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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Losing Man Card Reading The Exorcist...

I gotta admit, I have never been much of a horror film or book fan. Maybe, it goes back to my early high school days when I saw Friday the 13th in the same theater back-to-back with a friend (who wanted to see it again!), and I almost jumped out of my skin twice during the same opening scene in the lake, when the rotting corpse jumps out of the water and grabs the girl in the canoe from behind.  It went downhill from there!

In fact, I was never into the gore and slasher films.  My idea of horror movies growing up were the black and white Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney films, that I still enjoy today.

Therefore, I didn't get into the Halloweens, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13 Parts 2, 3, The Final Chapter, the post final chapter, etc., etc., like many of my peers, or anything with "Living Dead " or "Zombie" in its title and I was too young to watch The Exorcist (although, I did watch it years later on TV and also watched the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Psycho II, because of friends; peer pressure!)

I've always been more into psychological thrillers myself and some of my favorite movies include Silence of the Lamb and Seven, which are scary in their own right but are not as senseless in showing squirting blood like the slasher films.

As far as reading, I can only recall ever reading one scary book, The Omen, sometime in my late teens or early 20's, which scared the bejesus out of me!

That is, until recently.

While on vacation with my family in Sanibel several weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the 40th Anniversary edition of The Exorcist, which had been sitting on my book shelf ever since I got it after watching an interview with the book's author, William Peter Blatty, on a Catholic TV show a couple of years ago.

The book, by the way, is an amazing read that was on the NY Times best sellers list for 57 consecutive weeks and number one for 17 weeks in 1971.  And, the movie release two years later caused an upheaval in Chicago and Kansas City, among other places, where police had to use tear gas when movie-goers waited in line for hours and rushed into theaters, in one case by using a battering ram to gain access through a double side door!  Talk about a phenomenon!

In any case, after starting it during our vacation, I went back to work the next week halfway through the book.  Meanwhile, my wife and children left for Orlando, where my 8-year-old daughter was dancing in a national dance competition, the day after we got back from our family vacation.

That meant I was all alone for the week, and, in all honesty, reading the book at night in an empty house didn't exactly boost my confidence in the manhood department, if you know what I mean!

Don't look at me with those evil eyes...
It's amazing how the mind can play tricks on you. One night, after closing the book and turning off the lights, after reading a scene, where the demon inside the 12-year-old girl in the book started chasing the nanny like a snake around the house, I was lying in the darkness and suddenly had to wrap my legs tightly with the blanket; just in case a snake slivered into my room without my noticing and climbed into bed with me!

Let's just say, I wasn't exactly feeling like William Wallace, aka Braveheart, at that point (and, at the risk of losing my man card, was probably not the image of 'protector of the homestead' that my wife envisioned when we got married).  In fact, the fear made me laugh internally (as I tried to convince myself that it was just a novel!) but, shortly afterwards, I found myself praying to my mommy; the Blessed Mother!

A note of interest; I was close to slobbering like the woman looking into the camera in The Blair Witch Project, which I happened to watch with my wife and it freaked us out.

What makes The Exorcist so alarming is that it is based on a real life case that made national headlines in the late 1940's, which Blatty came across while in college.

In 1949, a boy identified by the Church as Roland Doe, but in more recent years was identified as Robbie Mannheim; a 13-year-old only child living in Maryland with his German Lutheran Christian family, who is said to have had very few friends his age, started using a Ouija board, apparently to try to contact a dead aunt who he was close to.

The case is said to have been recorded in the journal of the attending priest, Fr. Raymond Bishop, who was called in after all other medical and psychiatric treatments were exhausted, as well as a failed attempt at a Lutheran rite exorcism, under auspices of the Episcopal Church.

The boy was taken to Georgetown University Hospital, where Fr. Bishop and several other Jesuit priests struggled for several weeks until finally, after about thirteen attempts, the demon was apparently expelled in a loud noise that was reportedly heard throughout the hospital.

The boy fully recovered and had no recollection of what had happened.  He went on to live a full life and eventually got married, had children and became a grandfather.

The Exorcist starts off with an opening scene of an archaeologist in Northern Iraq, Fr. Lankester Merrin, making a discovery of an amulet with the image of a demon that he once battled in an exorcism years prior. Merrin concluded the demon was back for revenge.

It then jumps to the story of an only child, like Roland Doe, who spends hours playing alone and starts using a Ouija board to entertain herself.

The battle of good v. evil...
In this case, it's a beautiful girl, Regan MacNeil, just shy of her 12th birthday, and living with her actress mother, Chris MacNeil, in Georgetown, where the latter was filming a movie.

Through the Ouija board, Regan starts a relationship with what was believed to be an imaginary friend named Captain Howdy.

At first, the mother began hearing rapping on the walls and ceiling at night and thought it was rats in the attic.  She tells her live-in handy man to put up mouse traps, despite his insistence that the attic was clean.

Soon, other supernatural activities began to unfold, heavy furniture is found moved in her room, extraordinarily chilling temperatures and foul odor emanating from the room, Regan's bed shaking involuntarily and she starts claiming Captain Howdy wanted to hurt here.

In the meantime, acts of desecration and, what appears to be rituals used in Black Masses, conducted by devil worshipers, began to appear at a nearby Catholic parish.  

As Regan's demeanor continues to deteriorate, the mother starts taking her to doctors, who examine her, give her drugs and when they fail to work, they administer more tests and drugs, and then more and more tests, until they send her for to a specialized psychiatric clinic, where doctors and experts check her for all sorts of possible illnesses, which ends in frustration.  At that point, just when the mother is at wit's end, someone suggests an exorcist.

After long weeks of sleepless nights and concern for her daughter, who doesn't seem to be getting any better, Chris MacNeil doesn't know where to turn.  Despite being an Atheist, she decides she has no choice and turns to a priest that she has seen around the Georgetown University campus, who happens to be a psychiatrist, in hopes of getting an exorcism performed on her daughter.

Meanwhile, the Jesuit priest, Fr. Damian Karras, is having his own crisis in faith, after his mother's death, and refuses to believe the girl is possessed, instead thinking, like some of the previous experts, that it could be psychological.  But, seeing the child withering away, and after, among other things, hearing the child speak in foreign languages, including a recording where she spoke English in reverse, and letters spelling, 'Help Me' appearing on her chest, he decides to convince the Bishop to approve an exorcism (Do you blame him?), if only to help the child psychologically come out of her ailment through the power of suggestion.

To cut to the chase, the Bishop agrees but calls on an experienced exorcist to perform the ritual, instead of Karras.

The man who came to dinner...
On a rainy night, as the demon ranted and raved from Regan's bedroom, shouting obscenities and insults, while strapped to her bed, Karras and Chris are having coffee in the kitchen, both exhausted due to lack of sleep and mental stress, when they hear the doorbell ring. As Chris looked out the living room window to see who it was, she saw him; a tall elderly man dressed in a black raincoat and hat, holding an umbrella and carrying a black bag. You guessed it; Fr. Lankester Merrin!

I must admit, the book is harsh at times.  Aside from the exorcism itself, and the graphic descriptions of the vomiting, defecating and unbearable stench, some of the things Blatty vividly depicts are shocking, especially his descriptions of the rituals of the Black Mass and sexual behavior that the demon, using Regan's body, engages in.  But, as I mentioned earlier, it is a riveting and compelling read; a true page turner that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

As a matter of fact, while the movie, whose screenplay was also written by Blatty, mostly focused on the exorcism itself, in the book, the exorcism is but a small part towards the tail end of the story.  Instead the novel concentrates on the characters and the situations, including a murder and it's subsequent investigation, leading up to the final battle between good and evil; i.e. the priests versus the demon.
After the first session with the possessed child, Blatty writes a poignant monologue by Fr. Merrin (that the author later admits to having taken from a sermon by Cardinal John Henry Newman), where, in a conversation with Fr. Karras, the elderly priest reflects on a time in his own life where he lost his faith and doubted in God's existence (not knowing that Karras was going through the same thing).  But it was there, Merrin concluded, where true love (and thus faith) is tested. Blatty writes:
"... How many husbands and wives," Merrin uttered sadly, "must believe they have fallen out of love because their hearts no longer race at the sight of their beloveds.  Ah, dear God!"  He shook his head.  And then he nodded.  "There it lies, I think, Damien... possession; not in wars, as some tend to believe; not so much; and very rarely in extraordinary interventions such as here... this girl... this poor child.  No, I tend to see possession most often in the little things, Damien: in the senseless, petty spites and misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the wives.  Enough to these and we have no need of Satan to manage our wars; these we manage for ourselves... for ourselves."  
The truth is that evil exists.  Whether it manifests itself in demonic possessions, which are extremely rare, or in the actions of a deranged person, like those that go on deadly shooting rampages, or in the thoughts that lead a pious man to sin, is just a matter of semantics in the unfolding story of the human race.

We all have to battle our own demons; the evil that lies within our heart.  It is not the one that we choose to do intentionally for the sake of wickedness, but the sloth, indifference, neglect, selfishness and yes, fear that often destroys marriages, relationships and self-esteem and eventually leads us away from God.

Without giving away the ending, suffice to say, the battle was fierce and, at least for me, came to an unexpected ending, and while I was happier than the Geico piglet with his head out the car window when my family came home at the end of that week, and not just because I missed them, I found comfort, as reflected on the words coined famously by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."

Of course that's not to say, I don't respect evil spirits (just in case, there are any looking for victims to haunt; we're good, right?) but, in any case, I would recommend The Exorcist to any red blooded adult male, who thinks of himself as courageous but may want to check if their man card hasn't expired.

As far as mine, where do I apply for a new man card again?...


Elisa said...

Like you, I have never been interested in horror films or books, and I think I will not see or read "The Exorcist" due to the graphic images/descriptions you mention. I have seen "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" which is not nearly as graphic and scared me plenty.

I would not worry about your man card; your faith will serve you well with courage if you are ever in the presence of true evil.

Carlos Espinosa said...

Thank you, Elisa.
It is pretty strong.
From what I've read, Blatty wanted to show the true evil and horror of a demonic possession.
The characters are real, in that all have their own internal weaknesses, but in the end, sacrifice triumphs over selfishness and, as St. John says in his first letter, love "not in word or speech, but in truth and action" triumphs over evil...
God bless...