WIAC: The Exorcist (1973)

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

WIAC: The Exorcist (1973)

It is Tuesday, December 25th, 1973 and in twenty-four hours the world will change when The Exorcist initially opens at twenty-four theaters across the United States.  The script was adapted by William Peter Blatty from his 1971 novel of the same name.  The book, inspired by the 1949 exorcism case of Roland Doe, deals with the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and her mother's desperate attempts to win back her child through an exorcism conducted by two priests.  The film will earn 10 Academy Award nominations, winning two (Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay), and losing Best Picture to The Sting.  It will became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, grossing over $441 million worldwide.  It is also the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.  Forty years later and this is still one of the best horror movies ever made in my opinion.

But before that happens we will need to know what came before this monumental film hit the big screen.  So let us explore the literature and films that proceeded to see how lightning got captured in a jar.

Exorcism in the real world:

Exorcism (from Greek exorkismos - binding by oath) is the practice of evicting demons or other spiritual entities from a person or an area they are believed to have possessed.  Depending on the spiritual beliefs of the exorcist, this may be done by causing the entity to swear an oath, performing an elaborate ritual, or simply by commanding it to depart in the name of a higher power.  The practice is ancient and part of the belief system of many cultures and religions.

Requested and performed exorcisms had begun to decline in the United States by the 18th century and occurred rarely until the latter half of the 20th century when the public saw a sharp rise due to the media attention exorcisms were getting.  There was “a 50% increase in the number of exorcisms performed between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s”.1

Since the novel and film deal with Catholic priests performing the ritual I will limit myself to only that belief system but there are rituals for exorcism in most of the world religions.  In Catholic Christianity, exorcisms are performed in the name of Jesus Christ.  A distinction is made between a formal exorcism, which can only be conducted by a priest during a baptism or with the permission of a Bishop, and "prayers of deliverance"2 which can be said by anyone.

The Catholic rite for a formal exorcism, called a "Major Exorcism", is given in Section 11 of the Rituale Romanum.  The Ritual lists guidelines for conducting an exorcism, and for determining when a formal exorcism is required.  Priests are instructed to carefully determine that the nature of the affliction is not actually a psychological or physical illness before proceeding.

In Catholic practice the person performing the exorcism, known as an exorcist, is a consecrated priest.  The exorcist recites prayers according to the rubrics of the rite, and may make use of religious materials such as icons and sacramentals.  The exorcist invokes God—specifically the Name of Jesus—as well as members of the Church Triumphant3 and the Archangel Michael to intervene with the exorcism.  According to Catholic understanding, several weekly exorcisms over many years are sometimes required to expel a deeply entrenched demon.

In general, possessed persons are not regarded as evil in themselves, nor wholly responsible for their actions.  Therefore, practitioners regard exorcism as a cure and not some kind of punishment.  The Catholic rite usually take this into account, ensuring that there is no violence to those possessed, only that they be tied down if deemed necessary for their own protection and that of the practitioners.

Solemn exorcisms, according to the Canon law of the Church, can be exercised only by an ordained priest (or higher prelate), with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness.  The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) enjoined: "Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite."  Things listed in the Roman Ritual as being indicators of possible demonic possession include: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge; supernatural abilities and strength; knowledge of hidden or remote things which the possessed has no way of knowing; an aversion to anything holy; and profuse blasphemy and/or sacrilege.

The Exorcism of Roland Doe:

The exorcism of Roland Doe refers to events surrounding the supposed demonic possession and exorcism of an anonymous American boy, which occurred in the late 1940s.  Roland Doe is the pseudonym assigned to the exorcized boy by the Catholic Church.  Later the pseudonym was changed by author Thomas B. Allen to "Robbie Mannheim" and the subsequent supernatural claims surrounding those events went on to inspire the 1971 novel The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and the 1973 film adaptation, as well as Thomas B. Allen's 1993 historical account Possessed, a second edition of it in 1999, and the 2000 film by the same name, based on Allen's book.

Most of the information regarding "Roland Doe" and the events surrounding his alleged possession and exorcism comes from a diary kept by the attending priest, Fr. Raymond Bishop.  At the time of the alleged events (circa mid-1949) several newspaper articles printed anonymous reports.  These were later traced back to the family's former pastor, the Reverend Luther Miles Schulze.  The pseudonym "Roland Doe" was assigned by the Catholic Church to the boy in question.  Doe has no memory of being possessed.

Thomas Allen released his book Possessed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of The Exorcist.  The book is based on two sources; Bishop's diary and the testimony of Fr. Walter H. Halloran.  Halloran was one of the last surviving eyewitnesses of the events and participated in the exorcism.

Roland was born into a German Lutheran family.  During the 1940s the family lived in Cottage City, Maryland.  According to Allen, Roland was an only child and depended upon adults in his household for playmates, primarily his Aunt Harriet.  His aunt, who was a spiritualist, introduced Roland to the Ouija board when he expressed interest in it.  When Roland was thirteen his aunt died in St. Louis.  Several books suggest that Roland tried to contact his deceased aunt via the Ouija board.

According to Allen's book, supernatural activity began soon after the death of Doe’s Aunt Harriet.  This includes the sound of squeaky and marching feet as well as other strange noises.  Furniture moved on its own accord, and ordinary objects, including a vase, allegedly flew or levitated and a picture of Jesus rattled on the wall as if it was being thumped from behind.  A container of holy water placed near him smashed to the ground.  Nine priests and thirty-nine other witnesses signed the final ecclesiastical papers documenting Roland's experience.

The frightened family turned to their Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Luther Miles Schulze, for help.   According to a report made by Reverend Schulze to The Evening Star, a Washington D.C. newspaper, the boy was examined by both medical and psychiatric doctors, who could offer no explanation for these disturbing events taking place. Schulze arranged for the boy to spend the night of February 17 in his home in order to observe him.  The boy slept near the minister in a twin bed and the minister reported that in the dark he heard vibrating sounds from the bed and scratching sounds on the wall.  During the rest of the night he allegedly witnessed some strange events, a heavy armchair in which the boy sat seemingly tilted on its own and tipped over and a pallet of blankets on which the sleeping boy lay inexplicably moved around the room and slapped people in the face.  Schulze concluded that there was evil at work in Roland, and a Lutheran rite of exorcism would be performed on Roland.

According to the traditional story, the boy then underwent an exorcism under auspices of the Episcopal Church (Anglican).  After this, the case was referred to the Rev. Edward Hughes, a Roman Catholic priest, who, after examining the boy at St. James Church, conducted an exorcism on Roland at Georgetown University Hospital, a Jesuit institution.

During the exorcism, the boy slipped one of his hands out of the restraints; he then broke a bedspring from under the mattress and used it as an impromptu weapon, slashing the priest's arm from wrist to shoulder and causing a wound that required over one hundred stitches.  As a result, the exorcism ritual was stopped and the boy went home to be with his family, where strange welts on the boy's body led to desperation.  The family then proceeded to take the train to St. Louis.  While they were in the city, Roland's cousin contacted one of his professors at St. Louis University, the Rev. Raymond J. Bishop, SJ, who in turn spoke to the Rev. William S. Bowdern, an associate of College Church.  Together, both priests visited Roland in his relatives' home, where they noticed his aversion to anything sacred, a shaking bed, flying objects, and Roland speaking in a guttural voice.  Fr. Bowdern sought permission from the archbishop to have the plaguing demons cast out from the boy.  Permission for Bowdern to perform the exorcism was granted by the archbishop, with the requirement that a detailed diary be kept.

Before the exorcism ritual began, Fr. Walter Halloran was called to the psychiatric wing of the hospital, where he was asked to assist Fr. Bowdern.  The Rev. William Van Roo, a third Jesuit priest, was also there to assist.  Fr. Halloran stated that during this scene words such as "evil" and "hell", along with other various marks, appeared on the teenager's body.  Moreover, Roland broke Fr. Halloran's nose during the process.  The exorcism ritual was performed thirty times over several weeks.  When the final exorcism was complete witnesses reported loud noise going off throughout the hospital.  After the exorcism was over, the boy went on to lead a normal life.

The case also inspired the 2000 movie Possessed, which is said to be closer to the "real" story since it is based on Allen's book.  A documentary was also made of the case, titled In the Grip of Evil.  Another documentary movie was made in 2010 named "The Haunted Boy: The Secret Diary of the Exorcist" where a group of investigators travels to the location in question and uncovers the diary that is said to be kept by Father Bowdern.


The Dybbuk:

The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds is a 1914 play by S. Ansky, relating the story of a young bride possessed by a dybbuk —a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person— on the eve of her wedding.

The Dybbuk is considered a seminal play in the history of Jewish theater, and played an important role in the development of Yiddish theatre and theatre in Israel.  The play was based on years of research by S. Ansky, who travelled between Jewish shtetls4 in Russia and Ukraine, documenting folk beliefs and stories of the Hassidic Jews.

Act 1:  Hannan, a brilliant talmudic scholar, falls in love with Leah'le, the daughter of Sender, a rich merchant. Sender opposes a marriage between the two, as he prefers a rich suitor for his daughter.  In desperation, Hannan decides to study the mystical arts of the Kabbalah, in the hopes of finding a way to win back Leah'le, who he feels is his predestined bride.  When Sender announces that he has found a suitable bridegroom for Leah'le, Hannan drops dead in a state of mystical ecstasy.

Act 2:  On the day of her wedding, Leah'le goes to the graveyard, for the purpose of inviting the spirit of her dead mother to attend the wedding.  She stops by the graves of a bride and groom who were murdered together before their marriage was consummated, and invites their spirits to the wedding.  Finally she is drawn to the grave of Hannan, and leaves the graveyard appearing somehow "changed".  Under the wedding canopy, Leah'le suddenly cries out to her intended: "You are not my bridegroom!" and rushes to the grave of the slaughtered bride and groom.  A man's voice issues from her mouth, saying "I have returned to my predestined bride, and I shall not leave her".  She has been possessed by the Dybbuk.

Act 3:  Leah'le is brought to the home of a Hassidic sage who is to exorcise the dybbuk from her body.  Several attempts fail, and finally the sage calls upon the chief rabbi of the city for assistance.  The chief rabbi arrives and tells of a dream he had, in which Nisn, the long-dead father of Hannan, demanded that Sender, father of Leah'le, be called before the rabbinical court.

Act 4:  The room is prepared as a court, and the spirit of Hannan's father is invited to plead its case from within a chalk circle drawn upon the floor.  The spirit speaks to the rabbi, and tells him of a pact made between him and Sender, many years ago, that their two children shall be wed.  By denying Hannan his daughter's hand in marriage, Sender broke the pact.  The rabbis attempt to appease the spirit, and order that Sender must give half of his worldly goods and money to the poor, and say Kaddish over the spirits of Hannan and his father.  But the dybbuk does not acknowledge that it has been appeased.  Leah'le is left within the chalk circle of protection while the others leave to prepare for her wedding.  The image of Hannan appears before her, and she leaves the safety of the circle to unite with her beloved—presumably, in death.

In 1937, the play, with some changes in the plot structure, was filmed by director Michał Waszyński in Warsaw, starring Lili Liliana as Leah, Leon Liebgold as Hannan (Channon, in the English-language subtitles), and Abraham Morewski as Rabbi Azrael ben Hodos.  The film adds an additional act before those in the original play: it shows the close friendship of Sender and Nisn as young men.  Besides the language of the film itself, the picture is noted among film historians for the striking scene of Leah's wedding, which is shot in the style of German Expressionism.  The film is generally considered one of the finest in the Yiddish language.  The Dybbuk was filmed on location in Kazimierz, Poland, and at the Falanga Film Studios in Warsaw.

Il demonio:

Il demonio is a 1963 Italian drama film directed by Brunello Rondi.  The film premiered at the 24th Venice International Film Festival.

Set in a remote Italian farming village, Puri is very unhappy that the love of her life is marrying another woman.  She tries simple, elemental witchcraft to gain his affections.  She performs a ceremony high on the cliffs above the church while he gets married to try and curse the couples' good luck.  She stalks their home on wedding night, using dead animals to distract the guards.  Is she possessed?  Is she a witch?  Is she mentally unbalanced?

Dressed in black, her defiant appearance and physical presence simply doesn't fit in.  The villagers even believe she's a blight on their crops.  They use a local faith healer to try and cast out the demon in her.  His private ceremony involves trussing her up and then he takes advantage of her.

Throughout the story, many try to cure her, usually with disproportionate violence. As her behavior becomes more and more extreme, their methods also escalate.  The superstitious villagers use simple chants and tokens to ward her off, though her behavior looks just as much like a distraught woman having a breakdown.  Though her spider walk in a cathedral and her violent reaction to nuns and rosary beads appears to be a demonic possession.

The film has an episodic, semi-documentary look and sometimes not much explanation to link the abrupt change between locations or to examine the implications of what has just happened.  But her extraordinary performance and the spectacular rural locations make this uniquely memorable.

Not a proper trailer but it’s what I could find.


Kill, Baby, Kill:

Kill, Baby, Kill (Italian: Operazione paura) is a 1966 Italian horror film by director Mario Bava.  It is known under many titles including Curse of the Dead, Curse of the Living Dead, Don't Walk in the Park, Kill, Baby... Kill! and Operation Fear.

In a turn-of-the-century Carpathian village a series of murders are occurring in which the victims are found with silver coins embedded in their hearts.  The coins are revealed to be talismans placed on the victims by the town witch, meant to ward off the supernatural powers of the aged Baroness Graps.  The baroness has been performing these duties for the ghost of her murdered daughter, who wants to claim the villagers' souls.  In order to free the village from the curse, Dali must find the sequestered baroness and destroy her.

Slant Magazine called it "arguably Bava's greatest achievement", giving it four stars out of a possible four.  Allmovie called the film "an eerie and atmospheric effort that reflects many of the elements that have made the popular Italian director's films so compelling: excellent cinematography and strong performances from the talented cast."  In the early 2010s, Time Out conducted a poll with several authors, directors, actors and critics who have worked within the horror genre to vote for their top horror films.  Kill, Baby, Kill placed at number 56 on their top 100 list.


The Possession of Joel Delaney:

The Possession of Joel Delaney is a 1972 American horror film directed by Waris Hussein and starring Shirley MacLaine and Perry King.  It is based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Ramona Stewart.

Due to a release during the early seventies and its dealing with the theme of possession, many reviewers compare it, some favorably, to The Exorcist, which would come one year later.  The film was entered into the 22nd Berlin International Film Festival.  The Possession of Joel Delaney was the first film for Perry King and the last horror film Shirley MacLaine made.

The Possession of Joel Delaney is a story of demonic possession, much on the order of "The Exorcist," but in many ways more believable.  A young man, played by Perry King, has his body taken over by the soul of a serial killer.  His sister, Shirley MacLaine in one of her better performances, tries to find out why his behavior has so drastically changed, and her quest takes her into the Voodoo underground of Manhattan's Spanish Harlem.  The plot develops slowly but builds to a powerful, unexpected finish in which MacLaine and her two young children are lured to a secluded beach house and threatened by a knife wielding Perry.  This includes one of the most shocking scenes involving a minor in American movies. 

One of the more controversial elements of the film is its ending.  Thirteen-year-old actor David Elliott is shown fully naked during a sequence in which his character is humiliated by the possessed Joel Delaney.

In the March 5, 2004 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wrote about the film and that particular scene, claiming that today it would earn the film an NC-17 rating.  The VHS was released uncensored in 1998.  The new Region 1 DVD reflects an altered version.

No children were harmed emotionally in the making of this trailer.


The Exorcist (Novel):

The Exorcist is a 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty.  The book details the demonic possession of twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil, the daughter of a famous actress, and the Jesuit psychiatrist priest who attempts to exorcise the demon.  Published by Harper & Row, the novel was the basis of a highly successful film adaption released two years later, whose screenplay was also written by Blatty.

The novel was inspired by a 1949 case of demonic possession and exorcism that Blatty heard about while he was a student in the class of 1950 at Georgetown University.  As a result, the novel takes place in Washington D.C. near the campus of Georgetown University.  In September 2011, the novel was reprinted by Harper Collins to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, with slight revisions made by Blatty as well as interior title artwork by Jeremy Caniglia.

An elderly Jesuit priest named Father Lankester Merrin is leading an archaeological dig in northern Iraq and is studying ancient relics.  After discovering a small statue of the demon Pazuzu (an actual ancient Assyrian demigod), a series of omens alerts him to a pending confrontation with a powerful evil, which, unknown to the reader at this point, he has battled before in an exorcism in Africa.

Meanwhile, in Georgetown, a young girl named Regan MacNeil is living with her famous mother, actress Chris MacNeil, who is in Georgetown filming a movie.  As Chris finishes her work on the film, Regan begins to become inexplicably ill.  After a gradual series of poltergeist-like disturbances in their rented house, for which Chris attempts to find rational explanations, Regan begins to rapidly undergo disturbing psychological and physical changes: she refuses to eat or sleep, becomes withdrawn and frenetic, and increasingly aggressive and violent. Chris initially mistakes Regan's behavior as a result of repressed anger over her parents' divorce and absent father.

After several unsuccessful psychiatric and medical treatments, Regan's mother, an atheist, turns to a local Jesuit priest for help as Regan's personality becomes increasingly disturbed.  Father Damien Karras, who is currently going through a crisis of faith coupled with the loss of his mother, agrees to see Regan as a psychiatrist, but initially resists the notion that it is an actual demonic possession.  After a few meetings with the child, now completely inhabited by a diabolical personality, he turns to the local bishop for permission to perform an exorcism on the child.

The bishop with whom he consults does not believe Karras is qualified to perform the rites, and appoints the experienced Merrin—who has recently returned to the United States—to perform the exorcism, although he does allow the doubt-ridden Karras to assist him.  The lengthy exorcism tests the priests both physically and spiritually. When Merrin, who had previously suffered cardiac arrhythmia, dies during the process, completion of the exorcism ultimately falls upon Father Karras.  When he demands that the demonic spirit inhabit him instead of the innocent Regan, the demon seizes the opportunity to possess the priest.  Karras heroically surrenders his own life in exchange for Regan's by jumping out of her bedroom window and falling to his death, regaining his faith in God as his last rites are read.

On October 31, 2010, Cemetery Dance published a special omnibus edition of The Exorcist and its sequel Legion, signed by Blatty.  A limited edition of 750 copies (with an additional 52 leatherbound copies), it is now out of print.  On September 27, 2011, The Exorcist was re-released as a 40th Anniversary Edition in paperback, hardcover and audiobook editions with differing cover artwork.  This new, updated edition featured and revised material, as Blatty writes: "The 40th Anniversary Edition of The Exorcist will have a touch of new material in it as part of an all-around polish of the dialogue and prose.  It also features all new cover artwork and interiors by the artist Jeremy Caniglia.  First time around I never had the time (meaning the funds) to do a second draft, and this, finally, is it.  With forty years to think about it, a few little changes were inevitable -- plus one new character in a totally new very spooky scene.  This is the version I would like to be remembered for."

In addition to the film based upon the novel, in February 2014, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a two-part adaptation of the novel by Robert Forrest produced and directed by Gaynor MacFarlane and starring Robert Glenister as Father Karras, Lydia Wilson as Regan, Teresa Gallagher as Chris MacNeil, Karl Johnson as Detective Kinderman, Bryan Dick as Father Dyer, Alexandra Mathie as The Demon and Ian McDiarmid as Father Merrin.


And to bring it full circle:

The Exorcist is a 1973 American supernatural horror film directed by William Friedkin, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his 1971 novel of the same name.  The film features Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, and (in voice only) Mercedes McCambridge.  It is one of a cycle of "demonic child" films produced from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, including Rosemary's Baby and The Omen.

The film has had a significant influence on popular culture.  It was named the scariest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly and Movies.com and by viewers of AMC in 2006, and was No. 3 on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.  In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry.  In 2003, it was placed at No. 2 in Channel 4's The 100 Greatest Scary Moments in the United Kingdom.

During an archaeological dig in Iraq, Lankester Merrin—an archeologist and priest—discovers a small amulet and realizes it matches that of a statue of Pazuzu, an evil demon Merrin defeated many years ago.  Merrin suspects the time has come to face the demon once again.

In the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., actress Chris McNeil begins noticing strange and frightening behavioral changes in her daughter, Regan, which includes constant swearing and abnormal strength.  When medicine fails, Regan is given a few unpleasant tests, but X-ray results prove "negative" much to the confusion of the doctors.  In reality, Regan is now possessed by Pazuzu, who earlier pretended to be her imaginary friend "Captain Howdy" through a Ouija board.

Burke Dennings, the British director of Chris's latest film, dies mysteriously after falling from Regan's open bedroom window while Chris' secretary, Sharon Spencer, was away from the house.  His murder is investigated by detective William Kinderman, who questions both Chris and a young priest named Damien Karras who has lost faith in God after the death of his ill and elderly mother.  Chris begins to suspect Regan played a role in Burke's death.  After Regan assaults a psychiatrist, the doctors decide that if Regan believes she is possessed, an exorcism may be Regan's only hope into restoring her sanity.  Chris, however, is tentative as she and Regan have no religious beliefs.

Karras agrees to see Regan for Chris but refuses to perform an exorcism; however, further supernatural phenomena force him to accept Regan needs an exorcism.  Karras is given permission by the bishop, who—at the request of the university's president—also hires Merrin to help, since Merrin has prior experience with exorcisms.

Working together, Karras and Merrin attempt to exorcise Pazuzu from Regan—who now refers to herself as the Devil—but the demon taunts them, especially Karras for his weak faith and guilt over his mother's death.  Karras is dismissed after a break, as Merrin knows he is not mentally fit for a second attempt.  Despite this, Karras returns to the room where Regan is now free from her binds and Merrin lies dead.  In a fit of rage he assaults Regan and orders the demon to take him instead.  Pazuzu obeys and Karras throws himself from the window.  He then dies of his injuries, but not before receiving last rites from his friend Father Dyer.

Days later, the McNeils leave for Los Angeles.  They meet Dyer and say goodbye.  Regan remembers nothing, but embraces Dyer after noticing his white collar.

If you have never seen the reaction to this film when it was first released then I offer the following video.



1.  Martin, M (1992). Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco. p. 120.

2.  Deliverance prayer is used for ‘demonic bonds’ that one might call ‘weak’.  It is up to the exorcist priest to discern between the problems that the person is experiencing and the seriousness of the ‘entry points’.  If during the course of this prayer there are significant ‘manifestations’, that means that it is necessary to go on to exorcism (which often has to be repeated several times).  Any priest can carry out deliverance prayer. [TLIG Website]

3.  In Christian theology, the Christian Church, or Church Universal, is traditionally divided into:

  1. the Church Militant (Ecclesia Militans), comprising Christians on earth who are living; Christian militia, who struggle against sin, the devil and "..the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6:12).
  2. the Church Triumphant (Ecclesia Triumphans), comprising those who are in Heaven, and
  3. the Church Penitent (Ecclesia Penitens), a.k.a. Church Suffering or Church Padecent or Church Expectant (Ecclesia Expectans), which in Catholic theology comprises those Christians presently in Purgatory.

4.  Shtetls were small towns with large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.  Shtetls were mainly found in the areas which constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Galicia and Romania.

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