MARCH/APRIL 2009
WILLIAM GIRALDI

A DEVIL-OBSESSED CONGLOMERATION OF CHRISTIAN MISFITS

AMERICANS LOVE THEIR SATANIC POSSESSION FLICKS. SO WHY, IN 2009, ISN’T THE EXORCIST SCARY ANYMORE?

DISCUSSED: Fox Mulder, Expert Portraits of Lunacy, Shameless Endorsements of Medieval Reasoning, Stevie Nicks, Clammy Lime-Colored Glop, Horrifying Psychosexual Readings, Elegant Occultist Claptrap, Unspeakable Paradoxes, Stolen Doughnuts

A POT INSTEAD OF A HAMMER

My mother was five months pregnant with me when William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist opened, in 1973. By most accounts the scariest film ever made, The Exorcist terrorized my mother so thoroughly that she thought she would go into labor and spontaneously expel me onto the theater floor. Two lukewarm Catholics of modest education, recently married and poised to begin a family, my parents were the perfect targets of a film about demonic possession. They had heard enough Sunday sermons to take seriously the presence of Satan in the world, and yet knew less about the mythological underpinnings of all religion, the innate perceptual tendencies that cause humans to behold in their own backyards a clash between forces of light and darkness. Joseph Campbell once quipped that the difference between a believer and a nonbeliever is that the latter has not confused a metaphor with a fact. And so my parents were a confused pair.

Thanks to savvy news channels, those years from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s saw an American upsurge in Satan stories. We’re a soberer people now. Anyone in the year 2009 who believes that Satan takes up residence in the bodies of young girls (or plays guitar in a metal band) needs either a science teacher or a psychiatrist. But my mother nearly gave birth to me in a movie theater in 1973 because the convincing horror of The Exorcist, in concert with a low hum of national paranoia, made her believe. She went to the theater wanting fear, and fear is what she got. There’s just one problem: The Exorcist isn’t scary. Campy, maybe. Scary: not even a little.

I watched the movie for the first time only recently; strange that I had never been even mildly curious about the movie that almost filched me from the womb prematurely. And yes, perhaps I harbored my own trifling dread that the film did indeed wield the power to spook a life. I was, after all, a child of Roman Catholicism, weaned on drama, ritual, hocus-pocus, and flesh-fetishism that for eons have made Catholicism an attractive option for those who crave pageantry. My hard-won reason almost always has a difficult time fending off an easeful inclination toward the sensational and improbable: Sasquatch, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, the Kraken. Remember gullible Fox Mulder from The X Files? He had hanging behind his desk a poster of a UFO hovering above a landscape, the words I WANT TO BELIEVE in bold across the top. That’s me: wanting to believe.

But if I felt any trepidation at all about the infamous force of The Exorcist—about my own penchant for wanting to believe while I watched the most terrifying film in history—that trepidation evaporated about twenty-five uneventful minutes into it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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William Giraldi teaches in the writing program at Boston University and is senior fiction editor for the journal AGNI. New essays are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review and TriQuarterly.

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