All Hallow’s Read: The Exorcist

NOTE: This is the thirteenth in a series of 31 reviews of scary short stories and novels. As part of All Hallow’s Read, I will be sharing all the scary stories that I think you should consider giving to someone for Halloween. Because this is a tradition intended for people of all ages, some of these titles will be for children and young adults, while others are meant strictly for adults. Happy Reading.

The Exorcist is the scariest movie I’ve never seen. Oh, I’ve seen it – lots of times. I like it quite a bit. What I mean is before I saw it, I was terrified of it.

Poll the majority of people over a certain age (I have no facts to back this up, but I’d guess twenty because anyone younger would have been raised on SAW and Paranormal Activity, having no time for such a well made and perfectly paced film such as Friedkin’s Exorcist) on what the scariest movie they’ve ever seen. I’m willing to best that nine times outta ten they will say The Exorcist.

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Had you asked me before I turned fifteen (or sixteen) and I would have agreed. But my response would be comprised of quick images and sounds from the other room. I wasn’t allowed to watch The Exorcist, for obvious reasons. That didn’t stop me from catching quick glimpses of it on TV, or when walking through the living room while my Mom and sister were watching it. It also didn’t stop me from hearing that little girl’s demonic voice.

The film in my head was a living nightmare. There was no way I’d ever watch it. My Mom said it was the scariest thing she’d ever seen. All I ever heard about it was how petrifying it was (except from my dad – he thought it was hilarious!), people passing out in the theaters during the initial release, religious groups swearing the devil himself existed in the celluloid. No doubt in my mind this movie would kill me.

Then one day I decided to be brave. The new director’s cut was on Pay-Per-View, my Mom and I were home with nothing to do, I asked, “If I order The Exorcist will you watch it with me?” Apparently there was no doubt in my mind that she’d even let me order a movie, let alone The Exorcist.

It felt like a rite of passage. Sooner or later everyone watched this movie and it was finally my time. She asked me if I was sure. I said yes. We made the purchase.

By the end of the film I was deeply moved. At that age I was still in no way religious, but I still cared about Father Karras, hoping he’d find his way. Once all the pieces were plucked from their random positions in my head and put in the correct order, I saw that it was a movie about family and about purpose. It wasn’t scary (yes, I’ve heard the criticism that this version is a little friendlier than its original theatrical cut) but it was often times intense. I do admit to breaking out into hysterics when her head spun around.

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For years I shared the same trepidation about the novel. Books are notoriously more intense than their adaptations, showing you what film could never allow. I purchased it a little while back, really wanting to be scared. Nothing had scared me recently and I wanted that feeling back. Fear experienced through art can be so exhilarating, reassuring you’re alive. Real life fear everyone goes through on a daily basis brings me down. I wanted a good, safe scare, one I would be done with when I turned the last page.

(Now I think the best kind of artistic scare is the one you can’t shake off. It latches on to you, becoming a second shadow.)

To my surprise it was so much like the movie that it was similar to reading a movie novelization. If you’ve never read a novelization you should, their full of all sorts of cool insights and alternate points of view. Well, sometimes they are. Other times their just the script translated into past tense. William Peter Blatty’s book was somewhere in the middle.

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I heard it said that during the screenwriting process Blatty and Friedkin essentially copied and pasted entire sequences from the novel to the screenplay. That would explain it’s accuracy. A lot of what didn’t make it to film failed to shed any new particular light on the story. Everything was pretty much in place as it was on film.

That’s not to say it didn’t scare me.

You know the old saying that it’s what you don’t see that scares you? I’m actually glad that many of the paranormal horror films that have been coming out over the years implement this a lot, because it’s true. That’s why the shark in Jaws was scary and the Alien in Alien. It’s also why the film version of The Exorcist was so scary before I watched it. Nothing the filmmakers can create will scare the audience more than what they’re already envisioning.

Well, that’s a big reason why I expected to be so scared by the book. I could create my own movie in my mind. As I already said, that didn’t happen. What did end up happening is I started to get scared by the events that happened offstage in the book.

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For instance, there’s a description of Karras coming in to see Reagan and realizing she’s been mutilating herself in little ways, picking at her lips for instance. This insinuated that the demon was making her do it. It also mentions something about her mother hearing her daughter talk to herself. What I saw were scenes of Reagan alone, being tormented by this entity inside her. Its petty torments.

Not having those moments in full detail made them monumentally more disturbing because I don’t know how exactly it went down. A girl being possessed, masturbating with a crucifix, using vulgarity, puking up soup and spinning her head around is almost grand guignol compared to the little stuff.

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