Father Damien Karras has charmed and haunted audiences in the 50 years since The Exorcist’s release. The priest-psychiatrist represented the uneasy rapprochement between psychology and Catholicism, which persists half a century later.

Jason Miller, whose pensive stare and dark features are immediately evocative of “the Exorcist priest,” won the role by accident, after director William Friedkin stumbled upon his work as a playwright. Friedkin had considered several high-profile stars, including Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman, to play Karras, but he settled on Stacy Keach, an Off Broadway actor who a year earlier played a breakout role as a Texas vice cop in The New Centurions.

Fate intervened after Friedkin read a New York Times profile of Miller, a Scranton-based actor-playwright who had been working as a milkman. That Championship Season, Miller’s play about a state-title-winning basketball team, was running at a New York theater when Friedkin was in town, shopping for sets. Friedkin saw the play, said that it had an air of “lapsed Catholicism” (the hard-bitten head coach was an admirer of Father Charles Coughlin), and demanded to pick the playwright’s brain about how best to capture the lukewarm spirituality of 1960s Georgetown.

When the two met in a suite at the Sherry–Netherland, Friedkin told Miller that he was filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel about an exorcism. Miller mentioned that he had studied for three years to be a priest, only to withdraw after experiencing a crisis of faith. In his memoir, Friedkin reports that Miller “seemed only mildly interested” in the film. Friedkin left Miller a copy of Blatty’s novel and returned to California. Weeks later, in the days leading up to production, Friedkin received an unexpected call. It was Jason Miller: “I read that book you told me about,” he said. “That exorcist. That guy is me.”

Miller twisted Friedkin’s arm and begged for an audition. Friedkin agreed on the condition that Miller pay his own way to California. After screening a test shot of Miller saying Mass as Father Karras, Friedkin knew that Miller, with “dark good looks, haunted eyes, quiet intensity, and low, compassionate voice,” was the only choice for the role. Warner Brothers executives bought out Keach and signed Miller to play Karras.

Miller’s own crisis of faith doubtless contributed to the “haunted eyes” that Friedkin identified in the test screening. It also left an impact on the film. Blatty, who adapted his novel for the screenplay, apparently changed the nature of Karras’s faith crisis to mirror Miller’s. In the novel, Karras grapples with his faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In the film, Karras says that he wants out of his assignment as a Georgetown psychiatrist because he struggles to advise his “patients” on matters of “their vocation and the meaning of their lives.”

Miller had struggled with his own “vocation”; he lost his faith pondering whether God was asking him to live as a celibate priest. In the film, Father Karras does not grapple with the question of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist—a theological dispute prosecuted by critics and exegetes for centuries—but instead with whether and how a person can come to know his vocation, an existential question that plumbs the depths of God’s relationship to individual human beings. As both Miller and Father Karras discovered, discerning a vocation—or an unchosen call to live as either a celibate or married person, as revealed by prayerful discernment and self-examination—requires both an unwavering belief in God and in one’s own sanity. If a person “knows” the God who created him is calling him to be a priest but feels “dis-eased” when presented with the prospect of lifelong celibacy, is he a mental patient, or the subject of spiritual warfare? Is there really a God “calling” people to such radical forms of life? If so, is it the God of the New Testament? Were Karras’s “patients” hearing calls to obedience from that God, or the voice of their neuroses? Father Karras, the priest-psychiatrist, refused to be either priest or psychiatrist. “I’m not up for it,” he tells the other Jesuit.

Karras’s uncertainty fades throughout the film, as he assumes less a psychiatrist’s role than a priest’s. His character’s arc mirrors that of Chris MacNeil, the secularist mother of the possessed Regan, who watches her daughter’s slow descent into demonic possession and grows progressively more willing to entertain a spiritual explanation for her daughter’s condition.

A thoroughgoing secularist, Chris starts with the physical sciences, bringing Regan to a team of neurologists who run a series of what she supposes are precise and “objective” tests. The nature of the tests themselves shatters that illusion, as the doctors shove a catheter into Regan’s throat to perform a cerebral angiography, spraying blood as Regan squirms. Doctors then place her under a series of whirring machines that resemble nothing so much as mechanized kabuki theater. After the results come in negative, the neurologists are stumped.

Regan’s condition worsens. Chris takes one step away from material explanations for her daughter’s suffering and consults a psychiatrist, whom she finds similarly dense. One clinician tasked with examining the shaking, writhing, head-spinning Regan claims that she is experiencing “accelerated motor performance.” Another suggests consulting an exorcist, though he cautions that exorcisms don’t work for the reasons their practitioners claim. “Power of suggestion,” the clinician says. 

Only after exhausting the physical and psychological does Chris turn to Father Karras, the troubled priest-psychiatrist. Karras all but refuses to entertain a spiritual explanation for Regan’s suffering, telling Chris to bring her daughter to a psychiatrist for months of clinical observation. Chris, whose head is wrapped in a shawl and eyes are covered by sunglasses, begs Karras: “Not a psychiatrist. She needs a priest.”

What follows is well-known to anyone who has seen the film. Karras finds his faith vindicated, ironically, by the incontrovertible existence of evil. He utters with increasing conviction the rite of exorcism, splashing holy water on a writhing child, feeling the room shake as his fellow priest, the veteran Father Merrin, invokes the power of Christ and the blood of the martyrs. After Merrin dies of a heart attack, Karras attacks the possessed child, and tells the demon to take hold of him. Like the swine who ran to their deaths after assuming the demons of a man whom Christ exorcised, the now-possessed Karras throws himself headlong out of a window, ending his life in a moment of symbolic convergence with the New Testament narrative.

The truth, or falsehood, of that narrative lies at the heart of The Exorcist. Can we be contented with a public Christianity that wears the costume of the real thing, fit with clerics and churches like the historic campus of Georgetown, but does not believe that the Christian story is true on its own terms? Is the New Testament story a myth, bound up in the biases and neuroses of its authors? Did Jesus of Nazareth really expel demons from demoniacs in first-century Palestine, or are “demons” and “demoniacs” first-century bywords for mental illness and its sufferers? Jason Miller and Father Karras resolved it differently, but the question remains: Who would live as a celibate priest, much less die a martyr whose death will be invoked in a future exorcism, for a story that’s something less than true?

Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images


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