Was THE EXORCIST Based on a True Story?
I’m of a generation of kids who watched a movie praised by many to be the “scariest movie of all time” and laughed. My mother forbade me to ever see THE EXORCIST and I promptly set out to do just that. Keep in mind my mother was Catholic. She wanted her children to have a little church, and when church busses came through the neighborhoods in search of young souls to devour she was happy to send us on our way, her home empty of little devils for at least one quiet morning of her weekend. Because that’s what parents want: their children in the safe care of trusted men of God, so as they may sleep-in after a long Saturday night of debauchery.
Nothing inappropriate ever happened there. Unless you count disappointment and broken promises. I remember both my grandmother and my mother telling me I was going to see Jesus at church. They referred to the iconography prevalent of most catholic churches of the day. In a Baptist church? Not so much. In the sanctuary I kept looking around for this Jesus guy. How was church, sweetie? He was a no-show, mom!
The film adaptation of William Peter Blatty loses something. It’s the same with all movies adapted from novels. The world of one’s own imagination is far more powerful than anything that can be put to film. They’ll do their best. In more and more movies now, they’ll even come close to matching what you imagined it would be. Sometimes they exceed your expectations, but when they’re off the mark they are way off, and the box office suffers.
Not the case with The Exorcist. You’ve read that people walked out during the movie. Some became ill, even vomiting in the aisles. I have no way of knowing if those claims were ever true, but the word of mouth campaigning for the movie got out and nothing you could say was going to keep people away.
Still, I maintain that despite Blatty’s own involvement with the production, the movie is inferior to his novel. Yes, there remains an element of horror, but in some scenes that have been largely panned, it comes off as unintentionally funny. And that’s never a good thing.
Recognize this location?
Blatty was born on January 7, 1928, in New York City. He was the fifth and youngest child of Lebanese immigrants, Mary (née Mouakad), a devout Catholic and the niece of a bishop, and Peter Blatty, a cloth cutter. His parents separated when he was a toddler. He was raised in what he described as "comfortable destitution" by his deeply religious mother, whose sole support came from peddling homemade quince jelly in the streets of Manhattan; she once offered a jar of it to Franklin D. Roosevelt when the President was cutting the ribbon for the Queens–Midtown Tunnel, telling him, "For when you have company." He lived at 28 different addresses during his childhood because of nonpayment of rent. "We never lived at the same address in New York for longer than two or three months at a time," Blatty told The Washington Post in 1972. "Eviction was the order of the day." Blatty's mother died in 1967.
He attended Brooklyn Preparatory, a Jesuit school, on a scholarship and graduated as class valedictorian in 1946. He later attended Georgetown University on a scholarship, where he earned his bachelor's degree in English in 1950. Those years at Georgetown were probably the best years of my life, Blatty said in 2015. Until then, I’d never had a home. While studying for his master's degree at George Washington University, Blatty took menial jobs. Initially unable to find a job in teaching, he worked as a vacuum-cleaner door-to-door salesman, a beer-truck driver, and as a United Airlines ticket agent. He earned his master's in English literature from the George Washington University in 1954. He then enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he ultimately became head of the Policy Branch of the USAF Psychological Warfare Division.
In 1971, he wrote The Exorcist, the story of a twelve-year-old girl possessed by a powerful demon, that topped The New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks and remained on the list for 57 consecutive weeks. The book sold more than 13 million copies in the United States alone and was translated into over a dozen languages. He later adapted it with director William Friedkin into the film version. Blatty went on to win an Academy Award for his Exorcist screenplay, as well as Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Writing. It also became the first horror film ever to be nominated for the best picture Oscar.
An elderly Jesuit priest named Father Lankester Merrin is leading an archaeological dig in northern Iraq and is studying ancient relics. After discovering a small statue of the demon Pazuzu (an actual ancient Assyrian demon), 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 is living with her famous mother, actress Chris MacNeil, who is in Georgetown filming a movie. As Chris finishes her work on the film, Regan begins to become inexplicably ill. After a gradual series of poltergeist-like disturbances in their rented house, for which Chris attempts to find rational explanations, Regan begins to rapidly undergo disturbing psychological and physical changes: she refuses to eat or sleep, becomes withdrawn and frenetic, and increasingly aggressive and violent. Chris initially mistakes Regan's behavior as a result of repressed anger over her parents' divorce and absent father.
After several unsuccessful psychiatric and medical treatments, Regan's mother, an atheist, turns to a local Jesuit priest for help as Regan's personality becomes increasingly disturbed. 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.
The bishop with whom he consults does not believe Karras is qualified to perform the rites, and appoints the experienced Merrin—who has recently returned to the United States—to perform the exorcism, although he does allow the doubt-ridden Karras to assist him. The lengthy exorcism tests the priests both physically and spiritually. When Merrin, who had previously suffered cardiac arrhythmia, dies during the process, completion of the exorcism ultimately falls upon Father Karras. When he demands that the demonic spirit inhabit him instead of the innocent Regan, the demon seizes the opportunity to possess the priest. Karras heroically surrenders his own life in exchange for Regan's by jumping out of her bedroom window and falling to his death, regaining his faith in God as his last rites are read.
Factual basis for the novel
Aspects of the character Father Merrin were based on the British archaeologist Gerald Lankester Harding, who had excavated the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found and whom Blatty had met in Beirut. Blatty has stated that Harding "was the physical model in my mind when I created the character [of Merrin], whose first name, please note, is Lankester."
Aspects of the novel were inspired by an exorcism performed by the Jesuit priest, Fr. William S. Bowdern, who formerly taught at both St. Louis University and St. Louis University High School.
Recent investigative research by freelance journalist Mark Opsasnick indicates that Blatty's novel was based on an actual 1949 exorcism of a young boy from Cottage City, Maryland, whom Opsasnick refers to using the pseudonyms Robbie Mannheim and Roland Doe. The boy was sent to his relative's home on Roanoke Drive in St. Louis where most of the exorcism took place.
Blatty refers to the Loudun possessions and the Louviers possessions throughout the story, mostly when Fr. Karras is researching possession and exorcism to present the case to his superiors. He also has one of his characters tell a brief story about an unnamed fraudulent medium who had studied to be a Jesuit priest. This story can be found in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 114. 1930, in an article about fraudulent practices by Daniel Dunglas Home.