Spirit possession could be a neurological phenomenon – a violent change in metabolism – whose clinical symptoms resemble those of epilepsy or hysteria. Spasmodic convulsions, muscular contortions and even orgasms are not infrequent. The phenomenon is common to Afro-American animist religions born of slavery and common also to charismatic Christianity, the movement of spiritual renewal that began in Kansas in 1901 with Pentecostalism. The Church of God and other modern Apostolic sectarian offshoots may attribute a holiness to trances, paroxysms and glossolalia or the “gift of tongues”. To the Catholic church, however, glossolalia is more likely to be seen as a spiritual aberration. The clergy’s official handbook on exorcism, the Rituale Romanum, cites it as evidence of demonic bewitchment.

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist, based on a real-life Roman Catholic exorcism case in Maryland in 1949, was a bestseller for fifteen months before William Friedkin adapted it for the screen. The devil’s chosen vessel is the twelve-year-old Regan Teresa MacNeil, who lives with her film actress mother in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington DC. Her personality begins to disintegrate as the demon moves in. A family friend is found dead at the foot of a public stairway beneath Regan’s bedroom window, his head grotesquely twisted. Father Damien Karras, a local Jesuit priest of wavering faith but with a degree in psychiatry, takes on the case and braves spittle and frenzied obscenities from the possessed child. A mysterious archaeologist-priest, Father Lankester Merrin, performs an exorcism with holy water and the Rituale Romanum to hand, only to die of heart failure in mid-recitation. Karras afterwards crashes to his death out of Regan’s window, apparently taking the “demonic entity” with him.



When Friedkin’s film of The Exorcist was released in the US on Boxing Day 1973, no one knew whether to hail it as masterwork or as an instrument of Satan. Clifford Longley, as religious affairs correspondent for the Times, commended Friedkin for a “provocative” film which “raised the devil” in post-Watergate America, while the TV evangelist Billy Graham fulminated against the “evil” that was embedded, he said, in the film’s very celluloid. Reports of extreme audience reactions – people charging the screen in an effort to “get the demon”, self-immolations, faintings and miscarriages – advertised one of the most frightening movies of the age.


Scripted by Blatty, The Exorcist unsettles even today when audiences are said to be inured to horror. Signs of the girl’s supernatural illness are slow in coming. At first Regan (“Rags” to her doting mother) becomes a little crabby and withdrawn, and urinates on the carpet during a party. Then her voice breaks and she never comes down from the Georgetown bedroom. In a notorious scene, Regan performs obscene acts with a crucifix while her tongue lolls wolfishly. She is a text-book case of “schizophrenic psychosis”, say the doctors; but Blatty, who had studied at the Jesuitical Georgetown University in the late 1940s, summons a real spiritual malevolence. A gorge-raising reek of excrement pervades the bedroom. On her violently shaking bed the possessed girl insults her mother in ghastly rasped gutturals. Chris MacNeil is left wondering what has become of her sweet daughter and of American family values in general. Some of the film’s special effects now look rather dated, but The Exorcist remains a visually and psychologically brilliant psycho-theological thriller.


Alexandre O Philippe’s fascinating documentary, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on ‘The Exorcist’, offers an intimate portrait of the American director and his cinematic influences, from the spiritually austere films of Carl Theodor Dreyer to the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. A surprisingly humorous presence, the 84-year-old Friedkin speaks of his battle with the demon drink in AA and of his own enduring belief in God. “I did not approach The Exorcist as a non-believer or a cynic”, he says. “I approached it as a believer.” Fortuitously, The Exorcist opened just one year after Pope Paul VI’s controversial claim that the Devil represented an “important chapter of Catholic doctrine” and injected a deal of theological angst into the post-Christian vacuum of 1970s America.

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