“We’ve Got a Witchcraft Type of Murder”: The Exorcist, Criminal Law, and a Demonic Possession Defense

by Krista S. Gehring

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 33] Abstract: The Exorcist (1973) is touted as the “scariest movie ever made,” centering on the demonic possession of an innocent 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil. While many viewers remember the events in the film related to the possession and the eventual exorcism, a homicide investigation also occurs. Lieutenant William Kinderman suspects that the “accidental” death of the director Burke Dennings has a more sinister origin. The murder of Dennings by Regan (possessed by the demon Pazuzu) has been underexplored in academic works, and horror films are not often studied using a criminal justice approach. This article will discuss the criminal investigation in the film and examine criminal law and demonic possession. Examining The Exorcist with attention to questions of criminal law allows us to discuss Regan’s culpability in the death of Dennings. I argue that, if Regan were prosecuted for the murder of Dennings, the prosecution would have difficulty establishing her role in the offense, her defense attorney could use demonic possession as an affirmative defense, and she would likely be found “not involved” in the murder.

Keywords: crime, homicide, law, criminal defense

The day after Christmas in 1973, director William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) opened in theaters across the country. Moviegoers stood in lines blocks long, eager to view what the theater marquees claimed to be “something almost beyond comprehension” (Tien; Woodward 60). Those that made it into the sold-out cinemas experienced what was soon to be labeled “the scariest movie ever made,” and many of them stumbled out of the dark into the bright lights of the theater lobby to collect and calm themselves (Van Gelder 46; Woodward 60). The story centers on the progression of the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), and the ex-[page 34]orcism performed to cast out the demon Pazuzu. While many viewers remember the events in the film related to Regan’s possession and the eventual exorcism, there is also a homicide investigation.1 Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), a film director and friend of Regan’s mother, actor Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), is found dead at the bottom of a staircase near the MacNeil home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) suspects that his “accidental” death has a more sinister origin.

While the homicide investigation in The Exorcist is a secondary story arc, it provides an opportunity to examine two issues related to criminal law and demonic possession. If Kinderman believed Regan murdered Dennings, could the prosecution successfully prove that she was responsible for the murder? And if prosecuted, could Regan’s attorney present an affirmative defense of “demonic possession”? This investigative story arc in The Exorcist serves as a discussion point regarding Regan’s culpability in the death of Burke Dennings. 

Despite their popularity, horror films have rarely been studied by criminal justice scholars. This seems puzzling; after all, most horror films are about crime (e.g., murder, sexual assault, home invasions). This article explores how criminal law would address the assertion that demonic possession was the cause of a criminal act. The first two sections of the article provide foundational explanations regarding how the story arc of Burke Dennings’s murder appeared in The Exorcist, how the homicide investigation progresses in the film, and how the case is “resolved” at the end of the movie. The next section focuses on how criminal law would categorize and respond to Regan’s possession related to the homicide, specifically regarding her culpability in the crime. Finally, I discuss how an affirmative defense of demonic possession could be successful in her case, and this, combined with the prosecution’s inability to establish key elements of the crime, could result in her being found “not involved” in the murder of Burke Dennings in a court of law. [page 35]

Detective—“Mental Clearance Sale”

One could wonder why a homicide investigation is included in a story about demonic possession in the first place. Blatty reveals that during his research on demonic possession, the idea of a detective materialized in his mind. He writes:

For example, I made a note about a character on a page of a book called Satan (Sheed & Ward, 1952): “Detective— ‘Mental Clearance Sale.’” The words, in quotes, would turn up eventually very deep in the story, as a thought of Kinderman, the homicide detective in the novel; but at the time I made the note, I knew nothing of its context. Finally, however—I think it was 1963—the notion of possession as the basic subject matter of a novel crystallized and formed. (Blatty, William 7) 

In December 1967, Blatty met Marc Jaffe, editorial director at Bantam. Jaffe asked Blatty what he was working on, and Blatty introduced the idea of a novel about possession. Jaffe was intrigued, said that Bantam would be interested in publishing something, and asked Blatty to send him an outline. In this outline, Blatty provided a lengthy explanation for the possession of a child (a boy at that time) and described the plot as “a beast as mythical as the unicorn and an even bigger pain in the ass” (11). This is when the scribbled note about the detective emerged from his subconscious; he added murder to the plot to “vamp” up the story (11) and made the possessed boy the killer. Blatty explains that he was “so surprised at the moment it occurred to me that Burke Dennings, and not an offstage character as originally planned, would be the demon’s murder victim, that from my desk I cried out loud, ‘My God, Burke Dennings is going to be murdered!’” (11, fn. 6). 

In his outline to Jaffe, Blatty described a plot in which “the killer is the boy, the mother knows this, and against the eventual arrest of her son,” seeks psychiatric help to determine that he was mentally ill at the time of the murder (11). When this does not work, she devises a plan to call upon the Catholic [page 36] Church to establish that the boy was possessed at the time of the murder. She does not believe that he was possessed; she is merely hoping to account for the boy’s behavior and secure “both the release of the boy and an equally important release (even if the boy is imprisoned) from humiliation and degradation” (11). An exorcism is eventually performed on the boy. The legal consequences are not the novel’s focus, and virtually none of this plot made it into The Exorcist. However, it illustrates how Blatty considered using demonic possession as a possible affirmative defense for a character as a plot point. 

Blatty drafted the novel and finished it by the summer of 1970. While the demonic possession defense was omitted, the murder of Burke Dennings by the child (now a girl) and the subsequent homicide investigation were expanded. Three weeks before Blatty was due to deliver the manuscript, Hollywood made him an offer to start the screenplay. Blatty rushed to finish the novel, and what was published in 1971 was effectively the first draft of The Exorcist (32-33). Blatty’s screenplay was based on that first draft. When Blatty presented his screenplay to director William Friedkin, it was several inches thick and would have had a run time of over four hours (Leap 8:42; Blatty, William 273). Friedkin was not happy with how much the screenplay diverged from the novel, saying, “I felt it was a travesty of his novel, and I told him [Blatty] that” (Leap 8:49–8:54) and that “I really want to shoot the novel” (8:59–9:04). 

Although Friedkin wanted to remain faithful to the novel, several things did not make it into the film. For instance, Kinderman was one of the novel’s three main protagonists (along with Chris MacNeil and Father Damien Karras). Kinderman being a more prominent character in the novel allowed Blatty to expand upon the homicide investigation and introduce other suspects in Dennings’s murder. This, along with other elements, created a more gradual revelation of the origin of Regan’s affliction and made the notion of her possession a bit more ambivalent in the novel. Editing of the film forced the revelation sooner, so audiences would not be bored when they [page 37] already knew, through media and word of mouth, that Regan was possessed rather than physically or mentally ill (Blatty, William 274). This also made it more plausible that Regan killed Dennings, as the evidence of her supernatural goings-on starts appearing very early in the film. For example, in one scene, Chris is awoken by a phone call and discovers Regan sleeping with her in her bed. When she asks, “What are you doing here?” Regan explains, “My bed was shaking. I can’t get to sleep” (28:17–28:22). In the next scene, booming, scratching, scuttling noises come from the attic space, and while Chris investigates, the camera returns to a shot of Regan’s head on the pillow, her eyes staring blankly into the camera. 

The Death of Burke Dennings

Approximately an hour into the film, we are introduced to the events surrounding Burke Dennings’s death. Chris drives home after a meeting with Dr. Samuel Klein (Barton Heyman), a medical doctor who has been conducting exhaustive examinations of Regan. She passes a group of onlookers running to the base of the stairs near the MacNeil residence. Police lights flash, sirens are in the distance, and an ambulance is visible to the left of the bottom of the staircase. After arriving home, Chris discovers that the large bay window in Regan’s bedroom is wide open. Chris is angry with her assistant Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), first because she thinks that Sharon left Regan alone, but Sharon says that Dennings stopped by and stayed with Regan while she ran to the store to get Regan’s medication. Chris is still upset that Sharon left Regan alone, albeit with Dennings, but the doorbell interrupts the conversation; Chris is told that Dennings fell down the long staircase outside and broke his neck, and the audience makes the connection to the police, the ambulance, and the commotion that Chris had seen earlier: the uproar was related to Dennings’s death. 

Regan’s brief (and distressing) interaction with a psychiatrist is followed by the first appearance of Lieutenant William [page 38] Kinderman. He sits on the bleachers next to a running track and pretends to read a newspaper while Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) runs laps. Kinderman introduces himself and asks if Karras is familiar with what happened to Dennings. Then Kinderman’s questioning shifts, and he asks how much Karras knows about witchcraft, wanting to know if Karras thinks that the recent desecration of the church (the phallus and breasts attached to a statue of the Virgin Mary) has anything to do with witchcraft. Karras mentions that it could be related to rituals used during a Black Mass. Then Kinderman returns to the subject of Dennings, asking if Karras knows how Dennings died. When Karras reiterates what most believe—that it was a fall—Kinderman tells Karras, “Burke Dennings, good Father, was found at the bottom of those steps leading to ‘M’ Street, with his head turned completely around. Facing backwards” (1:00:06–1:00:16). Kinderman then suggests a connection between “a witchcraft type of murder” and the church desecration, hoping that Karras might have insight into who the perpetrator might be. A “sick priest” perhaps, or someone angry with the Church? The audience, however, knows better, having followed the disturbing happenings in the MacNeil household, and it is soon revealed that the medical and psychological examinations of Regan are producing inconclusive or negative results. Since there seem to be no medical or psychological explanations, the medical professionals suggest that Chris consider getting someone to perform an exorcism, to which Chris incredulously responds to ask the group of medical professionals if they are suggesting that she take Regan to a “witch doctor” (1:05:11). 

In the next scene, Kinderman examines the area around the bottom of the stairs where Dennings’s body was found. He finds a clay figurine buried in the grass near the corner of the stairs and picks it up. As he ascends the staircase, he looks up to see a second-story window overlooking the stairs. We then observe as Chris discovers a crucifix under Regan’s pillow and angrily confronts everyone in the house, frantically asking each person who put it there. Next, Kinderman and Chris sit [page 39] quietly at her table with cups of coffee, and he asks Chris to ask Regan if she remembers seeing Dennings in her room the night of his death, as he has discovered that the window that he observed from the staircase is a window in Regan’s bedroom. When Chris asks him, “Why are you asking all this?” (1:08:37), Kinderman voices his confusion about how Dennings came to their home, stayed only 20 minutes, and then left Regan alone, as well as about how that Dennings would “fall” from a window. He has told Chris what happened to Burke’s neck and head and says, “a fall wouldn’t do to his neck what we found except maybe a chance in a thousand” (1:08:39–1:09:05). He then provides his theory that a “very powerful man” killed Dennings and then pushed him from Regan’s window; however, as Regan was the only one in the room, he is “confused” as to how this could have happened (1:09:07–1:09:41).2 Chris is silent, struggling with what she has heard.

Friedkin says that this tension-filled scene is his favorite in the movie because of what is being said (Leap 42:40–42:42). Kinderman suggests to Chris “without saying it, that her daughter might have pushed a man out of her bedroom window” (Leap 41:36–41:41). Friedkin explains that he told Ellen Burstyn, “‘[Y]ou know what he’s saying, but you can’t show it. Don’t show him how this is killing you inside. Suppress that emotion throughout,’ and she played that scene so beautifully” (42:05–42:19). When Kinderman wanders over to the windowsill in the kitchen where there is a grouping of Regan’s art-works, he picks up a clay figure of a turtle and asks Chris if her daughter made it, having likely made the connection between the clay turtle in his hand and the figure that he found at the bottom of the staircase outside. Then he casually suggests (again) that Chris ask Regan if she remembers seeing Dennings in her room that night.

After Kinderman leaves the MacNeil home, the audience observes Chris’s concern; the silence in the foyer is broken by the ticking of a grandfather clock, which Friedkin added to approximate the sound of a bomb about to go off for the audience (Leap 44:18–42:26). The quiet is indeed disrupted by a [page 40] “bomb”—a loud crash from Regan’s room. Chris runs up the stairs and pushes open the door to see objects flying wildly around the bedroom, many crashing against the notorious window, and Regan violently masturbating with a crucifix. After forcing her mother’s face into her pelvic area, Regan rears up and smacks Chris across the face, sending her flying across the room. Then, in one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Regan’s head rotates 180° to face backward, mirroring Dennings’s injuries. Regan’s next line affirms her participation in his death, as she says, in Dennings’s British accent, “Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?” (1:14:12–1:14:17).

Regan’s disturbing and violent outburst causes Chris to seek help from Karras, who is not only a priest but also a psychiatrist, asking how to request an exorcism for her daughter. Karras is skeptical but agrees to visit Regan. After an interaction in which Regan vomits on his clothes, Karras tells Chris that he will investigate the sort of evidence needed to request an exorcism. Kinderman, who is outside sitting in his car, observes Karras—with whom he had spoken earlier about the church desecration and Dennings’s death—leaving and then sees a shadow move across the window of Regan’s bedroom, which catches his attention as he has been told that Regan is ill and heavily sedated. 

Kinderman is not in the movie until he appears once again at the MacNeil door, which happens seconds after Karras ascends the stairs to Regan’s bedroom for the final confrontation with the demon. When the confrontation is over and Karras has jumped out the window, Kinderman and Chris rush into the room. Kinderman observes the shattered bedroom window, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) lying dead on the floor, and Regan crying in the corner. He leans out the window and sees Karras’s body crumpled at the bottom of the staircase, likely looking much like Dennings after his fall. While Chris comforts Regan, onlookers and the police race to Karras at the bottom of the stairs, and we do not see Kinderman for the remainder of the film. The next scene reveals that Chris and Regan have packed up their belongings to return to Los [page 41] Angeles. Regan appears to have returned to “normal,” and she has no memory of what happened. As the car drives Chris and Regan away, one can assume that Kinderman did not decide to arrest Regan for Dennings’s murder. To analyze the events of the film from a criminal justice perspective, let us imagine an ending to The Exorcist in which Regan MacNeil, having been possessed by the demon Pazuzu, is charged and prosecuted for the murder of Burke Dennings.

Charging Regan MacNeil with Murder

Burke Dennings died in Washington, DC. Because the United States Congress maintains absolute control over the jurisdiction of District of Columbia courts, the main prosecutorial office bringing cases in those courts is the United States Attorney’s Office (Gimbel 1309). Since Regan is 12 years old at the time of Dennings’s death, she would be defined as a “child” according to DC §16–2301(3). Although the prosecution might wish to charge Regan as an adult due to the nature of the crime and the victim’s fame, she would not qualify for a direct-file transfer to adult court, which occurs when the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia uses their sole discretion to charge individuals who are 16 or older who commit “murder, forcible rape, burglary in the first degree, robbery while armed, or assault with intent to commit any such offense” (DC §16–2301[3][A][i]). Her age would also prohibit a judicial waiver allowing the juvenile courts to waive jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis, as this waiver requires judicial approval and is based on specific criteria including, in the District of Columbia, that the accused be at least 15 years old (DC §16–2307[a][1]; Griffin et al. 5).

Since Regan could not be transferred to the adult criminal justice system due to her age, the Juvenile Section of the Office of Attorney General for the District of Columbia (which prosecutes juveniles, individuals under the age of 18, for criminal offenses that occur in the district) would be charged with prosecuting her. Historically, juvenile courts operate with [page 42] a philosophy of reform and rehabilitation. Therefore, Regan would participate in an adjudication hearing instead of an adult criminal proceeding. There are no jury trials in juvenile court; a judge conducts the hearing and decides whether the prosecution has presented sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Regan’s defense attorney could present evidence to counter the prosecution’s evidence as well as provide additional evidence to support an alternate explanation for her behavior (“Guide”).

There are two decisions that the judge could render at the end of the adjudication hearing. The first would be that Regan “was involved” in the murder of Burke Dennings. This is equivalent to a guilty verdict in an adult criminal proceeding. The judge could sentence Regan immediately after this finding or issue a court order determining where Regan would live until her disposition hearing: Regan could be released to Chris with certain conditions or housed in a juvenile detention facility until her hearing. During the time between adjudication and disposition, the judge would order that a predisposition report be prepared by the Court Social Services probation officer, who would gather and evaluate all information that is needed for the judge to decide on the appropriate disposition (called the “sentence” in the adult criminal system) for Regan (“Guide”). If she is adjudicated “involved” in the murder of Burke Dennings, the maximum disposition she could serve is known as “juvenile life” (Gimbel 1320), that is, until she reaches the age of 21, the maximum age for juvenile jurisdiction in the District of Columbia (§16–2322[a][4]; Gimbel fn. 44). Regan could be held in a juvenile facility until she turns 18, transferred to an adult institution (Gimbel 1319) to serve the remaining time in that institution, and then be released from the adult facility on her 21st birthday. 

The second decision could be that Regan “was not involved” in this crime. This is similar to a finding of not guilty in an adult criminal trial. If the judge decides that the prosecution did not prove the allegations against Regan beyond a reasonable doubt and/or the defense attorney provided evidence of an [page 43] affirmative defense that explained her behavior, Regan would be cleared of the charges and released to Chris; the case would remain on Regan’s juvenile record, but the record would show the case was not proven (“Guide”). 

The Trial of Regan MacNeil

Any crime must have one or more actors (parties) who perform certain acts or omissions (actus reus) that result in a recognized harm (causation) with a guilty mental state (mens rea) that occurs concurrently with the act (concurrence) (“Model”; Loveless et al. 38). In the United States, when a defendant is accused of a crime, the prosecution must prove all the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt (Dressler 7; §1.12[1] 1962). There is no variation, or room for variation, across states as to the burden of proof that the defendant committed the offense that the prosecution must meet (Mungan 343). This means that the District of Columbia, the jurisdiction where the murder occurred, would not deviate from this expectation of proof for the prosecution. Prior to the adjudication hearing, Regan’s defense could present an affirmative defense of “not guilty due to demonic possession,” a defense for which the defendant bears the burden of proof (Dressler 6). 

According to the Code of the District of Columbia, the codification of the general and permanent laws, first-degree murder is defined as “Whoever, being of sound memory and discretion, kills another purposely, either of deliberate and premeditated malice or by means of poison, or in perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate an offense punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary … is guilty of murder in the first degree” (§22–2101). If the prosecution decided to charge Regan with first-degree murder, this definition provides the aspects of the crime the prosecution must prove applied to Regan at the time of Dennings’s death. In this code, there are aspects of actus reus (“kill another”) and mens rea (“purposely” … “deliberate and premeditated malice”). Furthermore, the actor must be “of sound memory and discretion,” a term borrowed [page 44] from Sir Edward Coke that refers to the mental capacity and age of the individual. “Sound memory” proposes that a person is not insane, and “discretion” refers to the age of criminal responsibility (Hossain and Rahi 462).

Actus reus (“guilty act”) is the act or omission that comprises the physical elements of an offense. For actus reus to be committed, an act or action must result in social harm (Dressler 8). The actus reus of a crime consists of two components, a voluntary act or legal omission, both of which must be proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt (Dressler 7). The prosecution could argue that Regan willfully and voluntarily murdered Dennings, and the notion of a demon committing the crime cannot be proven. It is possible that she pushed Dennings out of her bedroom window and that the fall caused the unusual twisting of his head on his neck. Too, some film analysts have proposed a sexual abuse subtext in The Exorcist, which could explain why Dennings was in Regan’s room that night (Ager; Murr); similarly, the prosecution could ask why Dennings was in Regan’s room in the first place, proposing that he was molesting her and that her violent reaction resulted in her pushing him out the window. 

The defense could attack this argument regarding whether it was Regan who voluntarily committed the crime. A person is not ordinarily guilty of a crime unless their conduct includes a voluntary act (Dressler 8). The notion of a “voluntary act,” according to the common law definition, is a “willed muscular contraction or bodily movement by the actor” (Dressler 8). Furthermore, the idea of “willed” is one in which the actor is controlling the bodily movement by their mind (Dressler 8; Moore 40). This separation of mind and body is important because if the body is out of control of the actor due to demonic possession, one could question if the actions of Regan were indeed voluntary (Crofts 380). The Model Penal Code (MPC) can further support this in that it provides examples of involuntary actions that may apply in this instance are “a bodily movement during unconsciousness or sleep” (§2.01[2][b]) and “a bodily movement that otherwise is not a product of the effort [page 45] or determination of the actor, either conscious or habitual” (§2.01[2][d]). The defense could argue that, because Regan was possessed at the time of Burke’s murder, the movement of her body occurred while she was unconscious (while the demon was the conscious actor) or that the movement was not a “product or determination of the actor” as Regan (an actor) was not the actor in that situation, the demon was.

In addition to proving actus reus, the prosecution would also have to establish Regan’s mens rea (“guilty mind”) at the time of Dennings’s murder. The MPC establishes minimal requirements for culpability in which a person is guilty of a crime if he/she/they acted purposefully, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently (§2.02[1]). In the case of Regan’s behavior on the night that Dennings died, the prosecution could argue that Regan purposefully and knowingly killed Dennings. This argument would focus on Regan’s belief that her mother was romantically involved with Dennings. For example, Regan suggests to Chris that Dennings could accompany them on her birthday outing, and when Chris asks her why she would invite Dennings, Regan responds, “You like him” (Exorcist 24:28). When Regan is pressed, she asks Chris, “You’re going to marry him, aren’t you?” and then, “You don’t like him like Daddy?” (24:34-24:50). Although Chris reassures Regan, the prosecution could argue that Regan viewed Dennings as either the cause of the breakup of her parents’ marriage or an obstacle to them getting back together. Alternately, following the sexual abuse argument, they could argue that Dennings was molesting her and she pushed him out the window. Both scenarios would provide Regan with a motivation or “purpose” to kill Dennings. 

The defense could first attack these claims on the grounds of speculation. Regan did not express any negative feelings toward Dennings up to this point. If anything, she was supportive when she teased her mother about liking Dennings. Furthermore, there is no “evidence” of sexual abuse. That is, all of the behaviors that could be interpreted as signs of sexual abuse (i.e., sexualized behavior, vulgar language) could argu-[page 46]ably also be signs of demonic possession. Since Regan was possessed, she could not have had a purpose or intent in the criminal act because it was not her who killed Dennings but the demon. The defense could also propose that, since Regan was possessed, she was either unaware or was not in control of her actions at the time and did not knowingly murder Dennings (Crofts 382). The demon knew what it was doing; Regan did not. This also negates Model Penal Code §2.02(8) in that there was no willfulness satisfied by acting knowingly with respect to the material elements of the offense. 

Regan could also avoid adjudication if her defense team successfully argued that demonic possession is possible and based an affirmative defense on this to excuse her behavior. When a defendant asserts an affirmative defense, the burden of proof lies on the defendant and their defense attorney(s) to illustrate that it applies to the defendant’s actions that led to the commission of the accused crime (Dressler 6). While it was Regan’s body that committed the act, it could be argued that she did not control her mind; it was not Regan who murdered Dennings but the demon who controlled her mind and body at the time of the act (Crofts 387). However, before they assert this, they must present convincing evidence that demonic possession is possible.

The defense could begin by presenting evidence that Regan’s disorder and behavior were not a result of a medical condition or psychological disorder. They would do this by calling in expert witnesses consisting of the medical doctors (i.e., Drs. Klein, Barringer, and Taney) and psychiatrist who treated Regan. Dr. Klein would testify that they could not find anything physically or medically wrong with Regan and that, at a meeting with Chris that included at least twelve other medical professionals, he suggested that there was an “outside chance for a cure,” that is, an exorcism (Exorcist 1:04:01). 

After they established that there was nothing medically or psychologically wrong with Regan and that members of the scientific community suggested an exorcism, the defense could then question the individuals who knew about the exorcism. [page 47] Since both Merrin and Karras died as a result of the ritual, the defense would be unable to call them as witnesses. However, the defense could call the bishop who spoke with Karras when he requested an exorcism. They could also call Father Tom Bermingham, the president of Georgetown University, and ask him about the discussions that led to the decision to call in Merrin to perform the exorcism. This would establish that the Catholic Church believed that there was enough evidence to approve this rite. 

The defense could also focus on how Regan displayed signs of demonic possession and call upon various individuals (i.e., Chris, Sharon, Karl, and Willie) to testify that they witnessed these incidents.4 Furthermore, the defense could emphasize that a child of Regan’s stature and age could not have performed the act of twisting Dennings’s head around and then throwing him out her window. Indeed, the defense could even call upon Lieutenant Kinderman, who believed the suspect to be a “very powerful man,” thereby negating the possibility that Regan was capable of this physical feat. 

After the defense presented evidence that Regan was possessed at the time of Dennings’s death, they could introduce an affirmative defense of demonic possession. An affirmative defense can be used to justify or excuse the defendant’s behavior when he/she/they committed the accused crime. Affirmative defenses that are justification defenses indicate the defendant is proposing, “I committed this crime, but …”; that is, there is a defensible reason for committing the crime. Furthermore, when the defendant presents a justification defense, it is believed that society will view the defendant’s behavior as morally good, socially desirable, or not wrongful (Dressler 25). If supported, a justification defense often mitigates the legal consequences of the defendant’s unlawful conduct (O’Reilly 480). Examples of justification defenses include self-defense, necessity, acting to prevent a crime from being committed, defense of others, defense of property, and consent (Dressler 25-37).  [page 48]

Excuse defenses propose that, although the defendant committed the criminal act and although the actions are unjustified (and wrongful), the law does not blame the defendant for the criminal conduct (Dressler 37) nor feel that punishment for the criminal act would be useful (i.e., serve as a deterrent). Examples of excuse defenses include diminished capacity, duress, entrapment, insanity, intoxication, and mistake (Dressler 37-47; O’Reilly 479). If proven, excuse defenses can negate the legal consequences of the defendant’s unlawful conduct (O’Reilly 479). In this case, demonic possession could be categorized as an excuse defense, as something (Pazuzu) controlled Regan’s body at the time of the crime. It was not Regan but the demon; therefore, Regan is excused from the behavior that the demon engaged in. This is plausible because excuse defenses concentrate more on the individual actor than the actor’s wrongful act (Xu 474). 

A successful affirmative defense of “not involved because of demonic possession” would assert that Regan was not involved in Dennings’s murder; the demon was. We do not need to speculate why the demon targeted Dennings and not anyone else in the household, as the demon is not on trial in this case. However, it is likely that the reason for the demon’s actions, whether Dennings’s murder or the possession of Regan in general, can best be summed up by a quote from Merrin: “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as … animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us” (The Exorcist 1:54:02). What better way to make us despair than to believe a 12-year-old girl could commit such heinous acts?

Dimock writes, “The search for justice … is very much an exercise in abstraction” (2). Film can be viewed as the visualization of justice, the translation of abstract ideas into complex representations to be explored through the lens of criminal law. As mentioned previously, horror films are typically not analyzed using a criminal justice approach, so an examination of the murder investigation in The Exorcist allows the for the [page 49] exploration of an occult horror film from a fresh perspective. The Exorcist provides an optimal opportunity to present arguments regarding how a case of demonic possession—devoid of religious scripts or the desire for fame—would fare in a court of law. As discussed above, the judge would likely find Regan “not involved” in the murder of Burke Dennings and release her to her mother’s custody. 

At the end of The Exorcist, Kinderman sees the aftermath of the exorcism—the broken window that Karras flung himself out of, the lifeless body of Merrin lying on the floor, and the sobbing 12-year-old Regan cowering in the corner—and pieces together what happened. He could have very well “solved” the murder of Dennings, as the murderer was in the room with him. But he does nothing—the realization appears on his face, but he makes no move to arrest or even interrogate Regan. The family has been through enough, and the detective truly lives up to his name—he is a kinder man for letting it be. 


While his irritation is noted, many have pointed out that, although The Exorcist was indeed published in 1971,

the TV movie “Columbo Prescription: Murder” aired in 1968, advertised as the pilot for the television series.

Works Cited

§1.12. Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; Affirmative Defenses; Burden of Proving Fact When Not an Element of an Offense; Presumptions, Model Penal Code §1.12. 2022.

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Krista S. Gehring is a Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Social Work at the University of Houston-Downtown. Her research interests include criminological theory; crime and popular culture; justice-involved women; risk/needs assessments; and pretrial needs. She is the writer of the CrimComics series, criminology comic books published by Oxford University Press. She is the lead author of the forthcoming text Criminological Understandings of Horror Films: Reel Fear in the Lexington Books Horror Studies Series. Her research has also appeared in Criminal Justice and Behavior, Feminist Criminology, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and the Journal of Criminal Justice Education

MLA citation (print): 

Gehring, Krista S. "'We’ve Got a Witchcraft Type of Murder': The Exorcist, Criminal Law, and a Demonic Possession Defense." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 33-52.