R.I.P. William Peter Blatty

While taking a theology class at Georgetown University in 1949, William Peter Blatty heard about an extraordinary case of diabolical possession involving a 14-year-old boy in nearby Prince George’s County. The story stuck in the back of his mind. Two decades later, Blatty secluded himself in a cabin near Lake Tahoe and tapped out a novel on a green IBM Selectric about a 12-year-old girl who became possessed by a demon. He called the novel The Exorcist.

Topping most lists as the scariest movie ever made (and the scariest book ever written), The Exorcist not only made Blatty a star, but opened the door to a whole new generation of horror films, a sub-genre that could be called the “Supernatural Thriller,” the likes of which today are reflected in modern hits like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Conjuring,” and the Paranormal Activity franchise films.

Blatty also achieved something else with The Exorcist that in the early 1970s was considered countercultural, if not downright heretical. He made evil a tangible thing. He personified it. It was something that was real, that was intelligent, that was cunning. Yet it could be confronted and overcome. By religion, of all things! This flew in the face of everything the pop psychology of the time preached, that the concept of evil was outdated, irrelevant, and, if anything, was just a “disordered psychoses” appearing in a few unfortunate individuals.

Blatty died on January 12, 2017, at the age of 89, after a short battle with blood cancer. He was a lifelong Catholic, albeit one who struggled with his faith, like so many of us. To honor his memory, here are a few interesting facts about the man who changed the landscape of cinematic horror.

  • In 1959, he took a job as a ghostwriter for Abigail van Buren, the original “Dear Abby” columnist. He ghostwrote her book Dear Teenager.
  • In 1961, while still working in public relations, Blatty appeared as a contestant on the Groucho Marx quiz show You Bet Your Life, winning $10,000, enough money to quit his job and to write full time.
  • During the 1960s, Blatty turned his focus away from novels and towards screenwriting. His credits during this time include The Man from the Diners’ Club (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? (1966), Gunn (1967), and Darling Lilli (1970).
  • His success at writing comedy (in particular, the successful Pink Panther movie A Shot in the Dark) came to a halt with his new-found acclaim as a horror writer. Looking back at his career, Blatty once remarked: “And the sad truth is that nobody wants me to write comedy. The Exorcist not only ended that career, it expunged all memory of its existence.”
  • In an interview with the Washington Post, Blatty said that he does believe in the possibility of reincarnation. “Personally, I do. In the very early Catholic Church there were sects who definitely believed in the transmigration of souls. I've read a great deal about it. And maybe there’s something in my own life that tends to convince me it’s a possibility.”
  • His final book was 2015’s Finding Peter. It was inspired by the death of his 19-year-old son Peter, who died from a rare heart disorder in 2006.
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(Photo: Creative Commons, author: J.T. Blatty)