Reflecting on the Legacy of William Peter Blatty and ‘The Exorcist’

William-Peter-Blatty-FFBEarly in the morning of Friday, Jan. 13, “The Exorcist” director William Friedkin announced via Twitter that his friend and collaborator, William Peter Blatty — who wrote both the novel and screenplay for the 1973 film — had passed away the day before.

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Blatty, a lifelong Catholic of Lebanese extraction, was 89. Born in New York City, he attended a Jesuit high school and later studied at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. After working as a door-to-door salesman and a stint in the Air Force, Blatty came to Los Angeles in the 1950s. He worked in PR and journalism, later writing comedy, ghostwriting for advice author Dear Abby (Abigail Van Buren) and penning more than a dozen novels.

His most recent book was “Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death” in 2015, which focused on his only child, son Peter, who died of a heart ailment in 2006.

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Blatty remains best known for “The Exorcist,” published in 1971. It was a literary hit, and that may be because of a bit of divine intervention.

From The Hollywood Reporter:

After an extremely slow start, his Exorcist novel wound up selling 13 million copies, thanks in large part to an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

Beatty was booked on the talk show at the last minute when someone else fell through, then given more time when the first guest, actor Robert Shaw, was sent off early (he may have been drunk, Blatty noted in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times).

“I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere,” said Blatty, who got to chat about his book with Cavett for nearly 45 minutes on national TV. The Exorcist then jumped to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and attracted the attention of Warner Bros. head John Calley.

Here at Family Theater Productions, we’re big fans of Blatty and “The Exorcist” — I even liked the Fox spin-off series of the same name, which just finished its first season on a high note — so I turned to a couple of our film experts for opinions.

First, here’s Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a Holy Cross priest (FTP was founded by a Holy Cross priest, Father Patrick Peyton, and remains under the auspices of the order), who’s also trained in film production. He’s currently at Holy Cross’ Notre Dame University, teaching a film-related course. Reached by email, he wrote:

I join with Catholics, priests, exorcists and people of good will around the world in mourning the loss of William Peter Blatty, famed writer of THE EXORCIST, an account of the real-life exorcism that took place at St. Louis University many years ago. In a cynical world that often scoffs at the mere mention of the supernatural, Blatty gave us pause to consider the reality of evil and the sacred actions required to drive it out.

As a young child, my father encouraged me to watch THE EXORCIST to counterbalance the now, in hindsight, laughable horror films I so cherished in the 1980s. The film did not disappoint. I ran out of the living room and dove under the covers of my bed the first time I saw Regan “spider walk.” Little did I know, the seeds for a vocation to priesthood were planted.

I hope the consulting work I continue to do on demonic-possession films and television programs will honor the memory of William … scaring future audiences, to be true, but leading them to greater faith as well.

Then I turned to Anthony Sands, FTP’s Senior Producer and resident film buff, for his reaction. He wrote:

William Blatty not only impacted Hollywood and entertainment, but all of American culture as well as American Catholicism. In the 1960s and 1970s, the first winds of the “Spirit of Vatican II” were making their way from Europe and into the U.S. Among many alterations that were entering into the Catholic Church was a mentality that Catholics were seen as a backward, superstitious lot who believed in “magic” and were trapped in the Dark Ages. Part of the push came, sometimes through the offices of the U.S. hierarchy, to distance ourselves from the supernatural or unexplained and focus on the historical, the strictly factual and modern explanations of ancient beliefs.

One of the biggest ideas was to get away from the idea of the Devil, or actual demons, and write off Satan and his legions as a creation of the Medieval church, or a literary construct used by Christ to explain the concept of evil to an uneducated people. Demons were also being recast, as merely the figurative term the Gospels used to explain things like mental illness to a culture 2,000 years before Freud and popular psychology (which was quickly becoming the rage of 1960s and ‘70s.)

The Devil was becoming an idea rather than a person, and many, many in America, both in the Church and in the culture, were happy to see that occur.

Then enter William Blatty, with his book based on the case of an actual exorcism in the U.S. The book became the Academy Award-winning film “The Exorcist,” and Blatty helped make Satan and his demons real again. He made evil a tangible thing that had to be addressed, confronted and overcome, and not just an “outdated concept driven disordered psychoses” as many in the pop psychology culture wished it to become.

“The Exorcist” made it acceptable to believe in real good and evil.

Also, in a culture that recently embraced the motto “F- the Man!”, it make it OK to show a priest in full clerics back on the big screen again. Blatty both reinvented the horror film and certainly created a new sub-genre, the Supernatural Thriller. Blockbusters today ranging from “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” to the “The Conjuring” movies are part of the “The Exorcist’s” legacy.

Today, one of the few recurring roles that depict priests as good people are in films where they are shown performing exorcisms.

Granted, no one person, book or film is solely responsible for such massive cultural shifts. However, they can have great influence. Consider this — up until the 1960’s, every Catholic priest was given the faculties of exorcist as part of his ordination. That stopped in the 1960s.

Then “The Exorcist” came out in 1971. Now, every diocese is once again required to have at least one dedicated exorcist. Sometimes art and an artist can give us a clearer view of our world, even if the view is to recognize darkness.

Well done, William Peter Blatty, good and faithful servant.

Images: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Warner Bros. Pictures

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