That Thing: A True Story Based on The Exorcist
by Adam Sturtevant
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I don’t know what my parents were thinking — somehow, for some reason, they let me watch The Exorcist when I was eight years old. When the movie first came out in 1973, there were stories about audience members fainting, puking, and fleeing the theater, but apparently my parents saw no problem with their prepubescent son taking a peek. We were all in the basement one night, channel-surfing, and there it was on TV. My parents put down the remote and for the rest of my childhood I failed to get a decent night’s sleep.
Needless to say, I grew up in a liberal household. Just like Chris MacNeil, the mother in The Exorcist, my mother was an actress. She was from a well-to-do Jewish family of doctors, lawyers, actors, and activists. My father, on the other hand, was the first member of his family to go to college. Determined to overcome his blue-collar background, he worked in an emergency room to pay his way through school. He studied literature, then went on to a doctoral program in music. He wrote his thesis on 17th century French Baroque opera, but at some point he gave up on the PhD. As he explained it, he got into advertising instead because “that’s where the money was,” but at home, his love for books and music endured.
Our living room was set up like this: all along the walls were shelves packed with books and CD’s; a pair of towering speakers, the size and shape of doors, stood at the far end. Bright golden wires snaked out the backs of the speakers and slithered under the carpet, leading to a wooden cabinet full of top-of-the-line audio equipment, blinking black boxes encased like relics behind the glass. Next to the cabinet sat a leather recliner — the old man’s throne. He’d sit there every evening, reading a thick hardcover and sipping a screwdriver while the sounds of the Classical, Baroque, and Romantic masters blasted through the house in high-definition. Every once in a while he’d set down his book, take off his reading glasses, and close his eyes, just listening.
It was dangerous to interrupt him, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. He wouldn’t get angry or tell me to get lost; he’d quiz me. “Who’s the composer, Ad?” he’d ask. I’d listen to the music for a while, then venture a guess. If the music was joyous: Mozart; if it was angry: Beethoven; regal: Hayden. If I heard an organ: Bach; a harpsichord: Corelli; a lone violin blazing up and down the scales: Vivaldi. If I guessed right, the old man would beam with pleasure and mess up my hair.
Conversations at dinner consisted mostly of lectures — music, literature, art, history, science. The old man knew everything. He even looked like a professor, stout and paunchy, with a huge, round head, and a thick multi-colored beard. He’d drone on and on about Winston Churchill or the big bang while both our eyes slowly glazed over, his from the screwdrivers, mine from boredom.
My father also had something in common with Chris MacNeil — he was an atheist. According to him, the universe was a well-ordered place, full of ugliness as well as sublime beauty, but knowable, adherent to certain rules. There was no god, no afterlife, no ghosts. I tried to keep this in mind when we finally retired for the night, but while the old man slept, comfortable and content with his understanding of the world, I was wide-awake in bed, absolutely certain I was about to be possessed by a demon.
My dreams were haunted by images from the movie. I’d see Linda Blair’s twisted, gnarled face and wake up in a sweat, unable to move, unable to sleep. A few times I was sure I felt my bed shake, just as Regan’s bed shook, and flee the room to go sleep on the living room couch. Some mornings my parents found me asleep on the floor of their bedroom. One morning I was missing completely, and after scouring the entire house they eventually found me crammed under my bed, fast asleep.
Why couldn’t I just understand, as my father understood, that it wasn’t real? That it was all in my head? I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something real at the heart of my fear.
According to Carl Jung, dreams have a compensatory function. Recurring nightmares are the mind’s way of dealing with past trauma through repeated exposure. Clearly, I’d been traumatized by The Exorcist and was now reliving it night after night to diminish my fear. But Jesus, how long does that take? Why couldn’t I just understand, as my father understood, that it wasn’t real? That it was all in my head? I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something real at the heart of my fear.
It probably didn’t help that one of the movie’s taglines was “Based on a true story.”
Now, I want you to tell me you know for a fact that there’s nothing wrong with my daughter, except in her mind. You tell me for a fact that an exorcism wouldn’t do any good. You tell me that.
I went to college in Boston to study music, and continued living there after graduation. When I wasn’t practicing or in rehearsal, I’d go on long walks, listening to music on my headphones. One fall day I was walking around the Back Bay, the red, orange, and yellow leaves coloring the trees and crunching under my feet, when my mother called.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Everything’s fine. We’re all fine,” she said, but I could tell from the sound of her voice that it wasn’t true.
“I just had a talk with your father,” she said.
My father had made a confession to her that day. He’d been getting the shakes — withdrawal symptoms from all the drinking. It was especially bad in the mornings, so he’d been sneaking sips from the bottle at work.
“He’s drinking at work?” I asked.
“Just a little. To stave off the withdrawal.”
“So, he’s an alcoholic.”
“He says not to worry, that he’s got it under control. He just wanted to let me know.”
The wind picked up and sent the fiery leaves swirling around me, and I felt the vertigo of revelation. I knew the real reason she’d called me. The old man and I were close. After a few years of estrangement, we’d recently rekindled our relationship. Unlike my brother, I’d come to share his love of books and music, and we’d bonded over these things in long talks and email exchanges. He loved to say how similar we were, how he was just like me when he was my age.
For most people, the old man was impossible to talk to. He believed he was smarter than everyone else, and was too proud and too stubborn to take anyone’s advice. Even now, finally admitting that he had a problem, he still insisted that he “had it under control.”
Even now, finally admitting that he had a problem, he still insisted that he “had it under control.”
My mother’s thinking was that if he were to listen to anyone, he would listen to me.
“Want me to call him?” I asked.
After pacing aimlessly for a while, gathering my thoughts, I called the old man at work. I asked him about what I’d heard, and he admitted everything. He didn’t sound the least bit worried or ashamed. He voice was calm and reassuring.
“I appreciate your concern, Ad, but don’t worry. You’ve got your own life to worry about. You’re young. This is one of the best times of your life. Enjoy it. Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
In 2000 a new version of The Exorcist was released in the theaters, with never-before-seen footage and added special effects. I went, partly out of curiosity, partly to test myself. It had been a while since I’d last seen it, and I wasn’t sure how it would affect me, how much power it still had. My heart raced as I entered the theater and pounded as the lights went down. As the film began I felt the usual shivers and pangs of dread, but as it progressed my terror subsided. Something wasn’t right. In this new version, a few ghostly images had been added — flashes of the demon Pazuzu appearing in the dark corners of the house. They were unseen by the characters, solely for the audience’s benefit. To me, these flashes ruined the movie, and as the lights came up and I made my way out of the theater, I realized why.
Those images tell us right from the start what’s going on. If Chris MacNeil had known right away that a demon was the culprit and an exorcism the solution, it would have been like any other shitty, predictable Hollywood horror flick. But The Exorcist is different, because the emotional core of the story, the source of all that dread and terror and fear, is doubt.
But The Exorcist is different, because the emotional core of the story, the source of all that dread and terror and fear, is doubt.
No one believes that Regan’s troubles are supernatural; they are certain they are either physiological or psychological, but they can’t seem to pinpoint the cause. The root of Chris’s suffering is her helplessness in an absence of answers. Even Father Karras, her savior, doubts until the very end. Only during the climactic exorcism scene, when he sees Regan levitate above the bed, does he finally believe. Doubt is the demon that is vanquished in that moment. Until then, you could say that The Exorcist really isn’t a horror movie at all. At its heart, The Exorcist is a movie about illness.
My father confessed his problem to his partners at the ad agency. They suggested that he go to rehab, and of course the old man refused. He was the creative director and the sole copywriter; the agency needed him to function, but the old man didn’t budge. He assured them that he “had it under control.” But he didn’t, and the agency soon closed its doors.
Then the old man was at home, without a job, with nothing to do but drink. We fought and begged him to get help, only to be told, again and again, that he had it under control, while all the signs suggested otherwise.
For the MacNeils, the trouble began with booms and crashes in the attic. For my mother, the booms and crashes issued from the living room. The old man had fallen, she told me, resulting in a gash on his head. Then he fell again and broke his finger. One day he decided to clean his motorcycle. When my mother finally heard his cries for help, she ran outside to find him on the ground, pinned beneath the bike. She had to call the police to come lift it off. I decided it was time to come home.
The old man’s transformation seemed both gradual and sudden. His diet shrunk, his vodka intake increased. Walking became difficult, then dangerous. He continued to pass out mid-stride, suddenly turning white and collapsing. As he staggered from the couch to the kitchen, holding onto walls and bookcases for support, my mother followed behind him in a panic, carrying a chair to catch him in, asking again and again if he was all right. Eventually he stopped walking, for the most part. He spent most of the day in his throne, only now the stereo was silent. His eyes, instead of focusing on a book, wandered around the room in a daze.
No more screwdrivers, just straight vodka from two-liter plastic bottles stored in the freezer. They were empty in a day or two, and diligently replaced by my mother. “Why?” my brother and I asked. “Why in the hell do you buy it for him?”
“Why?” my brother and I asked. “Why in the hell do you buy it for him?”
Her answer was simple, and sounded well-rehearsed: she had no choice. If the old man tried to drive to the store himself, he’d kill somebody. If she hid the car keys, he’d have a seizure, and possibly die.
Before performing an exorcism, it must be determined by a qualified priest whether or not the possession is authentic. There are a few ways to do this. A victim speaking fluently in a language he or she has never studied, for example, serves as proof that an outside spirit is at work, as opposed to a disorder of the mind.
One evening, as my mother and I were serving ourselves dinner, the old man staggered into the kitchen. In a stained, wrinkled T-shirt and sweatpants, his hair plastered to his head with sweat, every part of his body swollen and mottled, he looked about eighty years old, though he was only fifty-eight. Wearing that dazed, content look on his face, he opened the freezer and refilled his glass, then slowly shuffled back to his throne.
I had to do something, but there was a question standing in the way. Was it was a conscious act, destroying himself like this, or was he powerless against the booze? If he was powerless, that meant we could help him. We could call an ambulance, get him to a hospital, check him into rehab. But what if he didn’t want our help? What if he wanted to die? I couldn’t tell if he was the victim or the perpetrator.
I put down my plate and followed him into the living room. He was on the couch, staring into space. There was no music playing, no open book in his lap, just the glass of vodka cradled in his hands. I pulled up an ottoman and sat across from him.
His eyes floated around the room before landing in my direction. My mother quietly snuck into the room and sat silently in the corner.
“Dad,” I said. “Do you know how fucked up you are?”
His lips moved silently for a while before he managed a reply.
“Don’t… talk to me,” he said. He took the newspaper off the table and unfolded it.
“You’ll die if you keep this up, you know that?”
“Don’t talk to me.”
But I did talk to him. I talked to him at length, in great detail, telling him exactly what I thought. I yanked the newspaper from his hands and yelled in his face. I threatened to call the cops, to have him committed against his will. I told him that he was a sick, selfish, crazy bastard for doing this to himself and making us watch, for making my mother take care of him, for making her clean up his cuts and bruises and follow him around the house with chairs, making her go out and buy booze for him, even, hoping and praying that he’d stay put, that he wouldn’t walk around and pass out and crack his head open, wondering if she’d come home to find her husband lying facedown in a puddle of blood.
“That’s enough,” my mother said.
The old man was silent, his face blank. Locked in a dark room a million miles away. I gave up.
“Fine,” I said, turning to head out of the room. “Drink yourself to death if you want. I don’t give a fuck.”
You show me Regan’s double, same face, same voice, everything, and I’d know it wasn’t Regan. I’d know in my gut. And I’m telling you that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter.
The old man moved from the couch in the living room to the couch in the den. Instead of reading or listening to music, he watched TV. He watched cooking shows, mostly, which was strange considering he never ate a thing except vodka. The room smelled like sweat and piss. He began wearing diapers, which my mother bought, and changed.
Illness is ugly. I learned that, watching my father deteriorate. Not just the bodily functions, although that was a big part of it. The real ugliness was the deterioration of his person. The things that came out of his mouth.
The real ugliness was the deterioration of his person. The things that came out of his mouth.
One day I went in to check on him, and he was watching a documentary about the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“You probably don’t remember,” he said. “You were just a baby.”
“I wasn’t born yet, Dad. I was born in ‘83.”
His eyes wandered around the room for a while, doing the math.
“So… you were just a baby.”
In horror movies the monster chases you, and you run. In The Exorcist the monster is just down the hall. It can’t chase you, because it’s strapped to the bed. You don’t run from it, you live with it. You walk down the hall and check on it.
“Did you know that your mother climbed Mt. Everest?”
“I think you were dreaming, Dad.”
“Nope. I heard it. They said it on TV.”
He once read for hours every day. He could rattle off the dates of every battle in WWII. He could explain quantum physics and general relativity. He could identify any piece of music after hearing the first three seconds. My father knew everything, and that thing in the other room was not my father.
One day the old man couldn’t stand up anymore. It scared him, and he finally agreed to go to the hospital. My mother called an ambulance and two paramedics came to the house. They moved the coffee table aside, brought in a stretcher and struggled to lift his massive, swollen body onto it. My mother and I followed them to the hospital, checked him into the ER, and waited.
A couple hours later the doctor brought us back to his room. Parting the curtain, we were shocked by what we saw. Under the blinding fluorescent lights, we could see for the first time how yellow his skin had become, how swollen his stomach and limbs.
“This is the final stages of alcoholism,” the doctor told us. What that meant, my mother explained on the car ride home, was that there was nothing they could do. Nothing but keep the old man comfortable, and wait.
After a week in intensive care, we brought him home. A hospital bed was set up in the den, facing the TV. We were given his medications, with instructions: benzodiazepines at regular intervals, and morphine for when it got really bad. Both were in liquid form, because his throat was too badly swollen for solids. He couldn’t eat, and was too drugged to speak. He slept, mostly, the TV remaining on at all times, to keep him company. Sometimes he coughed or moaned in pain. Sometimes he whimpered. Tears as thick as corn syrup rolled down his cheeks. A nurse came in the morning to clean him and check his condition. My mother and I watched, and waited.
Late one night I heard the old man groaning. My mother had already gone to bed, so I went in to check on him. In the dark room lit only by the blue flickers of the TV, the old man was struggling with the sheets, writhing in pain. I took the unopened glass bottle off the tray.
“Dad, are you in pain?”
“Do you want some morphine? I can give you some morphine if you want. Tell me what you want.”
“Morphine,” he whispered.
I unscrewed the bottle, measured out the dose with the dropper and put it in his mouth. He clenched it in his teeth and sucked it fiercely. I yanked the dropper away.
“Did you get it?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
I held the dropper up to the light of the TV. It was empty.
“You got it. You’ll feel better soon.”
“No I didn’t!”
His voice was suddenly clear, filled with a newfound strength that sickened me. I examined the tiny bottle, still full of purple liquid. The old man was in pain. We were all in pain. What was the point of letting it go on?
I’m still not sure why I didn’t do it. Maybe I decided it was wrong, or that it wasn’t my job, but more likely it was out of anger. It was that eagerness in his voice, reminding me that he wasn’t sick, was not a helpless victim. He was an addict. There was no evil spirit at work, just him. He did this to himself. To all of us.
Why her? Why this girl?
I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.
It wasn’t long before we went in to check on him and found a corpse in the bed. One look and it was clear that my father was gone. It was over, and I felt relief. Maybe that seems like a strange or horrible thing to admit, but it’s the truth. We knew there was no hope. There was nothing for us to do but watch and wait. It felt endless, all that watching and waiting, living day after day with that thing in the house, that sickness, that smell, that pain, that ugliness festering just down the hall, in that room I was afraid to enter. My worst childhood nightmares had quite literally come true, and now it was finally over. How could I feel anything but relief?
It’s been almost ten years since my father died. I try to remember him when he was well. I think about all his lectures about art and literature and history and science. I think about all those talks we had about books and music, how we used to sit together and listen to his favorite composers while he tried to convey to me the beauty of their work. I think about my first year of college, when my anxiety worsened and I began having panic attacks, how he reassured me. He told me that he had the same problem, that he’d had it his whole life, that it was one of the reasons he drank. He said it would always be with me, but I’d learn to cope, just as he had. He said life would be hard sometimes, but it would be okay because there is so much beauty in the world, in books, in music, in art, so many beautiful things to experience in life that make it all worth it.
I think about those words, and how little they meant in the end. How all the beauty in the world couldn’t compare to the bottle.
I still have nightmares, but they’re not about Linda Blair anymore, they’re about my father. The dream is always the same: he didn’t die; he recovered, but now he’s started drinking again.
Some say it’s a disease, just like any other disease. Others say it’s not a disease at all, because human beings have free will. Alcoholics have the power to choose to drink or not to drink, whereas true victims of disease have no choice in the matter. Some have compromised and called it “a disease of the will.”
A disease of the will — I find that label the most unsettling of all. We like to think of ourselves as separate from our illness. We like to blame an outside source, whether it’s evil spirits or microbes, anything foreign, anything outside ourselves. We love to pinpoint the cause, to point to that tumor, that gene, that trauma, and say, Aha! There’s your problem! It’s comforting, because it reminds us that we are not our illness. Its ugliness is not our ugliness. We have free will, but our bodies have wills of their own, and though your body will decay, as long as you retain your will, you will retain your humanity, your soul, that part of you that might still be loved.
But to think that even that can be infected, and changed, and taken away — that’s the thought that keeps me up at night.
Originally published at electricliterature.com on October 6, 2015.