The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty

Over Halloween this year, I listened to an excellent audiobook version of The Exorcist read by the book’s author William Peter Blatty. I recommend it if you can find a copy. I’m from the UK and the home video version of The Exorcist was banned there for years. (According to Wikipedia it was withdrawn from sale in 1988 and not re-released until 1999.) I remember going to watch a midnight showing at my local cinema when they finally lifted the ban. I was in my early twenties and I can still recall the genuinely creepy atmosphere and sense of dread of the movie. And those brilliant practical effects. Yes, it scared me.


‘Actress and divorced mother Chris MacNeil starts to experience ‘difficulties’ with her usually sweet-natured eleven-year-old daughter Regan. The child becomes afflicted by spasms, convulsions and unsettling amnesiac episodes; these abruptly worsen into violent fits of appalling foul-mouthed curses, accompanied by physical mutation. Medical science is baffled by Regan’s plight and, in her increasing despair, Chris turns to troubled priest and psychiatrist Damien Karras.’

Published back in 1971, The Exorcist was a controversial book at its time of release and quickly became a bestseller. In interviews over the years, author William Peter Blatty has declared that he didn’t intend to make it so scary. He wanted to “write a novel that would not only excite and entertain, but would also make a positive statement about God, the human condition and the relationship between the two.”

Well, there are scary and disturbing scenes in the book, but I enjoyed it more for the story of Father Damien Karras and his struggle to rediscover his faith. There are some fascinating scenes where Father Karras is speaking with the demonic presence possessing poor Reagan. Their conversations are gripping as well as shocking. The demon is constantly trying to trick Karras and ranges from foul-mouthed fury to reasoned debate. At times it seems like there is more than one presence residing in young Reagan’s body, but it could just be the main demon pretending. We are never quite sure, and I appreciated this unreliable nature of the story.

The Exorcist is a recommendation from me if you enjoy horror. But be aware of the amount of foul language as well as some disturbing scenes of physical abuse. It’s worth reading for the strong believable characters and the fascinating battle of what we imagine to be good against evil. I was rooting for Father Karras all the way through the story. His flaws make him more believable and relatable. And I felt for Reagan’s mother Chris and the incredible ordeal both she and her daughter go through.

I want to share part of an essay the book’s author William Peter Blatty wrote defending his book against some of the criticisms it received. It’s taken from the February 1974 issue of the magazine America. (**SPOILER Warning for parts of the story.**)

‘Several years ago I set out 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. On its crudest level it would argue for transcendence by presenting supernatural forces as real; but on the level that would stay with the reader long after he had closed the book, the theme was something other—and deeper. At the end of The Exorcist, the mother can believe in the devil because “he keeps doing all those commercials”; but Dyer responds: “Then how do you account for all of the good?” And that is the question that my novel and film implicitly ask: namely, if the universe is clockwork and man is no more than molecular structures, how is it there is love as a God would love and that a man like Jesuit Damien Karras would deliberately give up his life for a stranger, the alien corpus of Regan MacNeil? This is surely an enigma far more puzzling and far more worth pondering than the scandalous problem of evil; this is the mystery of goodness. It is the point all critics miss.


The theme—the “mystery of goodness”—may fail because the ending of the novel and the film are misinterpreted (especially the film). What happens—at least as I intended it—is this: Fr. Karras invites the demon to take possession of him instead of the girl. The demon—having lost by dint of this very invitation, this act of love—accepts. Then the demon, using Fr. Karras’s body, reaches out his hand to strangle the girl. Fr. Karras fights to regain control; succeeds; and in the few moments he has available before what he knows will be the inevitable and final repossession of his body by the demon, he does the only thing he can do that will save the girl’s life (and the lives of everyone else in the house): he leaps from the window to the street below and certain death. How one of my critics, Fr. Richard Blake, gets from this to his opinion that “the conclusion is a fatalistic belief in the penultimate triumph of the dark powers” is truly a mystery impervious to the powers of a Charlie Chan. No less mysterious to me as a Christian are Fr. Blake’s moans at the number of deaths involved in the work and his conclusion that the deaths are a triumph of evil. I, for one, have been harboring the delusion these years that “better to lose the world” than suffer the loss of one’s immortal soul. In his act of love, Fr. Karras triumphs. And I believe him to be “saved.” But then, I graduated from Georgetown in 1950. That was the “old” Church. This is the new?

The possessing entity is not Satan. This is what is known in the entertainment business as a “showstopper”; and so I’ll repeat it: Satan is not the possessing entity. Rather, the entity is a demon—a devil, if you will. It is his likeness that Fr. Merrin finds on the amulet at the beginning; that he confronts amid the ruins of Nineveh; and that we see on the bed beside Regan in the course of the exorcism scene. In the book he has a name: Pazuzu, demon of the southwest wind. Nowhere in the novel or in the film are we seriously led to believe that Regan is possessed by the prince of angels, who surely has far worse things to do. True, Regan tells Fr. Karras, “And I’m the devil.” But what constrains us to believe her? Believe that and you perforce must believe everything the demon has to say, including the accusation that Fr. Merrin–an older more experienced priest called in to lead the exorcism–is a homosexual. The Roman Ritual’s instruction to exorcists has a caution against the “wiles and deceits” of evil spirits.

The physical and seemingly spiritual degradation of the girl when possessed is aimed precisely at this vulnerability, stronger in Fr. Karras, but lurking in all of us.’

-William Peter Blatty, from an essay in the February 1974 issue of America

Thanks so much for reading.

-Wakizashi, *shaking off the remnants of a dose of that thing that was very likely made in a lab in China. But we’re not allowed to admit that, are we?*


12 thoughts on “The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty

  1. Working backwards here.
    Man, even now, the politicians here in the US work over time to make sure no one says covid came from a China lab. Dr Fauci has a LOT to answer for in his covering up that data.

    As a Christian myself, I took a lot of issues with this book. I felt like Blatty was writing about pop-Christianity and not real Christianity. And even the quotes you include here seem to support that. So I couldn’t really enjoy it because of the theology presented.

    As for the movie, man, I never watched it and never will. I just don’t handle scary visuals well. They stick in my head and come to the forefront just as I turn the lights off….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Questions were being asked overseas, too. Especially in Australia before it became a prison colony again. Connection?… Don’t get me started on Fauci, mama mia!

      I don’t know the difference between “pop-Christianity and real Christianity”. I just enjoyed the head-to-head between Father Karras and the demon. And how Karras was struggling with his faith until his ultimate sacrifice at the end of the story.

      I don’t handle psychological horror well. I avoid watching most Japanese horror because of this. Once it gets in my mind, it’s difficult to get it out. The Exorcist is probably most famous for its physical horror, but there is some truly creepy mind horror in there, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t feel like something that was natural. I generally think Fauci has done a good job, and there are political reasons why finger-pointing is not a good look, but there are big questions as to why nothing like this has happened for 100 years.

    Blatty’s other works as a writer are worth seeking out, Ninth Configuration especially.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Only China knows, probably. I’ve always wondered if it was an “accident” or intentional. What got me shaking my head was the fact that China didn’t stop their citizens from flying all over the world to celebrate the Chinese New Year in January & February 2020. When they knew what was going on and most of us didn’t yet. Talk about international distribution! But you can’t really talk about this anymore. If you do, you get shut down or mocked, etc.

      Ninth Configuration looks good, thank you. I’m also curious about his book Legion which I read was adapted into what became Exorcist III, a very good film. Nobody talks about Exorcist II. John Boorman, what were you smoking?


  3. I enjoyed the movie first and later the book. Both kind of freaked me out. I live not all that far from Georgetown and I recall driving by the “Exorcist steps” with some friends. They weren’t nearly as freaky in person as in the movie. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I recently read The Exorcist for the first time myself, Wakizashi. I found the book, like the film, to be aesthetically brilliant but morally reprehensible. It’s about a woman is so selfishly focused on her career — the nerve! — that her preteen daughter is left to her own devices and accidentally summons a demon — a brown-skinned Iraqi demon, at that — with a Ouija board. Both the mother and daughter have zero agency in the events of the story, so it falls to a pair of virtuous Catholic priests — two “Fathers” — to save the day. It is seriously the most repugnant piece of patriarchal propaganda — with a dollop of racism, to boot — I’ve ever read. But, unlike so many horror authors, Blatty’s prose, characterization, and dialogue are really masterful. I only wish they’d been in service to a more ethical story.

    If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which is to The Exorcist was Scream was to Halloween: both a terrifying specimen of the genre as well as a fascinating deconstruction of its tropes. It’s a story about how manipulative stories can be. One of the best novels, horror or otherwise, I’ve read in a decade.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting take, Sean. I found Reagan’s mother Chris to be a brave, independent and compelling character who is strong enough to go against the doctors and psychiatrists that keep insisting this was all an unknown medical problem, a malady of Reagan’s brain. Yet one that they can do absolutely nothing for. After countless medical failures, she is at her wits end and finally turns to Father Karras who is introduced more as a psychiatrist than a priest. Father Karras, who you label “virtuous,” is going through a crisis of faith and questioning his own beliefs after the passing of his mother.

      And I seriously don’t understand your “racist” tag. Why? Because the author chose to create his fictional demon “Pazuzu” based on a “character from Assyrian and Babylonian mythology.” There is no mention of the colour of the demon’s skin in the book. In the film, you get a brief shot of Pazuzu with a pale-skinned face. Interestingly, Pazuzu was played by a female actor who stood in for Reagan during some of the more “adult” scenes in the movie. It is also hinted in the book that this fictional demon and the older priest Father Merrin have encountered each other before, a thread that is explored in some of the later Exorcist films. So are you saying it’s “racist” because the American author William Peter Blatty didn’t base his demonic character on a demon from America? Which one would you suggest?

      I’ve heard of Paul Tremblay’s novel but haven’t read it. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Liked by 1 person

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