Qui Est Vestri Nomen? Self-Identity Crisis in “The Exorcist”

T.S. Eliot, in his whimsical Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), informs us that “The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter/ It isn’t just one of your holiday games.” In a metaphysical sense, the naming of anything is a task fraught with great responsibility and power, for to truly understand the name of something—or understand the true name of something—is to have power over it. Many cultures past and present exercised the tendency to give a child, for example, more than one name—either one mundane and one magico‐religious, or one used in public and one known only to immediate family members—in the hopes that evil spiritual intelligences would be kept in ignorance and thus wouldn’t ever be able to seize the child’s soul.

But what about the names of evil intelligences? One of the intended by‐products of demonology, in the classification and identification of the ranks of spiritual intelligences that allegedly comprise an infernal hierarchy, is to equip the magus with the means to control—using the sanctified Nomine Dei—what he summons. What’s in a name? Power, or the means of wielding it over another. (In Starhawk’s understanding of power as a cultural construct, this would be Power‐Over instead of Power‐Within. She addresses this topic philosophically in her seminal work Dreaming the Dark.)

Hence it is of no small interest that cultural works of the popular imagination, literary and cinematic, that depict demonology wrestle with the existential anxiety that stems from the issue of naming. The act of naming, as noted, is an act of control, yes, but it is also a form of self‐identification, and not having a name is just as dread‐inducing as having one’s name exposed. (There’s a current Russian proverb that declares “A child without a name is a devil.”) The pattern that emerges in these accounts is namelessness giving rise to formlessness and ultimately fragmentation, which, as the great Enlightenment artist William Blake noted, is the true source of evil—the true foundation of Hell—in the cosmos.

The Bible is an apt starting point for textual citations of the naming of demons, and of the four canonical Gospels, it is in Mark 5:1‐13 that we find the following thought‐ provoking encounter between Jesus and the demonically possessed (Note: All citations are from the online version of the King James Bible):

1: And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes.

2: And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit,

3: Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains:

4: Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.

5: And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.

6: But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,

7: And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.

8: For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.

9: And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.

10: And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.

11: Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.

12: And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.

13: And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand) and were choked in the sea.

There are many curious things to note in this biblical excerpt. First, it’s remarkable that the afflicted man invokes God to prevent Jesus from tormenting him! This is in response to Jesus’ having barked orders at a generalized “unclean spirit” to come forth from the afflicted man and leave him alone. This doesn’t work. It’s not sufficient to issue threats against a nameless foe, and Jesus the magus knows this. So what’s the next item on Jesus’ agenda? A fact‐finding mission. Know your enemy. Ask its name. Have power over it.

The startling response is a shift into awareness of plurality. The spirit is now “Legion.” (I could point out how that choice of a term serves the anti‐Roman propaganda of writers in first century Palestine, or else comment that this may be the first textual evidence recorded in Western literature that supports the notion of an infernal hierarchy, given the militaristic organization implied in a troop of combative devils that must obviously be subordinate to some kind of commander) The reader, like Jesus, learns that a multitude of malefic spiritual intelligences, not just one, are in control of the hapless man. Confusingly (don’t devils thrive on confusion?) enough—especially for me, given my insistence on grammatical accuracy!—all subject‐antecedent agreements are tossed out the proverbial window. Nouns and pronouns aren’t matching, folks. What does one make of this? Is it one man with one devil? Many devils? One representing the many? A chorus of voices pleading simultaneously? (Like the throat singing employed by Tuvan shamans? Neato!) Who is addressing Jesus, asking for permission to enter the herd of swine? Is there unified consciousness here? One gets the impression that the it/they of “Legion” would have remained in the man indefinitely would it/they not have had to name itself/themselves before the inflexible, inexorable will of Jesus the magus.

Let’s fast forward a couple of millennia to the wildly popular, groundbreaking, and altogether extraordinary film that made its debut in my birth year (is that why I’m so enchanted with the demonic? The transference of a cultural obsession onto my consciousness at the latter’s very inception? Hmmm.): William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. This fictional work (which is, Blatty asserts, based upon the true story of an allegedly possessed 14‐year‐old boy who underwent the Roman Ritual of Exorcism in 1947) carries so much cultural currency that I’m not going to bother to recap the narrative. Let’s sink our teeth straight into the marrow of the matter: The presence of the demonic brings the anxiety of self‐identity front and center.

The viewer learns that the character of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is twelve years old. She’s skirting the precipice of adulthood, and doesn’t seem quite at home in the infantile and innocent, horse‐loving and colorful sculpture‐making world of her childhood. She’s caught in that precarious balance between attachment to and the yearning to be independent of her mother. The separation/divorce/whatever of her parents has pained her grievously. She finds refuge in the occult—namely, in contacting an entity calling itself “Captain Howdy” via a mass‐produced Ouija board. She has an intuitive understanding of her mother’s sexuality, asking her frankly if she’s attracted to the man who happens to be directing her latest movie. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) initially has a hard time believing that her little girl, once in the early stages of possession, could be this foul‐mouthed and incorrigible brat that her doctors say she is. (As one would expect, the possession is initially diagnosed as a brain lesion and then failing that, a nervous disorder for which the prescription is, you guessed it, Ritalin!) Is Regan a good girl, or a bad one? Innocent or devious? Even before the demonic has really manifested itself strongly in her person, she’s already seen as having a self‐identity crisis.

The next fascinating character in this parade of fragmentation is the highly likeable Father Damian Karras, S.J. (Jason Miller). (Blatty is really asking his viewers to suspend their disbelief now—a Greek man being a Catholic priest? Say what?!) He is likeable because he is shown to be a regular human being; his vocation doesn’t put him on a moral plateau above other people. In fact, his self‐identity crisis stems from the fact that he no longer feels that his vocation suits him; as a Jesuit psychiatric counselor to seminarians on Georgetown’s campus, he doesn’t think that he’s “cut out for the job” any longer. Is he burnt out? Or was this a mismatched vocation from the beginning? He smokes and drinks voluminously. His adorable, elderly Greek mother (she calls him “Dimi”) worries him because of her solitude given her precarious health condition (a gangrenous leg…from diabetes? Not sure). He wishes he lived back in New York City to care for her on a regular basis. He’s a good guy. It’s clear that he’s depressed, perhaps feeling that he’s just going through the motions of life—one of the legions of T.S. Eliot’s “Straw Men,” perhaps. He despairs that he seems to have lost his religious faith—the bedrock of his self‐identify. He maintains a healthy degree of skepticism concerning Regan’s state of demonic possession. Once the evidence is incontrovertible, and he is called to assist Fr. Merrin (Max von Sydow) in Regan’s exorcism, Fr. Karras again reveals himself to be a regular person—he shows fear and emotional vulnerability, losing his temper with the demon or demons inside Regan on more than one occasion and even going so far as to punch the afflicted child in the face! As to the question of faith, Fr. Karras—undoubtedly inspired by the unwavering holiness of his Jesuit mentor in the business of exorcisms, Fr. Merrin—appears to have that flame reignited, at least temporarily. During the famous scene of Regan’s levitation near the film’s climax, Fr. Karras enthusiastically joins in with the emphatic vocal exclamations of “the power of Christ compels you!” Fr. Karras almost appears to be smiling—because it looks as if the demonic hosts are being quelled, or could it be due to Fr. Karras’ own renewed religious faith? Obviously, the two need not be mutually exclusive causes.

But then frailty/the resurgence of the demonic waxes both in and around Fr. Karras. Upon returning to Regan’s bedroom after a sorely needed break in the arduous ceremony, Fr. Karras finds the limp and lifeless body of the aged Fr. Merrin on the floor. The possessed Regan is sitting tranquilly on the bed, freed from the fetters that had hitherto bound her (recall how the possessed man in the earlier‐quoted Bible passage was able to break free of all restraints, including iron chains—this makes one wonder if the demon[s] in Regan was/were only pretending to be restrained by those flimsy ropes to begin with). She looks upon the corpse of Fr. Merrin expressionlessly, and it isn’t until Fr. Karras makes the horrid discovery that the possessed child displays any sense of exultation. That’s when Karras loses it, shouting at the demon‐haunted Regan, “You son of a bitch!” and then tackling her/it/them to the floor and punching the kid/demon(s) in the face. Shockingly, Fr. Karras demands that the demons enter him instead—an interesting spin on Legion in Mark 5:12 asking for permission to enter the swine—and once a protective (St. Joseph? St. Christopher? St. Michael?) talisman is clawed off of Fr. Karras’ neck, the demons acquiesce to the request. Fr. Karras’ transmutation is instant, and his first impulse as a fully demonic being is to commit an act of egregious violence, first against the helpless Regan, who is sprawled and beaten on the floor, then against himself: instead of further maiming the girl, he chooses to commit suicide by leaping out the second room window and tumbling down a grossly steep flight of concrete steps. A bloody mess, indeed.

It is highly interesting to note that, unlike the entity/entities described in the passage in the Gospel of Mark, here the demonic doesn’t answer when pressed to surrender its name. Father Karras, in his first encounter with the demonic Regan, discovers that she is capable of speaking in Latin, a language that she had never studied (the ability to speak in “foreign tongues” one has never studied is a hallmark sign of demonic presence…kind of makes you wonder about those Pentecostal Christians who claim to “speak in tongues” during their Revival meetings!). He tries to engage her, striking up a conversation in Latin that concludes with the question, “What is your name?” The wily child refuses to answer, at first slyly grinning and then answering with a torrent of green, split‐pea soup‐like vomit (the first of many!). Again, confusion reigns—not just for the film’s priests, but for the viewer. Are we talking one or several demons? The ancient Mesopotamian god Pazuzu is evocatively present, but why? Are the “Captain Howdy” of Regan’s Ouija board and Pazuzu one and the same being? Are there many more? How many more? And why is Regan chosen for possession? And why is Fr. Merrin targeted? Is this vengeance? For what? Is it because the demon refuses to name or “out” itself that it winds up triumphing in the end?

Make no mistake about it, the forces of malefic spiritual entities triumph in this film: There is no happy ending. It’s an illusion or delusion, which are both provinces of the demonic anyway. The dark forces accomplished what they wanted to—using the girl as bait to lure the elderly Fr. Merrin to his death and then claiming the life and very soul of the doubt‐ridden Fr. Karras. The fact that Regan became well again and conveniently had no memory of this traumatic episode in her life, the fact that she and her actress mother can irresponsibly pack up and go from the mess that they made among the Catholic clerical community in D.C. for some California dreaming, does not mean that this film ends on a high note.

“It’s a depressing movie, depressing because evil is completely victorious in the end,” Father Mirko said to me in 1997. At the time, he was a deacon in a Chicago Serbian Orthodox church—the very one in which I was baptized as an infant, in fact—and he was teaching undergraduate theology classes at Loyola University Chicago’s Lake Shore Campus. I was in Loyola’s graduate program in English at the time, and I was suffering from severe depression (even though I had less than a year before graduating with my Masters degree). Depression in summer is a thousand times worse than the darker times of the year, in my experience; it makes one feel seasonally maladjusted, which just exacerbates the depression!

I was dealing with my own demons of self‐identity anxiety, among other things, and like the afflicted Gadarene in the Gospel of Mark, I spent a great deal of time crying alone, inflicting self‐injury. Instead of mountains and tombs, I wandered about the emptied corridors of Cudahy Library. My fetters weren’t made of iron, though; they were invisible ones—and I wasn’t capable of breaking them. For a period of three consecutive weeks, I kept renting and re‐renting The Exorcist and I watched it at least once daily, still managing to keep up with my assignments and research over the summer semester. I ran into Father Mirko quite by happenstance on campus early one July evening and I wanted to get his thoughts on Blatty’s film. In his theological assessment, it’s accurate. Demonic beings do exist, he would tell me; they loathe human beings, who are made in imago Dei, and revel in their degradation. People of exceptional intelligence and talent are highly coveted to join their ranks. Once he told me that he sensed that my depression was spiritually based, and even that spiritually malefic intelligences were, in fact, culpable for it, he suggested that I would benefit from having an exorcism. It isn’t widely discussed in the Eastern Orthodox Church but it is regularly deployed as a ritual, he admitted. He wanted to discuss my situation with his superiors in the Orthodox clergy hierarchy. I laughed in his face, and I don’t know what kind of facial expression I wielded at the time, but he found it disturbing enough to cross himself. In hindsight, I wished that I had said yes.

Psychologically, it couldn’t have harmed me any; I would either have been immensely amused or even touched that someone would go to such extreme lengths to alleviate the misery of my mental health at the time. At any rate, the Prozac didn’t help me then and the power of suggestion can be very, well, powerful. Oh well.

And had I undergone the ceremony and had beings been discerned and expelled from me, what then? What are the implications for individuals struggling to eke out an existence in this postmodern, crazy world—how does this affect one’s worldview? How does this affect our concept of self‐identity, of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and live them as though they were real? Would I have had a Pazuzu or two fly out of my mouth? Would my face have grimaced and leered? Would I have writhed around and winced upon the sensation of holy water coming into contact with my skin? Could I have puked split‐pea soup if I hadn’t eaten any? Could I have started conversations in Latin and channeled the voices of family members long since dead? That would have been something, because it might have injected a sense of wonder into this hollowed out, mechanical world. It might have served as a reminder that we are not cosmically alone, mindlessly floating about on “the third rock from the sun” (I miss that TV show!). It might have shown that there is a greater scheme or sense of purposefulness than can be discerned with the naked eye, and that each one of us matters.

It might have shown me all those things. Instead, all I have surrounding me by way of empirical evidence is the meta‐narrative of societal self‐identity construction and its breakdown. Being and nothingness.

William Blake was right: Hell is fragmentation. And Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth was right too: “Hell is murky.” The best we can ask for in this life is for each of us to be our own lamps.

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