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In the classic film The Exorcist (1973), when exactly did Regan become possessed by the demon? What event triggered the possession, and what was the demon's motivation for possessing her?

Was it the Ouija board? Was it something Regan did to deserve possession?

I recall from the movie that the demon (while in Regan's body) asks Regan's mother Chris,

Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughter?

Later in the movie, Chris tells another character that Regan killed Mr. Dennings.

Maybe Regan was possessed because she committed murder, although now that I recall, Regan killed Mr. Dennings after she became possessed. So when and why did the demon possess her?

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    @TestSubject528491- Welcome to the site. Nice question. I editted it before it got flagged as offensive. – Major Stackings Nov 3 '12 at 5:15
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    @MajorStackings, thanks for the edit. It's unfortunate that a profane word, even in a direct quote and not targeted toward any one person or group, would risk the post getting flagged. I consider it a censorship of culture. But what must be done must be done. – chharvey Nov 3 '12 at 14:24
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    @Gilles OK. I read the meta post, and now that I've seen SteveED's answer, it appears my edit was hasty. Those unwritten rules get me every time. :) (you made me look up bowdlerizing) – Major Stackings Nov 3 '12 at 17:33
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    I've edited it using spoiler text. If this is not an improvement, please feel free to roll back. – Wikis Nov 5 '12 at 7:28
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The answer for the "why" is found in a scene that was cut from the original edit of the movie, transcribed here:

Scene 232

INT. HALL OUTSIDE REGAN'S BEDROOM

In the dimness, Merrin and Karras lean against a wall, their faces numb with shock as they stare at door to Regan's room. O.S. singing continues.

KARRAS: Father, what's going on in there? What is it? If that's the Devil, why this girl? It makes no sense.

MERRIN: I think the point is to make us despair, Damien—to see ourselves as animal, and ugly—to reject our own humanity—to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.

That, more than anything else, is why Regan gets possessed.

Accumulated evidence throughout the film makes clear that the demon inside Regan is a master of deception. Consider the "holy water" scene: the demon surely knows the difference between actual holy water, and the tap water that Karras is merely pretending is holy water. Yet it chooses to react as Regan would have, if she was merely a mentally ill little girl who only believed herself to be possessed, and thought she was splashed with real holy water.

So even though it may appear that Regan is the target of the demon's attacks, she is actually a weapon being employed against Karras. (That's something that I believe William Peter Blatty, the author of the book, has stated outright in interviews.) From her mouth the demon speaks in the voices of and repeats the words of both a bum who begged Karras for help but received none, and Karras' mother, whose recent death Karras feels is due at least in part to his neglect. Karras' loss of faith is less about doubting that there is a God who could save us, and more about doubting whether we deserve to be saved.

Could the Ouija board have been a necessary step in Regan's possession? Perhaps. But then again, this demon is a deceiver. It pretends to Karras weaknesses and limits that it doesn't actually have, in order to further its game. If it picked a little girl who never did anything wrong to possess, then it would be obvious that the cause of the misfortune came from outside - that "bad things happen to good people". But by choosing a little girl who's played with a spirit board, it plants the seed "maybe all this is happening to her because she brought it on herself" - that maybe bad things happen to us because we're bad ourselves. Again, we've seen the demon capable of that kind of subtlety, so we have no way of knowing whether the Ouija board actually opened a door, or whether it simply wanted things to look that way. The demon wants us to believe we deserve the bad things that happen to us, but that doesn't mean it's the truth.

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If I remember the book, I think it has more details than were in the movie. (I don't know if it's appropriate to crossover book-to-movie in an answer like this.)

Simply put, Reagan had started masturbating.

As I recall the whole "possession" thing is a kind of metaphor on the changes of puberty and the church's fear of (especially womens') sexuality.

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    Your intepretation seems extremely dubious. The only references to masturbation I'm aware of, in the book or the movie, both take place after Regan is possessed. Do you have any textual evidence to support your idea? – afeldspar Jul 20 '14 at 16:20
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Another interpretation of the film is that Regan was being sexually abused.

A good question to ask is why was Mr Dennings in her bedroom? Her 'possession' started when this abuse started.

  • That's a good point too! I forgot about that – SteveED Nov 6 '12 at 2:12
  • So you think she would have been 'cured' once Mr. Dennings a was out of the picture? – chharvey Nov 9 '12 at 11:58
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    I don't think so, he was out of the picture very early in the film. Also, I believe, abuse victims often suffer for many years after the end of the abuse? – Stefan Nov 9 '12 at 12:43
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I wrote an entire essay on Blatty's supernatural/suspense novels years ago for Studies In Weird Fiction, "So Much Mystery...." reprinted later in the McFarland critical volume on Blatty's fiction American Exorcist. Though at this point, it could probably use a major expansion and updating! In any case, it helps to go back and study Blatty's novel, but the quick answer to this question is that, as Father Merrin states quite explicitly, that "there is only one" in answer to Karras's question about how many "manifestations" or demons/personalities are inhabiting Regan, implying that whether it's Pazuzu or whatever it calls itself, it's simply The Devil and his old foe come back to do battle once again.

But more to the point, I believe it's stated explicitly in the novel at least, that the target is NOT Regan, but rather, the figures surrounding her, or several in particular, including of course Merrin as the primary foe, and then Karras, Regan's mom, Dennings, and though off-screen, perhaps even Regan's estranged father. Regan is mainly just a vessel for Pazuzu/Satan (which doesn't really make much explicit sense since Pazuzu as we know is a pre-Christian Babylonian etc. demon and all that. It's just a manifestation of a greater evil, I think, an avatar, as Blatty seems to suggest through Merrin's former battles with Pazuzu as a primary "face" of Satan.)

I hope this also goes some way towards answering this complicated question. Plus, she's vulnerable for various reasons, as are many of her family and friends and hangers-on of the McNeil household, given secularism, other haunted backgrounds, and some of the characters' weak or nonexistent faith (but particularly Father Karras's as regards his own doubt of faith and his guilt over his elderly mother, etc. etc.) As for someone on WBAI FM's radio show's assertion this Halloween 2016 that the face of Pazuzu in the film seen several times in quick, subliminal (nearly) shots, is supposed to be an evil creepy clown-face, is really NOT accurate. It might superficially resemble such a thing, but in reality it appears the "face of the demon" was in fact mainly inspired, as I read myself just recently, by the Noh demon mask of the classic Japanese horror film Onibaba, which inspired William Friedkin to have the demon face makeup designed, to some degree, in that manner.

  • Thanks for posting! It is always great to have content creators and critics post here. Your argument is great, but it could use some support. If you could add some backup quotes, whether from your essay or the film (or later ones, tie-in works, etc.) that would readers understand and form their own views. – Adamant Nov 1 '16 at 4:23
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It seems fairly clear (at least by the end of the story) that the demon's target is Karras. The following exchange comes as close as anything to stating this explicitly (from IMDB quotes):

Demon: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Father Damien Karras: You would like that?
Demon: Intensely.
Father Damien Karras: But wouldn't that drive you out of Regan?
Demon: It would bring us together.
Father Damien Karras: You and Regan?
Demon: You and us.

Remember that at the time the demon seemed to be trying to deceive Karras by referring to itself as "us" (perhaps because Karras is a psychologist. He talks about having identified at least three personalities inside Reagan, it's a sort of thing an author might imagine that a psychologist would do :).

At the very end of the story, Karras explicitly invites the demon into him and it immediately does so. This suggests either that Karras was its target all along or that it wanted or required a willing or otherwise suitable host.

But this doesn't answer the question of "Why Reagan?" There are two major possibilities, neither of which is contradicted, as far as I remember, by either the book or the film.

The first suggestion is that the demon is an opportunist. It finds a way into the world via Reagan, perhaps because of the Ouija board, perhaps because she's lonely and a little neglected and therefore more susceptible. She has no understanding of the concept of demon possession and is apparently not freaked out by the fact that an invisible presence is talking to her. This suggests isolation from her peer group, as does her itinerant and protected lifestyle. The implication seems to be that the Ouija board got the demon's attention (otherwise why mention the board at all?) and that her isolation helped the demon to take hold of her. Reagan was also a good choice because her mother was oddly ignorant of the concept of possession too. Also, being an atheist, she made the reasonable assumption that Reagan's symptoms were caused by medical or psychological means. It's also worth noting that Reagan's mother was rich and powerful, which might be a useful tool for a demon intent on mayhem.

If the demon was simply taking an opportunity, then it would have found Reagan a good place to start. However, if Reagan were its ultimate goal, why didn't it just quietly inhabit her until it had opportunity to cause whatever mayhem it wanted? Why all the theatrics without actually achieving anything? Perhaps, as I said, it needed a willing host. The theatrics eventually caused Reagan's mother to believe in the possession. Perhaps it was looking for a particular kind of host: a priest? Someone with influence? Something more specific?

However, if Reagan was an almost ideal initial target for the demon, Karras was a good match too. He was losing or had lost his faith. He was a psychologist, so would be drawn to Reagan's case. He was grieving and feeling guilty over his mother's death. It seems likely enough that the demon would wish to infiltrate and corrupt the church and possessing Karras – someone who worked with other priests having crises of faith – would be an excellent way to achieve this.

All of this could have been orchestrated by an opportunistic demon and a favourable set of circumstances. However, the second suggestion is that Karras was the demon's intended victim after all. There's some circumstantial evidence to suggest this, but if so it was a very convoluted plan with many points at which it could fail (which it eventually does, of course). The demon seems too cunning to rely on such a complicated set of events.

Nevertheless, there are some indications that it might be the case. For example, Reagan's first instance of really odd behaviour was the party scene, which happened to be attended by a priest; Father Karras' friend. Reagan's mother had already noticed and been impressed with Karras, especially by his intensity. She asks the priest about Karras and this conversation is part of the reason she eventually contacts Karras.

Reagan's doctor (and later team of doctors) believe at first that Reagan's symptoms are medical. When they have exhausted that possibility, psychological means are sought instead. When that proves fruitless too, the exorcism as a psychological tool possibility is raised. The demon was in a position to manipulate Reagan's symptoms to this end, but why bother? I think this is the strongest evidence that the demon might have been targeting Karras all along, presumably because of his wavering faith and his position in the church, which would have made corrupting other priests very easy.

I favour the interpretation that the demon was an opportunist and a skilled tactical manipulator rather than a master strategist. It's the simplest and least convoluted explanation. But as far as I can remember, neither explanation is contradicted by either the book or the movie.

So to summarise: "Why Reagan?"

  1. If the demon was an opportunist, she was an easy target.
  2. If the demon was after Karras all along, she was the best means to get to him.

There are some suggestions in this thread that don't seem to be supported by either the movie or the book.

  1. That the demon entered Reagan because she had started masturbating. As someone else pointed out, there is no mention of masturbation until the incident with the cross, which occurred after she was possessed. Besides, it doesn't answer the question of why Reagan because everybody masturbates unless it is physically impossible for some reason. Why isn't everyone infested by demons?

  2. That Reagan had previously committed murder. There's no suggestion in the text or movie that this is the case. It seems likely that the demon murdered Dennings via Reagan but again, this is post-possession. The line about "do you know what [your daughter] did?" was delivered in Dennings' voice, after all, and clearly refers to his death.

  3. Sexual abuse. Other than her mother and the nanny, Reagan didn't seem to have contact with... well... anyone, really and there's no suggestion of sexual abuse of any kind in the book or movie. The suggestion that Dennings might be abusing Reagan is not borne out. There are many reasons for Dennings being in Reagan's room. The demon could have made her scream for help. It could have called to Dennings in a voice he recognised. An adult being in a child's room is hardly a conclusive indicator of sexual abuse.

We're all speculating about a work of fiction in any case, of course.

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Interesting question on why Burke Dennings would have been in Regan's room, because Detective Kinderman asks the same thing to her mother.

Blatty threw around a lot of concepts, implications, or reasons she might have been disturbed or "possessed in her mind", and it was for the reader to decide if she really was, but the book has a lot of clues, she may not have been, but Regan thought she was. . Burke was only staying around while Sharon got a prescription and Reagan was upstairs asleep. "Pazuzu" would have no reason to kill Burke, but Regan would since she thinks Burke is moving in on her mother, or he could have been molesting her .Burke was also an abusive asshole to the servant, Karl, in the book. Calling him a "Cunting Hun" and a " butchering Nazi, berating a man who was loyal to Chris and took good care of the home and Regan,when did Chris ever defend Karl? She was oblivious and let Burke get away with that with the excuse, "he gets that way when he drinks. Regan's behavior gets worse when Chris' friend gives her a book on Witchcraft and demonic possession, because Regan is playing with a Ouija Board, and the book "disappears". Her vulgar language to the doctor is exactly the language Burke used.

In other words, the book doesn't say it was an actual demon, but psychological. although, the movie implicates it actually is a demon.

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There is no mention of the strange idol found by the detective at the bottom of the steep concrete stairs. This idol is also seen in both versions of the prequel about the early years of Father Merrin. http://www.blumhouse.com/2016/08/18/comparing-the-exorcist-prequels-exorcist-the-beginning-vs-dominion/

This is because there was a second release of the film in 2000, see Collins’ Crypt: THE EXORCIST Director’s Cut Vs. Theatrical Versions.

I won't bore you with all the details, but basically there are two versions of the movie theatrical and director's cut. The spooky face/Japanese mask and the idol are only in the director's cut, leading to the idea that it was Father Merrin, and not Father Karras the demon had beef with from 1949. So, maybe the demon used Regan to get to Merrin through Karras. But, they both die, and it's just chaos and mayhem that the demon or Satan wants, or maybe just more souls and that's why it says us. But, I think that in the end, Father Karras gave his life to save the girl, because everyone knows possession leads to death.

  • I can't seem to find anything in your answer body itself discussing why Regan was possessed, could you edit your answer to make that more clear? – Edlothiad Nov 12 '17 at 14:11
  • I think I just did – Christine Green Nov 12 '17 at 14:17
  • You're right, the question was why and when. If you connect the fact that the idol of Pazuzu was found at the bottom of the stairs, then when Merrin was in DC he still had it. So, the proximity added to the athiest household, the isolation, etc. Merrin was the target, Regan was a tool along with Karras, a facilitator. – Christine Green Nov 12 '17 at 14:53
  • The first link has died - 404. – Greenonline Jun 18 '18 at 23:28
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I feel that the demon was attracted to Regan for several reasons. Pazuzu had met Father Merrin in a previous exorcism and Father Merrin is now in a location close to Washington DC. Regan was playing with the ouiga board. And something no one has mentioned Regan's mother was chosen to suffer also as was Father Karras. Reagan's mother takes the Lord's name in vain constantly and Father Karras is a priest losing his faith. All these things captured Pazuzu's attention but I believe mostly he wanted to confront Father Merrin.

  • These are all very plausible explanations, but nevertheless speculation. – chharvey Jun 12 '15 at 13:29
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What if Pazuzu was not the original demon that possessed her? The only bridge between the demon and her was the father, but she was already possessed. Perhaps the hidden story is fighting evil with evil. The father used Pazuzu to rid the girl if the hosts of unclean spirits that made contact with the board game. Hence his appearance towards the end and her bowing to him...... I dunno, just a thought

  • Hmmm. I suppose then the question becomes why the other spirits possessed her, though. – Adamant Aug 26 '16 at 3:07
  • Speculative answers are better with some explanation of how the theory is supported by the source material (in this case, what happened in the movie). – Blackwood Aug 26 '16 at 3:22

protected by Mithrandir Nov 21 '17 at 12:03

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