The truth? Even as adults, we have our teddy bears. They’re our husbands or wives, our children, our jobs, our homes, our automobiles, our doctors, and all the other persons, places, and things (and, for that matter, qualities and ideas) that make us feel safe and secure (as well as important and meaningful).
Most of us, although we may lose one or more of these teddy bears, seldom lose them all. A spouse may die; we may be fired; we may lose our homes to foreclosure, our doctors may retire or move away, but, most of the time, not all of these possibilities are realized; we are not, as a rule, fully abandoned. We retain at least, one teddy bear, and often several. That is, until death arrives, to strip us not only of these symbols of our security, but also of life itself and the very flesh we wear, leaving us both nameless and faceless in the grave forever.
In “The Horror of The Exorcist: Its Presentation and Confrontation,” J. W. Ocker contends that “horrifying an audience” is a relatively simple matter, requiring nothing more than the filming of “atrocity.” Such filming becomes “art,” he suggests, only when the atrocity is given some sort of redeeming value, when it is filmed “in a meaningful way without reveling in the horror” (72). The Exorcist is artistic because it accomplishes this end, using atrocity to examine “what has been termed, in the theological realm, ‘the problem of evil,’” or “the paradox that seemingly unbounded atrocity can occur in a universe that is the product of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, benign Creator” (74-75). The novel’s (and the movie’s) theme transcends the horror of evil per se and of “an individual child being subjected to that evil” (74) to ask what meaning or purpose human existence can have in such a universe.
In other words, The Exorcist’s unrelenting “presentation and confrontation” of evil “does not allow us to distance ourselves from the evil” by “turning it into some fantastical construct of the nightly news or [a] philosophical plaything” (74) and, therefore, the novel (and the movie) makes each reader come to terms with the significance of evil’s existence. In short, The Exorcist holds the reader’s (or the moviegoer’s) feet to the fire of hell. Evil becomes real; it is not merely an anecdote or an abstraction.
The type of horror that The Exorcist’s depiction of “the problem of evil” represents is both religious and existential: “Such a horror finds its potency in the possibility of a faith unfounded, a worldview demolished. . . . It is the horror of ultimate betrayal” (75). This is the horror, one might argue, of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” or Sir Winston Churchill’s “Man Overboard.” In both short stories, the protagonists expect to be rescued, but learn, as they languish, dying at sea, that they are quite alone in an uncaring universe in which no sign of God is to be seen, perhaps because there is no God. It is a horror, one might suppose, to which there is no lower, deeper pit, the nadir of despair itself, but such is not the case, Ocker contends; rather, it is the herald of, and the catalyst to, a deeper, even more devastating understanding regarding the true nature of the universe, the type of vision that one discerns in the works, for example, of the Marquis de Sade:
This type of horror is different from, but the close forerunner of another type of horror. . . . That terror is of a universe that is either indifferent or hostile to our own existence. It is a universe in which there is no guarantee that good will triumph over evil “in the end” nor even any reason why it should. It is a universe where there is no real basis to value good over evil. . . [and] each one is a force as natural and as much a part of our reality as anything else. It is a universe in which saying that it is bad to subject a child to torment and obscenity is to say something nonsensical. One can only say in that universe, that the child is or is not being subjected to such, and one cannot tag onto that fact an objective moral judgment (75).
In bringing his reader face to face, as it were, with mindless evil, The Exorcist’s author, William Peter Blatty, denies him or her the opportunity to escape into clichéd presentations or abstract understandings of human suffering. He gives to such evil a human face, that of preteen Regan MacNeil. In other words, he takes away the teddy bear of a shallow, but comforting, religious faith that assumes that, because “God is in his heaven, all is right with the world” (“Pippa Passes”).
Others who abandoned such a teddy bear include those writers whose names or works have been mentioned--deists (Thomas Jefferson, for example), Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett, Stephen Crane, Sir Winston Churchill, the author of Job, William Shakespeare--and some, either they or others, have even gone so far as to suggest a purpose for life in what might be regarded as a purposeless universe. Hedonists suggest that we should pursue pleasure and avoid pain, enjoying life in the here and now. After all, once death occurs, we will ourselves shall have ceased to exist. Others, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, propose that, by pursuing our own interests while, at the same time, accepting responsibility for our actions, we can live as authentic an existence as it is possible for creatures who are both finite and temporal to live. Still others, such as Nietzsche, recommend that we persist in order to give rise to the superman who shall come, through us, to inherit the world and to live beyond the categories of good and evil, a law--and a sort of god--unto himself.
Blatty himself surrendered his teddy bear, believing that the so-called problem of evil was real and must be not only “presented” but “confronted,” as Ockley’s essay’s title suggests, but Blatty, in confronting this issue, remains a man of faith, and a man of a deeper and truer faith than that expressed by Robert Browning’s “Pippa Passes.” The novelist’s conclusion regarding the matter seems to be spoken by Father Merrin, who tells his fellow exorcist, Father Karras:
I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us. . . The observers. . . Every person in this house. . . . I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity. . . To see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately 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 is finally a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us.
The problem of evil, truly understood, is the taking away of the final, and the most cherished, of all teddy bears, the belief that life is meaningful, purposeful, and worthwhile. Paradoxically, the loss of this final teddy bear can allow its replacement not by another token of security but by the only true security there is, if there is, indeed, any at all, the God who is not only the ground of being-itself but also love. This is the answer, to the extent that an answer is possible, that Blatty’s novel offers to the problem of evil, “not an explanation,” as Ocker observes, as much as “a context”:
For Father Merrin, the exorcist, there was no doubt that there is a God, there was no doubt that evil exists, and there was no reason to dally with paradoxes. As a result, he was ready for immediate action, unlike the doctors, psychiatrists, and Father Karras himself (at first). Nor does Merrin’s death take anything away from that, for without his help, without his strength, without his sacrifice and the catalyst of his death, there could only have been more horror for all involved (77).