If you look up a list of the scariest
horror films ever made, William Friedkin’s 1973 movie The Exorcist will most likely be on there. And deservedly so: it’s an absolute shocker
of a film, full of horrifying imagery and terrifying implication. The
Exorcist is more famous as a film than as a book, even though it’s based on
an excellent novel by William Peter Blatty.
This Halloween I treated myself to reading the book and, as a writer, I
learned a lot from it.
For those who aren’t familiar with the
book or film (the film being a very faithful adaptation), The Exorcist concerns the deterioration of twelve-year-old Regan,
the daughter of film star Chris MacNeil.
Initially, Regan’s bizarre behaviour and sickness is thought to be symptomatic
of psychological illness, but the extreme and often blasphemous nature of her affliction
leads her mother to believe Regan may have been possessed by a demon. It falls to Father Karras, a local Jesuit priest
and psychiatrist, to investigate whether Regan is possessed, and to obtain
authorisation to perform the titular exorcism.
How to write a
The Exorcist is frequently
named as terrifying film, but rarely do books get the same kind of recognition
for petrifying their readers. Perhaps it’s
because books must rely on the imagination and interaction of their readers to conjure
terror. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to sustain the effect of terror over a
two-hour movie than it is in a book that might be read over the course of a
week or more. In any case, it’s accepted
that a book provides a different form of horror than a film; a slow burning, more
Blatty’s The Exorcist is a scary book.
While it concerns supernatural possession, it is never framed as a
fantasy. It takes place in the real
world and, as such, its horrors seem possible and tangible. This is not escapism but a harrowing
suggestion of what the effects of hell on earth could be.
Throughout the book, protagonist
Father Karras seeks scientific reasons for Regan’s behaviour. He researches examples of telekinesis and
telepathy, schizophrenia and psychosis.
That he can scientifically explain phenomena as varied as the girl’s
understanding of Latin or the handwriting that appears in her skin grounds the
book in realism. What’s more, it acknowledges
the potential for horror to be found in the human condition, without any
supernatural influence. What could be scarier
than what our minds and bodies are already capable of?
But bringing such horror into a
real-life framework could risk reducing its effect – after all, if it isn’t extraordinary,
it might not be interesting. But The
Exorcist is riddled with horrifying imagery that grabs and holds the
attention. The book is consistently
shocking as it confronts the taboo – blasphemy, sexual corruption, scatological
depictions – all with reference to its central character, the pre-teen
Regan. The Exorcist is obscene, but justified by its context. It’s horrifying, and it’s the escalating horrors
it presents that shock the reader and keep them pinned, whilst the momentum of
the story continues, and its realism keeps things believable and therefore
Such an analysis might make the book sound
exploitative, but The Exorcist never seems
pulpy or sensational. Blatty’s prose is intelligent;
literary and modern. He does not linger
over descriptions of horror, but relays them efficiently, allowing the nature
of the things he describes to implant in the reader’s mind. We, as the reader, do the heavy lifting with
Blatty is a dab hand at providing
enough detail to prompt our imaginations, and utilises those same skills in
drawing his characters, allowing us to form our own pictures of the cast. Moreover, Blatty is a master of dialogue. Some of the most gripping scenes in the book
are the exchanges between Father Karras and the demon/Regan: Karras trying to
learn more about what might be possessing Regan, and that very demon toying, abusing
and insulting him. But some of the cleverest
dialogue comes from a secondary character, Detective Kinderman, who believes
the MacNeil household is linked to a horrific death that happens just outside
Kinderman’s speech – interspersed with
asthmatic wheezes – is laced with the bumbling cadence of real speech. Kinderman himself refers to his ‘schmaltz’ –
his blustery way of speaking. Different
characters react in different ways to this dialogue – Chris MacNeil is taken in
by it and questions how Kinderman ever made detective, but psychiatrist Father
Karras cuts through the schmaltz and speaks to the intelligent man behind the
bluster. Characters are our windows into
stories; the avatars we find ourselves possessing. Such interplay between characters engrosses
us and plants us in the story, especially when their mannerisms and speech sound
so authentic. We feel the feelings they
do; we are scared or horrified along with them.
The Exorcist is one of the
scariest books I’ve ever read. Sure, the
things that happen in the book are horrifying, but it’s the immersive nature of
the book that allows the horror to connect with its reader. A book is only paper (or a tablet screen); it’s
the words inside and our understanding of them as the reader that creates the
terror. William Peter Blatty has created
a realistic world for us to inhabit, then traps us in it with gripping prose
and subjects us to the traumas of his story.
He sees the length of time it takes to read a book not as a challenge
but as an opportunity. He doesn’t present
us with a two-hour movie’s jump scares but instead creates a story of escalating,
taboo-facing horror that we dare not look away from. For a writer of horror, there’s nothing more
inspiring than that.