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Who’s the Star of The Exorcist?

Having already covered “is this a demon or is it just a crazy pregnant lady?” of “Rosemary’s Baby,” I thought I’d write about a similar book – namely, “is this a demon or is it a pre-pubescent girl” in “The Exorcist.”

Having seen The Exorcist when I was 12 (don’t ask) and was then scared out of my mind, convinced I was next on Satan’s checklist, reading the book as an adult seemed like not as big a deal.

Actually, reading it was more horrifying than watching the movie as a 12-year-old girl.

I’ll spare you the plot lines since you already know them. On second thought, I HAVE to let you in on a bit. It goes a little something like this:

  • Divorced single mother/famous actress Chris McNeill takes a role that brings her daughter and entourage (i.e. housekeepers and secretary) to tony Georgetown in Washington, DC.
  • Georgetown U. Jesuit Priest/psychiatrist Fr Karras experiences a crisis of faith brought on by guilt after his mother dies.
  • Chris indulges her daughter, Regan, out of guilt over Regan’s absent father and doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that Regan, nearly an adolescent, still has imaginary friends – and a new one in particular called Captain Howdy.
  • Captain Howdy is Satan.
  • Regan becomes possessed by Satan, does horrible vulgar things with a crucifix, and after consulting with doctor after doctor, atheistic though traumatized Chris turns to her last hope, Fr Karras, to help her daughter.

I don’t know quite why the book disturbed me more. For one thing, the vernacular which might’ve been edgy in its day, i.e., “What the freak!” or “That’s bullshit!” (I’m leaving out Regan’s/Satan’s edgy vernacular here) now seems quite dated. But it’s forgivable because the characters are quite well-written and each have their own voice, motives, backstories. Chris is dealing with guilt over being a single mother to a sick girl while being offered the job opportunity she’s always wanted. Fr Karras has questions just like most of us about God, the devil, and whether either exist. (I never knew why author William Peter Blatty made Fr Karras a Greek man, as I’d imagine he’d probably then be Greek Orthodox instead of Roman Catholic, but perhaps that’s another reason for his existential suffering. Or maybe Blatty overlooked it.)

And then there’s Regan – by all accounts a sweet, well-adjusted, if rather average kid. Which makes the doctors scratch their heads (and grab their nethers in agony when Regan attacks) when she almost overnight yells out not only obscenities but also speaks with a vocabulary far beyond that which she would know. And has superhuman strength which would be impossible for any young girl, regardless of her mental illness. If she indeed does have a mental illness.

Chris blames herself and her single-parent household for Regan’s outbursts, until it becomes clear that this is more than just the rantings of a troubled girl. Even so, this was published in 1971, when divorce was far more uncommon, so it’s easy to see why the (all-male) doctors insist that Regan is acting out for exactly the reasons Chris feels guilty.

But the star of this book is not the starlet, Chris McNeill, nor Regan, nor even Satan. I will leave it to you to figure out who this person is, but I’ll give you a hint – it’s the character who undergoes the most change in the novel. You may already know who I’m talking about, though it’s a great read to find out. Just make sure all the lights are on.