The passing of William Peter Blatty on January 12th was the first heart-wrenching celebrity death of 2017. The author of The Exorcist (both the novel and the screenplay for the 1973 film) was celebrated as a fear practitioner of the highest caliber, a writer with an uncanny ability to chill our collective souls. While he had a long career as a writer, he was never able to achieve the same success he had with The Exorcist; for better or worse, it became the anchor of his artistic legacy.
Related Article: RIP William Peter Blatty: Author of “The Exorcist” Passes Away at 89
This fact isn’t necessarily a bad thing; over 4 decades after its release, The Exorcist remains a paradigm for truly terrifying horror cinema, a film that stands up against the offerings of today’s most lauded horrormeisters. The only thing is, according to Blatty, The Exorcist was never intended to be seen as horror.
For starters, Blatty didn’t set out to write a work of fiction; this is according to biographical journalist Eddie Dean:
Blatty wanted to try a nonfiction treatment, and he contacted the Jesuit priest who had performed the centuries-old Roman Catholic ritual for the victim of possession. He offered to help on a ghostwritten account of what happened. The priest said his superiors had nixed attempts to publicize the events because the family had requested anonymity.
So Blatty opted for the fictional route, relying on his Catholic upbringing and overactive imagination (kindled in boyhood by fantasy-thriller pulp anthologies like Unknown, in which a story by Psycho author Robert Bloch sparked Blatty’s storytelling aspirations) along with a steady supply of nicotine and caffeine. He took full poetic license, with two key creative touches that lent the story much of its power and frisson: He changed the target of the spiritual tug-of-war between good and evil from a 14-year-old boy to an adolescent girl. And he set the story in his old haunt, Georgetown.
Those who have read The Exorcist can attest that, while punctuated by moments of gore and obscenities, the novel is written with the cold objectivity of a clinician. It’s part of what makes the novel so terrifying: The fact that it was presented without exposition or narration. In the hands of director William Friedkin, however, and aided by FX pioneer Dick Smith, The Exorcist became a thing of extreme terror.
For a while, Blatty went with it, even writing the novel Legion and adapting it into a feature film (The Exorcist III) on his own. But as the bestselling author approached the nadir of his career, his literature took a noticeable shift. While still containing elements of the supernatural, the tone had transitioned to one of hope and reassurance. Influenced by the tragic passing of his son in 2006, Blatty returned to his Jesuit roots in a renewed search for faith, along with an understanding of the afterlife. And this, Blatty revealed, was his intention from the get-go.
“I’ve read some of the most ridiculous theories [about The Exorcist], even by critics that I respect, about how the novel symbolizes teenage rebellion and all sorts of sociological nonsense,” Blatty says. “There’s no hidden message. The book is the book, and it says what I wanted it to say.” (Source)
And what, exactly, was Blatty trying to communicate when he wrote The Exorcist?
“It’s an argument for God,” he says today of the novel more often considered an entertainment. “I intended it to be an apostolic work, to help people in their faith. Because I thoroughly believed in the authenticity and validity of that particular event.” (Source)
“For so many people of faith,” he says, “our belief in life after death is often a very intense hope—more than a full knowledge of fact—and [my] books give them some tangible evidence. My task was to prove to readers that they could trust my word that these things happened.” (Source)
The information in this article was culled from an outstanding and moving interview Blatty gave with The Washingtonian in October 2015. It includes insights into the writer/director’s upbringing, his turbulent career, and the death of his son in 2006. I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety, HERE.