Editor’s Note: I will return to my Building a Better Christian Novel series in November. Seeing as Halloween is a holiday which brings up various spiritual questions, it seemed appropriate to do some posts on Halloween-worthy topics this month.
“When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense [and] with theological overtones. To this day, I have zero recollection of even a moment when I was writing that I was trying to frighten anyone.”William Peter Blatty, quoted in The Los Angeles Times, 2013
The quote about is William Peter Blatty talking about his 1971 novel The Exorcist. The quote raises some interesting points. For one thing, it highlights that despite its reputation, The Exorcist has more to it than just scares. It’s also interesting because it makes The Exorcist sound very similar to another book published 15 years later: This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti.
Highly successful among evangelical readers, This Present Darkness is a thriller novel which like The Exorcist focuses on demonic forces attacking humans. In The Exorcist, a mother living in Washington, D.C., Chris Neil, has to figure out why her daughter Regan is becoming more and more deranged. Bit by bit every human solution fails, and Chris is forced to consider a supernatural solution. In This Present Darkness, a group of people living in the small town of Ashton find strange things are going on at the local college and governance boards. This leads them to eventually realize a Satanist group is plotting to take over Ashton, and they have to band together using spiritual warfare to stop it from happening. Despire the plot difference, you could make a fair case Blatty and Peretti were addressing the same ideas from different directions.
Writing in a 2011 article, Blatty said that The Exorcist started with him hearing about a genuine exorcism case in the 1950s. A committed Catholic, Blatty thought at the time that sharing the story about the exorcism might lead people toward Christianity. His theory was that if you could convince readers that demons genuinely existed, that would lead them to the next logical step: belief in God. If demons exists and they’re the sort of demon described in the Bible (angels who rebelled against God), it logically follows that God must exist.
This argument parallels a conversation that two of Peretti’s characters, Marshall Hoan and Hank Busche, have in This Present Darkness. Both men have realized that strange events are going on, and Busche convinces Hogan that demons are behind the events going on in their little town. From there, Busche leads Hogan to believe in God and to belief in Christ.
Since Blatty and Peretti were both Christians, we could argue that their respective books show how Christian writers can approach a theme in different directions to create different effects. Here’s a compare and contrast that highlights what they each do with their material.
Blatty mostly writes the scenes with limited perspectives, showing the audience what is going on in a particular person’s mind as they observe the scene. None of the scenes take Regan’s perspective, so it’s not absolutely clear if there’s a demon within her at first. Different characters present different theories about the girl and not all of them come away at the end convinced that she’s possessed. However, when readers look at all the scenes’ together, it’s clear that Regan talked about things which only a supernatural entity would know. So readers have to put the pieces together themselves, but are drawn inevitably to the conclusion that Regan was possessed.
Peretti sometimes uses a limited perspective, but frequently shows more and describes everything that’s happening in the scene. In particular, he has a lot of scenes which describe what demons or angels are doing (flying over a school, fighting each other), so it’s clear from the beginning that demons really do exist.
Blatty goes for a realistic tone. Many characters aren’t entirely sure what their spiritual beliefs are, and even the Christian characters have foibles or weaknesses. No one sees the demon manifest in physical form, but Regan’s behavior appears to be based on facts that Blatty gathered from records of exorcism cases (most of the possession material appears with little alteration in the 1973 movie, and in director William Friedkin describes those scenes as being based on research he and Blatty did on a genuine exorcism case). This gives the book a very serious and forensic tone.
The one element that’s arguably not realistic is the climax scene. Father Damien Karras, who’s been skeptical that a genuine possession is taking place, is forced to carry on the exorcism when the expert, Father Merrin, has a heart attack. Karras angrily challenges the demon to take him instead, the demon leaves Regan and Karras jumps out a window to his death. This raises the question of whether a Christian can be possessed, which seems unlikely. However, the term possession is vague, and there’s debate among ministers and scholars about whether Christian can be influenced by demons (Jack Deere takes that view in his book Why I Am Still Surprised by the Holy Spirit) and when influence becomes possession.
Regardless of whether this scene is factually accurate, it works quite well on a thematic level. Karras has been going through a spiritual crisis throughout the book and worries that he’s lost his faith. In challenging the demon to take him, Karras establishes that he finally believes there really is a demon there, which indicates he’s regained his belief in the supernatural. Remember, Blatty’s argument is that believing demons exists must, if people are consistent in their beliefs, logically lead to believing God exists. So, even though this climax may be non-realistic, it brings the book’s ideas full circle.
Peretti’s descriptions of exorcisms and spiritual warfare also seem to be based on facts (in one interview Peretti states they were based on things he’d heard various missionaries and ministers describe). His descriptions of the angels are also based on Biblical descriptions or traditions. His descriptions of demons may be based on accounts as well, but really come across as Victorian caricatures, winged and fanged and talking in a formal style like medieval warriors. Then you have the various battle scenes of angels and demons physically fighting, which are reminiscent of something out of a Transformers cartoon or a Star Wars battle sequence (in his introduction to a later edition, Peretti talks about Star Wars as being an influence on the novel).
Both The Exorcist and This Present Darkness feature possessed people who curse and make crass sexual comments. Blatty doesn’t hide much from his readers, they hear almost every obscenity and sexual comment the demon says. This makes the book very hard to read about times, but that seems to be the point. Blatty uses this material to make the readers feel horrified at what the demon is doing.
Peretti infers this material by saying “the character cursed,” or “he went on to describe what he wanted to do to her in graphic detail.” This makes the book a bit easier to read, but it also means the villains feel less threatening and shocking.