Forty years of “The Exorcist”
In 1971, William Peter Blatty released a novel which would go on to reshape the face of contemporary American horror. Based on the 1949 exorcism of Robbie Mannheim, performed by Jesuit priest William S. Bowdern, a former teacher at St. Louis University and St. Louis University High School. “The Exorcist” was released by Harper & Row, and would, of course, inspire the Academy Award-winning film of the same name which many consider to be the scariest movie of all time.
Blatty first heard of the exorcism while he was a student in the Class of ’50 at Georgetown University. He based the character of Father Merrin on British archeologist Gerald Lankester Harding, whom he had met in Beirut (Lankester had excavated the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found).
From Wikipedia (spoilers ahead, in case you were raised in a cave and have never read or seen the story):
“An elderly Jesuit priest named Father Lankester Merrin is leading an archaeological dig in northern Iraq and studying ancient relics. Following the discovery of a small statue of the demon Pazuzu (an actual ancient Assyrian demigod) and a modern-day St. Joseph medal curiously juxtaposed together at the site, 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 living with her famous actress mother, Chris, becomes inexplicably ill. After a gradual series of poltergeist-like disturbances, she undergoes disturbing psychological and physical changes, appearing to become “possessed” by a demonic spirit.
After several unsuccessful psychiatric and medical treatments, Regan’s mother turns to a local Jesuit priest. 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.
After consultation with the Jesuit president of Georgetown, the bishop appoints the experienced Merrin, recently returned to the States, to perform the exorcism and allows the doubt-ridden Karras to assist him. The lengthy exorcism tests the priests, both physically and spiritually. After the death of Merrin, the task ultimately restores Karras’ faith, leading him to give his own life to save Regan’s.”
“The Exorcist” has inspired many demonic-possession books and films over the years, but none has ever come close to capturing the horrific atmosphere and spine-tingling terror that the original evokes. The 1973 feature film version of Blatty’s novel is till considered one of Hollywood’s most nerve-shattering horror films of all time, holding up every bit as much today as it did upon it’s release almost four decades ago. On October 31, 2010 (Halloween day), Cemetary Dance released a special omnibus edition of “The Exorcist” and its sequel “Legion”, signed by Blatty (ISBN 978-1587672118) – a limited edition of 750 copies (with an additional 52 leatherbound copies), it is now out of print.
Happy birthday, Regan!