“Exorcist” Eisegesis: Fraudulent Child Molestation Theme

[Note: This is a long post. But please bear with me. I think it is necessary to step up and defend Exorcist author Blatty’s depiction of character Burke Dennings against a scurrilous and completely unjustified indictment.]

A current theory states that The Exorcist’s demonic possession of Regan MacNeil is a metaphor for child molestation. Theorists suggest that Regan was being molested by her mother’s film director, Burke Dennings. This idea is sheer unsupported speculation; moreover, it contradicts author William Peter Blatty’s own text and intent. It is to be found in neither the Blatty novel nor in the Blatty-Friedkin film.

“Reading out” of a text material that really exists in the text is called exegesis. “Reading into” a text material that does not exist in the text is called eisegesis.  Eisegesis is the projection of inappropriate, “foreign” themes onto a narrative.  Exorcist molestation theorists are guilty of eisegesis, and a very sloppy one at that.

Blatty’s own depiction of demonic possession is not metaphoric. It is not symbolic. It is not allegorical, analogical, or poetic. It does not point away from itself toward some other layer, genre, theme, or metaliterary realm. Demonic possession in The Exorcist is its primary catalyst for, and explainer of, the behavior, reactions, decisions, and actions of those who witness it.

In short: Regan’s possession “advertises” only itself, and it is Blatty’s clear intent to depict it as a real, authentic, genuine intrusion into the normal world of a malevolent, discarnate, nonhuman, nonmaterial and “ancient” entity.  It contains not a hint of human intervention,  whether sexual abuse or other.

The Exorcist’s only “child molester” is the demon itself.

Burke Dennings is never enlisted by author Blatty as a potential cause of Regan’s possession. Rather, some such catalysts are suggested: Regan’s isolation and loneliness; her playing with a Ouija board; her father’s absence; her reaction to the onset of early adolescence. In not one of Blatty’s suggested causes is a direct, abusive human element presented.

It could be argued (using sociological principles not greatly widespread when Blatty wrote the novel) that the author should have included a possible molestation scenario as catalyst. However, this idea is a retrojection of current concerns into a decade when such considerations had not yet become “public domain” and common literary themes. So if there is any flaw here, it is not Blatty, it is the times in which he was writing. In any case the essential point here is, of course, that Blatty did not use the molestation theme.

Therefore, Burke Dennings is no more a molester than is any other Exorcist character (one wonders why the domestic Karl is not equally put foward for this role, since the novel shows him in constant proximity to Regan, and emphasises his great physical strength and darkly mysterious taciturnity).

On the contrary, Blatty describes Burke Dennings as a reliable friend of the MacNeils – a man, who when sober, is kind and gentle. (And when Denning is not sober, he does not transform into a child molester; he simply becomes an obnoxious, verbally-not-physically abusive drunk.)   An example of this is that, on Regan’s birthday at the movie set, Dennings has the crew rewarm the lights in order to film Regan cutting her cake.

Throughout the first part of the novel, Regan sees very little of Dennings, since he is usually busy directing and going off on drunks; and when he is at the MacNeil home, he is there to see Chris, not Regan. In fact, other than the dinner party scene (and of course the fatal window push incident) Blatty never puts Regan and Burke together in the same room – not in Regan’s room, in Chris’s study, or in the basement where Regan does her artwork.

Regan’s only objection to “Mr. Dennings” is not that he is molesting her, but that he will supplant her father Howard if Chris marries Burke. Blatty’s narrative strongly implies that this is not even Regan’s own idea, but a whispered doubt supplied to her unconscious by the demon. Even so, Regan does not fear or resent Dennings. In fact, in the context of this scene, she says that Mr. Dennings can come along with her and Chris for her birthday celebration. Clearly, in her own subjective world, separate from demonic rumor-mongering, Regan is comfortable in Burke Dennings’ company.

Regarding the famous dinner party scene, Blatty shows Regan going to bed early after a short introduction to the guests. (One of the guests, a psychic, senses that something is wrong with Regan, but immediately attributes it to Regan’s Ouija-board usage, not to molestation.)

Burke Dennings is at this party, but except for Regan’s brief appearance (in which Burke and Regan have no interaction whatsoever), he is completely separated from her as he moves through the crowd insulting all and sundry as he goes. Ultimately he calls Karl “a Nazi”, whereupon Chris sends Burke to “sleep it off” in her study. And… Dennings does just that – he does not unobtrusively (extremely difficult in a crowded house party) make his way upstairs to molest Regan. He flops down in the study and Chris immediately sends Regan’s tutor Sharon into the study – to watch over Burke until he awakens (and to make sure that he  leaves without disturbing any more guests.)

At this point, Regan is a troubled child, but she is not yet fully possessed. She manifests her disturbance(s) through several strange behaviors, chief among them the acquiring of an imaginary playmate.

As a concretization of Regan’s disturbance – according to the molestation theory – this invisible playmate ought to bear some direct relation to Burke Dennings. But in reality it does no such thing. Instead, the playmate is called “Captain Howdy” – an “in your face,” obvious reference to missing Dad, Howard MacNiel. There is no molester here, no drooling Dennings or creeping Karl:  only the distillation of a lonely child’s abandonment anxiety. (Later it will be shown that the demon is using the “Howdy” identity to manipulate the child’s vulnerability. But suffice it to say that Burke Dennings in Blatty’s narrative is nowhere near the center of Regan’s disturbance.)

Again: The Exorcist’s only “child molester” is the demon itself.

Denning’s lack of criminality or evil intent in the narrative as Blatty wrote it leaves only one baffling question – the primary question the molestation theorists cling to – unanswered: What was Dennings doing in Regan’s room when she broke his neck, turned his head “completely around, facing backward,” and pushed him out her window?

Blatty does not let us know the answer. We can only guess. But from what has preceded, it is clear that, regardless of the reason Dennings went up to Regan’s room, that reason cannot include molestation. We can only theorize that he went upstairs to check on the daughter of his good friend Chris; or that Regan, undergoing a new demonic attack, cried out and Dennings rushed up to assist her;  or that the demon, acting through Regan, deliberately lured Dennings upstairs to his death.

One might suspect, rather, that Dennings died because Blatty’s story called for just this death at just this point in the narrative. Dennings’ death is the causal nexus of much of the subsequent story. Removing Dennings and his death from the narrative would completely depotentiate and unravel The Exorcist’s entire narrative.

Perhaps Dennings died because he “had” to die for authorial purposes and narrational soundness. After making that decision, Blatty only had to devise a way for Regan/the demon to kill Dennings privately, when only she and Dennings were in the house together, with no other potential witnesses.

And that is the most plausible reason for Dennings being alone with Regan in the house and in Regan’s room. Plot device, not molestation, placed these two characters together at the same time and in the same place.

The Exorcist’s only “child molester” remains the demon itself.


12 thoughts on ““Exorcist” Eisegesis: Fraudulent Child Molestation Theme

  1. carlton

    i never bought in to those allegations. it’s pointless to try and theorize any intent beyond the text of the book. some people just want to start controversy i suppose.

  2. rennyo01 Post author

    Hey carlton, thanks for your comment. Yeah, people want to project stuff onto The Exorcist… as you said, some probably just want to be controversial!

  3. J M Parham

    It’s many years since I read the book as a fourteen year old with a great interest in the paranormal, but I’ve seen the film several times, and watch it now again on DVD. I never thought of Dennings as being a child molester, or Karl; but was always a little suspicious of Karl – the accusations by Dennings about his ‘Nazi’ past, Karl’s physical assault on Dennings, and the subsequent death of Dennings at the hands of the demon. Then the objects found, the crucifixes and the strange figurine found by the cop at the bottom of the steps, made me wonder if Karl was not somehow in league with the demon. A successful work can leave such openings for the reader’s imagination. Unfortunately, when crimes like child molestation are prominent in the media and the public’s mind, people will look for and find examples of them wherever they can. I’m also surprised, though I may be wrong, that there’s as yet been little emphasis on the Islamic aspect of the Exorcist – the film begins with the Moslem call for prayer … and equating that religion with all that is evil. Still, give em time!

  4. rennyo01 Post author

    Hi, JM – thanks for your thoughtful comments. Yes, people tend to completely overlook Karl, who has full access to the house and to “Miss Regan”. He is lithe and muscular. He is intense, he is in-gathered and reticent to speak. He harbors secrets. Etc. But Dennings is always the “favorite” for the molestation/abuse theme, mostly I would guess because of Blair’s “Mr. Dennings'” dialogue. But she’s actually saying it’s OKAY for Denning to attend her party. So she’s not afraid of him. Plus in all of her medical exams, no evidence is found of physical abuse..

    Yeah, some would undoubtedly drag in the Moslem prayer-call to forge a fake linkage between Islam and the demonic (never mind that the demon is neither Allah nor a djinn). One “plus” in the so-called director’s cut is the final shot of Kinderman and Dyer walking off arm in arm, with the prayer call chanted on the soundtrack, which signals that all is well, and “bookends” the film between those two calls to prayer. The prayer, though foreign to most Western ears, is meant to be what it is – a prayer 🙂

  5. Parsus

    “Do you know what she did, your c’ing daughter ?” “Stick it up your a.. you mother f’ing c sucker !” Do any of you know anyone who was deeply sexually and spiritually abused ? The pain runs deep as does the rage that builds over it – even murderous rage. Usually turned inwards and leads to self murder. It’s not uncommon for those so wholly degraded to lash out, at out, and further degrade themselves using such expletives, explicit, derogatory filthy language. I find it more likely that the child Regan, innocent, suffered abuse than possession by a demon.

  6. Steve

    Thanks Pasus for your comment, but if Blatty intended to write a novel about child molestation, he would have. If the story’s molester is anyone else but the demon, Blatty simply wasted his and the reader’s time. Child molestation cannot be derived from Blatty’s story for the simple reason that the story has no child molester in it. Additionally, the battery of medical and psychological testing that Regan went through would have uncovered signs of abuse – but it didn’t. The novel’s only molester is the demon.

  7. paul

    I have studied this film for many years and I find it odd that you omitted something very important in the scene between Karl and Burt at the party. When finally pushed over the edge by Denning’s Nazi rants Karl proceeds to start choking Burt. Eventually they are both restrained but nothing comes of it. Also as u mentioned Karl is constantly lurking about and seems to be shadowing the characters i.e. the aattic scene with Ellen,and the crucifix scene. Do you feel there is more to his character?

  8. rennyo01 Post author

    There “is something more” to Karl than his victimization by Dennings, but it isn’t criminality. SPOILERS if you haven’t read the novel.
    Unknown to Karl’s wife Willie, their clubfooted daughter is not dead, but is a drug addict. Karl brings her money for drugs; Kinderman tracks Karl down and confronts him. Karl in turn tells Willie and they are able to get their daughter into a treatment program. Blatty describes Karl as very tender toward Regan, partly because his relationship with his own daughter is so tormented. Karl is not sinister and he’s not shadowing the characters. His presence in the attic is logical and natural, since Chris insisted he set rat traps, and Karl went into the attic, not because he was shadowing Chris, but because he was doing his job, i.e., checking on the noises Chris was making, and checking on “the rats” at the same time.

  9. Richard M.

    Thanks Renny. You’re characterization of Karl is spot on. My sentiments exactly. Remember that the novel was set in the fifties, barely a decade since The Third Reich terrorized the planet. All Americans of German descent were looked upon with suspicion regardless of their intent. Rick

  10. rennyo01 Post author

    Thanks for your kind words, Richard. Just for clarification, Blatty set the novel in the early 70s, i.e., when he was actually writing it. The original possession case, I believe, happened in 1947, and Blatty updated it to his own time.

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