Blatty's Exorcist: A 'Sermon No One Can Sleep Through'

A fresh look at the 40-year-old novel and the head-spinning film reveal new insights into evil and its antidote.

William Peter Blatty
William Peter Blatty (photo: J.T. Blatty)

BETHESDA, Md.—William Peter Blatty just released a new edition of The Exorcist, marking the 40th anniversary of his blockbuster tale of demonic possession — and he wants you to know that he never wrote it as a horror story.

This time around — at the ripe age of 83 — Blatty has used the release of the new edition to underscore the spiritual mission that drove his plot development: the reality of evil in the world and the opposing power of Christ and his Church. As secularism leads many to discard a prudent awareness of the devil and his works, the author has sought to bring inconvenient and scary truths to center stage.

That was the original intention of this practicing Catholic as he completed the first edition of The Exorcist. But most readers and reviewers locked onto the terrifying depiction of demonic possession as a great horror story and ignored its spiritual framework. The same mindset gripped movie audiences after the wildly successful film adaptation reached theaters. (Blatty won an Academy Award for the screenplay.)

“I have a number of explanations for the increase in possession in the Western world. You have to begin by examining how an alien intelligence or demon takes control of the organism of a human being,” said Blatty during an interview in the book-lined study of his comfortable Bethesda, Md., home, where he has continued to produce novels into his 80s.

“The personality of the victim must be shattered, so there can be an opening. What can create that opening? Drugs, certainly.”

The anniversary edition of The Exorcist includes an additional minor character. The author also used the opportunity to polish some rough passages neglected in his first and only draft of the 1971 bestseller, sent to the publisher as he scrambled to begin a screenplay.

Approaching the story with Blatty’s original intention in mind, one quickly discovers a rich trove of insights regarding a supernatural world that we generally ignore during moments of national and economic security, good health and relative calm.

Towards the close of the thriller, Father Lankester Merrin, the long-awaited exorcist, finally appears at the home of Regan, the 12-year-old girl possessed by a powerful demon and on the brink of death. Regan’s mother is a movie star and an atheist who pursued every medical explanation for her daughter’s deteriorating condition before seeking the counsel of the Jesuits at Georgetown University — Blatty’s alma mater.

Upon the arrival of the experienced and saintly Father Merrin, the girl’s mother feels deep relief that he has taken charge. And, yet, she also perceives “something in the house. A tension. A gradual pulsing and thickening of the air, like opposing energies slowly building.”

In our distracted world, it can be tough to retain a clear-eyed awareness of the supernatural battle that rages unabated amid our earthly existence. But the author knows there is one way to penetrate that hidden realm of combat: through the “crucible” of human suffering.

At the close of The Exorcist, the careful reader may conclude that Regan’s mother has been drawn into God’s orbit precisely because of the horrendous experience she has endured.

“Suffering is ultimately a mystery. But it has a lot to do with salvation. Try to imagine a universe in which there is neither suffering nor the possibility of suffering for any living creature,” said Blatty, a cancer survivor who also lost a son.

“Could there be any virtue, courage, kindness? If you want to be steel, you have to go through a crucible; you can’t be handed spiritual food stamps. Christ on the cross showed us how to do it.”

“In The Exorcist, the prime example of the mystery of suffering would be the mother, who is an atheist. What leads this woman to a Jesuit priest?” he asked.

Yet when he previewed the film version of his novel, Blatty was disappointed that the ending did not suggest “an opening” in the mother’s mind that might ultimately lead to Christ.

“There was a bone of contention between me and the director, William Friedkin, on that final scene. But in the 2000 version of the film, there’s a slightly different ending: The director agreed to look at the footage, and we found 11 minutes that hadn’t been used.

“Friedkin told me: ‘You’re right to put it back in.’ And, besides, it gave the studio an excuse to re-release the film.”

New Works

Blatty embarked on his writing career as a comic novelist and also produced screenplays for popular comedies like the Pink Panther movie A Shot in the Dark.

But, in recent decades, he has returned to the problem of human suffering in Legion, a sequel to The Exorcist, and Dimiter, a complex thriller about revenge and forgiveness, stretching from Albania to Jerusalem, that the author views as his most ambitious work.

“Dimiter is a Christ figure. I intended a parallel to my personal belief that it was necessary that Christ suffer and die. We have the answer that faith gives us, but there is another way to think about it: What if Christ had died of pneumonia. Would we ever have heard of him?

“He had to die publicly, visibly, so that no agent at a Hollywood party could deny it,” said Blatty, who then recounted Friedkin’s recent experience at a Hollywood party, where guests, in fact, disputed the historical existence of Jesus Christ.

Like Blessed Pope John Paul II, Blatty firmly believes “there are no coincidences.” In one long sentence, he established a series of connections that began with a Jesuit priest who came to dinner during his childhood and ended, decades later, with the publishing event of The Exorcist.

Blatty’s childhood was shadowed by abandonment — his father left his mother when Blatty was still a toddler, and the two endured a long struggle for survival. 

Faith sustained his mother, a devout Maronite Catholic. Indeed, a great uncle, Germanos Mouakad, was the bishop of Baalbeck in Lebanon and founded the Lebanese Society of St. Paul, a saint Blatty celebrates for his belief that “the best way of capturing souls is good writing.”

For the second decade of his life, Blatty was a scholarship kid who won a full ride to Georgetown University — after the hungry Jesuit, who consumed three helpings at his mother’s dinner table, gave Mrs. Blatty the idea that her son should sit for an exam.

While an undergraduate, Blatty won more prizes, but also absorbed the demanding academic foundation of the traditional Jesuit core curriculum: epistemology, cosmology and metaphysics, among other subjects.

The plot for The Exorcist was seeded when Blatty heard a professor “repeat a story he had picked up at the Jesuit happy hour about a case of demonic possession.”

Antidote to Evil

Blatty never forgot the story — the talk of Catholic Washington. Decades later, he returned to the Library of Congress to research the topic, after a confidentiality agreement prevented the Jesuits from sharing their knowledge of the case.

The Exorcist, of course, covers more ground than the problem of suffering. Many readers identified with the doubting-Thomas character of Father Damian Karras, the Harvard-educated psychiatrist who seeks to have his spiritual questions resolved through the hard evidence of demonic possession.

“Father Karras kept discarding paranormal phenomenon. Because of the intensity of his desire to believe, he must set aside every doubt,” said Blatty, who seems as engaged with this story of demonic possession as when he embarked on the project 40 years ago.

But for readers and filmgoers fixated on the “head spinning” special effects, a fresh review of the plot may uncover the critical importance of sanctity and goodness as the most powerful antidotes to evil.

That truth is firmly established when Father Merrin arrives to take charge of the exorcism. He’s a highly credentialed scholar and author, but he’s not so preoccupied with his urgent mission as to ignore the spiritual needs of Regan’s mother. He begins with calming her fears, and then proceeds to fight the demon.

As Blatty reveals, this is the potent nature of goodness, which finds abundant nourishment from the divine wellspring of Love.

When Regan and her mother leave the house to return to California, Father Karras’ fellow Jesuit is there to bid them Godspeed.

“Good-bye. Safe journey home,” the Jesuit tells mother and child, offering a veiled benediction.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.