Faith, Doubt, and Existential Horror | Part 1: ‘The Exorcist’
By Jerry Smith
A Three-Part Analytical Look at William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogy
Since childhood, I have been an admirer of the novels and films of William Peter Blatty. I first discovered Blatty on a warm August evening in 1990, when my grandmother dropped a then 9-year-old Jerry in front of our local theater to see The Exorcist III. I had very few friends as a kid. When other children were out doing “normal” things, I spent my days and evenings watching any and everything I could get in front of me. Growing up in a pre-Columbine world meant all I needed was a note from my father or grandmother and like that, I was in. Although at 9 years old I couldn’t fully grasp the themes and questions asked by The Exorcist III, it quickly became one of my five favorite films of all time.
Over the years, I grew to really ask myself a lot of the same questions found within that film and when I experienced William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist, similar questions became front and center questions I asked myself. I became a huge fan of Blatty’s writing (he had written the novel The Exorcist as well as writing AND directing The Exorcist III), his ability to craft such profoundly relatable characters was something I held close to my heart. When I sat down one evening to watch Blatty’s 1980 film adaptation of his own The Ninth Configuration novel (1978), it revealed itself: Blatty was a genius at causing us, through his characters, to examine our own struggles with what we do or do not believe. It’s a common theme that runs throughout a lot of his work, but between The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, and The Exorcist III, those themes took center stage, impacting so much of my own life and how I still see a lot of things on the topic of faith, doubt, and of course…existential horror.
When The Exorcist appears in conversation, people tend to quickly jump to the film’s final quarter when Regan is fully possessed and the “Power of Christ compels you!” quotes come out in droves. Though the iconic exorcism scene is one for the books, the journey of everything leading to those moments is what always made this writer feel seen in so many ways. In the novel (and to a smaller extent in the film), Father Merrick tells the doubt-heavy Father Karras, “Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us . . . the observers . . . every person in this house. And I think — -I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.” That statement sums up the entire journey found within The Exorcist. Make no mistake, it is a film about evil and the fight against it, but ultimately it is a story about faith and hope and how sometimes the lack thereof can lead us to find exactly what we’re struggling to believe.
The character of Damien Karras is a deeply personal one to me. A man who has devoted so much of his life to a set of beliefs made everything else in his life second place to that belief system. As his own mother slowly dies, Karras cannot be there for her as much as he should be due to his duty as a priest. When his mother’s health declines, Karras is told that had he went into Psychiatry instead of becoming a priest, he’d be very successful at what he does, and his mother would be okay. While that’s a shocking statement to the reader/viewer, to Karras, it’s already his painful reality. His duty to God and faith has ruined his entire life to the point of being nothing more than a man running from what he once believed. Smoking like a chimney, drinking like a fish, Karras and his faith is a shell of what he/it used to be. When Damien sees a homeless man asking him for change, “Can you help an old altar boy? I’m catholic,” there’s a look of sadness and defeat on Damien’s face. Karras sees the man and doesn’t see a vagrant. What Karras sees is himself, a man who devoted himself to God and faith, and for what?
“Where is God, with all of this suffering?” is the question that continues to go through Karras and all three of the films I’m writing about in this series. What type of God would allow the meek, the sad and depressed, and as the film goes on, the children, to suffer? Karras doesn’t see God in himself anymore and he doesn’t see God in the world of pain. His faith is broken. It takes being approached by Chris MacNeil, who begs Karras to perform an exorcism on her possessed daughter Regan, for Karras to confront his faith and ultimately sacrifice himself, so evil can be put to rest.
Through the course of The Exorcist, we’re led on a journey of redelivering one’s faith in the midst of being faithless. The flip side to Karras is found in Max von Sydow’s Father Merrick character, a man who is steadfast in his faith, showing from the first line he tells the demon inside of Regan: “BE SILENT!” Merrick has no doubt that God is real and that the devil is as well. Typically, Merrick would be the savior in a film or story like this, but as we see, Pazuzu’s manipulation over Karras leads to Merrick having a heart attack and dying. Though his anger and pain get the best of him during the exorcism’s first half, when Merrick dies, Karras knows that it’s his life’s duty to save and to aid in God’s ability to extinguish evil and to save the young Regan.
For his final act of getting the demon out of Regan and knowing that he will most likely not make it into Heaven for doing so while sacrificing himself to make sure the light wins, Karras makes a leap of faith out of the window and down an almost infinite number of stairs to his death. While suicide is not the answer, it’s that self-sacrifice that frees Regan and ultimately redeems Karras and his faith as well.
Blatty’s ability to give us such complex characters like Karras, a man so deep in self-hatred, doubt, and losing his faith while allowing us to go through the trenches of evil to ask the same questions Damien asks himself, is one of the many reasons the author/screenwriter (and director of the next two entries in this series of essays) remains, to this day, one of the greatest writers of all time. The Exorcist has always been billed as “The Scariest Film of All Time,” and while it is quite terrifying, I find it to be something else — I find it to be one of the most profoundly beautiful works of art that exist today. 🩸
Jerry Smith is a film journalist and composer, hailing from the Central Valley of California. For over a decade now, they have annoyed readers of many sites and magazines with an overabundance of Halloween 4 love and personal essays. Follow them on Twitter @JerryisjustOK and visit their website Rainydaysforghosts.bandcamp.com.
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