By Tony Jones
“Do we really need another book on the true story behind The Exorcist novel and film?”
Any long-term horror worth their salt has probably had at some point a passing interest in the 1949 ‘true’ story which inspired both William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” (1971) novel and the hugely successful film which followed two years later. Although it has copied, cloned and ripped-off countless times since, the story is once again in the media spotlight with the new “Exorcist: the TV Series” currently doing the rounds. Considering both the family involved and the priests involved never publically spoke to the media, it’s pretty incredible that it seems to run and run…
So this is well trodden territory and you could easily argue there is very little point in any further investigations into the ‘true’ events which inspired the Exorcist franchise. There are a number of books on this subject already, so Steven LaChance’s “Confrontation with Evil” is another to add to the ever growing pile. So does this work of non-fiction have anything new to say? And who is the book actually aimed at? Hopefully this review will answer these important questions.
In this review I intend to keep my own opinions on the occult, demon possession and exorcisms out of it, as your own personal feelings on this subject will play a big part on what you think of this book. Steven LaChance clearly believes that supernatural possessions do occur and so the book is probably aimed at readers who have a similar mind-set and belief to him. Lachance has written a number of books on the supernatural and is a popular speaker on the subject on the USA, appearing on many TV shows which deal with ghost hunting, haunted houses and the like. Indeed, much of his experience which he calls upon is from a period where his family were demonically attacked a few years earlier. This subject is covered in two of his previous books. He has also witnessed exorcisms in the past. So according to Steven all this sort of detail qualifies him as an ‘expert’ on this difficult and controversial subject. Perhaps it does? Only the reader can decide for themselves.
It’s well known that the events which inspired the book and film occurred in 1949 to a 14 year old boy who became known as ‘Roland Doe’ and a good chunk of the book is Steven LaChance’s ‘expert’ or personal interpretation of the diary written by Father Raymond Bishop. The diary was written for church records and has obviously ended up in the public domain at some point, whether William Peter Blatty used it also, I do not know. LaChance goes through the diary blow by blow and discusses what went wrong, picks holes in the events, gives many of his own interpretations of what went on, identifies contradictions, and makes comparisons with the books and films.
All this is interesting enough, if not exactly inspiring. There is way too much of “I think…..” with the author oooing and aaahing on what might have happened. Much is made of the death of an aunt not long before the possession began. She was a spiritualist and was close to the boy and may well have introduced him to Ouija boards which provided an entrance to the spirit world and his supposed possession. The family were Lutheran, and the author points it out to be odd that they approached the Catholic Church for help. The exorcism itself took some time and the boy was moved to several different locations, several exorcists were involved and the LaChance felt the family behaved oddly at various times, especially the mother who obviously had problems of her own. It’s all conjecture and supposition, with LaChance tapping into his wide experience on the subject.
Although LaChance makes a point of stating how difference the book and film were to reality, it seemed to me they just exaggerated a lot of stuff for the book/film. Obviously there was no levitating or head spinning, but the diary does claim Ronald showed great strength and spoke Latin. However, it has also argued he just mimicked what he had already heard. Interestingly, the diary also claimed a desk swivelled around when he was at school, but witnesses were not followed up. A shame, as it might have given some much needed independent verification of the supernatural at work. LaChance felt that this was a demon trying to isolate the boy and that it started in the same way as most possessions did, with the “infestation” and the noises the family heard under the bed after the death of the Spiritualist aunt.
Believe it or not, it’s obvious why this diary/account was great source material for a top notch book and film. The book has a lot of padding to go along with it, including lots of Bible scripture and even bits on what the likes of Alistair Crowley thought of Ouija boards and their uses. So although the book is non-fiction, neither is it an academic study of the paranormal, more of a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ thoughts and interpretation on the subjects. But in the end of the day, what qualifications do you require to be an expert on this subject which often does defy science and logic?
Once LaChance is finished with Father Bishop’s diary he then hunts down the locations involved in the original exorcism. At this point it got very hard to swallow, not prepared to reveal his sources, the author meets up with “Mr X” who shows his places where the boy was originally held and, of course, La Chance can still feel some presence at the location….. The author then introduces his use of the ‘ghost box’ (used to contact spirits) to contact the dead involved in the case to try and find out who the demon in the possession really was. At this point any surviving academic elements went right out the window and we headed deeply into the world of freaky paranormal research. I didn’t have a problem with this, but felt the ending of the book was a bit rushed and could have spent more time here. But as I said earlier this book was probably aimed at those who knew quite a lot about ‘ghost boxes’ and this sort of stuff, something I did not beyond horror films.
A final pretty outlandish suggestion made is that the demon may have jumped into one of the priests from the boy, similar to the film and book. The author visited this location and that the Catholic Church had kept the location where this pries had lived hidden for decades. Pretty amazing if true….. But who knows, you’ll have to make up your own mind on that one.
So in conclusion I’m sitting on the fence, with a gigantic “who knows!” The book relied too heavily on the diary, but seen as all the priests involved are now dead and there was scant information in the first place then he does give as thorough a look as he possibly could. Academically speaking I thought the bibliography and referencing was pretty weak and there should been more detailed referencing. Obviously without the book and film this case would have been long forgotten. I did have a quite chuckle at the passage that states that two of the exorcists involved went to see the film on the cinema, and were almost chucked out of the cinema for chatting and slagging it off! You’ve got to laugh…..