Since its debut in 1973, The Exorcist has been a perennial favourite on many people’s ‘Best Horror Film’ lists, and it’s easy to see why. The film is beautifully shot, making effective use of some wonderful practical special effects, and the story itself presents a thoroughly creepy journey through the staples of recorded hauntings, building to the possession and exorcism of a young girl named Regan MacNeil.
Anyone who has watched the film, or even simply strayed into the franchise via the more recent TV series, will likely be aware of one thing: 12-year-old Regan MacNeil was possessed by the Assyrian demon Pazuzu. But, is that really the case here? I will freely admit that I have not read William Peter Blatty’s 1971 source novel, though I understand that it is no more explicitly stated to be Pazuzu therein than it is in the film adaption. The problem is, the behaviour of the entity that takes control of Regan is not representative of the Pazuzu of Assyrian tradition. Of course, there could be many explanations for this, ranging from Blatty’s own research to the simple fact that The Exorcist is a work of fiction and so can be granted some artistic license. But if it wasn’t Pazuzu, who was it?
So, let’s first look at the key components that are used to make it clear that Pazuzu is who are dealing with. As we start the film, we join the Catholic Priest, Father Lankester Merrin at an archaeological dig in Hatra, an ancient city in Iraq. During this time, he finds an amulet that resembles the face of Pazuzu. From here, Merrin seems pre-occupied with the statue fragment and eventually pays a visit to the full-size statue of Pazuzu.
Jumping forward to Georgetown, we watch the slow possession of Regan MacNeil. Something to note here is the art that we see during the process. Most notably, Regan has created a statue of a large bird, and drawn a picture of a winged lion with a scorpion-like tail that is flying behind a dark cloud. This ties in with Pazuzu in two ways. First, he is described as having the head of a lion, a scorpion’s tail, the talons of an eagle, and two sets of wings. Second, he is associated with the act of bringing locusts during stormy seasons. When you combine the different elements of Regan’s art, you essentially get this imagery.
Finally, when Father Merrin turns up for the exorcism, he is quick to tell Father Karras that there is only one demon, despite Karras’s assertions that he has encountered multiple personalities in Regan. During the exorcism itself, Merrin them experiences a vision of the statue of Pazuzu behind Regan. This combined with the knowledge that Merrin is alleged to have previously exorcised Pazuzu during a trip to Africa is usually sufficient enough to confirm which demon has possessed young Regan.
However, when you look closely at the mythology surrounding Pazuzu, this logic seems lacking. We have already established that Pazuzu is described as having the head of a lion, a scorpion’s tail, the talons of an eagle, and two sets of wings, and that he is associated with the act of bringing locusts during stormy seasons. A quick search of the internet also reveals that he is the King of the Demons of the Wind, brother of Humababa (guardian of the god’s Cedar Forest home) and son of Hanbi (Lord of all Evil). He is associated specifically with the South West wind and for bringing famine and drought during dry seasons. Most important though is the reason that Pazuzu is invoked.
Yes, you read that right; in ancient times, Pazuzu was invoked by the Assyrian people. While known as an evil entity, he is taken to be a deterrent to other demons. As such, he was often invoked through amulets and statues to protect against evil and plague. Most commonly though, he was invoked to counter-act the demoness Lamashtu.
Daughter of Anu (King of the Gods), Lamashtu is described as having a dog or lioness’s head and sharp talons, and often depicted nursing a dog and a pig while holding snakes, Lamashtu is associated with a number of different things. Known to act by her own governance rather than obeying the will of the Gods, she is most commonly associated with slaying children and unborns; causing harm to mothers and expectant mothers; eating men and drinking their blood; disturbing sleep; bringing nightmares; killing foliage; infesting rivers and lakes; and being a bringer of disease, sickness, and death. Oh, and if you’re breastfeeding, expect her to show up to kidnap your child, gnaw on their bones and suck their blood.
That’s a pretty fearsome foe, right? It is for this reason that the Assyrian people had a specific incantation to ward her off:
Great is the daughter of Heaven who tortures babies
Her hand is a net, her embrace is death
She is cruel, raging, angry, predatory
A runner, a thief is the daughter of Heaven
She touches the bellies of women in labor
She pulls out the pregnant women’s baby
The daughter of Heaven is one of the Gods, her brothers
With no child of her own.
Her head is a lion’s head
Her body is a donkey’s body
She roars like a lion
She constantly howls like a demon-dog.
However, if modern documentaries are anything to go by, words are rarely enough to fend off demons, so such an incantation may not be adequate to remove the demoness should you encounter her. Luckily though, Pazuzu is sufficiently scary enough to scare the beast away. As such, expectant mothers would proudly display Pazuzu’s image around the house when it was feared that Lamashtu was near. So, if you ever wondered why the line ‘Evil against evil’ was uttered during the early moments of the film, now you know.
Given that Pazuzu was not only not associated with harming children, but was in fact invoked to protect them, it makes it difficult to view him as the most likely entity possessing Regan. If anything, the myriad of tortures that the young girl endured could be viewed as more akin to the behaviours of Lamashtu. The growing sickness, the violation with holy paraphernalia, and the ongoing pain inflicted on Regan’s body certainly seem to fit more with the demonesses modus operandi.
Outside this, there is more evidence that could point to Lamashtu being the antagonist in this case. For one, when Father Merrin is visiting the statue of Pazuzu in hatra, he is witness to a ruckus caused by aggressive dogs. Then, when the exorcism is completed, the demon leaving Regan’s body is accompanied by the sound of pigs. As per the above, pigs and dogs were often depicted alongside Lamashtu. If we want to be picky, there is also the fact that the demon most commonly speaks with a female voice. While it could be argued that it has possessed a girl, it is shown during the demon’s interactions with Father Karras that it is capable of using male voices. Why, therefore, would it not use a more masculine voice if it were the male demon Pazuzu?
When viewed in this context, the appearance of Pazuzu in Regan’s life takes on a different meaning. Could the art be a sign that Pazuzu was manifesting to slow the process or offer protection until help was found? That would certainly help account for how friendly the art associated with Pazuzu appears, and in turn cast doubt on his presence being the reason that Regan was scared to let the demon talk during her hypnosis. After all, if he is as friendly as the art shows, what would she have to fear? There is also the possibility that Lamashtu wished to give these clues in order to ensure that anyone who tried to help was targeting the wrong demon. It is often said that there is great power in knowing a demon’s name, especially when it comes to the act of performing an exorcism.
Most significant though is what the appearance of Pazuzu results in for the possessed Regan. The sighting of the Pazuzu statue occurs after Father Merrin and Father Karras are knocked to the floor. Regan has just attacked Karras and has broken free of her bindings. Yet, when the wind blows through the window and the Pazuzu statue appears, she falls back to the bed and is subdued. What is interesting to note is that, throughout the film, Regan is at her most docile when the wind is blowing freely into her room, and it is only when the windows are closed that her uncharacteristic behaviour escalates. Given that Pazuzu is the King of the Demons of the Wind, it is not a big stretch to assume that the presence of the wind is his protection.
With all this being said though, Lamashtu is not the only potential candidate for the demon that possessed Regan. As well as using a multitude of voices, and indeed displaying multiple personalities, the demon outright refers to itself as ‘us’ when speaking to Father Karras about his deceased Mother. When you refer to the Gospel of Mark in the Bible, you encounter a story of Jesus performing an exorcism. Herein he discovers that a man is possessed by a number of demons who give the collective name of ‘Legion’.
The proclamation that Karras’s Mother is ‘In here with us’, would certainly point towards this possibly being the demon possessing Regan. In an interesting parallel, Jesus is said in this story to have driven the demon out into a herd of pigs that subsequently rush into a lake and drown themselves. Remember when I said that there is the sound of pigs when the demon leaves Regan’s body? We also know that Karras has acknowledged multiple different personalities in Regan, so it is entirely possible that he recognised who he was dealing with and, in a similar way to the pigs, threw himself to his death to dispose of the demon.
To add to this, the Exorcist III, is based on William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist sequel, Legion. The title of the novel is taken from the aforementioned Bible story, and sees the Detective from The Exorcist investigating a series of murders that eventually led him to the possessed body of the deceased Father Karras. While Karras is said to be possessed by the spirit of a deceased serial killer, the tip of the hat in the title of the source material does perhaps give clue to the demon’s identity.
So, what does all this mean in a real context? Well, I suspect that William Peter Blatty did indeed intend the demon to be Pazuzu. Though the actions carried out by the demon in the story do not match with this, it is entirely possible that his research was incomplete. Even now, there is not much information regarding Pazuzu readily available to view. There is also the point that Blatty was himself a misogynist. In fact, in 2012, he was allegedly quoted as being mad that Georgetown University was ‘allowing a pro-choice woman, Kathleen Sebelius, to speak at the university, despite her belief that contraception is a basic part of health care, instead of Satan’s tool to distract the daughters of Eve from hating themselves for being sexual beings.’ Even if you put aside the sometimes-lauded view that The Exorcist is itself a misogynist work, there is no denying that the demon possessing Regan is powerful. If Blatty’s views on women were as stated, why would he make such a power antagonist female? It is far more likely that he would want to portray the powerful demon as male and so went with Pazuzu rather than the Lilith-esque Lamashtu.
All this aside though, whether it was accidental or intentional, I choose to view the demon that possesses Regan as a combination of Lamashtu and Legion, and to see Pazuzu as an entity that offered some protection to the girl while the Priests carried out their work.
But what about yourselves? Who do you think possessed Regan?