Most people have heard of The Exorcist; growing up, the only aspect of the movie I knew about was that the story involved demonic possession. Sounds scary, right? Would it scare you more to know that the film is eerily similar to early American slave narratives?
In 1971, the psychological horror novel The Exorcist was published. A mere two years later, William Friedkin directed a film adaptation of the book, with the original author, William Peter Blatty, returning to compose the screenplay. The book and film received polarizing reception, mostly for its crude depictions of religious figures and controversial plot. Those facts aside, the book and film are terrific pieces of fiction; if anything, the story is a character study on the essence of the human condition. The narrative explores themes such as loss, the search for meaning, and religious faith. Beyond those, the story’s most glaring depiction of terror is disempowerment. In other words, The Exorcist is about a kind of slavery. Harriet Jacobs, a former enslaved person in the nineteenth century, wrote about her experiences in what would become Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs’ novel shares similar themes to The Exorcist. Taking place in different historical and social contexts, Blatty’s and Jacobs’ stories present characters that struggle with maternity, religious stability, and mental and physical freedom.
Let’s begin with the theme of maternity. In The Exorcist, the main character is Chris MacNeil, an actress that lives with her daughter Reagan in Georgetown, D.C; the location is notable, as it is the American capitol. Chris is an atheist; the loss of her young son made untrustworthy of higher authority. She is also a divorced parent. She initially believes her broken family structure is what causes Reagan to exhibit her sudden physical and mental outbreaks. Throughout the book and film, Chris unconditionally vows to help her daughter, the only meaningful part of life she has to hold on to, despite the despair and pain it brings her. The family structure is important in The Exorcist.
Beyond a slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is primarily a story about maternity and the mother’s role to selflessly protect her children. Such as The Exorcist, Linda suffers child loss and parent separation. The plot focuses on parental responsibility in the first half of the book. In one instance, Linda observes a woman who has her children taken from her on the slave trade: “I met that mother in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, ‘Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?’ I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence” (17). The focus of her observations is important; to Jacobs, losing a child is worse than death, because the mother is cursed to live. Later in the book, after her escape from Dr. Flint, Linda hides in a small cellar elsewhere in town. She confines herself to her hiding place with little physical activity and nourishment. Despite her self-proclaimed exile, she is more free than ever before. In this shack, she is willing to suffer physical debilitation so that she can see her children emancipated: “My friends feared I should become a cripple for life; and I was so weary of my long imprisonment that, had it not been for the hope of serving my children, I should have been thankful to die; but for their sakes, I was willing to bear on” (105).
The Exorcist’s second primary protagonist is Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest. Karras suffers an existential crisis after his mother’s sickness and inevitable death. Most of the novel and film follow his struggle through depression, loss of empowerment, and eventual redemption. He is left with little answers, and this is the source of his religious instability. Early in the story, he announces his dwindling faith: “Some of there [patients’] problems come down to faith, there vocation, the meaning of there lives, and I can’t cut it anymore. I need out. I’m unfit. I think I’ve lost my faith, Tom.” In Incidents, Linda similarly questions whether God is real or not: “Sometimes I thought God was a compassionate Father… At other times, it seemed to me there was no justice or mercy in the divine government” (102). In both The Exorcist and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the protagonists suffer tragedies that make them question their divine protection.
The last notable theme is literal slavery. In Harriet Jacobs’ story, Linda is an enslaved woman. Duh. However, she suffers from more than physical slavery. Linda is mentally tortured by her slaveholder, Dr. Flint. Flint continuously deceives Linda, yet she is forthright in her conviction for a better life. Flint claims that he is a good master, and that he treats Linda well. As Linda describes, “He hoped I had become convinced of the injury I was doing myself by incurring his displeasure” (37). Furthermore, Linda states that slaveholders ceaselessly pressure enslaved women to physically (sexually) and mentally (religiously) subjugate: “The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear… If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will” (45). In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, slaveholders utilize fear as a tool for control. Additionally, slaveholders use their physical prowess to supplement their mental tyranny. This tactic is used to an extreme in The Exorcist; Reagan MacNeil suffers from bodily trauma, deterioration, and overall fear. However, she isn’t the only victim; her mother is equally disturbed by her daughter’s actions. Chris despairs as she watches her daughter slowly rot and descend into madness. Reagan is merely a tool to plunge her mother into a position of maternal vulnerability, and therefore, mental and spiritual slavery.
The Exorcist is an expressionist film about the loss of faith and meaning. For instance, this clip from the film shows the interaction between Damien and Reagan; the overall exchange appears to Damien’s physical manifestation of anxieties and weak mental fortitude. Later in the climactic exorcist scene, Reagan encourages Karras to embrace his feeling of regret. The demon says that he is responsible for his mother’s death, and that he did nothing to save her. The physical torture in The Exorcist represents the deteriorating state of a slave’s psyche.
Neither The Exorcist nor Incidents explains meaning of life’s sufferings. If anything, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl explores humanity’s power to create opportunity from seemingly nothing. In The Exorcist, Reagan’s possession is largely ambiguous; Pazuzu’s (the demon) motive is never clear to the characters. At the end of the film (and book) Damien questions the meaning of the MacNeils’ suffering. Father Merrin offers him an answer: “I think the point is to make us despair; to see ourselves as animal and ugly; to reject the possibility that God could love us.” In The Exorcist and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the power to make others reject life is the ultimate source of subjugation.
To me, The Exorcist transcends most contemporary fiction because of its ability to exist in two mediums (novel and film). Yet, the story remains presentation and humane message is consistent in both versions. As I read the book, I felt a connection with the story that I don’t see in the film. On the other hand, when I watched the film, I read the actors’ emotional language that I couldn’t see in the book. For that reason, the film and book complement each other (the movie uses Blatty’s original dialogue from the book verbatim, too).
The Exorcist is a profound piece of contemporary American literature; as both a book and a film, the story draws on the slave narrative, while also being an entertaining piece of media. The narrative is multi-layered; it’s a scary story that can be enjoyed for its surface spectacle, but is also a humane story that challenges important existential questions. The Exorcist, similar to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, can be examined through many different analytical lenses. Both of these stories are timeless, but The Exorcist is a product of the mid-wentieth century, while Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is from the nineteenth entury. On the surface, The Exorcist is decrepit and vulgar. But that’s exactly the point; it’s about the human will to search for higher meaning, despite encountering arbitrary cruelty.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Paul Negri, Dover Publications, 2001.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper & Row, 1971.
The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. Warner Bros., 1973. Film.