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The Exorcist Playset

A little Halloween fun for all my readers and writer-pals. Happy holidays, y'all...

The Exorcist Playset

            Last October, the whole world seemed like a slow-mo image that I perceived through a layer of stained glass, a place to which I was anchored, yet oddly detached. And a weird confluence of public and personal events happened last October, that all had something to do with Hell on Earth. One:  a next-door neighbor, Detective Lance Kinderman of the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police, who’d been probing into the matter of the local “Gemini Killer” serial murders, turned out to be the Gemini Killer himself, the monster who’d stuffed his victims’ mouths full of rosaries. Two: I got an acting job in the tenth remake of an old horror film, my first such job in a few years and one I didn’t much like after all. Three: my recently-deceased brother’s son—Regan, age fourteen—became my legal ward and moved into my home; and, four: the Kenner toy company revivified an old thing called The Exorcist Playset, a toy based on a novel from the 1970s.

            The original Exorcist Playset was a box of plastic and cardboard open on two sides, resembling a bedroom, with a plastic four-poster bed in it upon which rested the action figure of a demon-possessed girl. Levers in the cross-festooned base of the toy would raise and lower the bed—SUPERNATURAL HORROR!—and move dressers and other objects up and down on posts—LIFE-LIKE DEMONIC MOTION! The girl figure was articulated to the extent that you could make her sit up in bed and make her head spin all the way around, though her limbs were mostly immobile. Instead of being equipped with swinging joints, they were instead formed on a skeleton of flexible wire that you could bend a few times before they eventually broke. The press of a button on the playset’s base elicited the scratchy, metallic playback of a recorded voice saying at random such things as “The sow is mine!” and “I am the Devil!” and “The piglet will die!” HEAR THE SHOCKING VOICE OF EVIL!

            Action figures of two priests—one old and one young—could be placed here and there in the room, left feet inserted into pegs in the floor, but they always stood frozen in a sort of holy rigor mortis, one forever clutching a rosary and the other forever wielding an oversized Lucite bottle of holy water. A weirdly agnostic toy, the original Exorcist Playset never promised to resolve the tension of the underlying story, instead leaving its outcome to the imagination of the kid playing with this nearly static scene. In that sense, it was a great toy.

            Detective Kinderman brought me the news that my brother Merrin was dead. “Christopher MacNeil?” he queried in a tone of somber officialdom, when I answered the door, as if he hadn’t already known my name for years. I wanted him to leave right away because I needed to cry and I didn’t want him to see it. But he pushed his way into my home, like a big wavefront forcing me into a chair, and he watched me cry. I’d thought I could have just said, “Thanks for letting me know. Now, good night.” But it didn’t go that way. Kinderman stood over me, his great bulky frame like some kind of edifice of pure Law Enforcement, informing me that his department would “get to the bottom of it,” since it seemed likely to have been homicide, possibly even connected to the Gemini kill-spree. He apologized for needing to share this particularly horrible suspicion. And he didn’t seem inclined to leave. Eventually I offered him a drink. We drank shots of bourbon and gossiped about the neighborhood until late that night. I wouldn’t have done that with him if I’d known he was the Gemini Killer. Instead, I would have called the cops. But, at the time, he was the cops.

            The day after getting drunk with Kinderman, I had to be back on the set of the film for a re-shoot of part of the sequence in which my character flips out and goes on a kill rampage. The scene involved me strangling this dude for a minute and then a harpoon shoves through my back, through my chest, and then—horribly—into the other dude’s chest and then out though his back. The reason we re-shot it was because the director didn’t think our reactions were convincing enough in the previous takes. As he saw it, we didn’t do a good enough job at imagining that we were being impaled in such an improbable fashion. We tried harder after we were shown an animatic indicating what the final shot might look like after the CGI was added. In that version, I looked smooth and faceless. I liked it.

            Because my brother and his son had been out of the country for a very long time, I’d not seen Regan in seven years. He wasn’t any longer the tiny-titan version of his dad that he’d been at seven, but rather more a realistic replica of his dad at age fourteen, skinny and tousle-haired, his china-white forehead marred by a sparse constellation of zits. “Why do I have to stay here?” he wondered a moment after his arrival. “Because your dad said so,” I said. Regan shrugged and accepted that logic. By the end of the first day he was situated in his new bedroom. But since the house was big, I actually gave him two rooms. The second was a studio that I seldom used. And, upon the drafting desk in there, Regan constructed the new Exorcist Playset.

            The new Exorcist Playset was a whole different toy than its old 1970s predecessor. It resembled the old one only in that that its physical structure was still a bedroom with a bed and dressers in it. But it was much larger—it filled the entire big drafting desk in Regan’s study—and it was far more interactive. The action figures were a lot bigger, too, and now called “dolls”—because it had at some point become “gay” to call them action figures—and there were more of them: four different priests, a mom, a dad, a boy, a girl, a cop, an old lady and a whole host of other minor characters. And the dolls could be made to move in a fully articulated, almost creepily lifelike way by setting their feet upon nanotechnological conductors in the playset’s floor. This and all the supernatural goings-on within the playset could be manipulated by a smart-phone app. Instead of the possessed girl just randomly coughing out a handful of canned phrases such as “The sow is mine!” the kid could now direct her to say nearly anything from the dialogue of the novel or new dialogue that he invented himself within the rules of the game. Likewise, the priests and other side characters could be made to speak, move and interact with one another in an almost natural fashion. Nearly invisible nanowires made possible the floating and hurling of objects within the room’s matrix for REAL SUPERNATURAL HORROR!

            Another innovation with the new version of the playset was that the possessed girl from the novel could be replaced with celebrity “add-ins.” This was common throughout the toy universe in those days. For example, if one had a Barbie Dream House and wanted Barbie to have a Ken-Doll fuck-lationship with Frank Sinatra or Ethan Hawke or Anderson Cooper, it could be done easily through dolls and iPhone apps. If one had a Star Trek playset, one could make Captain Kirk confront Dan Rather or Martha Stewart or Pope John Paul II in an encounter at the Romulan Neutral Zone. Likewise, Regan decided to use as the subject of demonic possession his favorite celebrity, the singer Justin Bieber.

            The first time I saw the Exorcist Playset in action, under Regan’s direction, I saw a miniature Justin Bieber writhing, tied to bedposts, cackling and groaning. A priest doll stepped close to the Bieber figure and said, “How long will you imprison Justin, this innocent child of Christ?” And the Justin Bieber doll roared and said, “Until he rots, stinking in the Earth!” Regan touched something on his iPad and the Justin doll projectile vomited, soaking the priest in steaming ochre slop. Or seemed to anyway. It was an optical effect. This seemed like an important point in the game’s story, but Regan didn’t appear to even observe it directly, his head bowed to his iPad, absorbed in his manipulations. “Do you want to fuck me, priest?” rasped the doll. “Loosen these straps and you can go at it!” Then I noticed that what was taking place within the playset was also being captured in a little window on the tablet’s screen, against which Regan’s fingers tapped rapidly. During all of this, a Justin Bieber song was playing:

            “As long as you love me…as long as you love me…we could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke…”

            A few nights later, I hosted a neighborhood Halloween Party at my house. It had already been scheduled before Merrin had died. He’d been planning to be there for it, back just in time from his long years at an archaeological dig in Iraq. And he’d not have wanted me to cancel it since he hadn’t seen me in seven years, since I knew that he had been planning to attend costumed as Michael Myers, latex-Kirk-faced and knife-drawn. But I’d considered cancelling it last minute anyway because life had started to seem like a thing observed faintly through stained glass and because Regan had fallen ill. In fact, I told Regan that I’d bag the party so as to spare him its noise. “No problem,” he said. “I won’t hear it up in my room. I’ll sleep so good.” As if to assure me of it, he swallowed from the bottle a thick shot of Robitussin. Involuntarily I kissed him on his sweaty forehead as if he were my own son. He turned away, buried himself in blankets. He seemed to drop away into sleep instantly. As I left his room, I stopped in the doorway and considered his appearance in that bed. I compared it to that of the demon-possessed Justin Bieber doll in Regan’s Exorcist Playset. Like everything else during those days, it was an observation hazed by the dusky glass that had overlaid my world

            The Halloween party was bad. It was supposed to have been neighborhood-oriented, but people from work—both my day-job and my actor job—conspired to make me feel like shit. Damien Karras, an ex-boyfriend of mine who still appeared now and then, dominated the conversation in the parlor. Burke Dennings, an actor from the film, laughed raucously at every single thing Damien said. Detective Kinderman was there, and everyone thought he was some kind of homegrown Sherlock Holmes. And Father Dyer, the douchey priest from across the street, showed up unexpectedly and stayed all night.

            For a while, a few people broke off from the main mass, went into Regan’s study and played with his Exorcist Playset. They competed with their iPhones to make it do stuff, make the action figures say things. But the built-in logic of the game constrained their efforts. If they wanted the bedridden Justin Bieber doll to thrash about and say “Let Jesus fuck you!” then that would work fine. But they couldn’t make it endorse current political candidates—Election Day was approaching. Jam a crucifix in its ass, sure; try to induce it to give a speech in favor of President Santorum, then no way. “It’s not programmed that way,” Dennings said. “You have to stick with its in-universe content logic, you dumbass kraut-eating Nazi!” But Father Dyer laughed and said, “You could probably hack that shit if you had the time.”

            Later, Dyer was back in the parlor banging on the piano, which made me feel like the party needed to end. I considered serving cordials (in narrow little glasses that I never used), but instead I just stood in the kitchen for a couple minutes sucking down shots of Jagermeister directly from the bottle. In the parlor, Dyer went all Tin Pan Alley: “Hello! Ma baby! Hello! Ma Darling! Hello! Ma Ragtime Gal” et cetera. He was actually singing it, with drunken Dennings. I hated Father Dyer. I returned to the parlor and imagined him imprisoned in the tiny torture chamber of the Exorcist Playset, and me tapping at an iPad to make the Justin Bieber doll projectile-puke on him.

            “Hello, kiddo!” Dyer yelled over his piano-banging. For a second I thought he must have been speaking to me. He was looking right at me. Then he said it again and I divined that he was looking past me, behind me, through me.

            And there was Regan, sweaty and sleep-disheveled, clad in a t-shirt and boxer shorts. Cock out, he pissed on the floor. The piano stopped. The piss had all spattered out onto the wood before I figured out how to react. I considered something like this: “Oh my god! Oh my baby! Come with me!” I don't think I shrieked like that, but I reached forward to grab him, to lead him back upstairs. But Regan shoved me away with startling strength and I almost fell.  He stalked toward the piano, bare feet tracking through piss. He said to someone, not sure who, “You’re going to die up there.”


            Regan was sick for days. Detective Kinderman came to visit, supposedly just to make sure all was well with me and Regan and to chit-chat about his ongoing investigations. While I brewed coffee, he somehow slipped away and wandered upstairs and into Regan’s room. There was a lot of noise up there, and by the time I got up there to see what was going on, this was the situation: the boy was crouched on his bed, hands outstretched, and he was growling. The window was wide open. I somehow understood that I needed to look out that window, because beneath it was a very long and steep flight of steps that fell all the way from the third floor of our house down to M Street. “What happened?” I said, stepping very slowly toward Regan. “Kiddo. What did you do?”

            Regan had stopped growling. He looked at me, stunned, and started weeping. “I don’t know!” he said.

            I still needed to look out the window. At the bottom of that flight of stairs lay Kinderman’s corpse, his neck snapped and his head spun all the way around backwards. I could discern that fact all the way from the height of Regan’s bedroom window. It looked almost fake, like Kinderman was just a giant doll down there, its head on backwards. It would be the next day before the news would reach us that Kinderman had been the Gemini Killer and that he’d probably intended for Regan to be his next victim. How Kinderman thought he could have gotten away with it, and with me in the house, I have no idea. Just because we drank bourbon together that night didn’t mean I’d not notice him killing my kid right under my nose. I was glad that Regan had stopped him forever. “You're going to die up there,” Regan’d said. As it turned out, that was to Kinderman. He’d been standing right there next to Dyer and Dennings during that annoying Hello! Ma Baby! banging on the piano.

            Regan recovered a bit from his illness and started spending more time at his desk with his playset. Though Justin Bieber remained pinned in doll-form to the possession bed, I didn’t hear much of that boy’s music emanating from the room. Instead I heard an incessant and annoying tune that Regan called “Tubular Bells.” Evidently it was some old song that had been mixed and remixed again and again by popular artists. It was probably only a matter of time, I thought, before Bieber himself had a version. I didn’t like its creepy tone, its insistent and unending melody.

            Damien Karras showed up on Election Day. For some reason he had about ten “I VOTED” stickers on his hoodie. I let him in, but said, “Now’s not a good time for it, Damien. I’m not in the mood, and the kid is home anyway.”

            Damien sighed. “Why do you assume that every time I show up I just want to fuck?”

            “Because every time you show up, that’s what you want.” I led him back to the kitchen, where I'd been drinking an exceptionally dirty martini, clouded with blue cheese-stuff olives, and smoking a cigarette and cooking a pot of ham and split pea soup.

            “Well, that’s not the case today.” He looked around inside my refrigerator and eventually came out with a bottle of white wine. “Actually, I just wanted to check in on you guys. See how Regan’s doing. He seemed awfully sick the other night.”

            “Regan’s been doing OK. He is feeling better, but he sleeps a lot. He’s napping now I think. I hope he will like this soup later.”

            “It smells awesome!” Karras leaned over the pot and inhaled. He opened the wine bottle. I handed him a glass. I could tell he really wanted a cigarette, too, but I knew he was trying not to ask for one. So I lit one and handed it to him. He was annoyed but he took it nonetheless. “You know,” he said, “I had a really interesting talk with Father Dyer the other night. Here, at the party.”

            “Interesting? With Dyer? How could that possibly be? I know his church traffics in miracles, but really, Damien! It bends belief too far!”

            He didn’t laugh. Instead he said, “You’ll hate this idea, Chris, but I am thinking about returning to the Church.”

            I wanted to laugh some more, but it wasn’t really that funny. I said, “Now that is interesting considering that since your last foray into religion all those years ago, you have become an open homosexual and a shrill atheist. What did Dyer think of all this? Are they so desperate for priests anymore that they’d recruit from the likes of you?”

            “I’m not thinking about the priesthood again, dumbass! Just about faith and what I might be able to do with it going forward.” True, Karras had been kind of introspective (weird) like this since his mom died a few months before. His mom had been zealously religious and had wanted Damien to join the priesthood, but she was a nice a lady all the same. Hard to understand though: she’d spoken in some kind of thick Slavonic accent. I remembered that she’d always called Damien “Dimmy.”

            “Actually, you’ll think this is really dumb,” Karras said, “but what got me thinking about it again was that crazy game, that exorcism thing that Regan has. Some of us were playing with it for a while that night. It is fucked up, son!” He laughed and poured a second glass of wine. “But really kind of—I don’t know—thought-provoking, too.”

            I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said, “It doesn’t come with the Justin Bieber doll, you know. Regan added that.”

            “I swear that doll looked at me!”

            “Looked at you? It looks all over the place.” It did. It moved with LIFE-LIKE HELLISH AGONY!

            “Dude, I swear! When I was playing with it, the doll was screaming ‘It burns! It burns!’ and then I made one of the priests step closer, and then somehow the priest decided to pull up the Justin doll’s shirt and you could see on his stomach this scar that said ‘HELP ME.’ Then the doll looked right at me—right at me!—and said in his own voice and not the devil voice, ‘Help me, Damien!’”

            “In his own voice?” I slugged down the dregs of my martini and started, furiously, to mix another, chewing olives. “In Justin Bieber’s actual voice? Really!”

            “Well I don't know if it was Justin Bieber’s authentic voice, jackass. Just that it wasn’t the devil voice!”

            “It’s a fucking game! A playset! Come here!” I grabbed Damien Karras by one elbow and led him down the hall toward Regan’s study. If this ridiculous Exorcist Playset was the catalyst to some sort of spiritual awakening in my lame-ass friend, I needed to at least try to make the argument against it before he’d fully flown off to Cloudcuckooland.

            The playset was “on” when we entered the room, but not much was happening in it since no one was actively playing with it, kind of like a video game on “pause.” The Bieber doll writhed languidly against its straps, occasionally emitting a low, hellish moan. An old priest paced the space in front of the boy’s bed but didn’t seem about to do anything in particular. Justin Bieber’s horrified mother stood in a doorway, but she too was rendered rather immobile by the lack of any interaction from a human player. “What you experienced,” I said to Damien, “was a coincidence exacerbated by drunkenness. I don't know how to play with this thing, but I suspect that the words ‘HELP ME’ are always on his stomach and that he will say it to anyone under the right circumstances.” Maybe the doll even lifted Damien’s name from his iPhone. To prove this, I reached with two fingers into the playset and lifted the doll’s vomit-stained t-shirt. Rather creepily, it squirmed against my fingertips and shouted, “Bastard! Scum! Pious hypocrite!”

            But the boy-doll’s stomach did not say in raised skin welts the words “HELP ME.”

            “See?” Damien said.

            “He will not sleep!” said the possessed Justin Bieber doll in a voice that sounded like it had been rasped by decades of cigarettes and whiskey. “I will not let the piglet sleep!”

            I jumped a little when another voice sounded from behind me. “Hey. What up?” it said. I turned and saw Regan in the room’s doorway, sleep-tousled, clad in gym shorts. He stepped into the room, peered down at the Justin doll. He touched his iPad and the “Tubular Bells” song started up again. Then he looked up at Karras and said, “Hi, Dimmy.”

            I only had one nightmare during those days of the stained-glass world, and it was this:

            Regan couched on his bed, growling.

            The window flung open and closed and open again and again


            It was so cold in that room. I could see my breath and Regan’s.

            Detective Kinderman stepped toward the window and then stepped out of it. Somehow, pushed out of it.

            Regan howled. And then his face warped into that of Justin Bieber doll. His head turned one hundred and eighty degrees and he said in that rasp-voice, “You see what he did, your cunting little nephew?”

            I decided the next morning that I wasn’t going to feel badly about what had happened to Kinderman nor let Regan feel any guilt over it. Kinderman had been planning to kill Regan and stuff his mouth with rosaries. The son of a bitch got what he deserved; no matter how it actually happened, no matter how Regan somehow knew in advance what would happen. I decided I’d talk about it with him.

            But when I found Regan in his study, things had changed. Instead of “Tubular Bells,” I heard that Justin Bieber song:

            “As long as you love me…I’ll be your platinum, I'll be your silver, I’ll be your gold...”

            The playset bedroom was dismantled, stacked in heaps of wall panels and Lilliputian furniture. The Bieber doll itself lay inert on the desk. Unlike when it was plugged into the set, when it had twisted creepily and moaned under demonic duress, it now looked utterly fake, the most plastic and dull-eyed of dolls. Its dirty shirt was pulled up above its navel. And its skin still didn’t say “HELP ME” in purple welts.

            “What’s going on, kiddo?” I wondered, watching Regan stack action figures in a storage case. “Is this all done?”

            “Justin died overnight,” Regan said.

            I looked again at the inert doll on the desk.

            Regan said, “I left it running too long. A couple days ago—in game time—I had the doctor priest give him more Librium to calm him down for the exorcism but then the demon didn’t let him sleep for two days. So he went into cardiac arrest and died.”

            “So he’s just dead? Really?” I stared at the limp doll. “He can’t ever… ‘live’ again?”

            Regan frowned. “Well, I could reboot him and start it again. But I don’t really want to. The whole thing’s kind of sick anyway, don’t you think?” He reached under the desk and brought up the big box in which the Exorcist Playset had originally been packed. “DEMONIC HORROR!” it boasted. And “CAN YOU EXPEL SATAN!?” On one side of the box, some bright yellow text said, “Compatible with Kenner Celebrity Add-Ins—Including Pop Phenom Justin Bieber™!”

            I picked up the doll and straightened its shirt. I smoothed its hair. I handed it to Regan who carefully slid it into the box.