body in jerking, twisting movements. Strange voices emerge from her body, which is distended and unrecognizable. She slithers like a snake. Her conversations center around sexual and bodily functions.
   Frantic to find out what torments her daughter, Chris takes Regan from one doctor to another, abandoning her career. The doctors test Regan for everything but find no physical reason for her troubles. Under hypnosis, one psychiatrist tries to talk to what he sees as Regan’s other personality. The personality—or demon—identifies himself as Nowonmai, from Dogmorfmocion. Although an agnostic, perhaps an atheist, Chris believes more firmly that her daughter has become possessed and needs a Catholic exorcism.
   Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, the psychiatrist priest Father Damien Karras also lives in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown University, counseling the seminarians. Someone has desecrated the nearby Catholic Church; there is excrement on the altar cloth, a huge clay phallus has been attached to the statue of Christ, the statue of the Virgin Mary has been painted to resemble a harlot, and a Latin text describing Mary Magdalene as a lesbian is left on the altar. Father Karras suspects SATANISM—sexual gratification through blasphemous acts—but his training as a doctor prevents him from fully believing the Devil is about.
   Besides, Father Karras has become mentally exhausted with his work, burdened not only with the troubles of his patients but with his own overwhelming guilt. He fears he does not love his fellow man as he should, scorning those who are poor or ignorant. He anguishes over his mother, who died poor and alone in a New York slum tenement. Through the movie company, Father Karras meets Chris and Regan. He is tantalized by the evil present in Regan and agrees to help rid her of her demons. Before Father Karras can obtain permission for an exorcism, Burke Dennings, left alone in the house with Regan, dies mysteriously by falling out the girl’s secondstory bedroom window and over a steep cliff below. His head is turned completely around, an injury that is practically impossible, even in a severe fall. The demons in Regan eventually admit killing Dennings, explaining that turning his head around was common practice in the murder of witches.
   As Regan’s condition worsens, she exhibits all the classic signs of true possession. Besides the terrible contortions, foul smells, horrible voices, obscene behavior, and poltergeist phenomena (shaking bed, moving furniture, banging windows, breaking pottery), Regan suffers from incessant hiccuping and skin irritations, eventually displaying stigmata on her chest. The words help me appear on her stomach in her handwriting. She recoils from religious objects or uses them blasphemously, often employing a crucifix for masturbation. She taunts Father Karras with paranormal knowledge, impersonating the voices of his mother and an early lover. She uses the clipped British accents of Dennings as well. And most importantly for the church, Regan speaks languages previously unknown to her: French, German, Latin, and maybe Russian. The gibberish she mouths constantly is found to be English, backward. Nowonmai, the name of her demon, is “I am no one (won);” Dogmorfmocion is “I come from God.” When it seems Regan will die of her ordeal, the church gives its permission for an exorcism. Father Karras is to assist Father Lankester Merrin, an old hand at fighting the Devil and the one who senses the evil of Pazuzu in the book’s prologue. The devil in Regan had been calling “Marin” for quite some time, but until Father Merrin arrived, no one had made the connection. The exorcism proceeds according to the ancient RITUALE ROMANUM, with Regan spitting, vomiting, and urinating all over the priests as they order the demon to depart. The demon goads both men, flinging their pride, their secret sins, and their guilt in their faces.
   Father Merrin cannot survive this final encounter and dies during the exorcism, leaving Father Karras to fight alone. The demon believes he has won, for Father Karras’ soul is not strong enough to overcome his guilt. At the climax, Father Karras orders the demon to leave Regan and enter him: Complete possession as a fitting punishment for his sins. The window crashes open, and Father Karras is found dead below. The reader must decide whether the demon accepted Father Karras’ offer, but, in any case, Regan regains herself.
   In the film version, released in 1973, the young actress Linda Blair gives a wrenching performance as Regan, with Ellen Burstyn as her mother, Chris, and Max von Sydow as Father Merrin. The demonic voices were provided by the actress Mercedes McCambridge, and the theme music, “Tubular Bells,” was nominated for an Oscar. Audiences were traumatized by the film, and some persons sought professional help in the fear that they might become possessed themselves.
   Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) was a less successful sequel with Richard Burton as a priest still trying to release Linda Blair from her demonic possession.

Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. . 2009.

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