Scariest Books of All Time, Part 3
And rightly so. William Peter Blatty's breakout novel took the long-forgotten ritual of exorcism and brought it into the 20th century is such a convincing way that it became a cultural phenomenon credited with scaring hordes of lapsed Catholics back to the embrace of the Church.
But William Friedkin's masterful film adaptation became so enormously popular (and rightly so) that it now overshadows the book. And that is unfortunate because Blatty's novel tells a much more nuanced and complex story about atavistic religious beliefs and superstition facing off against modern psychiatry, secularism, and scientific materialist reductionism. It was released in an era in which mainstream, traditional religion was being challenged from all sides—by the hippie alternative spirituality that later morphed into the New Age, by increasingly secular science, and by growing secularization within religious institutions themselves typified by Vatican II.
I remember my parents and their friends talking about the long lines outside the theaters, but I also remember plenty of intense theological discussions about God and the Devil as well as tales of people having heart attacks, vomiting, and fleeing during some of the more gruesome scenes. One neighbor of ours banged on our door one night, asking if he could stay with us. He was in his thirties, lived alone, and had just come back from seeing the movie alone when he noticed a number of bricks sliding out of the wall in his basement, scraping loudly, as if something evil was trying to break through. We later learned it was melting ice causing the walls to expand, but that night he was completely convinced some buried demon was coming to get him.
I was only seven when the Exorcist hit movie theaters, and despite my begging, my parents (wisely) refused to take me to see it. Eventually I did manage to get a copy of the paperback and I read it surreptitiously, often under cover of my sheets with a flashlight. Even as a kid I appreciated Blatty's crafty dialectic between members of the clergy (with some saying "It's the Devil! and others expressing caution) and the psychiatrists and doctors (it's epilepsy or some other brain dysfunction)—something that could not be as fully explored in the film as it could in the novel. In fact, the balance is so well maintained that it isn't until the undeniable demonic manifestations take place in the exorcism that it becomes clear that the doctors and shrinks are utterly clueless.
And it's that brilliant dynamic—is it the Devil, or is it just mental illness?—that makes the book so intensely frightening.
If you've only seen the film, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of the book. I suspect you'll be surprised at Blatty's crafty balancing act while also feeling that same rush of horror so exquisitely unleashed in the film.
Not creeped out enough yet? I dare you to read part 4.