TV review: The True Story: The Exorcist

Did Satan, the arch-villain, possess a 13-year-old boy, asks Gary Day, on the tale inspiring The Exorcist

March 3, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

I saw The Exorcist when it came out in 1973. My girlfriend was so terrified that she slept with her parents for a week afterwards. She also dumped me for taking her to see it. Sigh. I shall forever associate the end of the affair with Father Merrin throwing holy water on Regan and crying, "I cast you out, unclean spirit."

The film was the subject of a Channel 5 documentary The True Story: The Exorcist (Thursday 24 February, 10.55pm). Not what you would call ideal bedtime viewing. Then again, you could argue that the aim was to enlighten viewers, not to scare them; to reassure them that there's no such thing as the Devil. Even if he did exist, why the hell would he want to take up residence in a 13-year-old boy? It seems rather a waste of his talents.

Instead, why not make all the churches and cathedrals in the world rise up into the sky, smash them to pieces and then hurl the rubble down on the populations below? For an encore, he could eat a chunk of the Sun and complain that it's not hot enough. That should convince even Richard Dawkins that he exists. No, the very fact that the Prince of Darkness chooses to make an adolescent swear and come out in spots, something they can do quite naturally, is not the way for a supernatural being to display its power.

The Exorcist was based on the case of a 13-year-old boy from Cottage City, Maryland in 1949. What little we learned about him came from Alvin "Pat" Kagney, who, it soon transpired, didn't know much. Apparently the boy was a bit of a loner. Perhaps that's why Satan decided to befriend him. An aunt also helped by giving him a Ouija board. If he couldn't find any friends among the living, he could try his luck among the dead.

It was when the aunt died that the trouble started; the sound of marching feet and furniture that moved of its own accord, which certainly saves the bother of lifting it. That the boy's bed shook gently at night seems perfectly normal, given the nocturnal musings of young males. Unsurprisingly, a psychiatrist could find nothing wrong with him, but that didn't satisfy the parents, who turned to the Church for help. Father Frank Bober, whose glasses were the shape of two eggs lying on their side, said that the boy had a dark stare as if there was nothing behind his eyes. Father Frank hadn't actually met the boy, but that's what Father Albert Hughes had told him, and he had no reason to doubt his word; after all, the man was a priest.

It was Father Albert who performed the first exorcism on the boy. Another priest, Father Thomas J. Euteneuer, was all smiles as he told us that being in the presence of evil was "not a pretty sight". He described the Horned One as "the CEO of a big corporation", dedicated to making our lives a misery. If we leave Satan out of the equation, that statement was one of the more believable in the programme. Doesn't big business always screw things up?

Despite the constant application of a crucifix to the forehead, repeated showering with holy water and a great deal of Latin, Lucifer refused to budge. Father Albert was forced to admit defeat, a decision helped by the boy cutting him from wrist to shoulder with a broken spring, presumably because he had been driven mad by the lack of sleep.

Father William S. Bowdern took over the operation. He brought in several priests to assist him. A reconstruction showed them clustered round the boy's bed, holding him down, smothering him with a pillow when he screamed obscenities. After a lot of holy molestation, the devil moved out. One of the priests kept a diary of the exorcism, which became the basis of William Peter Blatty's novel and, later, his screenplay. Blatty himself said the diary removed any doubts he had about his Catholic faith. It was all true. And anyone who disagreed was basically calling Jesus a liar.

Although the programme gave a platform to neuroscientist Michael Persinger, who demonstrated that possession was the product of mini-seizures in the right hemisphere of the brain, the bulk of it was devoted to creating an air of menace and mystery in which the repeated image of leaves being blown from trees grew ever more sinister.

Sadly, it's goodbye to the splendid Faulks on Fiction (BBC Two, Saturday 26 February, 9.30pm). The four-part series presented vivid portraits of some of the character types found in the novel. The final part focused on the villain. Our fascination with this figure comes from his or her likeness to ourselves. There's no need to resort to the supernatural to account for man's inhumanity to man.

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