Audiences have misunderstood some of The Exorcist’s basic themes and premises, some of which have been addressed on this blog, for example, the egregioiusly misconceived notion that the story’s film director, Burke Dennings, had been molesting Regan MacNeil, the possessed child. In a similar mode, a substantial number of viewers think that the film was a “downer”, that “the Devil won”. This is sometimes expressed in statements such as, “The Devil won: he possessed a priest [Fr. Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller], forced him to commit suicide, and also killed his elderly mentor [Fr. Lankester Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow]”.
The facts, however, are quite the contrary:
1. Damien Karras did not “get” possessed, as is the case in standard possessions. Instead, he deliberately challenges and invites the demon to “come into me…take me…” To its everlasting regret, the demon responds to Karras’ taunt. Karras is shown briefly possessed, advancing on Regan – who is now unpossessed – and framed within the demon’s would-be strangler’s hands. Karras then imposes his will on the demon, taking it out the window with him, and effectively expelling it upon his impact at the bottom of the Hitchcock Steps. Thus, the demon did not possess Karras, but ironically, Karras possessed the demon and kicked it out, in an act of Christ-like self-sacrifice. Nor is there any entertaining of an idiotic corollary, namely, that Karras “went to Hell”, because in Catholicism, “suicide is a mortal sin”. But of course, Karras’ action was not suicide. It was really a form of demonicide – as well as an act of matryric self-immolation reminiscent of the Church’s earliest heroes. If anyone “deserves” Heaven, it is Damien Karras.
2. Not only did the demon not kill Damien Karras, far less did it kill Lankester Merrin. The demon has two purposes: 1) to make witnesses to a possession feel so “animal and ugly” [updated screenplay] that they begin to despise themselves and to feel that not even God could love them; and 2) to kill Regan while Merrin looks on helplessly. This is in revenge against Merrin for an earlier exorcism in Africa in which the priest bested the demon. Therefore, it is essential to the demon’s purposes that Merrin be alive to witness the demon’s “victory” of killing Regan in Merrin’s presence. The demon has a crucial investment in Merrin LIVING long enough to witness Regan’s demon-caused death.
Hence, any idea that the demon killed Merrin is bound to be automatically still-born. Worse for its adherents, Blatty’s novel is explicit on the point. When the demon has seen that Merrin has died prior to Regan’s planned death, it rages at Karras, referencing the dead Merrin, “you [Merrin] would have lost” – thereby assuring the reader that Merrin’s death itself represented a clear defeat for the demon, who never intended to kill Merrin, but rather to humiliate him and crush his faith.
This viewing of this gem of a film ought always to be accompanied by reading of Blatty’s novel. No screenplay can possibly convey all the subtleties of its originating source, and The Exorcist is an exemplary illustration of this principle. One can much better read Blatty’s authorial intentions in the screenplay by contrasting it to the novel. Only then can one see the screenplay’s brilliancies – as well as the important details that it omitted.