What I Learned From Revisiting “The Exorcist”

What I Learned From Revisiting “The Exorcist” June 27, 2014

It has been a long time since I have seen The Exorcist. A loooong time. And for good reason. It scared the hell out of me. As a teenager, I felt I was bulletproof against Hollywood’s efforts to spook me. My friends and I would rent the most macabre of movies from Friday the 13th to Nightmare on Elm Street to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Halloween in a childish quest daring a movie to be frightening enough. While there was little doubt that we could be jarred by the classic “unexpected entry” of the deranged murderer into a scene thick with tension, the fear was fleeting. It was like a candy rush: immediate surge, no lasting satiety. That was the case until I saw The Exorcist.

Now, first let me tell you about my background with this movie. When my sisters and I were little more than elementary and early middle school-aged, my parents told us they had rented this film and planned on watching it that night. Being innately curious and tenaciously inquisitive (to the point of exhausting our parents), they acknowledged that The Exorcist was a scary movie that had to do with some of the things Jesus saw and cured during his lifetime. Hmmm. Intriguing. Little more was offered in spite of our nagging. In the end, we were told that it was not an appropriate movie for us to see and soon we were shuttled off to our beds. And as my parents slipped the videotape into their VCR and assured themselves that they had responsibly answered questions and dutifully protected us from what would prove to be an utterly terrifying story, the movie began.

Now here is a lesson I want every parent to know about movie watching. And especially when watching The Exorcist. There is little doubt that nothing could be more disturbing for a child than to see the graphic depiction of a young girl possessed by the devil. Unless you were a child all alone in your dark bedroom hearing a young girl possessed by the devil. Now, in my parents’ defense, there is no way they knew that the movie was that loud. But I did. And it was horrifying.

So while it was not the primary piece of wisdom I took away from this movie, I think it is, nonetheless, a valuable reminder. Parents, don’t forget…

Turn the TV down.

Just imagine my parents watching TV in the living room while I am in the darkness of my bedroom. If you listen closely, you can hear me sobbing in the background.

Years later, I would see The Exorcist and it was as frightening as it had sounded. Subconsciously, I had dared Hollywood to scare me. And William Peter Blatty delivered. In spades.

But, at the age of forty, what caused me to start thinking about The Exorcist again? Well, a few things. I recently wrote on G.K. Chesterton’s unsettling encounter with a Diabolist. Pope Francis has given some frank homilies about the devil. My Patheos colleague, Fr. Dwight Longenecker wrote about and linked some chilling stories about the devil. And I found my father quoting the wise and experienced Father Lankester Merrin (played by Max von Sydow) from The Exorcist in a recent conversation. My interest in revisiting the movie was not to, once again, immerse myself in the blackness that is Satanic possession, but to see if there were deeper morsels of wisdom to be found in this nightmarish tale that I had missed on my first viewing. And do you know what? There were. In the midst of levitation, head-spinning, projectile vomiting and graphic violence, I learned three important things about the devil from The Exorcist.

Now let me be clear. I missed these points from my earlier viewing of the movie simply because the overwhelming nature of what the young child experiences obscures the wisdom found in the larger story. What is the larger story? Quite simply, it is Christian Good at war with Satanic Evil. Yet even with a more discerning eye and being a bit older, I felt that if I watched the film again, I would risk missing the important lessons all over again. So, instead, I read the script.

Let me refresh your memory about the story. A successful Georgetown actress, Chris MacNeil, has a twelve year-old daughter, Regan, who becomes possessed by a demon. Failing conventional medical and psychiatric therapy, Chris finds her atheism challenged as she desperately seeks a priest to perform an exorcism. Father Damien Karras, a priest and elite-trained psychiatrist, finds himself enlisted and while skeptical, he offers to help. Karras, himself, is struggling with his faith and at times risks intellectualizing too much. However, in short order, he is convinced that Regan is possessed and, with the Bishop’s permission, is authorized to perform an exorcism with the help of the wise, experienced and deeply faithful Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow). Merrin has been involved in previous exorcisms and believes that the spirit in question is Pazuzu, a demon he has battled before. To avoid being a spoiler (if you have never seen it or have simply forgotten), I can say that the movie’s outcome is, as would be expected, quite dramatic.

There were three things that leapt out at me as I read the script for The Exorcist. These aspects involve dialogue between the eager, scared and intellectual Fr. Karras and the quiet, deeply religious and wise Fr. Merrin. A friend once relayed to me that Michael Kitchen, the unflappable Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle in the BBC Series Foyle’s War, requested fewer lines because more would undermine the pensive nature of his character. If this is true, then Kitchen may have learned from Fr. Merrin’s character for Merrin is a man of towering stature in spite of (and perhaps, because of) his few words and the wisdom they offer. As a matter of fact, the majority of his lines are from the Rite of Exorcism with its basis in Scripture. It is when he says something in addition to the Rite that great wisdom emerges. Below are three particularly impressive exchanges followed by what I learned from them.

Scene One


Father Merrin arrives at the Georgetown house and is first introduced to Father Karras. Immediately, Fr. Merrin’s name is screamed by the possessed girl followed by a ruckus of banging emanating from the upstairs bedroom.

Fr. Merrin:
Are you tired?

Fr. Karras:

Fr. Merrin:
I would like you to go quickly to the residence Damien, and gather up a cassock for myself, two surplices, a purple stole, and some holy water, and your copy of The Roman Ritual. The Large one. I believe we should begin.

Fr. Karras:
Do you want to hear the background of the case first?

Fr. Merrin:

Fr. Merrin exemplifies the Christian call to action against the devil. Where there is evil it is to be countered with good. At times the risk involved in intellectualizing is that it can lead to indecision and rationalization. What is most required in countering evil is not strategy, but courage.

Scene Two


Fr. Merrin and Fr. Karras are dressing in vestments in preparation for the Rite of Exorcism.

Fr. Merrin:
Especially important is the warning to avoid conversation with the demon. We may ask what is relevant, but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar, the demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien. And powerful. So don’t listen, remember that, do not listen.

Fr. Karras:
I think it would be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, there seems to be three. She’s convinced-

Fr. Merrin:
There’s only one.

The devil’s tactics are brilliant. He tries to convince us he doesn’t exist and that sin and evil are old-fashioned constructs we have assigned to the products of genes, environment, psychology and evolution. Bad things, we are convinced, happen because they are determined, not chosen. In effect, there is no freewill, no responsibility and hence no sin or evil…and no need for redemption. As Baudelaire famously said, “The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Or if he can’t convince us he doesn’t exist, he can employ half-truths to convince us that he “may have a point”. Every Biblical representation of the devil shows him as the craftiest rationalizer. He is not called the “Father of Lies” for nothing. But Father Merrin’s point is that evil is not so complex in its manifestations or its origins. First, it is to be named and then, it is to be vigorously opposed with the power of Christ.

 Scene Three


Exhausted after the first harrowing and violent part of the Rite of Exorcism, Fr. Merrin and Fr. Karras sit outside Regan’s room.

Fr. Karras:
Why this girl – it makes no sense.

Fr. Merrin:
I think the point is to make us despair… To see ourselves as… animal and ugly…To reject the possibility that God could love us. 

God created each one of us as special, unique dignified children. In our sin we separate ourselves from God, but He went to the limits of becoming man in the form of Jesus Christ, suffering and dying for our sins in the name of preserving our dignity and reconciling us to him. The devil seeks to despoil us of this dignity, to tear us from the arms of God, to make us see ourselves and others as animalistic, undignified, foul and worthy of little more than serving harsh and destructive appetites. The entire narrative of God’s relationship with man is to rescue us from these attacks on our dignity. We only need to believe in this dignity, believe we are lovable and then live as such – loving God, loving neighbor and loving self.

Upon re-examining The Exorcist, I found that the screamed sacrilege, the violent assaults and the horrifying disfigurements at the hands of the devil were overshadowed by Fr. Merrin’s economy of words, sturdy stature and steadiness of hand. I was reminded that in spite of the tragedy that ensues in the movie, the power of Christ is superior to the power of the devil. It is not a battle of equals. No matter how horrific, the victor is Christ. I guess that’s what I learned from revisiting The Exorcist. Not a bad reminder.

Oh, yeah. And don’t forget to turn your TV down.

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