'The Exorcist' at 40

Author William Peter Blatty discusses the religious dimension of his novel.

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.)

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.

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.

The author’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.

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.

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

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, a Jesuit is there to bid them Godspeed.

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