WPost examines the demons (and a ghost) in ‘The Exorcist’

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It’s that time of year again, the time when reporters keep trying to reach author William Peter Blatty to talk about pea soup, noises in the night, long flights of stairs and the degree to which human necks can swivel.

Consider this one-liner, drawn from a much better than normal chat with the author just published in the Washington Post:

“As I say, every Halloween I’m dragged out of my burrow like some demonic Punxsutawney Phil,” says Blatty, a hale and hearty 85. “And if I don’t see my shadow, the horror box office is gonna be great. Either that or I’m dead. Nobody has had the guts — or the kindness — to tell me which it is.”

William Peter Blatty is not dead.

Now, this Post interview does have its snarky moments — hang on for its swipe at the legacy of the Blessed John Paul II — but I want to stress that the article at least attempted to take seriously the spiritual, even doctrinal, side of Blatty’s life and work. The sense of fairness breaks down when the Post team moves from a consideration of the themes Blatty wove into “The Exorcist” to his views of his alma mater, Georgetown University.

But first, God and the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist.”

… Blatty will bear the cross of his mammoth success, which was fused long ago to the kitschy holiday by virtue of its terrifying imagery. Never mind, he says, that the story is more about the mystery and power of faith than the ultimate violation of a 12-year-old girl by evil forces. …

The cuffs on his denim jacket are flipped. Underneath his navy T-shirt is a silver medal etched with the three crosses of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified in the Gospels. The medal belonged to his son Peter, who died seven years ago. One reason “The Exorcist” has endured, Blatty thinks, is because it shows that the grave does not mean oblivion. That there is something after death.

“I’m not sure of what’s there,” he says, “but it isn’t oblivion.”

The story, as it must, quickly covers lots of ground in Hollywood and D.C. On one level this is a common tale, the story of the struggling screenwriter who suddenly finds a source of inspiration that saves his career and changes his life. In this case, we are talking about a comedy pro (best known for his work with director Blake Edwards) who, well, was inspired to spin his career in a totally different direction.

It all started with a Georgetown memory, one of those doctrinal puzzles that locked into the puzzled mind of an undergraduate who was wrestling with his doubts.

The results, the Post makes clear, shook the nation. Blatty set out to:

… (Write) a novel using a story he heard in a theology class at Georgetown. Something about a case of possession in Maryland. The project, he says, was purely apostolic. The obscenity, the occult, the suspense — mere devices, he says, in the service of sharing the faith.

It’s impossible to overstate how much “The Exorcist” rocked the country, and Washington itself, soon after its 1971 publication. By June of that year, shortly after Blatty’s appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” it climbed on to the bestseller list and remained there for over a year. Blatty wrote and produced William Friedkin’s film version, which opened the day after Christmas 1973 and sent the country into hysterics. …

What is the deal with America and exorcism?

Look at all those polls, Blatty says. Nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, says one. More Americans believe in the Devil than evolution, says another. And it’s the fear that something can possess you — not the Devil, but something like rage or jealousy or despair — that haunts everyone regardless of their belief system.

Read it all.

And what was that about Blatty and his alma matter? As the story makes clear, the writer is a pro-Vatican Catholic who — gasp — actually thinks that the doctrinal views of someone like the pope should even be taken seriously in postmodern Georgetown.

Try to spot the snippet of pure snark in this oh-so-Style section passage:

This month, Blatty submitted to the Vatican a petition with thousands of signatures and a 120-page institutional audit that calls for the removal of Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit designations if it does not comply with every little rule in “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” John Paul II’s constitution for affiliated colleges. The university, for its part, says the “Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger.”

What’s up with the “every little rule” thing? I doubt that the Georgetown public-relations staff would even go that far.

And then there was this comment, a perfect aside in a town in which every little thing can be turned political (and thus end up on The Drudge Report). You think Kathleen Sebelius had it rough in that Hill hearing the other day?

The last straw, he says, was Georgetown’s invitation of Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, to be a commencement speaker in May of last year. Sebelius has a record of supporting abortion rights, and abortion is the issue that really sets Blatty’s nerves on fire.

He describes, his voice trembling, a particular abortion procedure in graphic detail.

He pauses. His voice is nearly a whisper.

“That’s demonic.”

That’s the kind of language that can make heads spin in DC.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • wlinden

    Given the tone of the piece, I would not be surprised to hear that Zak simply made up the “demonic” line.

  • helen

    “He describes, his voice trembling, a particular abortion procedure in graphic detail.

    He pauses. His voice is nearly a whisper.

    “That’s demonic.””

    Whichever one thought of it, it’s true.

  • Percy Gryce

    The dog that didn’t bark in the night is the unnamed (let alone described) abortion procedure that Blatty described in graphic detail.

    • tmatt

      That too.


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