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The Exorcist: Theology of the Possessed Body

November 26, AD2016

darknessEven with its interest in the spiritual realm, William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist is, as befits a story about possession, still very much concerned with the material realm, specifically the human body’s functions, abilities, and appearance. In the novel, the goal of possession, as I discussed in “Faith, Doubt, and Analysis Paralysis in The Exorcist,” is to make the human person seem to be unworthy of love, by presenting the body as something ugly and repulsive. Therefore, the questions of what the importance of having a physical body is to be human, and how an attack on one’s body is an attack on one’s humanity, are essential to the story.

Body and Personhood

While various doctors and men of science are trying to determine just what is happening to the possessed girl Regan MacNeil that is causing her such distress, one doctor tells her mother Chris to “check the body. That’s first,” because he believes that “illness of the body was often the cause of seeming illness of the mind.” Now, Regan’s troubles are the result of neither an illness of the body nor of the mind, but this doctor’s emphasis on the importance of the body is still important. He understands that one’s mind, indeed one’s personhood, is not simply divorced from one’s body. There is not an easy divide between the physical and spiritual. In her book Theology of the Body for Every Body, Leah Perrault says that

our bodies are essential to our humanity, to everything we do. Indeed, our entire spiritual lives are experienced in and through our bodies… For nearly two thousand years the Catholic church has insisted that humanity is defined by the joining of the body and the soul.

Perrault furthermore points out that “the body is not just a vehicle to transport our souls from birth to death: our bodies are the expression of our souls, the external manifestation of the Mystery that dwells in each of us.” As humans, we are not just ghost animating meat machines that are unrelated to our true nature, waiting to be released from the prison of the material realm. When God created the world, He saw that it, in all its material glory, was good, and we believe that we will participate in Christ’s resurrection, our bodies being raised and glorified; when all things are made new, our bodies, in one form or another, will still be an essential part of our personhood.

Life in the Body

In The Exorcist, therefore, the demonic possession of Regan’s body is not simply a hostile takeover. It is, more profoundly, an attack on her very humanity. Most obviously, she is dehumanized when the demon possessing her produces the sounds of various animals: steers, chickens, and so on, and when it refers to her as the “piglet.”

However, this attack on Regan’s humanity goes further, by changing the type of life her body experiences. In her body, she now only experiences suffering. That which makes her human, her body, is a centre of pain, making it seem that it would be better to not even have a body. This physical attack also puts her life in danger, as she does not eat, and by the end of the novel, she is not allowed to sleep, but is forced to remain awake until she dies or the demon leaves her; by attacking her body’s needs, the demon attacks her very existence.

The fact that Regan has a body sets her apart from the demons. When Fr. Damien Karras, S.J. writes out a transcript of his interview with her, he sees that the demon says, “Let her die. No, no, sweet! it is sweet in the body! I feel! … Better [indecipherable] than the void.” It also says, “Let us be warm in the body. Do not [indecipherable] from the body into void.”

Without Regan’s body, the demons belong to the void of nothingness. Knowing that the body is good and that the life experienced through the body is good, they desire it, even to the point of stealing Regan’s body. They want the pleasures of the body, but being creatures who hate both Regan and God, they do not receive these pleasures honestly; they pervert sexuality, raping Regan and masturbating instead of participating in the self-gift of love, whether expressed sexually or not. Even while they steal the good of the body and pleasure, they contort Regan’s body beyond its natural use and cause Regan to scratch and bite herself, in an effort to destroy that which is good.

The Relational Body

Perrault argues that the body is a sign of solitude, in that it demarcates the boundaries of the person. However, because humans are created for relationships, we can be drawn “out of ourselves and into each other.” Solitary people become united with others.

Possession, obviously, rejects this unity. The demons cannot be drawn out of themselves because they are void. They cannot open themselves and allow another person to enter their hearts, out of love. Though they are in one body with Regan, they are not in union with her. In possessing Regan, they shunt her aside instead of being truly united to her, forcing her into the solitude of rejection, and in doing so, they do not let her body express her own person anymore.

Shamefulness and Love

As I said earlier, the demons in The Exorcist want the good of the body, but they pervert it. They emphasise all of the ways in which it seems especially grotesque; most vividly through diarrhetic defecation, spit, and vomit. Perrault describes the shame of “believing that I am only as good as the sum of my weakest parts, which I must spend my lifetime trying to hide from those I hope will love me.” With shame comes the fear of unworthiness before God. Along these lines, the demons make Regan’s body repellent and shameful.

Similarly, Fr. Karras cites the seeming shamefulness of the body a reason for his doubting God; what he calls “the need to rend food with the teeth and then defecate” makes him wonder why God created a body that produces something repellent, and in the possessed Regan he sees this doubt expressed in the most extreme way possible.

His fellow priest, Fr. Lankester Merrin, S.J., says that the purpose of possession is to make people seem unlovable, even by God. The possession shows the body at its grotesque worst, and therefore makes even the very person repellent. Fr. Merrin must endure all of Regan’s body’s various expulsions while he performs the exorcism, and shows great love while doing so. He knows that the love greater than any other is to love those who repel him most. While performing the exorcism, he touches her body, sprinkles holy water, and makes the sign of the cross. He puts her body in physical contact with that which is good and holy, in physical contact with his loving touch.

Perrault refers to Pope St. John Paul II, who says that “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine.” Fr. Merrin’s body performs a sign of love, it makes God’s love visible. That love, normally invisible, is even more difficult to see when Regan is so repellent, but Fr. Merrin gives it nonetheless. He gives a remedy to Regan’s solitude by touching her and by suffering the demon’s abuse with her. He is drawn out of himself, empties himself of his own concerns, despite the demon’s accusations that he acts out of pride, and is united in love with Regan when no one else is. By loving the repulsive, he defeats the demon.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Patrick Malone has been writing for Catholic Stand since March 2016. He has a BA (Honours) in English, and is particularly interested in secularism and the exploration of faith in literature and film, especially the works of Terrence Malick, the McDonagh brothers, Flannery O'Connor, and Cormac McCarthy.

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  • FreemenRtrue

    Why is this written in the context of a Hollywood exorcism? It makes the serious points seem doubtful.
    “Hostage to the Devil” has plenty of real material.

    • Patrick Malone

      Well, first of all, for what it’s worth, I’m not writing about the Hollywood film, but the novel. More to the point, however, I’m not really talking about possession, and am not using the novel as a textbook to show everybody what possession’s really like – in fact, in a few places I try to limit my discussion to what the novel specifically depicts, and no further. I am instead offering a commentary on the novel and that novel’s ideas, specifically as they relate to Catholic thinking on what it means for a human person to have a body.

    • FreemenRtrue

      We were taught in grade school that our body is the abode of the soul and that living means we may strive to become Christlike. Nothing ‘novel’ needed.

  • james

    “the body is capable of making visible what is Invisible…”

    Well this is true. Take facial expressions, animated by words and visual cue. What was made visible by
    Cain (murder) was animated by God’s acceptance of Able’s gift as opposed to his. Was this organic trigger (jealousy) a product of a demon or some primordial animal function of the brain not capable of being subdued ? Which begs the question of whether, like guardian angels, we each have a personal fallen one dedicated to our destruction. If, as W.B. Yeats proclaimed that “love comes through the eye ..” Eros must reveal (make visible) some distinct choice that is separate in nature from its much darker counterpart (lust). Jesus sending a bunch of demons into a herd of swine doesn’t show much respect for and to an animal created by God but then the symbolism ( unclean cloven footed ) fits well with the story. Nice review there Mr. Malone.

    • Patrick Malone

      Have you read Lumen Fidei by Pope Francis? Your reference to Yeats reminds me of several passages in it.

      “…faith appears as a process of gazing, in which our eyes grow accustomed to peering into the depths.”

      “At times, where knowledge of the truth is concerned, hearing has been opposed to sight; it has been claimed that an emphasis on sight was characteristic of Greek culture. If light makes possible that contemplation of the whole to which humanity has always aspired, it would also seem to leave no space for freedom, since it comes down from heaven directly to the eye, without calling for a response. It would also seem to call for a kind of static contemplation, far removed from the world of history with its joys and sufferings. From this standpoint, the biblical understanding of knowledge would be antithetical to the Greek understanding, inasmuch as the latter linked knowledge to sight in its attempt to attain a comprehensive understanding of reality.

      This alleged antithesis does not, however, correspond to the biblical datum. The Old Testament combined both kinds of knowledge, since hearing God’s word is accompanied by the desire to see his face. The ground was thus laid for a dialogue with Hellenistic culture, a dialogue present at the heart of sacred Scripture. Hearing emphasizes personal vocation and obedience, and the fact that truth is revealed in time. Sight provides a vision of the entire journey and allows it to be situated within God’s overall plan; without this vision, we would be left only with unconnected parts of an unknown whole.”

    • james

      ” The Old Testament combined both kinds of knowledge, since hearing God’s word is accompanied by the desire to see his face.”

      – That’s the trouble with the OT tribes and desires, they couldn’t see that a flower in the field was arrayed with beauty that surpassed Solomon’s wardrobe; always looking for wonders those people.

      – Thanks to you I did read Francis’ LF and my conclusion of all encyclicals is simple. As
      the king in ‘Amadeus’ not so correctly observed “Too many notes” Jesus did not speak
      as a scholar but cut to the chase with profound simplicity. Any editor would have a field
      day breaking down our popes pious redundancies into precise, succinct and powerful
      prose so that the people it is intended to sway might actually take a moment to read it.