In Fear of Fear

See what I did there? I brought back the song title thing. You don’t care? FINE!

In light of the recent announcement that The Exorcist will be hitting Blu-Ray later this year, I started thinking about a discussion I had with a friend of mine awhile ago.

He was saying how he didn’t like the film because he saw it as being Christian propaganda. As an atheist, he found the film to be offensive, since it seemed to imply that the characters were being “punished” for their lack of faith.

While I don’t completely disagree with this interpretation, I always regarded it as a work of fiction about characters struggling with their own faith, not as propaganda. Obviously writer William Peter Blatty was himself a priest, so he was drawing on his own personal experiences to some degree. But that’s what any good writer does. And by tapping into his own fears, he created one of the scariest concepts in fiction, which in turn became one of the greatest horror films of all time.

Personally, I don’t believe in God or the Devil, and I have no internal conflicts about this. But Father Karras (Jason Miller) obviously did, and Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) eventually did, and it’s a movie about their struggle against evil. I have no problem buying into their fictional problems and taking them at (more or less) face value.

I don’t believe that Blatty intended to “punish” the woman for being a single, independent mom. But it may have been a conscious move on his part to play upon the fears of single mothers to some degree.

Father Karras reacts to accusations of a pro-Christian agenda.

Similarly, I don’t think Karras had to “redeem” himself by sacrificing his soul to the devil at the film’s climax. His crisis of faith was perfectly understandable, and his alcoholism was a negative result of the guilt he felt as a result of his loss of faith. However, there’s no denying that a fallen priest confronted with undeniable, terrifying proof of his worst fears made for compelling drama both in the book and onscreen. I don’t resent Blatty or director William Friedkin for capitalizing on that any more than I blame the fictional priest for his doubt.

Another reason I defend Blatty so much is because I feel that despite the subject matter, his presentation is fairly even handed. A subplot from the book involved the friendship of Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer, which became the basis for the underrated Exorcist III (1990, directed by Blatty). In this film, the atheist detective (George C. Scott) gets together for regular friendly arguments with the priest (Ed Flanders), during which they discuss their differences of opinion in an open minded fashion. This unlikely friendship is interrupted by the return of the demon Pazuzu, of course, but it sets up the premise that these are real men being confronted with real horrors.

The need for humans to believe in a higher being and an afterlife is, to me, the ultimate manifestation of fear. People want to believe that a higher being is in control, because otherwise we would have to face the reality that we live in a world that could veer into chaos at any moment. We want the chance of redemption, because most of us do not want to live with the guilt and consequences of our own actions. And most importantly, we want to believe in an afterlife, because we fear death above all.

This is why I feel that Christians ultimately make the best horror films. An atheist attempting to write a story like The Exorcist could only imagine what it would be like to be confronted with a supernatural entity. To a person of faith like Blatty, these possibilities probably seem a lot more real, and hit closer to home. Once the nightmare is on paper, it’s there for the world to see, regardless of what belief system you subscribe to.

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