The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

written by Rose

‘The characters lived with me a long time, they haunted me. They are always with me.’  That’s when you know that you have created people you care about.’ William Peter Blatty

William Peter Blatty’s novel ‘The Exorcist’ sold 13 million copies when released. It spent fifty-seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The film shown in 1973 in Los Angeles attracted huge crowds, newspaper journalists and news television channels were focused on the unfolding drama of the films release. Attendants at the cinema were armed with smelling salts for those that inevitably fainted, often a dozen at each showing. The Exorcist became more than a book or film, it became a cultural phenomenon of its time. It was the ninth highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S. and Canada. In 1974, Blatty won a prestigious Academy Award for the best adapted screenplay for the Exorcist.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s horror novels sold millions of copies. Other big sellers at this time were Rosemary’s Baby and Audrey Rose. The exorcist surpassed sales and profits more than most horror novels through the decades. The horror novel was widely accepted at a time of great cultural exploration and huge societal change: a time when people were questioning everything around them, including religion.

The film 'The Exorcist' made $7.4 million nationwide in the first month. Why was the Exorcist so popular? Why did it create such a reaction? It was more than simple shock value and the simplistic idea of a demon ranting obscenities as he possessed a young girl. If one looks at the statistics and numerical data regarding the sale of the book and films, I would argue that there was something much deeper at work that attracted people to the story. Not that the posession idea had anything wrong with it, it was a dramatic way for Blatty to discuss his other ideas in the novel and it did create fear.

The Exorcist can elicit a negative reaction from people who do not read novels in the ‘Horror Genre’. This is partly due to the controversy surrounding the book and film, and the religious themes that in the novel. Over time, many misinterpretations about the novel were passed person to person. But the Exorcist is written like an excellent thriller with philosophical questions and faith being one of the main themes.

The profanities in the book spoken by the demon were viewed as scandalous in the 1970’s. Many found them disturbing. I saw the film version of the Exoricst when I was very young and closed my eyes at the grotesque scenes with the demon. It must be said that Blatty and the film director Friedkin, did not agree on all scenes in the film. There was one scene deleted from the film that Blatty felt was crucial, he felt the short scene explained a great deal of the plot. That scene was between Father Merrin and Father Karras where Karras asks Merrin to explain why the possession may be happening. And his answer is that the demon wanted them to lose their faith in God.

What some may not realise is that William Peter Blatty, the author, was a deeply religious man who said emphatically that he had no intention while writing the Exorcist to create a horror novel that would scare people. Blatty was Jewish but a practising Roman Catholic. Theology held a prominent place in his life, having been taught religion by the Jesuit priests at Georgetown University as a student. He called the priests surrogate fathers, after his own father left the family home when he was a little boy. It was his mother and the priests who taught him about faith and God. Blatty would later state that the priests had opened his mind and given him faith. One could say that if they had not tutored Blatty ‘The Exorcist’ would not have been written. It was the priests who first mentioned the word ‘Exorcism’ to him as a young man in his classes. It was the priests who talked to Blatty and his fellow students about faith and God. While many people might have thought Blatty was using religion and the concept of the devil as a ‘gimmick’ to entertain and scare the reader, this is not the case. Blatty’s main objective in writing the Exorcist was to strengthen people’s faith in God. Blatty stated that he ‘wanted to make a positive statement about God, the human condition and the relationship between the two’. The book, he said, was about faith. To convey his ideas, he was writing what he saw as a detective/suspense novel using his own religious faith to convey the story.

Blatty did use dramatic tactics to influence the reader’s attention, but this would be standard for a screen writer trained in techniques on how to maintain the attention of a film audience. Blatty admits that he wanted to act as if demonic possession was possible in the book, so that the story of faith would have a lingering affect in the reader’s mind, long after reading. Blatty had started his career as a successful screenplay writer of comedy. The only reason that he wrote the ‘Exorcist’ was because his work had run out and he was worried about unemployment. In fact, one can see elements of comedy throughout the novel, especially in scenes with the demon.

The fact that the ‘Exorcist’ was making serious statements about life and religion is worth noting. The director of the film certainly saw that Blatty’s main objective was to talk about faith. Blatty reveals that one of the novels main questions is ‘If the universe is clockwork and man is no more than molecular structures, how is it there is love as a God would love, and that a man like Jesuit Damien Karras would deliberately give up his life for a stranger?’

By understanding the author’s intent and by reading the novel, one can see that the popularity of the novel was not simply grounded in the controversial theme of ‘demonic possession’: rather Father Karras’s narrative creates an emotional response in the reader: the story of Father Karras, a Jewish man and Jesuit priest who’d watched his mother die in extreme poverty. A haunted man, who had lost his faith in God. It’s interesting to note that when reading the novel. Blatty grieved the death of his own mother for a long time while writing the novel. The characters he creates are asking many philosophical and religious questions, discussing mortality, social problems, faith and the fragility of the human condition.

This is what drew such an emotional response in the readers. A priest’s internal struggle with his faith and the story of good triumphing over evil. The novel asks fundamental questions. ‘How does a priest maintain faith in a world where he daily witnesses’ horrors? How does one make principled decisions when their faith is lost? The novel takes the perspective that if human beings have a side of themselves capable of evil, a person can still fight and make moral decisions, and commit selfless acts to reinforce the positive fabric of humankind.

The Exorcist is a tale about good overcoming evil, of faith being found in times of tragedy, people making the right ethical choices in a time of crisis. There are also many other complex themes that I’ll discuss.

The story is set in Washington where Chris MacNeil, a famous actress and her daughter Regan are living in a rented home while Chris works on a film in the grounds of the University. Chris is divorced, her husband appears to have left because he could not cope with her popularity and stardom. He doesn’t take any real interest in his daughter and one of the biggest scenes at the beginning of the novel occurs when it’s Regan’s birthday and her father does not call.

Regan hides many of her feelings of disappointment, she conceals her anxiety about the divorce. She keeps secrets and begins to use a Ouija board and has conversations with a ’Captain Howdy’ through the board. She never discusses her father, in fact Regan is a little girl who hides a great deal. She keeps all her emotions bottled up. Later during medical tests when she begins to manifest symptoms of serious psychosis and mental health issues, it’s presumed that the effect of the divorce has caused her to develop mental health problems, after all the medical tests for conditions are ruled out. The one thing we are aware of from the beginning of the story is that Regan is at a very vulnerable time in her life.

The Roman Catholic Faith

The Roman Catholic religion and having faith as a priest and retaining that faith in the Catholic religion is a main theme. In the story Father Karras counsels other priests who are having problems with their faith. But he himself, is losing his faith in God, having devoted his entire life to his religion. The religious order of men, the Jesuits were founded in 1540. They work in different occupations, as teachers, spiritual directors, researchers and parish priests. They practise their faith daily and are monitored in their roles. In the story Father Karras asks to be relieved of his duties, after his mother's death, as he does not feel competent to help others. Jesuit priests all take a vow of poverty which is another theme in the novel, by taking this vow he is unable to help his mother financialy as she dies in the most horrendous place, a poorly funded mental facitily for people losing their minds. There is little available in comfort as she dies. This is one of the reasons Father Karras feels guilt and shame over his choice of poverty and his helplessness. The question seems to be, why does God allow some people to die or live in poverty with little comfort.

Thanatophobia – Death anxiety and the fear of death

Focus on mortality

Chris loses her first baby to a doctor’s error prescribing medication that had been shown to have serious side effects. Since that event, Chris has a mistrust and fear of both doctors and hospitals. Chris is also suffering from mild thanatophobia, possibly one of the more difficult types of anxiety disorders and one that is often not discussed in society as much as other phobias. It’s the fear of death. It can develop at any age, sometimes after the death of a loved one.

There are many fears associated with thanatophobia. The fear of dying and your existence and personality ending. This is one fear that the character Chris discusses in the book. She describes being frightened of the stillness of death, of her entire personality ending. In one scene Regan asks her why people die, her mother tries to explain the reasons to her.  Thanatophobia can also be a fear of leaving others behind, perhaps family members and loved ones. Another fear that creates thanatophobia is the fear of dying in pain or suffering towards the end.

In the book the Priest Father Karras, is forced to watch his mother die in poverty and while suffering terribly. He is unable to help her financially, as he chose to be a priest and has no financial power. He feels a great deal of shame and guilt over his choice, this in turn affects his faith in God.

However, despite the discussion of these very difficult themes in the book, you can see that even in his worst moments when Father Karras has lost his faith in God, possibly the worst situation for a priest to find himself in, he still helps the other priests around him, even though he is suffering emotionally. He makes the choice to continue being ethical and following a moral code.

Mortality and the meaning of life

The focus on mortality is a prominent theme in the novel. Either people thinking about it, or in the case of Father Merrin, who is so old that he realises he does not have much time left. Father Merrin was based on the British archaeologist Gerald Lankester Harding. Many of the characters are contemplating their own mortality and the fragility of life. They are trying to find meaning, or in fact, looking for answers to deep philosophical questions. Chris is in such a position having dreams about her own death. Father Karras is forced to watch his mother die in horrendous circumstances, putting him in the position of facing his own mortality.

Possession and demonic possession in theology

Obviously, possession is a major theme, in the novel exorcism is featured ‘possession by a demon.’ For the church to agree to an exorcism there must be evidence that it is in fact a possession. There are strict guidelines on exorcisms, and they were revised in 1999. Blatty made it clear when criticised that he was not saying the devil possessed Regan, but that a demon possessed her. Apparently, many people misinterpreted this and felt Blatty had said the devil possessed her. Blatty admits that in the book he acts as though demonic possession is real, as he wanted to use dramatic scenes in order to make this main theme, that of faith to linger in people’s minds long after reading. If he did not have such dramatic scenes, it’s true that the story may not have affected people as much as it did. The novel has very fast paced action scenes. It is very cinematic in the way that it is written.

The idea of demonic possession has been in religion and been documented throughout history in religious text throughout the ages. Of course, in earlier times, as mentioned in the novel, people with mental health issues may have been seen to be ‘possessed.’ In more modern times, often people who were viewed as possessed are diagnosed with mental health conditions. In the novel, Father Karras, on first learning about Regan’s dilemma, believes exorcisms belong in the dark ages. It’s only as he sees the evidence with his own eyes, that he believes other powers may be at work. But in fact Blatty was using the exorcism to show how faith can be regained and how despite adversity a person can still make a choice to help others.

Mental Health and society problems

Poverty and the social differences between how the social classes live is discussed in the book. Father Karras’s mother grew up with his mother in serious poverty. His mother lives in a rough neighbourhood with many social problems including crime. The streets are shown with homeless people, some drinking, some not. Society’s problems are laid bare in the novel as Father Karras visits places around the city.

This is juxtaposed with the nice beautiful home of the actress and her daughter who live in a very wealthy area and have staff to help them with everything.

Mental health problems are frequently discussed with Father Karras, who writes psychiatric papers and tries to help people cope with mental health issues and illnesses.


Another theme is the loneliness of the priesthood. In the book many young priests struggle with having no partner and feeling alone, unable to express their feelings to other priests. They are afraid of developing strong friendships in case it is viewed negatively. Father Karras is a counsellor who has written many psychiatric papers about mental health issues, his door is always open to priests if they have an emotional problem, loneliness is one of the frequent problems he sees in the priesthood every day.

Chris, though always with her daughter and staff, also suffers her own loneliness. In the book she must cope without a male partner. She struggles to talk to others about her own feelings except Burke the film director who later dies isolating her even more. Regan has moved into a rented home without her usual friends, her father has left, and she is also very lonely. She has no real friends in the area they have moved into and obviously misses her father though she never mentions him.

The fragility of the human condition and making ethical choices despite a personal crisis

The novel theorises that human beings have a primitive side, this side that may make human beings capable of great wrongdoing or evil. However, Blatty appears to say that any thoughts of evil or harm can be combated, despite the fragile human condition. The novel states that that people can make ethical and moral choices, even in a time of great personal crisis. And ultimately despite evil existing in the world, acts of divinity, or human acts of kindness and sacrifice will always be made by human beings and thus, evil will never win. That good can triumph over anything bad. He argues that ultimately Father Karras’s sacrifice demonstrates that there is something else other than us being merely flesh and blood, that something powerful and good exists in the world and that it’s acts like Father Karras’s that prove evil will never win.