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Possessed By ‘The Exorcist’: Are You Terrified Yet?

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 31, 2012

Mark Danielewski is the author of The Fifty Year Sword.

When I was 12, the movie was forbidden. What my parents matter-of-factly declared too scary, friends confirmed with added notes of hysteria: “Nothing more terrifying!” “The most horrifying film ever made!” “People pass out!”

In Provo, Utah, where I grew up, Mormon children — and in my world that meant all of my friends — reported how just a glimpse resulted in actual, irreversible possession.

No one, though, had explicitly forbidden the book. And one day I found it — on one of those unvisited shelves that at some point crosses over from being a place about reading to a plank consigned to storage — beside a copy of The Joy of Sex and something called Slaughterhouse-Five.

Still, I was careful not to let my parents know that I was now in possession of this Bantam edition with its glossy purple cover framing a curiously enigmatic image. It had hues of apricot, and was gauzy in a way that was vaguely feminine, even erotic. It was nothing like the movie poster — with that silhouette of Father Merrin, the Jesuit priest, about to enter the house of the possessed girl, brim hat on, valise in hand, caught in a hazy beam of light. In another context the illumination might have suggested something promising and welcoming rather than the dim dread that poster still evokes in me.

The book, however, felt warm and forgiving. And despite what the words within conveyed, those soft edges felt much different: safe, like a smoked glass through which to view dark suns.

I would read The Exorcist at night, before bed, covertly retrieving the book from the shelf and returning it the next morning before the day began. I devoured the story of a little girl possessed by an ancient demon, and the lengths the people around her go to exorcize the spirit from her body. And as I neared the end I read it every chance I got, and by the very end, I no longer cared if my parents knew. “Aren’t you scared?” my mom had asked. I wasn’t. I was thrilled, and even moved.

Curiously, after I read the book, my parents suddenly decided it was okay for me to see the film. And they were right. Nothing about its graphic content overwhelmed me, and whatever fear I experienced came more from what remains after overwrought expectations face the disappointment of their own exaggerations. It wasn’t the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t pass out.

But in some ways my Mormon friends had been right: A possession had taken place, though it was a melancholy one, less rooted in ancient taboo than in the overall dominance of image over word. Recently while at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Ore., I picked up a copy of the novel only to discover that it was entirely inhabited. Gone were the imaginings of my 12-year-old self. All I could see now was the movie and its actors — Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb and the voice of Mercedes McCambridge had not eased their hold on those pages.

Fortunately, as I have discovered — and as perhaps you have too — this is not the case for all books: Charlotte’s Web shrugs off its animated mimic; Moby Dick suffers not even a clinging harpoon from any one of its challengers; To Kill a Mockingbird, despite the quality of the film, laughingly continues on as something else. The Exorcist, however, remains entirely possessed by the movie it summoned.

I wonder: Am I alone in this experience? Have others lost books to movies? Which ones? And perhaps most important: can anyone report losing a book to its cinematic translation only to recover it later on? I’d like to think that’s possible. There are a few books I’d like to hear from again.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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