The Power of Blatty Compels You

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Let me share something personal: I’m an atheist. I try not to be a dick about it, I try not to judge other people based on their beliefs. But at the same time, there are limits. Some beliefs are, frankly, so ridiculous that I just can’t respect them, and I consider people who embrace them to be kind of foolish. Young Earth Creationism – the idea that the world we live on is only a few thousand years old and was made more or less in the way the book of Genesis describes it – is one of those beliefs; it flies so directly in the face of myriad well-established scientific facts that I can’t, as much as I try, see it as a legitimate religious belief – to me, it’s more like a wildly counterfactual crank theory.

Another one of those ideas is demonic possession. I just can’t credit it with being real. It’s all too clearly a product of an inability of early societies to comprehend certain forms of mental illness and physical disorders. That isn’t a judgement on the sophistication of those societies or the intelligence of our ancestors – we physically didn’t have the instrumentation to even detect the EEG symptoms characteristic of epileptic fits until comparatively recently, for example, and we still have only fuzzy and possibly incorrect ideas about what causes schizophrenia. Read even one or two Oliver Sacks books and you’ll soon conclude that the human brain is a bizarre and horrifying instrument with an infinite capacity to torture and meddle with its owner if it even gets slightly out of whack.

I can completely see why people even today can conclude that an unknown force is responsible for a drastic change in the personality of their loved ones. But I can’t bring myself to respect that belief, especially when it discourages believers to not look for the real source of a sufferer’s problems and instead try to make them go away with a religious ritual.

That said, although I think exorcism is a completely terrible idea in real life, I also think it’s kind of fun as a subject for horror stories. The idea of losing control to an external force is terrifying regardless of what you believe. So, when I saw a boxed set of the five Exorcist movies for £10 I grabbed it to see if the original is as good as I remember it being, and to see if the sequels and prequels were as horrible as the rumours suggest.

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