Description versus explanation in 'The Exorcist'
William Peter Blatty’s iconic novel The Exorcist is considered one of the most terrifying pieces of 20th century literature. The novel, claiming to be based on true events, tells the story of a young girl possessed by a demonic force and the people who attempt to help her. The idea of demonic possession may frighten people, but the writing style in The Exorcist does little to promote that fear. While the book didn’t lack an eerie mood or tone, an overabundance of explanation caused the novel to read, in some places, more like a peer-reviewed journal or text-book, especially when explained in copious amounts of dialog. While always interesting, and with some great descriptive and gruesome scenes, the novel would have benefited from more descriptive devices, such as emotional expression and inner monologues, to promote a consistent chilling atmosphere.
Description is defined by Dictionary.com as “a statement, picture in words, or account” and explanation as “a statement made to clarify something and make it understandable.” While both terms are defined as “a statement,” description in writing is akin to painting a picture for someone, while explanation is closer to giving a person a report of facts. These devices serve a good purpose, but Blatty’s use of explanation overpowered many places in the book, causing the mood and tone to shift from a scary story to an academic report.
A reason Blatty may have used an abundance of explanation in The Exorcist is because the story is based on true events. The background information may have been for readers to understand the severity and/or reality of the situation. But Blatty’s explanations run long and convolute the storyline, as seen on page 178:
“‘…syndrome of a type of disorder that you rarely see anymore, except among primitive cultures. We call it somnambuliform possession. Quite frankly, we don’t know much about it except that it starts with some conflict or guilt that eventually leads to the patient’s delusion that his body’s been invaded by an alien intelligence; a spirit, if you will. In times gone by, when belief in the devil was fairly strong, the possessing entity was usually a demon. In relatively modern cases, however, it’s mostly the spirit of someone dead, often someone the patient has known or seen and is able unconsciously to mimic as to the voice and the mannerisms, even the features of the face at rare times.’”
The scientific explanation feels long and drawn out, taking the reader away from the mysterious and chilling mood, creating a scientific or academic tone.
Over explanation also causes a break in the eerie atmosphere Blatty constructed during the descriptive passages when delivered in dialog. “‘Well, it’s sometimes the symptom of a type of disturbance in the chemicoelectrical activity of the brain. In the case of your daughter, in the temporal lobe, you see.’ He put an index finger to the front of his skull. ‘Up here, in the forward part of the brain. Now it’s rare but it does cause bizarre hallucinations and usually just before a convulsion. I suppose that’s why it’s mistaken for schizophrenia so often; but it isn’t schizophrenia: it’s produced by a lesion in the temporal lobe. So since the test for clonus wasn’t conclusive, I think I’d like to give her an EEF—an electroencephalograph. It will show us the pattern of her brain waves. It’s a pretty good test of abnormal functioning”’ (Blatty 1971, 102).
Yet, the description Blatty does use works well in the novel. “Regan stopped vomiting and sat silent and unmoving, the whites of her eyes gleaming balefully at Merrin. From the foot of the bed, Karras watched her intently as his shock and excitement began to fade, as his mind began feverishly to refresh, to poke its fingers, unbidden, compulsively, deep into corners of logical doubt: poltergeists; psychokinetic action; adolescent tensions and mind-directed force” (Blatty 1971, 338). He paints a picture of the scene and of the emotional state of the characters. This creates a connection between the reader and characters and the situation. This device could have been used more often throughout the book to assist in revving up the tension and fear as the story moved toward the climax.
Instead, an information dump occurs in an attempt to explain the concept of possession. “‘Then what would be the purpose of possession? What’s the point?’ ‘Who can know?’ answered Merrin. ‘Who can really hope to know? And yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us…the observers…every person in this house. And I think—I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love: of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us’” (Blatty 1971, 344-345). While this information gets to the heart of the story, it can be difficult for audiences to process in one swallow. The information may have been easier to digest by being dripped into the readers’ minds throughout the novel.
Overall, while Blatty does use some great physical and emotional description in The Exorcist, the story may have benefited from the larger information dumps being broken up and spaced throughout the book and/or delivered in another tactic besides dialog. This may have kept the terrifying feeling of the novel from taking up a scientific or academic tone.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Kindle.