The year is 2012. We are surrounded by vampires- most of them ridiculously good looking. Werewolves are largely misunderstood, but still manage to find the time to work on their abs in between bouts of angst ridden brooding. The world’s most watched television drama is about a zombie apocalypse. Three of this year’s most successful animated movies center around a young boy who can speak to ghosts, a dead dog brought back to life and a luxury resort for monsters run by Count Dracula.
Horror has become a pop culture staple, never more so than when it comes to demonic possession. In the last year alone we’ve been subjected to The Rite, The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism and The Possession. Yup, we’re surrounded by horror. And we love it.
But in 1971, the world was a very different place. Horror was predominantly escapist fantasy for teenage boys featuring classic movie monsters, things from outer space and scantily clad 50 feet tall women. Then along came a book that changed everything. That book was called The Exorcist and it taught us that horror was real, that it was lying in bed, upstairs. Waiting.
Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells was the perfect
soundtrack to the movie and continues to be haunting.
41 years hence, The Exorcist may no longer be as shocking and visceral a read as it was when it was first published, but it still remains one of the greatest horror novels ever written. As the New York Times Sunday Book Review memorably put it, “The Exorcist is to most other books of its kind as an Einstein equation is to an accountant's column of figures”.
The Exorcist created the original blueprint for what has now become Demonic Possession 101: young, innocent girl is possessed by malevolent demon and is then exorcised by Catholic priest. But its power lies not in its fairly linear plot, but rather in its tone, manner and immensely compelling style. The Exorcist is not a horror novel written in a literary style. It is a literary novel that just happens to be terrifying.
William Peter Blatty shuns fast and easy thrills in favour of slow paced, simmering characterization. The book’s three principle protagonists - conflicted Jesuit priest Damien Karras, traumatized actress Chris MacNeil and her possessed daughter Regan all become living, breathing people that you actually find yourself caring about. The book’s titular character, Father Lankester Merrin only really joins the proceedings in the last 50 pages, yet at no point preceding this does one feel the need for things to get a move on.
While the 1972 film (as brilliant as it was) relied largely on visual shock tactics to deliver most of it scares, the book is more restrained and instead worms its way into your psyche far more insidiously. It is far more than a simple tale of good vs. evil and raises some profound questions regarding the nature of evil, faith and God himself.
Given the increasing amounts of real world horror that we are exposed to these days and the resultant nonchalance with which we have come to treat it, The Exorcist may no longer pack as terrifying a punch as it did all those years ago. However, its message and its underlying implications have never been more relevant than they have today. Is an emaciated, foul mouthed, head spinning little girl the only manifestation of demonic possession? What about the child molester? The rapist? The murderer? The terrorist? The man who shoots his neighbour over a parking space?
We often talk about how the world we live in ‘is going to hell’. The Exorcist raises the chilling possibility of that particular metaphor being a little too literal for comfort.
Is The Exorcist ‘the scariest book ever written’? Probably not. But is it one of the most disturbing? Most definitely.Ultimately, the book’s power lies not in its ability to make you want to sleep with the light on (though it’ll do that as well, trust me) but instead in its ability to make you think about your own particular belief system- or lack thereof.
In his poem The Generous Gambler, Charles Baudelaire famously wrote “the most exquisite of the Devil’s wiles is persuading us that he does not exist”.
The Exorcist reminds us that not only does The Devil exist, but that he’s waiting for you. In that little room. Just up those stairs…
John Thangaraj is 34 years old, and spends most of his time reading comics, listening to obnoxiously loud metal and playing with his dog (who does not like the obnoxiously loud metal). He also occasionally finds the time to work, though given that he works in advertising, the actual definition of ‘work’ is ambiguous at best. Having been traumatized by his parents at the tender age of 7 by being made to watch The Omen, The Exorcist and Salem’s Lot in quick succession, he has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with horror and fantasy. His favourite authors include Stephen King, Road Dahl, Bill Bryson and Neil Gaiman. He thinks The Lord of the Rings rules and The Fountainhead sucks.