In a scene cut from The Exorcist’s 1973 theatrical version, Jason Miller’s Fr. Damien Karras sits with Max von Sydow’s Fr. Lankester Merrin on the stairs of the MacNeil house, and the two Jesuits discuss why the child Regan has become a monster.
The director cut the scene, calling it “a commercial for the Roman Catholic Church.” This was the right move aesthetically (the dialogue is a bit too pat in discussing how the devil wants us to despair of God’s love for us). But the omission elicited a lamentation from novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty. Without the discussion of Regan’s suffering, there is no explanation for why we put the audience (and our child actor, poor Linda Blair) through this horror.
For Blatty, we encounter monsters because of our horror of the material world, which is related to our lack of charity. The characters in The Exorcist all seem possessed by a fear of the flesh. Karras is losing his faith because he despairs over material corruption. When he visits his ailing mother in New York, the neighborhoods are crumbling. On a dilapidated subway platform he is panhandled by a vagrant, described in Blatty’s novel as “a gray-stubbled derelict, numb on the ground in a pool of his own urine.” Karras draws back: “He could not bear to search for Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement, the Christ who could not be.” Though never searching, Karras is forever encountering this “Christ of pus and bleeding excrement”crucially, in scenes associated with his working-class origins. We’re not in Georgetown anymore.
Wanting neither to encounter this Christ nor to imitate him, Karras has chosen a medical field, psychiatry, in which he does not minister directly to corrupted flesh. (Perhaps remembering his name-saint, Damian, whose ministry to lepers ended when his own flesh rotted.) As for Karras’s flesh, he works hard to tame it, through celibacy and athleticism. He trains as a boxer, and both novel and film insist that he “looks like a boxer” in face and physique. Educated at “Harvard, Bellevue, Johns Hopkins, places like that,” Karras wants to construe Regan’s affliction psychiatrically. He is wrong to do so, in a film that portrays medicine and psychiatry as a sophisticated Babel.
Merrin, too, once felt alienated from the flesh. He is an “intellectual giant” who recalls esoteric failures in charity: “Long ago I despaired of ever loving my neighbor. Certain people . . . repelled me.” But by the time we meet him, he has made his peace with men and the world. The novel excerpts his writings, to the effect that the material realm is miraculously regenerative. (The excerpt is actually from a Newman sermon of 1852, “The Second Spring,” with prose so fine it made George Eliot cry. This is a great moment in Catholic literature, the ultra-urbane Victorian Cardinal time-traveling to a 1971 pulp novel.)
No longer repulsed by the flesh, Merrin wears his intellectualism lightly. So when Karras offers him a psychiatric case history of Regan’s possession, Merrin brushes it off. For Karras’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Merrin substitutes the Roman Ritual. (Stop thinking; read the responses.) Merrin’s expertise is piety. His logos is Logoswhich is why Merrin, rather than Karras, is the Exorcist of the title.
Or is he? Who actually casts out the demon, and how? Merrin, wielding Logos, is defeated by his corpusby the heart problem for which he has been popping nitroglycerine pills since the prologue. It is Karras the athlete who will save Regan. After the death of Merrin, Karras boxes with the possessed girl, then invites demon into himself and, in a feat of physical control against the agency infesting his body, throws himself out the window and down the notorious steps to M Street. In destroying himself, he has liberated the girl.
Importantly, Karras has wrought a working-class redemption (Golden Gloves champ!) of a monstrousness that erupted amid affluence. The Exorcist house is a gorgeous Georgian at the corner of 36th and Prospect, rented by Hollywood actress Chris MacNeil, divorced mother of one, while she shoots a film on the Georgetown campus. What kind of monster arises in this household, in this neighborhoodand why cannot affluence and all its works combat it?
For the most part, affluence gives us the means to avoid the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement. Karras encounters him on the subway platform (having no car) and in his old neighborhood. But residents of Georgetown need not meet him at allunless, perhaps, in their children. Occasionally an unwelcome child will arrive, making its monstrous claims. So Regan (named after the “thankless child” of King Lear) was monstrous before she was born. The Exorcist has been called a “pedophobic” film, since it presents a child as a monsterbut this is quite backwards. Blatty is accusing us of fearing children, because we fear their demands on our charity.
“We”? Surely not. There seems something very 1970s about Blatty’s critique. This was a decade preceded by Rosemary’s Baby (1968). It was a decade in which, as David Frum observes, the sitcom genre came to favor childless protagonists (Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, The Jeffersons), presenting self-oriented visions of affluence and fulfillment. (And there is that Other Thing that happened in 1973.) Today, by contrast, the aspirational lifestyle accommodates, even prescribes, 2.1 children. Children are luxuries, and are treasured and defended as such.
Recall that after the 1970s there ensued a decade of moral panic over child sex abuseincluding so-called satanic ritual abuse. Off-camera in The Exorcist, the possessed Regan performed a Black Mass. In a film shot in the 1980s, her role in such satanic proceedings would have been quite opposite. In the mythology of that decade, the child is never a demon; the child is a victim of demons (i.e. pedophiles, satan-worshiping or not). Importantly, the tales of satanic ritual abuse that roiled the 1980s were nonsense, since discreditedas fantastical as any account of demonic possession. Yet they were believed, often beyond a reasonable doubt.
What the 1970s share with the 1980s in this regard is demonology. Turning to imagine demonic pedophiles, we reconstructed children as pure and ourselves as guardians of their purity. But in truth, we had come to welcome children as luxuriesin controlled circumstances, and on the condition that they would not turn out to be Christs of pus and bleeding excrement. (Google “Down Syndrome abortion rate.”) Our hyper-vigilance against pedophilia was part of our evolution to a more insidious pedophobia. It conceals from us our lack of charity.
Arguably, the horrors of The Exorcist force us to confront the same. If they do, it justifies the revolting spectacleour challenge being to recognize Christ, as Karras finally does, amid the grossness of the flesh. Cut or uncut, The Exorcist may indeed work as “a commercial for the Roman Catholic Church”or at least for Christian charity.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University and an MFA candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.