‘Exorcist’ Author Explored Evil to Inspire Faith

Remembering William Peter Blatty, gone at 89 — and the spiritual focus of his seminal work

The author of The New York Times best-selling book “The Exorcist” and winner of an Academy Award for the screenplay by the same title died on Jan. 12, 2017. He had just turned 89 years old.

To some, it might seem a contradiction that the author of such a book was a man of deep faith. After all, when adjusted for inflation, “The Exorcist” remains the most successful horror movie of all time and one of the highest grossing R-rated films ever. But when one analyzes the epic and quite disturbing story, at its core “The Exorcist” is a tale about the universal struggle between good versus evil. The halo of faith is visible in the darkness.

“If somebody would dig into this and authenticate it — what a gift to the faith. It stayed in my mind.”

The foundation of the story is its acknowledgment of the existence of Satan and spiritual warfare, which is often regarded in modern society as old-fashioned folklore.

William Peter Blatty was raised in the Catholic faith and remained steadfast in it. In response to Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia’s statement that he believed in the devil, Blatty said, “I told him to quit honing into my territory. I don’t tell him how to write Supreme Court opinions … He should let me take the heat for talking about the devil. That’s my job.”

Blatty was born in New York City in 1928 to immigrant parents. He was raised primarily by his mother, a devout Catholic, after his father left their family when Blatty was about three years old.

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Blatty attended a Jesuit school on a scholarship and graduated valedictorian. With the determination of his mother paving the way, he went on to earn an English degree at Georgetown University, followed by a master’s degree at George Washington University. His mother sowed the seed of faith in his life — and his Jesuit education nourished that faith to withstand attack.

It was while he was attending a theology class at Georgetown that there was a discussion about a recent demonic possession of a young boy in the Washington area. Blatty recalled thinking, “Boy, if somebody would dig into this and authenticate it and show that it’s the real thing, what a gift to the faith. It stayed in my mind, and I thought maybe someday I’d try to write a nonfiction account.”

Years later, he won a $10,000 prize on the Groucho Marx show “You Bet Your Life” and used the money to support himself as a full-time writer. Before becoming the father of “The Exorcist,” he wrote several comedic books, including “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home,” “I, Billy Shakespeare,” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane.” He also worked on multiple movie scripts, including “A Shot in the Dark,” which was the second installment in the Pink Panther series.

“It could show people the spiritual world is real.”

In 1971, Blatty wrote “The Exorcist,” the fictional story of a 12-year-old girl who becomes demonically possessed — and the characters who try to help her. The novel is based on the case Blatty heard about at Georgetown. He studied multiple exorcisms and based several characters on actual people. “What happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith,” Blatty mused. “It could show people the spiritual world is real.”

While in the early stages of writing, Blatty received a call that his mother had died. “I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death,” Blatty said. And so, he wrote the tale of Regan McNeil and her atheist mother, Chris. The two engage in a battle for Regan’s physical body and spiritual soul with the help of Father Lankester Merrin and Father Damien Karras — who is going through his own crisis of faith.

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While reflecting on his career-making novel and movie, Blatty said, “It’s an argument for God. I intended it to be an apostolic work, to help people in their faith … I thoroughly believed in the authenticity and validity of that particular event.”

What Blatty accomplished with his unique combination of religion and imagination was showing the real-world struggle between mankind and the devil to the secular world. He presented the possibility of triumph over evil and suffering through prayer and self-sacrifice.

He also grieved the death of his own beloved son in 2006. Rather than denounce his faith, Blatty used the experience to fortify his beliefs in God and in the afterlife. He used his talent throughout his lifetime to make the argument that if demons exist, then so must God. He served the church by presenting religion in a realistic and sincere light with conviction and conflict.

Katie Nations, married for 15 years, is a working mother of three young children. She lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

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