Why “The Exorcist’s” Exorcism Failed

William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist certainly is structured around and bolstered by a Catholic point of view. Blatty knows his Catholic stuff. But Blatty himself is something of a speculative theologian, at least in his fiction. In “real life”, on the other hand, Blatty seems to much more conservative, protesting Georgetown University’s invitations to speakers whose values are doctrinally opposed to Catholicism; and waxing devoutly eloquent over Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. However, it is with Blatty the novelist, not Blatty the citizen and churchgoer, that this post will consider.

For example, in shaping Merrin’s character, Blatty went far beyond anything that his partial-inspiration Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin ever said. For Teilhard, the cosmos will eventually evolve into a superconscious “Omega Point” that is really nothing less than the Cosmic Christ of Saints Paul and John. But Blatty adds-on to the Teilhardian view the Jungian consideration that perhaps matter and Spirit are two sides of a single coin, an “Otherness” that can be experienced but not fully intellectually known or defined. None of this is classical, standard Catholic dogma or philosophy.

But Blatty goes even further in his novel Legion, which delves into Gnostic territory with the ideas of a Primal God from which a secondary Being splits off in order to experience physical and ultimately human life, incarnating in and as man – a Being Which turns out to be Satan; who turns out to be “the Angel” – not as a typical demon/fallen angel, but “fallen” by virtue of its primordial mutually-agreed-to separation from God and sinning-living-struggling its way back into the divine sphere of its original unification with God.

And in Legion Blatty writes about the possibility that everyone might possess two souls (perhaps this may be a reification of the novel’s prior suggestion that God has a God-part and an incarnating-struggling secondary part?). And he broaches the amoral notion that JamesVennamun/”Patient X”-“Tommy Sunlight”/the Gemini Killer pretty much gets off Scot-free for his murder-spree sins… while poor deluded, brain-tumor-suffering Dr. Vincent Amfortas is “righteously” tormented by his Doppelganger/”higher self” who hints that he will have a long stay in Purgatory. Dyads, human and divine: again, not standard Catholic theological fare. Thus it bears emphasising:

Definitely these ideas are not standard Catholicism, and some of them even flirt with heterodoxy if not heresy. Therefore it is clear – at least as a writer of creative, fantastic fiction – that Blatty is not an orthodox Roman Catholic. And this trait features in The Exorcist. His own exorcist, Merrin, is a quasi-Gnostic mystic with notions that are, to say the least, “dystonic” to normative Catholic doctrine. Thus we might logically suspect that Merrin’s Catholicism would be more or less spiced with Blatty’s own speculative theology. And it seems that this is the case not only with Merrin, but also with Blatty’s demon, who may or may not be Pazuzu, the ancient Middle Eastern god. In any case, whatever the demon’s name – if it does, after all even have a knowable name – it functions outside of the Catholic “pantheon” of demons-as-fallen angels and servants-of-Satan.

I certainly dismiss as implausible the notion that the exorcism was obviously having at least some negative effect on the demon and I think that the usual examples invoked in support of this idea, e.g.,

the demon’s fury (but the demon is always furious);

the demon’s “fear and loathing” of real holy water (but this is very easily seen as just another “gotcha” trick by the demon);

the demon’s viciously angry use of a crucifix in assaulting Regan (the demon not only has no fear of this most holy Catholic sacramental, but freely uses it to further torment its chief victim);

the demon’s slow abandonment of  its “miracle” of levitating Regan  – coincident with, but not necessarily consequent to – the priests’ command, “the Power of Christ compels you”;

… are at best weak and stretched much too tautly to be taken seriously.

The one clear fact in the stories’ (novel and film) entire exorcistic process is that the demon was not yielding to the rituals, and in fact,  was becoming even stronger and more confident as the agonizing moments and incidents continued:

… manifesting a Pazuzu-statue vision;

causing the full head spin hallucination;

creating the “Mary Karras on Regan’s bed” hallucination;
causing a mini-earthquake and …
the door-ceiling-and Sustagen bottle shattering;

wreaking physical havoc with chairs, bureaus, drawer, and other furniture and objects;

breaking Regan’s medical straps;

levitating Regan herself;

… So, finally, as noted:

the demon’s ever-increasing confidence that it will kill Regan – predicting and promising that she will not survive the rigors of her various demon-induced conditions together with the rigors of the exorcism. Thus,

All through the exorcism’s course, it is a matter of the demon growing stronger as the priests and Regan at best only hold their own.

This is proof positive that the exorcism was not weakening the demon, and more importantly, that the demon was only growing stronger spiritually and paranormally. The exorcism’s only observable effects are to infuriate the demon and make it even more arrogant and confident of its ultimate victory.

If the exorcism was at all effective, then it might be true, as some ritual-supporters maintain, that “Well … some things from the ritual did at least seem to affect the demon”… but this is only true in a negative sense – i.e., the ritual only infuriated the demon, giving it time and space to become stronger, not weaker, and encouraged the demon in its vaulting power and pride.

Even when Regan’s breathing becomes irregular and she is weak and sweating with fever, this is Regan’s weakness, not the demon’s – when, at this point, Regan is physically at her lowest ebb, the demon’s level of power and maliciousness remains the same – producing a vision of Mary Karras and duplicating her voice so explicitly that Mary’s son, exorcist Damien Karras, nearly cracks. So it’s a definite case of: Regan?  – weak, close to death’s door. The demon? – stronger and more determined than ever.

Therefore, to conclude:

The exorcism was not working; and this is perhaps not so surprising, because this demon is a representation not of  standard “Catholic demons” who could be weakened and driven out by traditional Catholic rites. Nor is this demon an ancient Sumerian god – and it is not so treated by expert archaeologist-and-Pazuzu-artifact-unearther Fr. Lankester Merrin.

On the contrary, this demon is a unique Blattian creation, imbued with all the startling, unexpected and alien attributes that Blatty’s theological speculations led to and supported. The demon is an anonymous, alien, malevolent force bent only on seduction, torment, and death, not a standard “Christian” fallen angel.

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