Exorcism Receives Renewed Attention

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday , October 21, 2000 ; Page B09

The re-release of the horror classic "The Exorcist," based on a 1949 case in Prince George's County and filmed in part at Georgetown University, has created a new generation of moviegoers craving insight on how far Satan--and God--can go in the ongoing battle between good and evil.

It also comes at a time when exorcism, a ritual designed to drive out demons from bodies they have possessed, is gaining new respect because of some cases of bizarre behavior that psychoanalysis cannot explain and medication cannot alleviate.

Last year, the Vatican issued the first fully revised "Rite of Exorcism" in four centuries, and an exorcists' convention in Rome in July drew 230 participants. Some Catholic dioceses, including Chicago and New York, recently appointed exorcists to their staffs for the first time in generations--if ever.

The Archdiocese of Washington, whose Cardinal Patrick A. O'Boyle half a century ago approved a 14-year-old boy's exorcism, on which the movie is based, has not had an exorcism in at least 20 years, said spokeswoman Susan Gibbs. But Cardinal James A. Hickey stands ready to name an exorcist should the need arise, she said.

Church officials are worried, however, that publicity surrounding the revised "The Exorcist," which has been among the six top-grossing movies since its Sept. 22 opening, will create the same kind of hysteria that followed its debut in the early 1970s.

Back then, priests and pastors--Protestant as well as Catholic--were asked to perform exorcisms at an alarming rate. Some of those exorcisms resulted in the deaths of the reputedly possessed. And other horror stories emerged, locally and elsewhere, of parents trying to beat demons out of their children or throwing them out windows.

"The whole recognition of evil can have a kooky effect on people," said the Rev. Thomas M. King, a Georgetown professor and Jesuit priest who blessed the film crew and sets in Washington in the fall of 1972. "All that fascination with Satan in vogue in the Renaissance [resulted in] the witchcraft trials. It feeds on itself, that fascination with evil." One of the first bona fide movie blockbusters, "The Exorcist" opened Dec. 26, 1973. Directed by Oscar-winning wunderkind William Friedkin ("The French Connection"), the film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won two, for best sound and best screenplay.

William Peter Blatty, who wrote the screenplay based on his 1971 novel, also produced the film and worked closely--often at odds--with Friedkin. In concocting his thriller, Blatty used accounts of the exorcism of an unidentified boy in Maryland that took place over a two-month period in the spring of 1949.

At the time, Blatty was a junior at Georgetown and learned about the case from a theology professor, who heard details from a priest involved in the exorcism who was staying on campus. The exorcism was completed in May but not made public for several weeks. The Washington Post ran a front-page account Aug. 20, 1949.

The case inspired Blatty to prepare a presentation on demonic possession for an oratory competition. He lost that contest, but the story never left him.

"I was like the centurion in the Gospels who tells Christ, 'I have faith, but my faith is weak,' " Blatty recalled this week from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. "My immediate thought was that if this case of possession proved to be genuine, it would provide that help. For if there really were demons, why not angels?

"At the time, it crossed my mind that someone should write a book about it; it was many years before I decided that someone was myself." Blatty is among a select few who know the identity of the boy in the news account but said he will "absolutely not" reveal his name or whereabouts. He said the boy lived in Cottage City, not Mount Rainier--as most reports, including The Post's, indicated.

Given the phenomenal success of the novel, the story's jump to the big screen was assured.

The artistic value of the new version, released 27 years later, is more questionable. Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter excoriated this director's cut, calling 11 minutes of additional footage "completely injurious to the film's intensity."

But Blatty, who said he plans to move to Bethesda in January, is pleased with the new version because it reinstates scenes he believed necessary for continuity and theme. One, which he calls "the heart of the story," presents a dialogue between the older priest and experienced exorcist, Father Lankaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the young priest and psychiatrist who regains his faith through the exorcism of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair).

Karras: "Why this girl? It makes no sense."

Merrin: "I think the point is to make us despair--to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us."

Admitting the existence of demons that drive people to despair should lead those same people to believe in God, Blatty said. "It would demonstrate that man is more than a collection of molecular structures, that in fact we are 'encased in light.' "

King, the Georgetown priest who for 32 years has led a "last chance Mass" every night at 11:15 at the school's Dahlgren Chapel (Blatty and Friedkin attended once), recalls that the same theme was to be echoed at the end of the movie. In the final scene, an unpossessed Regan prepares to leave town with her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who early in the film expresses her lack of religious belief.

The script called for a priest friend of the deceased Karras to ask the mother whether she now believes in the Devil. She was supposed to say, "Yes, I believe in the Devil." The priest then would ask, "If you believe in the force of Evil, why not Good?"

According to King, the dialogue had to be changed because Burstyn refused to say she believed in the Devil, fearing that Satan would have some power over her. She, like many of the cast and crew, was "psyched out, clearly very nervous" about making the film, the priest said. They may have had good reason. Filming was delayed by numerous mishaps, including a fire that destroyed a set in New York. Microphones picked up odd noises beyond those created for the movie. A crew member accidentally cut off his toe. And Jack MacGowran, the Irish actor whose character, Burke Dennings, meets an untimely death in the movie, died two weeks after filming his scenes.

The so-called jinx apparently carried to London, where Mary Ure, acting in a 1975 stage production of "The Exorcist," died a few hours after her opening night performance. Authorities attributed the 42-year-old's death to accidental alcohol and barbiturate poisoning. But that didn't matter.

"Obviously the public felt very deeply about Mary's death," producer Frederick Granville said after the play's three-week run. "There is no doubt they were extremely frightened and just would not risk going to see the play."

The movie, meanwhile, has become engrained in the lore of Georgetown. Its filming locales--including the 97 steps between Prospect and M streets NW--are a highlight of campus tours, and Georgetown students, fed on such teen scare films as "Scream" and "The Blair Witch Project," annually take note of Blatty's legacy.

Every Halloween, costumed figures flock to showings of "The Exorcist" in the 729-seat auditorium of the Healy Building, the towering stone edifice that dominates the Georgetown skyline. The theater's dark interior, muraled walls and wood-coffered ceilings are more conducive to the macabre subject than the bright modern auditorium on campus where other movies are shown, said Alicia Byrdsong, 20, a junior English major from Adelphi who chairs the school's film program.

The students, she said, love it. They applaud at the campus scenes, scream at Regan's rotating head and roar their approval when the devil is exorcised. Some laugh if they've seen the film before, but most first-time viewers are frightened--the way Byrdsong was on her first of five viewings.

"Horror movies with religious overtones are far scarier than 'Nightmare on Elm Street' or other slasher movies," she said. "You know Freddy Krueger doesn't exist. But if you're religious at all, it's more of an element."

2000 The Washington Post