Supernatural or superstitious? Looking back at ‘The Exorcist’
A few years ago, in honor of Halloween, we asked our editors and contributors to tell us the scariest thing they had ever read. The responses were varied, and went beyond the staples like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allen Poe; we also got Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Muriel Spark and more. (And one deleted suggestion: “America editorials.”) Surprisingly, only one editor mentioned William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel that was later made into what many consider the most frightening movie of all time: The Exorcist.
When I was 14 years old, I pulled The Exorcist off a bookshelf at a beach house owned by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary in Sea Girt, N.J.,, and read it in one night. I then didn’t sleep for the next four. In case you’re wondering, reading the book in a house of nuns does not make it less terrifying.
In case you’re wondering, reading The Exorcist in a house of nuns does not make it less terrifying.
When “The Exorcist,” directed by William Friedkin from a screenplay by Blatty, premiered the day after Christmas in 1973, it took terrified audiences by surprise—and soon became a cultural phenomenon to rival media coverage of the Watergate scandal. The first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, the movie grossed almost $200 million in its initial release and spawned a series of (mostly unfortunate) sequels, prequels and copycats over the next several decades.
Based on stories of two exorcisms in 1949, “The Exorcist” was promoted as “somewhere between science and superstition” and focuses on the possession of a young girl in Washington, D.C., and the efforts of her family and two priests to free her from the grips of a demon. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Film and Broadcasting judged the movie as “unsuitable for a wide audience” (To be fair, they said the same about “Jaws” two years later), and Pauline Kael asked in The New Yorker: “Are American Catholics willing to see their faith turned into a horror show?”
Six weeks after the movie’s release, America devoted a special issue to the movie, titled “How to View ‘The Exorcist’,” including an editorial and four different commentaries on the film by former America editor Richard Blake, S.J., the Rev. Robert Lauder (who is still writing for America five decades later), Robert Boyle, S.J., and America’s redoubtable film critic Moira Walsh.
Father Blake didn’t mince words. “To begin at the beginning, The Exorcist is a $10-million failure. Like one of those outrageously expensive illustrated Bibles, it cheapens even the potentially redeeming elements of its message,” he wrote. “It is not obscene in the usual sense of the term, it is not religious and, finally, it is just not very good.” (He repented 26 years later in America, when “The Exorcist” was re-released.)
Father Lauder complimented the film as an impressive example of the horror genre, but he found it a “lesser work of art” in its exploration of religious themes, in part due to Friedkin’s directorial choices. “As a religious film,” he wrote, “The Exorcist is shouting when it should be whispering.”
Moira Walsh called the movie “wildly over-discussed” but also had no patience for critics who panned the movie simply because it dealt with religious topics. “I am also pretty much convinced that when a critic vociferously dislikes a film—for impeccably objective, aesthetic reasons, of course—he is really motivated by some sort of selective moral indignation,” she wrote.
Three weeks later, America featured a surprise response: “There Is Goodness in ‘The Exorcist’,” written by none other than William Peter Blatty himself.
Ultimately, Walsh argued, we shouldn’t worry too much—soon “The Exorcist” would be forgotten: “I cannot say certainly that it will do neither harm nor good, but I suspect that in five years it will be seen to have done very little of either and will have disappeared from public consciousness as completely as some of its immediate predecessors on the list of box-office champions.”
Three weeks later, America featured a surprise response: “There Is Goodness in ‘The Exorcist’,” written by none other than William Peter Blatty himself. Blatty engaged all of the essays printed in the earlier edition of America as well as other reviews both religious and secular, arguing that the novel and movie were not about dramatizing evil, but exploring “the mystery of goodness.” His goal, he wrote, had been “to write a novel that would not only excite and entertain (sermons that put one to sleep are useless), but would also make a positive statement about God, the human condition and the relationship between the two.”
Blatty, never one to shy away from an ecclesial brawl, responded to Father Blake’s critical essay by noting “I graduated from Georgetown in 1950. That was the ‘old’ Church. This is the new?” Besides, some lapsed Catholics, he argued, had returned to the faith after seeing the film:
Perhaps the consequent return to the sacraments (factual phenomenon, whatever its cause) will be very short-lived. It probably will. Yet, finally, aren’t all of the quiddities and quibbles just so many angels on the head of a pin when compared to prompting even one soul, for even one moment, to once again be in touch with grace?
Almost 50 years later, they’re still making “Exorcist” movies—a new one came out earlier this month (on Friday the 13th, natch). Ryan Di Corpo reviewed “The Exorcist: Believer” for America, and noted that possession just ain’t what it used to be:
A pointless pastiche of the original film, a surprise cultural phenomenon and proto-blockbuster that reimagined what could (or should) be shown on screen, this latest disaster plays it safe and muddles the message of the 1973 hit through misguided attempts at ecumenism.
The devil, it seems, is in the details. Happy Halloween!
Father Robert Lauder in 1974: “As a religious film, The Exorcist is shouting when it should be whispering.”
Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
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James T. Keane