Father Peter Blatty surreptitiously reaches under his alb—the ankle-length white linen vestment he wears at mass—and scratches his belly. "Whoever designed the clothes that priests—and presumably nuns," thinks Blatty, "are forced to wear must have never spent a day wearing the blasted things." Blatty is old enough to be indulged by anyone who sees him do this, anyway.
It’s a typical Sunday morning and the church is packed with people. It’s typical for the first day of the year to see so many uplifted faces here, but this year seems particularly crowded. Yet still, the haunted visage of William Regan swims up from the sea of faces like a personal taunt to the priest. William’s young mother sits beside her son, as pale as ever, almost ethereal in her countenance. Father Blatty can’t help but wonder if what has passed between mother and son is more than either should be made to bear; if somehow, he as their spiritual advisor has failed in some way. He sighs and thinks to himself what he always does—that God will help them find their way even if he cannot.
Blatty begins the mass and proceeds to go through its entirety almost without thinking about what he’s doing, which, as we all know, is a sin in and of itself. Presence is what counts in a house of the Lord and Father Blatty’s heart has certainly not been into his work the past few years. Ever since he took a fork in the road that led him to the world of demonic possession, he’s seen more of the evil, bad, and downright frightening side of life than he’d ever thought existed. It has tested his faith, yes, but perhaps even more importantly, it has tested his belief that good exists in everything.
Of course, it all started with William Regan’s mother, Mary, when Father Blatty was called to the house by a frantic William. Apparently, Mary had been ill for a few days, hadn’t gone into work, and, by the looks of the house, hadn’t even been out of bed. Blatty suspected that William called him when he ran out of whatever dry goods were in the pantry and was hungry.
When Father Blatty arrived he was shocked, not only by the general dishevelment of the house but by Mary herself, in her nightclothes which were yellowing and twisted about her painfully thin form. Her eyes, void of all color, did not focus on anything in particular, and there was a yellow crust around her mouth. The room itself was quite cold, though the priest hadn’t noticed a chill when he entered the house. Before examining Mary further, Blatty took 10-year-old William by the hand, grabbed his coat hanging from the hall tree by the front door, and walked him outside to where his driver, Igor, waited in the car. He asked Igor to take William to lunch at the Belle Rosette around the corner and wait there until he called. William seemed to go not just willingly, but happily. Blatty asked Igor to open the trunk of the car and the priest took out what some people might associate with a doctor’s bag: black, stiff-handled, utilitarian. Yes, there were remedies inside, but perhaps not the kind a country doctor might carry.
Father Blatty knew instinctively that Mary might actually be the first case of demonic possession he had seen for himself. As a young priest he had heard of such things and although he couldn’t say whether or not he believed in them, he was intrigued and voraciously read everything he could find about exorcism and its related rituals. After many years of tending to all sorts of people, including the sick, the dying, the diseased and the insane, Blatty finally felt in his heart that evil existed in the world, and it was capable of presenting itself in many forms. And although he didn’t advertise his knowledge of exorcism and the skills he’d spent time developing when in Rome, seeing Mary in this condition, well… all the signs were there.
Blatty girded his loins and walked purposely up the front steps of the house, through the door and to the base of the stairs. Clutching his bag in his hand, he descended the stairs. He had a feeling someone one was waiting for him—knew he was coming—and it wasn’t Mary Regan.
What transpired over the next several hours was more horrific, more frightening, and more testing of his faith than Father Peter Blatty could have ever imagined. His bag, which carried holy water, salt, and a New Testament with certain pages marked, were the only things that stood between the peril of his and Mary’s soul and the demon, which had its own bag of tricks.
Five hours later, Mary was quiet and Father Blatty was spent. It was difficult to know if his attempt at ridding Mary of whatever evil was inside her had worked. Just as Blatty was beginning to find hope that it had, what happened next would play in the priest’s mind for the rest of his days. A creak at the top of the steps startled him, as both Igor and William came through the door. Father Blatty started to stand up and shout, “Noooooo…!” and as he did, Mary sat bolt upright in bed, the color immediately returning to her pallid face and she threw out her arms as if wanting to embrace her son. What came out of her mouth was a sound Blatty was sure no human should ever have to withstand. The priest tried to get between the boy and his mother’s arms but was cast aside as if he were a Raggedy Andy doll. William flew into his Mother’s arms and within moments, his young face took on a greenish cast, his eyes blackened and his mouth betrayed a slow smile as his mother fell back on the bed as if she had just unburdened herself of something huge.
Many times Father Peter Blatty tried to work with the boy after that day, but each time he was unable to get through the door to their house, William’s face strangely distorted as it looked out at Blatty through the warped windows of the old house. Yet every Sunday William and his mother came to church, and every Sunday William’s taunting face would rise up to meet Father Blatty’s as he began to recite the mass. Blatty wasn’t sure why this unholy trinity came to a house of God, but he sometimes wondered if it was trying to learn how priests gained the trust and love of their flock so that it could do it as well, and take on more than one body at a time.