The Exorcist and the Lost Art of Catholic Storytelling

A TV reboot of the 1971 novel and its film adaptation debuts this week, but the deeper religious themes of the original story might be lost on contemporary American viewers.

Ben Daniels plays the priest Father Marcus in the new TV series, 'The Exorcist.' (Fox)

A mother fears that something terrible is happening to her daughter. She hears voices inside the walls of her house and seeks the help of her parish priest—a charismatic man suffering a crisis of faith. He, determined to help but afraid of what he might encounter, reaches out to a world-traveling priest versed in the ancient rite of exorcism. Together, they battle the devil in order to save the young woman’s soul.

The upcoming TV series The Exorcist sounds much like its predecessor, the 1973 film based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, but with one significant difference. The original film was released when Catholic storytelling—with its unique mixture of sinners and saints, violence and grace—thrilled popular and literary culture. The new show, debuting Friday on Fox, will test whether such visceral drama will work with an audience more skeptical of religion and God.

Blatty’s 1971 novel was a breakaway bestseller: a horror story that terrified readers while forcing them to consider eternal questions of suffering and faith. While a student at Georgetown University during the late 1940s, Blatty read a front-page report in The Washington Post documenting an alleged case of demonic possession in nearby Cottage City, Maryland. He wrote letters to the exorcist, a Jesuit priest, who couldn’t divulge details but affirmed that the incident was real. Years later, Blatty fictionalized the exorcism and turned the possessed boy into a young girl. The book’s sales took off, and the classic film adaptation remains, adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing horror film of all time.

At the time, Blatty’s story was the newest entry in a lineage of critically acclaimed, popular works from Catholic storytellers during the 1960s and early ’70s that transcended genres and styles. They included the comedic and grotesque fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the philosophical novels of Walker Percy, the beat-Catholic rhythms of Jack Kerouac, the flawless short fiction of Katherine Anne Porter, the terse but complex writing of the convert Ernest Hemingway, the parish stories of J. F. Powers, and the farcical storytelling of John Kennedy Toole, whose novel A Confederacy of Dunces would not appear until after his death. Not to mention the affecting novels from international shores by the likes of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Shūsaku Endō, and Anthony Burgess.

The era of The Exorcist­ was a time of visible and influential Catholic intellectuals and artists, including two twin prophets of the digital and popular age, Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol. Catholic culture of that period was no monolith, though—contrast the conservative William F. Buckley with the more progressive Thomas Merton. The era even saw the rise of culturally Catholic writers, those who retained the language, metaphors, and culture of the church without practiced belief: Cormac McCarthy, Thomas McGuane, and Robert Stone.

Hollywood knew that stories suffused with God could sell. Some of the highest-grossing films in the years adjacent to The Exorcist contained Catholic storytelling or themes without being preachy. There was the sentimental and optimistic representation of nuns in The Sound of Music, Sir Thomas More’s devotion in A Man for All Seasons, the lapsed faith of the lead character in Rosemary’s Baby, religious hypocrisy in The Godfather and its first sequel, the hard-nosed urban Catholicism of Rocky, and the devil’s violence in The Omen.

Despite this tradition, The Exorcist stands as uniquely memorable for its often shocking portrayal of Catholic redemption through suffering. William Friedkin’s film version of Blatty’s novel is true to its source material, but made full use of the cinematic medium and affected audiences like no other film had before.

The Exorcist takes place near the Georgetown University campus in Washington, where the actress Chris MacNeil is shooting a new movie, and living in a rented home with her young daughter, Regan. In an early scene set to the film’s iconic score, Chris is walking home from Georgetown on Halloween. Leaves cover the street, wind blows the habits of nuns as they walk, and children run by in costumes and masks. Chris pauses when she sees two priests rapt in conversation. Viewers only hear snippets: One man says “There’s not a day in my life that I don’t feel like a fraud.”

The priest is a Harvard-trained Jesuit psychiatrist named Damien Karras, a former boxer who’s severe and sullen. He feels like a failure as well as a fraud. He rarely visits his invalid mother in New York City, and when he does, she’s direct with him: “You worry for something. You are not happy.” Back at Georgetown, Karras feels broken, and admits to a fellow priest that he is “unfit” and, bluntly, worries he’s lost his faith. Meanwhile at the MacNeil home, Regan begins to act strangely. After a sequence of exhausting tests, a panel of doctors is baffled, with one member making the unusual suggestion that Chris seek an exorcist for Regan. She meets Father Karras, who’s taken aback by the request. In many ways, he’s more of a skeptic than Chris: Although she doesn’t believe in God, she believes in hope.

Karras agrees to help, but he immediately feels inadequate: Regan has undergone extreme physical changes. She has supernatural strength. She levitates, has unknown wounds, and mocks Karras with vile profanities. Wracked with guilt over his treatment of his mother, and plagued by his doubts about God, Karras falls prey to the devil’s persuasion. The diocese brings Lancaster Merrin, a frail but imposing exorcist. He has the soul to challenge the devil, but age has made his flesh weak. The film’s climactic battles are riveting yet horrifying: No matter how heinously the devil acts, he’s still inhabiting the body of an innocent girl.

Blatty considered the often obscene, violent story of The Exorcist “an argument for God ... an apostolic work, to help people in their faith.” Catholic writers like Blatty, O’Connor, and Greene knew the important difference between devotional literature—formulaic, full of heavy-handed parables and clichés—and honest stories about God. The former is storytelling bound by dogma and the latter storytelling informed by theology. Great Catholic narratives grapple with suffering and doubt—experiences that transcend the faith and appeal to readers and viewers of different beliefs. These stories dramatized what happened when the spiritual met the secular, when the traditional faced the modern. The best Catholic works succeeded because they documented the punishing road toward redemption for their characters, while acknowledging that sometimes the road reached a dead end. Such themes resonated with believers as well as those who considered Christ more of a metaphor, if anything, than a messiah.

Warner Bros. Entertainment

Now, nearly 45 years later after The Exorcist’s publication, the world of Catholic storytelling is barely recognizable. The writing of cultural Catholics like Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and Junot Diaz is widely lauded, yet their religion is often subdued, or hidden. This isn’t to say that good Catholic writing of the more direct variety doesn’t exist, but it’s little more than a blip on the wider cultural landscape. As the poet Dana Gioia laments, there are more than 68 million American Catholics, and yet Catholic writing “currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts” in contrast to its previously active role “in shaping the dynamic public conversation that is American literature.”

There are certainly notable exceptions of writers telling Catholic stories, among them Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Donna Tartt, Gene Wolfe, Ann Patchett, Dean Koontz, and the recent National Book Award-winner Phil Klay. The occasional film like Doubt manages to dramatize a Catholic world with skill, and even some well-loved characters, like Dana Scully in The X-Files, struggle with their faith. Yet the religion is more often presented in a superficial manner, as when it was lampooned in the “Asylum” season of American Horror Story. Usually, pop culture replicates the creepy iconography (upside-down crosses, saint statues) and tropes (possession) while leaving the deeper ideas behind.

Into this relative void enters the TV version of The Exorcist. Early trailers and teases show a slickly produced series capable of real scares. The executive producer Jeremy Slater says the show “tackles big questions about faith and redemption,” and that it hopes to continue telling the story started in the iconic 1973 film, which still “has a primal power.” The contemporary audience for Catholic writing, though, is very different. Recently, research from Georgetown University found that only a quarter of Catholics attend weekly Mass, with more than half reporting they attend a few times a year, or less. Only 14 percent of millennial Catholics attend Mass every week. In contrast, over half of Catholics attended weekly Mass in 1965—and over 60 percent attended in 1958.

Still, audiences in 1973 weren’t drawn to Catholic stories simply because of their attendance at Mass. The original version of The Exorcist wasn’t a piety test, and Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a set of beliefs. From memories of Catholic school to grandmothers praying with rosaries, the religion tattoos those who grow up within the faith, and offers a worldview that unites the real and the supernatural. In the 1970s, audiences—of all backgrounds—were used to seeing characters in situations where their identity, faith, and culture were essential to the narrative.

The Exorcist got audiences thinking about good, evil, and God while they were being both entertained and frightened. The core of the film is ironically contained in a scene that was cut before the film made theaters, but then was edited back into the re-release. Exhausted from the first round of exorcism, Father Merrin and Father Karras sit together on the stairs outside of Regan’s room. Downcast, Father Karras asks, “Why this girl? It makes no sense.” Father Merrin responds, “I think that the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.”

The best Catholic stories of the past didn’t offer happy endings; instead, they were defined by suffering. The Exorcist TV series arrives with the blessing and burden of being connected to one of the most successful horror films ever made. The novel, film, and show all share essential elements of Catholic storytelling: Faith is often buoyed by doubt. God and grace are mysterious, often impenetrable. Belief does not erase fear, anxiety, and pain from the world—yet belief offers a way forward into and through the dark.