“Exorcist” author reflects on Halloween, demonic possession, and faith

October 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Patrick's Blog

I vividly recall my father warning me not to watch “The Exorcist” movie when it came out in 1973. Not that I was old enough, at just 13, to trundle down to the cinema and see it, but he wanted me to avoid it when I got old enough to go to movies on my own and without parental supervision.

My father hadn’t even seen the movie himself, but he had read the novel by the same title upon which the movie was based, and he told me that the book was truly frightening. He didn’t want my imagination to have to cope with the residue of  horrifying mental images he said the book had permanently lodged in his mind.

Roger that, Dad. I followed your advice to the letter. Thank you. Nearly 40 years later, I can report to you that I not only never saw the movie, I never read the book, and I’m glad of it.

I did, however, make the mistake of reading Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil — or, at least, three quarters of it, before I had to put it down.

Martin’s true-story accounts of demonic possession were simply too disturbing for me to continue reading. This is in part due to the fact that, like many people, I just don’t want or need scenes from such accounts playing themselves out in my imagination at the wrong moments, such as when I am trying to get to sleep in an unfamiliar house or hotel when I am traveling.

Back to The Exorcist. Of course, I know the general plot line and am aware, unfortunately, of major shock scenes in the movie, mainly because of how talked-about it was when it first debuted. Kind of like how, years before I ever saw “The Godfather,” I knew all about the infamous “horse head” scene because everyone was talking about it.

Weird. As an adult, when I did finally see “The Godfather” and it came to that scene, it was as if I had already seen it because of how familiar it was in popular culture.  I figure that this is how I came to know a good deal about The Exorcist, not by reading the book or seeing the movie, but by osmosis.

When the movie came out, as I recall, the television evening news was awash in man-bites-dog reports about how freaked out people were by the movie. I saw plenty of interviews with folks coming out of the theaters, having just seen “The Exorcist,” who were truly  terrorized. That was enough, in itself, to dissuade me from wanting to go and do likewise.

A few years ago, I was chatting about this movie genre with my friend Héctor Molina, who had recently seen “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” It didn’t really bother him. In fact, he mentioned how fascinated he was with the theme of God’s grace and redemption in that movie. But for me, there was no chance I’d see it because, as I explained to Héctor, given how advanced the movie industry has become in the science of special effects and CGI technology, I am quite confident that what I avoided seeing in “The Exorcist” would probably be there in chilling abundance in “Emily Rose.” He saw my point and added that a few others who were with him watching the movie were quite scared by it.

And all of that is my roundabout way of getting to the point of this post. I just read a brief news bit written by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, who, to my surprise, reveals that he hadn’t had the slightest intention of frightening anyone with his work. In fact, he had something altogether different in mind. I’ll let him explain to you what that was.

But for me, at least, I not only will continue to follow my father’s wise advice, I pass it along to you.

Saint Paul said it better:

“[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

That’s what I want for my mind. And for yours.



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37 Responses to ““Exorcist” author reflects on Halloween, demonic possession, and faith”
  1. Fred Conty says:

    I guess this subject is like talking about JFK, all against or all for.
    I believe some people should not watch this movie, but I found it just great. It brings home to me the true reality of what we are up against.
    And it shows to me the mercy and love of Jesus for us how He and his wonderful mother keep us from harm. It also motivates me to pray for all those who are going to suffer hell each and every day, unless I and others pray for them to obtain mercy because they won’t do it for themselves. This is the reason why Mary gave us all of her scapulars and medals, to protect us from the onslaughts of the father of lies, the Miraculous Medal in particular. The Devil hates the church’s blessing and her picture we wear.

    Congratulations on all your great books, especially Suprised by Truth series. These are moving and informative. They are a blessing and all your
    efforts were worth while.

  2. Claudia Román says:

    Hi Patrick!

    I am curious about this topic. I saw recently a video on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P37laTkxFgw) about an Catholic man who has been christian now for 10 years but who was a black priest before converting to Christianity. He said that 90% of horror movies are directed by black priests. I mentioned this to my mom and she said it could/must be true. He mentioned movies like Harry Potter and said, that the spells they cast are on the book they use for their satanic cult which to them is the equivalent of the the Holy Bible for us Christians.

    Do you know anything about this? And should we also stay away from the popular paranormal activity movies? My roommates and I were watching them, because we have fun being scared together and scaring each other with our screams. However, my mom told me, “if it’s not doing any good then don’t do it.” So now that we were suppose to watch the third paranormal movie together, I’m having mixed feelings. I don’t want to let them down and not go but I also don’t want to do things that offend God.

    I think I just answered my question. God comes before anyone else and I should not go see the movie. How can I explain this to them? I did mention to them what this man said about the 90% horror movies being directed by black priests but they laughed and said that was ridiculous. :/ Help.

    P.S. Sorry for the long message.

  3. Catherine says:

    As one who has lived through many exorcisms, I’d comment that the prospect of life without hope for freedom from real demons is much more frightening that any Hollywood-created fluff could ever be.
    Just my two cents.

  4. [Different Jennifer here, but agreeing with the first one.]

    Yes! I have a vivid enough imagination that I really need to avoid images that I don’t want stuck in my head forever. Whether from films or books or what have you.

    That said, with some trepidation I read Matt Baglio’s *book* _The Rite_, and found that what he reported matched very reliably with other first-hand accounts of exorcism. I wouldn’t watch the film if you paid me (and yes I know it has gotten good reviews from reliable sources). But the book is worthwhile if someone needs some basic, even-handed info. Caveat that the reader needs to commit to reading the whole book through to the end.


  5. Jennifer says:

    Patrick, I could not agree more with your father’s advice and yours. I don’t need such images and ideas taking up quiet residence in my mind, only to assert themselves in vulnerable moments and torment me. I know my limits; I know what gets to me, and it’s up to me to guard my heart. That’s not denying the power of God over evil, it’s simply being a wise steward of my own mind and spirit. In my humble opinion anyway…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m very glad to know I’m not the only one who feels that way. Your dad’s a wise man.

  6. Mike says:

    I’m glad to hear you speak of “Hostage to the Devil” in a favorable light. I’ve read that book a few times, and was amazed at how incredibly cunning and subtle evil can be. There were enough of the kinds of things usually surrounding exorcisms in the book, and those were disturbing enough. The truly frightening thing about those accounts in the book is how intelligent demons are, and how much they know about your inner self and weaknesses. All of the possessions in that book took hold over a fairly long period of time, so it wasn’t like a sudden takeover.

    There’s another movie that no one has mentioned, “Devils Advocate” with Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. I really found that movie to be spot on with regards to how evil presents itself as good and then wreaks havoc. There’s some nudity that didn’t need to be there, and the ending is truly ridiculous, but overall the movie is really accurate about how evil works.

    • Mike, a friend of mine saw “Devil’s Advocate” when it came out and his assessment of it was pretty much the same as yours.

      My view is that if evil were to manifest itself in all its real ugliness, no one would be attracted to it. But because it presents itself to us in enticing and attractive ways, we can be so vulnerable to its wiles.

  7. Cindy says:

    I didn’t see the Exorcist due to the negative effects on many, but I did see the “Exorcism of Emily Rose” which was based on the story of Analise Michele who was a devout Catholic and did not get involved in the typical ways causing possession. She was more like a victim soul who God allowed the possession for a divine purpose. The movie was excellent in my opinion and touching. Before her death, Our Lady appeared to her revealing the reason for her possession – to show that the devil exists. Our Lady gave her the choice then in a vision to go to Heaven then or to remain and continue God’s mission. Emily chose to continue despite the horrific suffering laid upon her life. The movie centers on the trial of the Priest who was involved in her case with flashbacks of the events that happened. It was very rivoting and scary at times, but drove one to ponder the depth of their own faith and conversion. I recommend this movie. It is different than the Exorcist from what I gather and more realistic. From what I read, people were wanting Analise to be canonized. There is information about the real story online if anyone is interested.

    • Yes, Cindy, that’s about what my friend Héctor said about how he appreciated the movie’s theme of redemptive suffering. Sounds like a powerful story, though I still wouldn’t go see it myself, not because it isn’t a good movie, but because I don’t want any problematic images embedded in my imagination. In my experience, those images tend to be “time-released” at all the wrong times 🙁

  8. mary says:

    I agree with Michael Domingo- some people need a little wake up call. I may not let my kids watch Exorcist ( or all of it) but a lot of our Christian friends don’t really believe in hell. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if they saw a good film on this topic.
    Being in the film business, I am surprised at how well this 70’s film has weathered. It’s quite well done and the overwhelming display of horror by the possessed girl is countered by the equally well balanced and nuanced acting by the others. It helped to have Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow in the lead roles. In the end, the devil is vanquished.

    I recently read an interesting comment- someone asked why the innocent little girl had to be possessed? The answer alluded to the fact that, for the devil, the girl was just collateral damage. It was really after the old priest, with whom it had a rematch, and it was after the young doubting priest to ruin his faith. It was after the mother, an atheist, to make her despair. The destruction of the girl was of no importance to the devil as a means to its end.

    • Brad says:

      Mary, if you will read Fr. Amorth’s memoirs, you will find the answer to your question about the little girl. You are near to the truth but it is frankly ranker than that. May God bless you.

  9. Amy says:

    I read all of Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil” and found it to be very instructional into the workings of the devil. Never before had I fully realized how the devil being pure intellect, introduces heretical thought into the ideas of man. I would not recommend this book to just anyone, it depends on your sensitivity and where your are in your walk of faith. The stories were really bizarre and disturbing no doubt, but they did not frighten me because I know the power of truth and God’s merciful love.

  10. As per Bishop Sam Aquila, “Although all Catholics should have a basic understanding of the reality of evil, we should also avoid being overly preoccupied with the topic of the devil. The Evil One is capable of using such a fascination as a means to ensnare us – with despair, fear, or discouragement” (from the foreward to “Interview with an Exorcist”). While Father Fortea’s “Interview With an Exorcist,” Father Euteneuer’s “Exorcism & the Church Militant” and Father Euteneuer’s “Demonic Abortion” seem like generally good books, they are not without certain limitations. I believe that the bottom line is that we should first be going to the Catechism &/or its Compendium for an understanding of these topics….

    I have a lengthy daily commute on public transportation, and I do a lot of reading. I mention that, by way of acknowledging that – over the years – I have read “Exorcist: The Beginning,” William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist,” WPB’s “Legion,” and “The Rite” (and seen the respective movies, as well as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”). As I understand them, the works of William Peter Blatty and their prequel are misleading and absolutely NOT theologically accurate. I found “The Rite” (both the book & the movie) to be highly overrated by Catholic sources, who should have known better.

    Like Patrick Madrid, I also put down “Hostage to the Devil,” finding it both frightening disturbingly lurid.

    We can be absolutely assured that only God is All Powerful, and He is absolutely victorious over the devil!

  11. Luke says:


    I’m not sure I see how Howard’s message was “superfluous” to your point. Though, I love you, and I really do, you’re advice, and by extention your father’s, was bad.

    I just caught Raymond’s interview with the author on World Over Live and It seems like you’ve missed the point entirely.

    In all fairness, I truly appreciate your consistency when it comes to these maters. I had the same takeaway with your Harry Poter commentary as well.

    It’s beautiful that our Catholic faith allows for people of good will to disagree when it comes to the gray areas without any Magisterial oversight.

  12. Brad says:

    For the faithful’s edification: the infamous film was based, I believe, on this real event in Iowa:


    But regarding exorcisms in general, I wish more people would read Roman exorcist, Fr. Amorth’s, memoirs. They scare, a little bit, but their purpose is to remind Christians of the unseen world and the help we, must avail ourselves of, in the sacramentals and the Sacraments.

    St. Pio revealed to a questioner that if we could see the demons, the fallen one third of all the angels, “they would blot out the sun”.

  13. Steve C says:

    Here’s a great sermon on “an Evening with an Exorcist” http://www.audiosancto.org/sermon/20081007-An-Evening-with-an-Exorcist.html & another on “Spiritual Flyswatters’ http://www.audiosancto.org/sermon/20080224-Spiritual-Flyswatters.html which I bought holy water fonts & St Anthony Brief after this one haha Will use holy water in hotel rooms I go in now

  14. Kathy says:

    I first saw the book and then the film of “The Exorcist”. It is on my list as one of the best movies ever made. In the end, Good defeats Evil. What’s wrong with that?

  15. Dan Lord says:

    I heard the interview on Public Radio this morning. I like Blatty a lot, but did anyone notice, when he was asked point blank if he really believed in the devil, how he deftly sidestepped the question? I was kind of disappointed. And I’m also worried about the fact that he has now revised the original manuscript. Otherwise, it was an enjoyable interview. Thanks for the post, Pat!

  16. Michael Domingo says:

    I was a fallen out of the cradle Catholic. A deceived Catholic going through the motions of the faith, worshiping with my lips but with my heart far from God and constantly betraying His utmost goodness. However, for me, my job required me to deal with persons who were absolutely wicked. They were not just flirting with evil as I was at the time, but had crossed or slipped into serving it unreservedly. Not until I ran across a transcript of an exorcism in which the demon possessed person quoted the exact same things a person I had dealt with days before had said did I understand that we were not battling flesh and blood but with principalities and powers. At the time I knew nothing about spiritual combat and little of my faith for that matter. As I began to devour spiritual reading on the subject, I came back with a vengeance to my Catholic faith. I have watched the Exorcist, the Rite, and have read Hostage to the Devil, and many other books on the same subject, including all of Father Gabriele Amorth’s books. For devout Catholics who live the sacramental life, I would agree with Patrick’s dad’s advice, but these films or other books dealing with spiritual combat to the spiritually dead may just be the “shock” to re-start their spiritual hearts. I know it did mine–thanks be to God. Our society is completely dead to sin and the spiritual life, it doesn’t even recognize or acknowledge it anymore; however, science can’t explain away these occurrences. Therefore, films and books that present correct theological truths about spiritual combat may be the spiritual medicine needed by some, but that same medicine taken by a spiritually healthy soul may not benefit that soul at all. Caution does need to be exercised in this area; I have seen several programs on spiritual combat that are seriously flawed theologically, especially on television. They typically present “good” and “evil” magic or present evil as equivalent in power to God. For those with curiosity or interest in these matters, I would recommend Father Amorth’s books. For me, his writings opened my blind eyes to a spiritual world that I had been stumbling around in without a clue. Numbers 6:24-26.

  17. Howard says:

    By the way, “In the Grip of Evil” tells the story that was the inspiration for the movie “The Exorcist”. It’s an OK documentary, not fantastic — not least because the mandatory skeptic was not able to come up with anything remotely plausible to say and appealed instead to the atheism of the gaps (“Who knows what science may discover in the future that would completely explain these things?”). She would have been better off denouncing it as a pack of lies from beginning to end, since that is a far more plausible explanation.

    If you do watch “In the Grip of Evil”, make sure to look at the DVD extras. The notes taken by the priest who performed the exorcism contradict the movie in a few places, and the nature of the contradiction puts them in line with sound Catholic writing on the subject.

  18. Howard says:

    By your logic, Patrick, we would keep ourselves and our children ignorant of history. “The Exorcist” may have been the kind of entertainment that makes you jump, but take a visit to the Holocaust Museum and you’ll see what demons prefer to do — destroying souls, sowing despair, ending lives, crushing beauty, corrupting goodness.

    Then again, we would see the same things in any martyrology. Why, then, are the tales of martyrs so prominent in the Church?

    For two reasons, at least. (1) To quote St. Paul, “And where sin abounded, grace did more abound.” (2) We have to be prepared for the inevitable attacks that we will experience.

    If you had read more or better books on demonic possession, you would have seen the same thing. Fr. Amorth’s books, for example, emphasized that demons are not more dangerous in their extraordinary activity than in their ordinary activity, and that the surest defense against either is a life of grace founded in the Sacraments.

  19. Subvet says:

    I saw “The Exorcist” while underway aboard a nuclear sub shortly after the flick came out. The ribald and irreverent comments made by my shipmates and myself probably contributed to my own dismissive view of it. I found the film to be of “B” quality at best.

    Having said that, it does put a welcome emphasis on the redemption of Fr. Karras at the end. Too bad Hollyweird had to follow it up with several sequels.

  20. Neil says:

    *given how advanced the movie industry has become in the science of special effects and CGI technology, I am quite confident that what I avoided seeing in “The Exorcist” would probably be there in chilling abundance in “Emily Rose.”*

    Actually very little special effects were used in Emily Rose. Most of what you see is due to Jennifer Carpenter’s performing abilities and her film is far less shocking than The Exorcist.

  21. kathy says:

    My dad actually *encouraged* us to watch it and watched it with us. I think he was making the point that the devil is real and you need to watch yourself. It worked for me and I don’t remember bad dreams from that movie. I imagine my dad was also praying for us at the same time.

    Thanks Dad!

  22. sally r says:

    Well, I think the Exorcist is worth seeing if you are strong in your faith. It certainly is a very pro-Catholic film, and does have a very redemptive Christian message to it.

    If you ever do decide to see it, I would recommend going on Halloween night at Georgetown University’s Copley Hall. They show the movie there every year. Part of the movie was filmed in the very hall where they show the movie. Some Jesuits were extras in the movie, and the dorm room of Fr. Karras is an exact replica (down to the posters and books) of a very popular priest there. They tell some spooky stories associated with the filming of the movie on campus, and ghost stories from the neighborhood.

    The time I went, the students yelled the exorcism prayers along with the priests – it’s very cathartic and the kids aren’t seeming to mean any disrespect by their participation. In fact, they seem rather serious to me. It certainly does inspire one to stay in the state of grace!!

  23. Stefanie says:

    I, too, detest horror films. Didn’t watch “The Exorcist” until my husband bought the director’s-cut dvd in 2006. I purposely watched it by myself (but NOT at night)– and I listened to the director’s commentary while watching the images. It was amazing. The director refers so much to our Catholic faith and points out the goodness of it. His description of the Eucharist while the screen shows you the consecration at Mass is profound.

    The film is very faith-filled. I found myself kneeling as I watched it. And praying for lost souls afterwards.

    If the ‘yuck’ of it is too much, get the version I described above and play the commentary. Makes the viewing easier to take and hones in on the spiritual battle that is quite real. We are the Church Militant, are we not?
    The priests are the best part of the whole movie. You admire them so much yet are always aware of their humanity. The older priest is a spiritual warrior of old — wise as a serpent, gentle as a lamb. He may have to sacrifice much in order to save this girl’s soul. But all for the glory of God.
    The mom is a mess — she hasn’t a clue about what to do because she hasn’t developed (as Pope Benedict would probably say) her heart-of-faith muscle. The mom — even though she knows that the Catholic way is the only way to help her daughter — tries everything, everything, everything else — drugs, psychiatry — nothing works. The tools that the priests will use are very old and very powerful and very simple. It’s the simplicity of the solution that bends this mom’s mind. When all is stripped away, there is only you and only God. She had either forgotten that or had never been taught (beyond movies perhaps). Even at the end, you are left with wondering whether what occurred will have a lasting impact on the family.

    The dad exists only in phone conversations with the girl (you only hear what the girl is saying). This is a girl who has everything her mommy and daddy have given her — she is pampered and drawn to mystery (the Ouigi board) but is an innocent of the world and of Godly faith. You see the disintegration of the family (parents thinking only of their own satisfaction) and the pain it causes the girl — but it is very subtly done. The camera plays it at a distance in those scenes.
    But as I said, the priest are everything in this movie. The heroism of very-human priests in the face of fighting the devil. My favorite scene is when everyone is quite worn down by days of battle. The mother is utterly in despair. She and the younger priest are sitting downstairs, just beyond the girl’s room. The priest is at the end of his rope – doubting 800% his ability to assist the older priest. He just wants to leave. Get out. He doesn’t belong here, he is too human, too full of weakness. But…he realizes that his office of priest has ordained him to do what he now must do. To do anything less, would be to leave the lambs (the girl and her mother) to the wolves. There is again another subtle change in his demeanor. And slowly he gets to his feet and goes back up the stairs and goes in to confront the beast. It is such an act of courage. Our priests daily do the same but without the Hollywood special effects.

  24. Daniel says:

    Patrick, your father was very wise. I had the great misfortune of finding a late night broadcast of The Exorcist when I was maybe 14. My parents often did not supervise bedtime. Needless to say, it haunted me for weeks. But, God is good. I have a healthy appreciation for the spiritual realities around us. Actually, I am reading Spiritual Combat Revisited now. May God bless you.

  25. Robert says:

    Thank you for your insightful post. Like you, I haven’t read or seen “The Exorcist” for mostly the same reasons. I appreciate the short article by Wm. Blatty about how he wrote the book out of concern for souls. I recently read his novel “Dimiter” and found it to be a wonderful story of faith. Blatty’s writing is brilliant and virtuosic.

  26. Victoria says:

    As a Catholic chic born in 1972 and went to a Polish Roman-Catholic church from grade 1-6, I must admit, I loved scary flicks. I remember watching the exorcist on tv and many other horror flicks on tv only, never theatre and was certainly scared and traumatized. However, knowing my faith a lot more today and how Satan works, I discern very carefully what I watch from the past/present. I’m reminded Satan is everywhere and film is his ticket (if you will )to our thoughts and actions. I like a good clean scare if there is such a thing. What lies beneath was good. 6th sense. Halloween. The fog.

    I hope you’re well there, Patrick. Had to deactivate FB once again. My iPhone died. Lost EVERYTHING No computer. No back-up. No kidding. Then my 4yr old was hospitalized for severe croup -twins got it. And to top off my really horrible week, I prematurely sold my Duran Duran ticket. Anywhoo, I’m better now after “dealing” with life’s disappointments and uncertainly. :-). Be well.

  27. RobertG says:

    If you are going to watch only one movie about exorcisms, then I’d have to suggest The Rite (2011). Before it came out, I would have suggested The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Those are the only two films in this genre that I’ve viewed in their entirety. The five or so minutes of the Exorcist movie that I reluctantly watched with my fellow high school peers some 20 years ago was enough to scare me away from horror films for a long time (until Emily Rose came out). These films are only appropriate for mature viewing and even then they are not for everyone. I know a person whose faith has been helped by such a movie and it has kept him in line (at least temporarily). Fire and brimstone are not lovely to think about, but they can be effective means to get through to some folks (me not excluded).

  28. Pam says:

    I thought Emily Rose was much better from a Catholic and spiritual warfare standpoint. NonCatholics probably can’t appreciate it as much as we. Like your friend I was able to appreciate it and found it edifying (and I HATE horror films. I REFUSE to watch them). This played out more like a biographical Saint drama almost. Frightening, sure, but so are films of Padre Pio when he is fist fighting the devil!


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