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Chapter six of the book exorcist continues with the story of a teenage girl possessed with
demons. In this chapter, Blatty significantly shows the significance of religions in society. By
showing the conversation between Father Damien Karass and Lieutenant William Kinderman,
Blatty shows that religious leaders have a significant role in in the human community. While
religion is opium, religious leaders have a substantial purpose of providing advice and guiding
When the Lieutenant takes the initiative to look for the man of God while jogging, Blatty
openly in show how important religious person can be “father Karass, Kinderman called to him
hoarsely” (Blatty 1). The priest turned around and tearlessly nodded, squinting into the sunlight
as he waited for the homicide detective to reach him.”
Blatty further shows the importance of religion in the society at the point where detective
Kinderman opens up and confess a murder to Father Karras. He, however, tells the pries that this
should be a secret between them “You mean murder? Yes, I enjoy it” (Blatty 2).
Blatty also shows the role of religion in the society in the conversation where the
detective question father Karras about witchcraft.” listen, what do you know about witchcraft?”
the detective asked (Blatty 3). Even though the detective suspects that a film director Burke
Dennings died due to witchcraft, he does not understand what it is all about. By seeking more
information about witchcraft from the priest, Blaty plainly shows that religion plays an essential
role in explaining the spiritual world and matters of faith that people do not readily understand in
real life. Through the rest of the chapter, Father Karras helps the detective to unfold unique
stories that relate to demonic murders.
Work Cited
Blatty, William P. Exorcist. London: Transworld Digital, 2011.
ePortfolio Introduction
Between the world of religion and faith and that of superstition lies a dark place where
demons and evil spirits exist. Head-spinning, pea-soup vomiting, and devilish-screaming demon
Pazuzu is the stubborn possession that gets into the body of a teenager and only gets out in the
self-sacrificial style of a priest who offers to carry the burden instead of the innocent young soul.
The Exorcist is not only a scary novel but also a carefully-written story of possession and the
strict difference between the medical and the spiritual world. Blatty’s intentions with this novel
are multiple but one thing is for sure that he aimed to separate the spiritual world from the
realism of normal life in medical and psychiatric terms. The novel itself offers a challenge to the
reader regarding their faith and also their perception of evil and good and asks the central
question; what is the purpose of evil in the world? Blatty works out to bring this point of view to
the readers focus by looking into various discussions. For instance, he presents the purpose of
possession as follows: “Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us . . . the
observers . . . every person in this house. And I think—I think the point is to make us despair; to
reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and
putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy (Blatty 311). This section of the novel suggests that
the evil surrounding us is meant to shake and test our will. Is the possession a way of testing
Chris McNeil and the people around her? Coincidentally, Chris the mother of the possessed is an
atheist. Overall, this argument focuses not only on the presentation of belief and faith in the
novel but also on the perception of good and evil and the place of the two in the world of the
readers. Father Merrin’s understanding of possessions introduces the reader to a religious
perspective of trials and tribulations as humiliating the human soul and calling for a stronger
belief. Blatty’s novel questions the place of evil in the world and shows that it is indeed a way of
providing a balance of nature.
ISSN 1556-3723 (print)
Interdisciplinary Journal of
Research on Religion
Volume 5
Article 6
The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty:
The Exorcist in the Context of Secularization
Joseph Laycock*
Doctoral Student
Department of Religion and Theological Studies
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts
Copyright © 2009 Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. All rights reserved. No part of
this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by
any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written
permission of the publisher. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion is freely available
on the World Wide Web at
The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty:
The Exorcist in the Context of Secularization
Joseph Laycock
Doctoral Student
Department of Religion and Theological Studies
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts
William Peter Blatty‘s novel The Exorcist has been linked to changes in lived religion in the United
States and to a popular revival of demonology and exorcism ministries. This article considers the
historical context in which the novel was written and suggests that The Exorcist presents an early
critique of the secularization narrative by referencing the folk piety of the American life-world.
Peter Williams has described American religion as a dialectic between ecclesiastical religion and
popular religion. With this in mind, I argue that The Exorcist represents a cultural moment in which
the perceived decline of supernaturalism inspired a resurgence of folk piety. To audiences in the
early 1970s, the medley of Catholic demonology, popular occultism, and parapsychology in The
Exorcist came as an appealing antidote to rationalized religion and a secular social order.
Laycock: The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty
Film and literary critics have spent a great deal of ink attempting to explain the
phenomenon surrounding William Peter Blatty‘s novel The Exorcist and the
subsequent film adaptation. In 1971 and 1972, the novel spent fifty-five weeks on
the New York Times bestseller lists (Winter 1996). The movie adaptation in 1974
was even more successful, and news accounts report lines as long as 5,000 people
waiting to see the film (Time 1974). This sort of success for a horror film was
unheard of at the time, particularly because horror was considered a ―ghettoized‖
genre (Hoppenstand 1994: 35). Numerous critics have interpreted Blatty‘s story as
demonological metaphor used to address a variety of fears lurking in the
American collective unconscious: fears of the counterculture of the 1960s,
women, and youth, to name a few. However, The Exorcist has also attracted the
attention of several scholars of contemporary religion. Douglas Cowan (2008)
argues that The Exorcist inspires the reaction it does because of a deeply
embedded cultural fear rooted in Christian demonology. Christopher Partridge
(2006: 240) includes The Exorcist in his two-volume The Re-Enchantment of the
West as an example of demonic ―occulture.‖ In her ethnographic study of media
and the religious worlds of American teenagers, Lynn Schofield Clark (2003)
found that a generation later, The Exorcist continues to influence popular ideas
about the supernatural. Finally, in his ethnographic study of Christian exorcism,
Michael Cuneo (2001) credits Blatty with a massive revival of popular
demonology and exorcism ministries.
I dissent from psychoanalytical readings of The Exorcist and argue that it is
very much a story about religion. However, it is not, as some have claimed, an
attempt to evangelize through horror. Many people know that Blatty based his
story on actual events and that his character Father Karras, a Jesuit scientist
suffering a crisis of faith, reflects Blatty‘s own experience of Catholicism. The
Exorcist depicts Blatty‘s life-world, which, while heavily influenced by Catholic
doctrine, is also shaped by religious pluralism, scientific positivism, and popular
belief in the paranormal. The Exorcist is a depiction not of ecclesiastical
Catholicism but of folk piety. Robert Wuthnow (1987: 187–188) describes folk
piety as an ―ideological form‖ that, unlike formal religion, is extra-ecclesiastical.
The symbols of folk piety are drawn from a variety of sources and incorporate
beliefs about divine or supernatural intervention in the realm of everyday
experience. Thus The Exorcist features the traditional Catholic symbols of
demons and exorcism; however, it also features eclectic symbols such as psychic
research, Ouija boards, and Asian ascetic practices. This eclecticism reflects not
only Blatty‘s life-world, but also that of many Americans in the late 20th century.
Peter Williams (1989) argues that American religion can be thought of as a sort of
dialectic between formal religion and extra-ecclesiastical religion or folk piety.
Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion
Vol. 5 (2009), Article 6
I argue that The Exorcist had such cultural significance because it portrayed
contemporary American folk piety at a historical moment when a narrative of
secularization had become a dominant cultural myth. A number of scholars have
suggested that secularization theory has often functioned as a sort of myth or an
ideology rather than an accurate model of religious trends (Cassanova 1994; Stark
1999; Swatos and Christiano 2000). When Blatty‘s novel was published, the
decline of religion was a reigning paradigm not only for sociology, but also for the
general public. The Exorcist was written in 1969, only three years after Time
magazine ran its famous cover asking, ―Is God Dead?‖ A Gallup poll taken in
January 1970 indicated that 75 percent of survey respondents thought that religion
was losing influence. This is the highest percentage ever recorded since Gallup
began this poll in 1957 (Saad 2009).
I argue that The Exorcist came as a declaration of folk piety at a time when
Americans were looking for an antidote to the narrative of universal
secularization. Several scholars have cited a connection between The Exorcist and
a resurgence of Christian demonology (Clark 2003; Cuneo 2001; Partridge 2006).
This could be because The Exorcist presented supernaturalism and folk piety as a
valid alternative to ecclesiastical religion, which had become rationalized,
privatized, and disenchanted. As Partridge (2006: 238) puts it, the demonic has a
unique ability to stir up ―the latent supernaturalism of a supposedly secular
Western heart.‖
Cassanova (1994) helpfully points out that the secularization thesis takes two
distinct forms: the decline of religion thesis and the privatization of religion
thesis. The decline of religion thesis assumes that religion and particularly
supernaturalism will gradually fade out of the modern world in favor of scientific
rationalism. Interestingly, Gorski and Altinordu (2008) argue that attempts to
measure this thesis have been biased by an effect they term pastoralism. That is,
secularization is often measured by ―priestly standards of good and true religion‖
rather than deviant or popular religion. This bias is attributed to the fact that it
was concerned churchmen who first began collecting religious data (Gorski and
Altinordu 2008: 65). Because of this pastoralist bias, folk piety has become
something of an Achilles‘ heel of the decline of religion thesis. Wuthnow (1987)
argues that folk piety has defied predictions that it is incompatible with
modernity. Similarly, Stark (1999: 268) cites an increase of ―highly magical‖ folk
traditions in Asia as evidence against the secularization thesis. The Exorcist
demonstrates that one does not need to travel to Asia to find a vital and magical
folk tradition. Although few of Blatty‘s characters practice ―good and true‖
religion, it is difficult to conclude from this story that Americans had ceased to
believe in the supernatural. In addition to being a story of possession, the United
Laycock: The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty
States of the Exorcist abounds with new religious movements, psychics, and
popular occultism.
The privatization of religion thesis argues that religion will become
increasingly understood as subjective as it can no longer be integrated with
alternative interpretations of life. Furthermore, religion will become depoliticized as it assumes a new place within the secular order. The Exorcist
presents several challenges to this theory. First, the story reminds readers that
claims of the supernatural are not subjective: The demon is real whether anyone
believes in it or not. Furthermore, an extensive battery of scientific tests is unable
to arrive at an alternative explanation. Second, Blatty‘s story points out that
religion and science are not as differentiated as might be assumed. After all,
Father Karras is both a priest and a psychiatrist. In seeking a ―scientific‖
explanation, Karras explores the possibility of parapsychological phenomena such
as psychokinesis. Parapsychology, which played heavily in the case on which
Blatty based his story, remains an interstitial sphere between religion and science.
Finally, The Exorcist is deceptively political. Two chapters are preceded by pages
of quotations that juxtapose passages from the gospels with news accounts
describing the horrors of the 20th century. This device is a reminder that
Americans continue to interpret political events not only through the lens of
religion, but also often through the lens of supernaturalism.
The message of The Exorcist was in a sense phenomenological. Some
members of audiences viewing the film in 1973 experienced fainting, vomiting,
and even nervous breakdowns. These reactions––which have been largely ignored
by film critics––were not caused by some subconscious cultural fear but rather by
a very conscious fear of demons and the supernatural. The fear itself was the
indictment of the secularization narrative.
The Exorcist is considered to have paved the way for later best-selling horror
writers. Stephen King allegedly once told Blatty, ―You know, in a way, you‘re my
father‖ (Brock-Servais 2000: 50). However, in King‘s own book about the horror
genre, he called The Exorcist part of the ―Humorless Thudding Tract School of
horror writing‖ and expressed a wish that Blatty never write another novel (King
1981: 282). Blatty had originally been a comedy writer, but after The Exorcist, he
wrote only thrillers with Catholic tropes. The Exorcist was a wildly successful
novel, and in 1983, Blatty sued The New York Times for nine million dollars,
claiming that it had negligently left his sequel Legion off the best-seller list
(Brock-Servais 2000).
Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion
Vol. 5 (2009), Article 6
The movie adaptation in 1973 was arguably even more successful than the
novel. King (1981: 167) described the phenomenon surrounded the film as ―a two
month possession jag.‖ A Time article from 1974 tells of 8:00 A.M. screenings of
the film and lines 5,000 people long. One theater manager estimated that each
screening of the film caused an average of four blackouts, six episodes of
vomiting, and numerous early exits (Time 1974). The Guardian quoted another
manager as saying, ―My janitors are going bananas wiping up the vomit‖
(Malcolm 1974). A report that appeared in the Journal of Nervous and Mental
Disease in 1975 claimed that the film had induced in some viewers ―cases of
traumatic neurosis and even psychosis‖ (Partridge 2006: 240).
Descriptions of theater audiences for The Exorcist are somewhat reminiscent
of Durkheim‘s (1995 [1912]) notion of ―collective effervescence‖ and perhaps
point to an implicit religious function. Several accounts describe a sort of melting
pot effect, in which the screening temporarily united diverse groups of people.
The Time article commented, ―Most audiences, however, tend to be young and to
contain a far higher than average proportion of blacks and, in some cities, people
of Spanish origin. ‗Voodoo, you know,‘ a black file clerk said matter-of-factly‖
(Time 1974).1 Cosimo Urbano (2004: 33) quotes another review, which added:
If the message doesn‘t pull people together, the experience of it does. I, for one,
spoke to more Puerto Ricans during my two hour wait in front of a New York
theatre than I did the entire two years I lived in New York. And the vomitsplattered bathroom after the show (you couldn‘t even get near the sink) may well
be the closest the Melting Pot ever comes to blending literally.
In fact, several scholars have described a screening of The Exorcist as a sort of
rite––in some ways, a religious rite (Ingebretson 1996; Ursini and Silver 1994).
The fact that The Exorcist could have this effect on an audience points to its
quasi-religious function and supports a reading of the phenomenon as a
manifestation of folk piety.
After the 1970s, The Exorcist continued to be an influence on American film,
American culture, and American religion. Priests and Catholic religious items
were now de rigueur in horror films (Clark 2003; McDannell 2007). The longterm effect of The Exorcist on American culture became apparent in 1991, when
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch read from the novel during Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas‘s televised confirmation hearings (Slovick 2009).
Joseph Baker (2008) does show data indicating a higher belief in religious evil among AfricanAmericans. However, he attributes this not to Afro-Atlantic religions but to the history of racism
and oppression experienced by African-Americans in the United States, which has influenced the
view of evil within black Protestantism.
Laycock: The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist also created a moment in which the dialectic of ecclesiastical
and extra-ecclesiastical religion as described by Williams (1989) was in serious
flux. The church suddenly found itself confronting a resurgence of folk piety.
Ursini and Silver (1994: 158) note that in the film‘s wake, few priests could
escape the question ―Have you seen The Exorcist, father?‖ Cowan (2008: 172–
173) indicates that Gene Siskel saw the film with a priest who feared that it would
start a rash of ―pseudo-possessions.‖ This in turn presented the church with an
opportunity to reassess its relationship with supernaturalism. Many Catholics
were opposed to The Exorcist phenomenon and wanted to continue a tradition of
rationalist apologetics in which the demonic was understood as metaphorical.
Speaking on Blatty‘s novel, Father Richard McBrien, chair of the theology
department at the University of Notre Dame, dismissed the very notion of a
personal devil as ―premodern and pre-critical‖ (Cuneo 2001: 60). Two reviewers
from the Jesuit-run America magazine called The Exorcist ―sordid and
sensationalistic‖ (Cuneo 2001: 60). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops‘
Office for Film and Broad-casting rated it as A-IV (morally unobjectionable for
adults, with reservations). On the other hand, many conservative Catholics
embraced The Exorcist, apparently seeing it as an opportunity for evangelism.
Catholic News, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, described
the film as ―a deeply spiritual film‖ (Cuneo 2001: 11). The conservative Catholic
journal Triumph and the official journal of the Vatican, Civilita Cattolica, also
gave positive reviews. In March 1990, conservative Cardinal John O‘Connor
actually read from the novel in St. Patrick‘s Cathedral and incorporated it into a
homily (Cuneo 2001). H…
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