By Kermode, Mark
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 127, No. 4374
Last Saturday, while working on a Radio 4 programme to mark 25 years of The Exorcist, I heard a clergyman on the news discussing plans to update the church's ritual for exorcism. To a clearly amused newsreader, the cleric confessed that yes, he was indeed frequently called on to exorcise troublesome spirits from houses or buildings. This intrigued me. Only weeks before, William Peter Blatty, the Catholic writer and producer of The Exorcist, had expressed amazement that the idea of"a real, personal force of evil" had any currency outside the church in the nineties. "I don't understand it," he admitted, when asked why a sceptical modern audience would be scared of his story of demonic possession, or why William Friedkin's film of the novel would still be considered too terrifying for UK video certification 25 years after its first release.
In fact The Exorcist is itself centrally concerned with an anachronistic conflict: the apparent rationality of the modern world versus the archaic theatricality of Catholicism's most bizarre ritual.
In Blatty's story, set in modern-day Washington, 12-year-old Regan MacNeil is beset by a seemingly supernatural illness that turns her into a vomit-spewing head-spinning monster, and is only cured when her atheist mother turns in desperation to a Jesuit priest. "How do you go about getting an exorcism?" Chris MacNeil asks a startled Father Damien Karras.
"Get into a time machine," he replies dryly, "and get them back to the 16th century. It doesn't happen any more . . ."
Blatty's novel was actually inspired by the real-life exorcism of a young boy in Maryland in 1949. Although this now looks more like a case of adolescent hysteria combined with telekinetic disturbance, at the time it was considered a credible example of demonic infestation. Twenty-three years later, while the film of The Exorcist was in production, Pope Paul VI publicly addressed "the question of the devil and the influence he can exert on individual persons as well as communities", concluding: "Evil is not merely a lack of something but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting."
And now, as The Exorcist has its 25th anniversary, the devil is once more getting his 15 minutes of fame on a respectable news programme, sandwiched between items about Iraq and the Irish peace process.
Some of the film's power must be due to a persistent modern anxiety about "a real personal force of evil", but there is more to its eerie appeal than fear. …