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Levitation scene from The Exorcist (1973)

Levitation scene from The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist: The Reincarnation of a Particular Kind of Irrationality

Social media has helped to propagate the belief in blasphemy, levitation, and speaking in tongues as hallmarks of demonic possession. Since the death of William Peter Blatty—the author best known for his novel turned blockbuster film The Exorcist— exorcism is, once again, showing a robust presence in contemporary life, this time among millennials. In this article, Kathy Schultheis warns that this resurgence of interest in exorcism is a sign of how far reason has fallen.

William Peter Blatty, the author best known for his novel turned blockbuster film The Exorcist, died January 12, 2017 at the age of 89. While the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1971 consigned Blatty’s novel to the “condemned” list, the contemporary Catholic press has been most generous in its praise of Blatty, elegizing him as a prophet who warned a generation hell-bent on materialism of the wages of sin and the temptations of the devil. According to this line of thinking, Blatty was a new Paul who fought the good fight to get his film made against a stubborn Church that didn’t want its most cryptic doctrine advertised to a disbelieving world. Of course, The Exorcist turned out to have the opposite effect: It was a monster hit and far more successful than any fire and brimstone sermon in scaring prideful mortals into giving up their sinful ways.

The iconic scene from The Exorcist: Merrin arrives

The iconic scene from The Exorcist: Merrin arrives

In truth, what Blatty did by writing this horror classic was make truckloads of money and in the process engender many real-life simulacra in which people, either mentally ill or hungering for their fifteen minutes, began to rant, moan and summon Roman-collared clerics to don their white stoles and brandish their crucifixes to drive out the offending spirits. Blatty’s novel made respectable again a grotesque practice that had been used for centuries with malicious intent upon the mentally ill. Under the legitimizing force of The Exorcist, the embarrassing stigma that had always surrounded exorcism was transfigured, and normally skeptical people began to believe in the Old One again.

Social media has helped to propagate the belief in blasphemy, levitation, and speaking in tongues as hallmarks of demonic possession.

With Blatty’s death, the subject of exorcism has re-entered national discourse. Was Blatty right? Are there dark energies that can pull the evilly inclined down to everlasting fire? … To entertain such a droll question is a sign of how far reason has fallen. But reason doesn’t matter; this urban legend is speaking powerfully once again, this time to millennials, as it did to their parents and grandparents who cued up for hours in 1974 to see the film. Given the state of our polarized and superstitious national social climate, exorcists, like psychics, are in high demand. Social media has helped to propagate the belief in blasphemy, levitation, and speaking in tongues as hallmarks of demonic possession. In 2014, Pope Francis called to the Vatican a convocation of exorcists and praised them for their work in the field. Both of Francis’s predecessors, Pope John-Paul II, who exorcised many troubled people, and Benedict who approved many exorcisms, firmly endorsed a practice, which panders to the worst in the human species: the tendency to locate evil in a metaphysical entity, rather than in misfiring neural transmitter or the propensity to take secret delight in projecting upon the alien other the disavowed impulses that lurk within one’s own self. As Meghan Hamilton observed, “Belief in exorcism requires a particular kind of irrationality.”

William Peter Blatty inside of his home office in 2009. Photo by jtblatty (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (

William Peter Blatty inside of his home office in 2009. Photograph by jtblatty (own work) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

So what is the nature of this irrationality? It is one that violates the law of contradiction. To believe in exorcism is to believe that the human self is capable of being invaded by an evil spirit who, once upon a time, was god’s rebel angel. Lucifer fell, so the Bible narrates, for the same reason that Adam fell: he was proud. Lucifer wanted to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven. By all biblical accounts, he elected to disobey god, then out of frustration with his new condition, he spent the rest of eternity as Satan, making mischief and suborning terrestrials, the soon-to-be-dead, to select the same bad option. Lucifer chose, so this line of reasoning goes, and thus he has only himself to blame, as do all proud, self-worshipping mortals, who do not acknowledge their flawed, god-dependent natures.

But herein lies the contradiction: How can it be logically maintained that Lucifer chose? For who would be so base as to create a being only to watch him roast forever on hell’s rotisserie? If god gave Lucifer free choice and god is all-knowing and all-powerful, would he not then see into the future and know what “choice” Lucifer, like Adam after him, would make? Why tempt Lucifer then? What manner of god would do this? Only, it would seem, a sadistic god, one who enjoys watching his foolish created beings fritter away their misspent lives? Another question follows: Why force an eternity of suffering upon a creature, who through no fault of his own, “chose” badly? To consign such a being to eternal flames would seem morally indefensible. How, except through sophistry and casuistry, can such a belief be maintained?

And those tactics—sophistry and casuistry—are precisely the stratagems deployed by the Catholic Church in the 16th century when exorcisimus was born. In response to the Reformation sweeping across Europe, the Church, fearing the loss of Europe to Luther, doubled down and launched the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, the Jesuits, and exorcism. While Galileo was consigned to a dungeon in Italy for initially refusing to recant his findings, a Catholic priest, one Girolamo Menghi, labored away on a massive book on demonology, a work that was soon to become a handbook for exorcists. Father Menghi’s tome listed in mind-numbing detail the signs of possession—speaking in tongues, vomiting, perverse actions—all hallmarks of the Blatty’s possessed child Regan in The Exorcist. The Vatican approved and codified Menghi’s findings and set about exorcising tens of thousands of people whom the Church judged to be possessed. Anyone exhibiting so much as a hint of mental illness could be subjected to this hideous practice that invariably made the sick person much sicker, launching him or her often on the path of suicide.

It is the way The Exorcist elides psychological explanation that makes it—for those who can see it—so emotionally satisfying. People are ambivalent about the disgusting. That which inspires revulsion also inspires a kind of delight. If people can locate such disgust, as an earlier generation of movie-goers did, in a “bad seed,” a genetic propensity to evil and thus something extrinsic to the self, they can enjoy a second-hand experience of disgust with no threat to their own psyches. When Patty McCormick, the child actress who played Rhoda, the murderous child in The Bad Seed, was struck by lightning at the end of the film, a generation of parents in the 1950s clapped in movie houses across the country, gleeful that the Freudians who would locate Rhoda’s malevolent acts in a troubled early life, had been silenced by an evil that was motiveless, capricious, and resistant to all explanation. When Linda Blair’s head spins in The Exorcist and she spews green vomit, Father Karras, her priest, invites the evil one to “Take me.” The devil obliges, and the priest falls to his death possessed, but presumably through his act of martyrdom, killing the evil that had once possessed the child.

Blatty’s novel made respectable again a grotesque practice that had been used for centuries with malicious intent upon the mentally ill.

Yet, what the film struggled to deny—causal explanation—is what it inadvertently reveals. The real possession going on in the plotline of The Exorcist is not Regan’s by the devil; it is Father Karras’s possession at the hands of his mother. At the beginning of the film, Karras is shown struggling to find his mother in a Dantean Inferno for the mentally ill. He is losing his faith and feels that he should leave the priesthood to care for his ill mother. Then his mother’s brother joins him at the hospital, saying to him, “You know it’s funny, if you wasn’t a priest, you’d be a famous psychiatrist on Park Avenue. Your mother would be in a penthouse instead of here.” When Karras finally finds his mother in this nether world of the insane, she is tied to her bed by restraints. In her bitter anguish, she glares at her son and asks accusingly, “Dimi, why you do this to me?”

The son’s guilt for having divested himself of his mother is reborn in the altercation with the possessed child and the devil. Exorcism is Karros’s attempt to deliver the girl symbolically from the same invasive spirit that has possessed him all his life. When Father Karras falls to his death in the act of exorcising Regan, he is, in turn, possessed. He dies both fused to his mother and punished for leaving her.

Thus, in the name of damning Freud, Blatty’s movie offered a crude, superstitious alternative—possession—which was really just the same thing but one that concealed what it covertly revealed. Some words spoken by Pope John-Paul chillingly reminded Catholics in 1976 that “The devil is a real and dangerous presence in our society.”

Exorcism’s robust presence in contemporary life is no sign of the perdurable nature of the Devil, but rather it stands as a marker of the impervious nature of the human mind, its resistance to reason. Exorcism is an archaic remnant of a medieval worldview, one that hearkens back to the primitive state of animism, when all things were experienced as charged with either divine or diabolic energy.

Belief in exorcism requires a particular kind of irrationality.

Just a few weeks shy of resignation, Pope Benedict blamed the crisis in the Church on the devil and the moral laxity he had spawned in Catholic communicants. Untroubled by the implications of his allegation—to wit the assertion that “the devil made them do it” (sodomize boys in the confessional, move predatory priests from parish to parish)—the vicious nature of Benedict’s attribution of blame was almost as appalling as that old canard of blaming the victim.

It is not at all clear that William Peter Blatty believed any of the myths he propagated in The Exorcist. In truth, his work shows a greater debt to Freud than Menghi. Let us hope that the better angels of our skeptical natures will cast this nighted color off and send it hurdling back to the animistic world from which it emerged, lest it tempt the children of the millennials to encode its message into some ill-begotten android who will one day set out to terrify the gullible world once again.

About the Author

Dr. Kathleen J. Schultheis earned her doctoral degree in English literature at the University of Southern California. Currently, Schultheis is teaching Advanced Placement American literature in Oak Park High School in Oak Park, California. She was a recovering Catholic. Now she is just recovering.


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