Greetings everyone, and welcome to another week of the Month of the Macabre. Today we’re digging into one of the most popular series involving demonic possessions: The Exorcist.
We haven’t mentioned demonic possessions before, partly because it’s kind of hard to define a demon. Pazuzu, the demon that The Exorcist franchise centers on, comes from Assyrian or Babylonian mythology and was regarded as the king of the demons of the wind. Whether the Assyrians and Babylonians described demons the same way that modern Christians do is anyone’s guess.
Demons are generally regarded as denizens of Hell, but there are few instances of demons being described specifically. The only specific kind of demon that I can think of off the top of my head are succubi and incubi, and they tend to not appear in horror movies for multiple reasons that we won’t go into here. A story might name a demon, like Mephistopheles from the legend of Faust or the demon Screwtape from C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, but even in those stories it’s usually implied that the demon is actually the Devil come to Earth.
When it comes to The Exorcist, people are generally more familiar with the film series. However, the first movie was based on a novel of the same name published in 1971. In turn, that novel was (loosely) based on actual exorcisms that were performed on a young boy in 1949. I’m not sure what the boy’s real name was, as the priests that performed the exorcism referred to him as either “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim”. I’m going to refer to the boy as Robbie for the sake of simplicity.
The story goes that Robbie’s family started having supernatural experiences shortly after the death of Robbie’s aunt. There were reports of objects moving of their own accord, and of things like vases flying around whenever Robbie was in the room. There were multiple exorcisms performed on Robbie, and there were reports of Robbie injuring the priest performing the ceremony on at least two occasions. In the end, a final exorcisms was performed, and Robbie was said to have led a normal life.
Multiple authors have since questioned the authenticity of these accounts. They tend to point out that the alleged exorcisms were never documented very well, and a lot of the details that were documented were wrong. Some authors conclude that Robbie may have had serious mental issues, while others suggest that Robbie may faked being possessed in order to get attention.
Regardless, the story was popular enough to lead to the publishing of the novel in 1971. This book tells the story of a girl named Regan MacNeil that gets possessed by Pazuzu. Regan’s mother tries multiple solutions before finally calling a young Jesuit priest. No, I have no idea what a Jesuit is either.
After confirming that the girl is indeed possessed, the young priest and an older priest begin the process of exorcising the demon from the girl. The old priest, who was established earlier as having heart problems, dies during the ritual. The young priest struggles to complete the ritual, and in the end asks the demon to possess him and leave the girl alone. The book ends with the young priest ending his own life to stop the demon.
The movie came out in 1973, and it was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. The movie was popular enough to get multiple sequels and prequels in the years that followed, which is kind of odd considering the plot of the book and film. These movies vary in quality, with some being considered good and others bad.
1977 saw the release of Exorcist II: The Heretic, widely regarded as a terrible film. This film told the story of a priest sent to investigate the old priest that had died in the first film on charges of heresy. During his investigation, the new priest learns that Pazuzu only possesses people that have psychic abilities, which Regan demonstrates when she is able to mentally communicate with an autistic girl. This film implies that people with psychic powers are going to inherit the world some day. So this film is kind of like the X-Men films, but nowhere near as good.
The new priest briefly visits a scientist in Africa who had also once been possessed by Pazuzu. When the new priest returns to the US, Pazuzu pops up and tries to convince the new priest to let him possess Regan again. After multiple confrontations, Regan is finally able to banish Pazuzu using a ritual that the scientist had tried performing earlier.
1990’s The Exorcist III was based on the 1983 book Legion and largely ignored the events of the previous film. That doesn’t surprise me, considering how unpopular the second film was. It does kind of make me wonder why they bothered putting a three in the title, but I guess the marketing department was high that day or something. Anyway, this movie tells the story of a serial killer called the Gemini Killer.
Eleven years before the start of the movie, the Gemini Killer was caught and executed. However, as the film starts, investigators find multiple murder scenes that match the murders that the Gemini Killer had done years earlier. The movie reveals that when the Gemini Killer died, Pazuzu put the killer’s soul into the dying body of the young priest from the first film. At the end of the film, the heroes are able to defeat the Gemini Killer by shooting the young priest repeatedly.
Hey, a horror movie where shooting the monster actually works! What a novelty!
The next two films in the series were prequels, and they pretty much both tell the same story. 2004’s Exorcist: The Beginning and 2005’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist both tell the story of the old priest set during the days of World War II, when he was a young priest who was having a crisis of faith. Both films have the character reject his priesthood at some point, only to become a priest again by the end of the film.
Normally, this is the part of the article where I would mention Pazuzu’s impact on the popular culture and how he works as a character. However, that doesn’t really work for this character. Even with how popular the first movie was, there are not that many people that know the name Pazuzu, let alone what Pazuzu’s motivations are for possessing children. The fact that the only characterization we get regarding Pazuzu came from the least popular film in the series doesn’t help.
So we say goodbye to Pazuzu, and turn our attentions to other demonic forces. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss Damien from The Omen franchise.