NEW YORK (AP) — Novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty, a former Jesuit school valedictorian who conjured a tale of demonic possession and gave millions the fright of their lives with the best-selling novel and Oscar-winning movie “The Exorcist,” has died. He was 89.
He did have an illustrious career beyond your average pulp writer…
“As recently as the late sixties, exorcism was all but dead and forgotten—a fading ghost long past its prime. It was rarely spoken of and even more rarely assumed to possess any practical significance. By the mid-seventies, however, the ghost had sprung miraculously back to life. Suddenly countless people were convinced that they themselves, or perhaps a loved one, were suffering from demonic affliction; and exorcism was in hot demand. And what brought this about? A number of factors, but none more important, especially where Catholic exorcism is concerned, than the release of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and the publication of Malachi Martin’s demon-busting pulp classic Hostage to the Devil.” American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty Michael W. Cuneo
Blatty may have brought esoteric Catholicism into pop culture, but even before the film a religious revival was underway, including the gifts of the Spirit such as prophecy, revelations and speaking in tongues. This was happening in Providence.
In 1973, the film, ‘The Exorcist’ scared the socks off kids at Pilgrim High School, but I chickened out and missed it. I didn’t need more fear of the supernatural in my life. I was hanging out with people who regarded such movies as documentary, not fiction.
By then I had been exorcised a couple of times without much effect on my teenage depression. Baptisms and laying on of hands didn’t do much. Learning to talk in tongues didn’t make me less tongue-tied in English. My faith was insufficient, despite best efforts to save my soul and many hours spent sitting on folding chairs at prayer meetings.
The Word of God Community in Providence, Rhode Island was part of the Catholic Charismatic movement begun in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Starting in the late 1960’s clergy and lay people were active in Holy Ghost Parish on Federal Hill. My mother made me go to prayer meetings, but I loved it. The spirit was moving there, no question about it. There was an effervescent energy. Everyone hugged each other all the time. The people in the neighborhood around Holy Ghost Church joined in weekday worship with Catholics from the ‘burbs, college kids and seminarians from Our Lady of Providence. As the song went, We Were One in the Spirit, We Were One in the Lord. Differences of life experience, ethnicity, race, class, gender- what did that matter when we were doing the work of God? Sexual orientation was not a concept yet. The grace of the Holy Spirit would help us overcome those sins.
Maybe the dissonance between the demands of religion and our own human nature caused the priest leaders to turn to exorcism. Or maybe it was just so damned exciting. If you’re into histrionics, you can scream, yell and foam at the mouth with a rapt audience cheering you on. And if you are into power, what better trip than casting out demons? Safer, too, than an encounter with the gangs of bored teens who hung out in the neighborhood. I never saw anyone’s head spin around backwards but there was a lot of noise and drama.
It quickly got out of control. There was no shortage of people in emotional pain looking to cast out their troubles. Or their gayness, or discontent with bad marriages, or addiction or untreated psychiatric illnesses. And just about anyone who felt called could perform exorcisms. It’s not like you need a state exorcism license, and we were pushing the boundaries on the Church so far that most of us had no idea what the rules even were.
We had some gatherings in the Aldrich Mansion on Warwick Neck which was Our Lady of Providence Seminary at the time. Did you ever see the soap opera, Dark Shadows? We were scarier. We were running around the obscenely opulent mansion and its Boathouse, that had carvings of sea gods and sprites on every available surface as tribute to a past century’s wealth creators. The place was probably haunted by exploited labor.
Our world was getting weirder and darker. People were seeing signs and omens in random coincidences. Exorcisms were being performed in suburban living rooms. Demons might be hiding in every corner. Petty disagreements blew up into battles between good and evil. I don’t know how it all ended for the Word of God community. My mother had a breach with the group and pulled us out. We ended up in the Assemblies of God, which was Southern-fried weird but also did exorcisms. They introduced us to The Rapture, a belief that lead to a further realm of unreality than even the Catholics had reached.
What I take away from all this is a life experience of how easily people give in to the irrational. None of the people I met in church were out of the ordinary. A lot of them were smart and most of them were decent. The Word of God community inspired generosity. The Earthen Vessel thrift store on Smith Street was founded to serve the poor. Fran Conway Place is a street named after a nun whose kindness and good works survive her. There are people from that community still socially active.
But the demonization of normal human discontent and doubt and the faith that God would pave over all our problems enabled a kind of heartlessness- a devotion to moral standards that don’t serve people well in real life. The priest leader, Fr. John Randall, ran a very conservative radio show and a support group that promoted celibacy for gay people with an organization called, ‘Courage’. The exhilaration of being a part of something big, something of God, had a down side of exclusivity. Catholicism, like countless other religions, is the one true faith. There is a reverence for authority that has served dictators and protected abusers.
When I see the phrase, ‘demonization of the other’ I recall the times we thought we were literally casting out demons. Politicians talk about ‘faith’ in unctuous tones as if faith is always a good thing. But misplaced faith that persists contrary to evidence can wreck lives.
One reason we slip into the irrational is that in the chaos of life we need things to make sense. We are suckers for a good narrative and religion provides that. We are social beings and we need to belong. I felt the breath of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Charismatics, a lot of good things happened in that group. I have felt the same spirit in the Clamshell Alliance anti-nuclear occupation, in women’s magic, in the Million Mom March, in Occupy Providence. I felt that exhilaration at the Johnston Senior Center when my closest friends who had always put up with my politicking were now organizing for health care justice because it is vital to them. The Spirit is a powerful force but not a static one. When group enthusiasm hardens into us versus them, She’s gone.
I have family and co-workers who believe that Donald Trump will create wealth and take care of us like a wise father. I think that reality will disillusion some of this faith. But countering the hate energy he raises and the simple solutions he claims will need persuasion on the non-rational side as well as strong fact-based arguments. Demonizing our opponents only sets us back, much as we need to strongly and fiercely oppose the unjust politics of the right, religious and otherwise.