Based on a reported case of demoniac possession in the Washington, D.C., area in 1949, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) was his second novel. His other work also examines the question of evil. The Exorcist appeared four years after Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), which also had demoniac terror as its subject. Together these books revitalized the fantasy-horror genre. They are among the most literate and frightening works of their era. Both books were instant best-sellers and were adapted into equally popular films.

The distinction between the novels by Blatty and Levin is noteworthy. The Exorcist, unlike Rosemary’s Baby, is no horrific account of devil worship. On the contrary, it presents a deeply religious affirmation of life within a modern psychomachia, or warfare between good and evil for possession of a soul. That warfare, however, has changed significantly in a post-Freudian world that has redefined the soul and, more important, what constitutes evil. The damnation of Regan is never at issue: Her body and the ensuing exorcism merely provide the opportunity for the demon’s confrontation with men of faith, particularly the exorcist Lankester Merrin, with whom it previously has battled and lost. In a secularized “God is dead” world, that confrontation appears grotesquely nostalgic: Good and evil apparently have lost all clarity, with humanity now assuming the prerogatives of...

(The entire section is 517 words.)