William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist presents a fictionalized account of demonic possession, well researched and written. The novel and the movie are almost perfectly faithful to one another. The story grips, moves from scene to scene with intense dialog, short emotive passages, and spine-tingling supernatural terror. Introspection happens in the moment, in short perfect bursts, even when Blatty’s overuse of semicolons and sentence fragments gets tiresome. But beyond the technical issues, at the heart of the story, lurks something deeper–a mythic pattern told with eloquence and awful beauty conveying the theme of Redemption via Sacrifice.
Lurking beneath the scene-driven novel (a feature which makes for a near isomorphism to the Silver Screen) rests a very obvious mythic subtext. From the outset, as Father Merrin concludes his archeological excavation in Iraq, the reader is drawn into the mythic space of the novel. As Merrin confronts the statue of Pazuzu in the desert, the reader stands at the intersection of antiquity and the post-modern age, between the vast unknowns of history at the dawn of civilization and the skeptical age.
Enter Damien Karras, Society of Jesus. Karras, a trained psychiatrist and priest, faces the consequence of reason, the burden of the tediousness of the Eucharist in the hands of an agnostic. As his mother dies, his Dark Night of the Soul intensifies until called to help in the house of a famous Hollywood star.
An atheist, locked in a bitter divorce, Chris MacNeil is a woman who doesn’t have it all. Despite her successful career, she doesn’t have enough time to devote to her daughter, Regan. On the campus of Georgetown University to shoot a film, MacNeil’s path crosses Karras’ not by fate but by divine plan.
Enter God, Grand Architect of the Universe and Supreme Being Extraordinaire. Whether real or not, God remains one of fiction’s top rated characters, capable of crossing genres with ease, even appearing in literary works where (despite being at LEAST a 30th level magic user / cleric / druid under old-school AD&D rules) He doesn’t break the deal for some strange reason. God goes to grab a soda or something and fails to bubble Chris’s daughter Regan during a crucial boss fight and Regan is possessed by the Devil.
Now, as plots go, we can always demand, “Why God, why? Why did you fail to bubble your humblest servant?” To which the answer is, “Damien Karras needs saving.”
And that’s the plot of the book. Merrin is an old man. Regan is an innocent. Chris is an atheist. Damien’s soul is the true target, the true goal. He’s the protagonist.
As Damsel-In-Distress themes go, this one is clever. Sure, Regan and Chris need Merrin and Karras, but Karras needs the other three more than they need him. Theologically, Regan’s soul is pure–she will join the Limbo of the Infants should the Exorcist fail–and then find her way to heaven in due course. But Karras faces a greater risk, one which he overcomes as Extreme Unction is administered to him following his heroic absorption of the demonic entity into himself to save the little girl.
The myth is clear: The Enemy is older than we are individually, but collectively we possess a wisdom tradition and the fortitude necessary to overcome the darkness. Timeless.