Between Denial And Desire

The American public seems to vacillate between what C. S. Lewis said were two common errors: to deny the existence of Satan, and to have an inordinate interest in him. With the filming of one of this decade’s best-selling novels, The Exorcist, the two errors exist simultaneously. People who reject the Christian’s claim that Satan exists rush to view this very explicit portrayal of demonism.

William Peter Blatty’s novel is based on an actual case of demon possession. In 1949 a boy living in Mt. Ranier, Maryland, just outside Washington, D. C., became the target and abode of a demon. After somatic and psychosomatic possibilities were tested and discarded, the parents, who were Lutheran, approved their son’s conversion to Catholicism for the purpose of exorcism, a rite still practiced by the Roman church.

Blatty, who was a student at Georgetown University at the time, read of the incident in the newspaper, remembered it, and wrote his occult thriller years later. Although he made the possessed child a girl instead of a boy and relocated the scene to Georgetown near the campus of the Jesuit school, he followed closely the recorded pattern of personality disintegration. (A diary was kept of the boy’s case.) Blatty also added several subplots: a younger priest’s crisis of faith, a murder, and an elderly priest’s years-old battle with the demon.

Released last month by Warner Brothers, the film faithfully follows the novel (Blatty produced and wrote the screenplay). What is nightmarish to read becomes at times slick horror, at times painful reality on the screen. We can thank director William Friedkin—he directed The French Connection, which reaped five Academy Awards—for such cheap thrills as a vivid picture ...

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