I can’t even remember how I found out, but there is a TV series inspired by William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist. The first season aired in 2016. (There is nothing spooky about me not knowing how I know this, just more evidence that my memory sucks big, hairy balls.)
When I was a practising Roman Catholic, the evil portrayed in Blatty’s work coincided with what I had been taught to believe. The 1973 film (starring Linda Blair as the possessed child, Regan) disturbed me for the same reason, but also, I feel, largely due to the cinematography, the way the set is lit, the soundtrack.
When I was in my early teens, I tried reading the novel and was so spooked that I threw it in the trash. I used to say that I thought the book was ‘watching’ me. I projected my own beliefs onto this block of paper and ink, giving it a power it didn’t have.
In Christian culture, Demons are malevolent spirits. Christians also conveniently and arrogantly view the gods of other (non-Abrahamic) religions as demons. The Christian god is the default supreme being in The Exorcist and many Western-based narratives that portray evil spirits being weakened by the sign of the cross and the contact of holy water. There is no room for anything that suggests that there isn’t just one ‘true’ god. Every other being is a servant of this god, and any that question the might and right of this god is automatically relegated to the ranks of the unholy; the vile; the evil.
Hindu and Daoist demons can have good or bad intentions and natures. In Daoist exorcism, the spirit is questioned in an effort to understand its motives. This is because possessions or hauntings may be caused by human transgressions and the spirits/demons simply responding as they see fit. An amicable solution is always preferred.
Demons, as portrayed in Christian stories, are not reasonable. They only seek to destroy and harm their hosts; they often attack without being provoked; and there is no negotiating a peaceful departure. At very least, they are driven into swine that run into water and drown. Reading about that event in the gospels I used to wonder what happened to the demons after the two thousand poor pigs died. Did they go off in search of new ‘homes’?
There are spoilers below this line so stop reading if you want to avoid them.
The television series focuses on the Rance family (parents and two teenage daughters) who seems to be the target of a particularly malevolent spirit. We discover in the fifth episode that the mother, whom we know as Angela, is actually Regan, the possessed child in Blatty’s novel and the film. In the TV series, like in the book/film, two priests, Father Tomas Ortega and Father Marcus Keane, are involved in the exorcism of the demon (Pazuzu, the same spirit that is in the novel/film) that is plaguing the Rances, in particular the younger daughter, Casey. Both priests are deeply troubled, wrestling with personal problems, but ultimately devout and faithful Catholics. Father Keane is an experienced exorcist, but has been excommunicated by the Pope. Both agree to help the Rances without the approval of the Church.
At first glance, it looked like the personalities and struggles of these priests would make the series more than just another film about spirit possession. This was, after all, also the case with the 1973 movie as I felt there was a darkness and loneliness about the character of Father Damien Karras that made him a particularly sympathetic character.
The characters Father Keane and Father Ortega mirror Father Merrin and Father Karras, with both Ortega and Karras allowing their personal problems to compromise the exorcism, but the unsubtle portrayal of the latter pair begins to grate very quickly.
It seems to me that the series sets up Father Keane and Father Ortega in something like ‘good cop-bad cop’ roles. Keane is pock-marked, hardened gay man with a dark and violent past, still given to violence but good-intentioned and brimming with integrity; Ortega is a handsome, gentle, guilt-ridden Latino who has a passionate love affair with a close friend. At the end of this first season, Keane and Ortega decide to form a partnership, with Keane teaching Ortega all he needs to know about being an exorcist. This feels like the start of a cliche-ridden TV friendship!
Aside from that, I lost interest in the first season by episode six or so (there are ten). It got repetitive and rather silly quite quickly, all vomiting and open sores and growly voices. Also, I did not buy the subplot about some prominent Bostonians trying to summon demons, assassinate the pope and take over the world — talk about ‘B movie horror’! Worst of all, the depiction of the demon (Pazuzu) and the possession sequences seem to be informed by cheaply made Exorcist copycats. When Geena Davis (as Regan) plays host once again to the spirit, it is truly her lowest hour as an actor. In some scenes it’s like she’s channeling the cheesiest action hero she can think of. At one point she actually says, ‘You want me? Come and get me’ to Pazuzu.
Because the series was so disappointing and it’s been a while since I watched the film, I decided to read the book. I got it for my Kindle and I figured that if it freaked me out this time, I could just delete it, but I did not find the story frightening or even disturbing. Only the prologue, which features Father Merrin, hints of coming disaster and feels heavy and sad, hopeless too, which when you meet Father Merrin again, much later, you no longer feel — quite the opposite, in fact.
The best parts of the novel are when Father Karras is on the page. The worst are the scenes with Chris McNeil, and those with the police detective, Kinderman.
I find Chris’s character under-developed and colourless. I don’t quite believe that she’s a movie star. She has a rather drab life and is herself unremarkable in every way. At the dinner party she throws, her guests are all a lot more interesting than she is.
What I didn’t get a sense of in the film (although I maybe just don’t remember) was that Karras was mostly sceptical about Regan being possessed by a demon. I really liked the parts in the novel that describe his research into demon possession, reading both church records and psychiatric texts, but all his scenes are good, very personal and closely observed. Blatty succeeded in making Karras a real person. Even Kinderman, as irritating as he is, is at least a character I could imagine existing in real life. I hated his parts in the book because I disliked his style and mannerisms (inspired by the TV detective Colombo?), but he was fully-fleshed, unlike Chris and Regan.
Regan is just a sweet little girl, maybe too sweet and cute, to contrast with when she later becomes this foul-mouthed monster. We aren’t shown her perspective at all, and we only have her mother’s doting view of her so maybe what we see is someone who is even younger than she really is. It’s not a complex character at all though and you never get a sense of anything much going on in her head, which may be why psychiatric reasons for her behaviour did not seem likely, to me. It also struck me that the film doesn’t really encourage viewers to consider a mental cause for Regan’s condition. The make-up and sound (and other) effects convince you that she must be possessed by an evil spirit. In my opinion, this makes the film less interesting than the novel.
The way the problem with Regan is resolved in the end was a surprise to me — not what happens of course, as I already knew how it would be, but how quickly it happens. I expected to be offered more insight, to be given a closer, more intimate view of what Father Karras experiences. Did Blatty skimp on the details, not wanting to give much away because he had his eye on a sequel? (I read the Wikipedia entry about Legion, on which the film The Exorcist III is based, and I’m not at all convinced about the plot.)
Well, in any case, I find I don’t need to delete my Kindle copy of The Exorcist. Demon possession has ceased to fill me with horror and dread. Is my atheism complete? (I did not plan on posting this on Good Friday, but there you go.)