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.

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Still falling for ‘The Exorcist,’ 40 years later

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Long ago, pre-Internet, some researchers tried to find out which movie had the greatest spiritual effect on viewers, in terms of provoking people to think about sin, salvation and life after death.

A Billy Graham movie perhaps? “The Ten Commandments”? “Chariots of Fire”?

Nope, apparently it was the R-rated, scare the living daylights out of audiences classic, “The Exorcist.”

With that in mind, let me state that I really enjoyed that USA Today feature that took director William Friedkin and author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty back to, well, their old Georgetown haunts 40 years after the release of that famous film.

However, I really do think that this story has one serious hole in it — but we’ll get to that shortly.

The key to the story is that, for Blatty, the major themes in his book and in the movie were rooted in his Catholic beliefs and, most of all, in his conviction that life-and-death battles between real evil and absolute truth take place and cannot be explained away. Reporter Brian Truitt made this a key issue in his news feature (which has also been circulated by Religion News Service).

The story of the story starts at Georgetown University, back when Blatty was a student:

It was in White-Gravenor Hall in a New Testament class that Blatty first heard of the 1949 exorcism of Maryland boy Roland Doe, and that sparked his interest in writing about the possession of Regan. And the infamous fall of Father Karras was influenced by Blatty watching one of his physics classmates take a hospitalizing tumble after trying to steal a final exam.

Blatty modeled Karras after his own feelings, he says. The death of Karras’ mother caused him to lose faith in God for a time, while the passing of Blatty’s mother also was deeply traumatic, “a period when my faith was more a hope than a belief.”

Exploring the evidence of his faith in writing “The Exorcist” was “very gratifying because it solidified my belief that I would one day see my mother again,” Blatty says.

Through the years, the film has grown in popularity, but Blatty missed the spiritual aspects from his original work, so Friedkin added 12 minutes for an extended director’s cut that was released into theaters in 2000.

And the bottom line? Why show such torment in the life of a young girl, her mother and the priest who, literally, gives his all to save the child? Blatty explains:

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Sandra Fluke, Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and tender stories

Time magazine is doing its annual PR blitz for its “Person of the Year.” After I won the designation in 2006, I stopped paying attention to it. Since then the honor has gone to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke, Mark Zuckerberg and “the protester.” And yes, if you’re wondering, the tradition of selecting a Man of the Year began in 1927 with Time editors contemplating newsworthy stories possible during a slow news week. We’ve all been there.

Among the nominees this year are Ai Weiwei, Bashar Assad, Felix Baumgartner, Joe Biden (fer real), Bo Xilai, Chris Christie, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Gabrielle Douglas, Roger Goodell, the Higgs boson, E.L. James, Jay-Z, Kim Jong Un, the Mars Rover, Marissa Mayer, Mohamed Morsi, Psy, Pussy Riot, John Roberts, Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, Undocumented Immigrants, Malala Yousafzai.

The winners, no matter how unworthy, tend to be from the United States. But we have a fair number of nominees from other countries. I’m a bit surprised Chen Guangcheng wasn’t on there. I might also note that the religious dimensions of the list are somewhat slight. Readers of our recent post on the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood may appreciate that the write-up for Morsi included this line, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s religiosity is moderate, or at least moderated by pragmatism; its politics are populist and likely the template for a number of other fledgling democracies in the region.”

The entry for Yousafzai was a nice tribute to her devout Muslim father who supports her and her educational goals. The last line is “It is among the tenderest of stories in the world of conservative Islam.”

But I bring all this up because of the write-up for another deserving nominee — Sandra Fluke. While I tend to think the prize is too American-focused, if it goes in that direction again this year, she should definitely win. I only wish she could win it in conjunction with the media that has been so supportive of her during her entire public relations journey. You could say their love for her is among the tenderest of stories in the world of mainstream media. (For more on that, you can see some of our posts on the coverage of Fluke here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And if/when Fluke does win, I hope she can accept the award with Cecile Richards, Andrea Mitchell and the whole Church of Planned Parenthood. They all had an amazing year and they deserve credit.)

Anyway, here’s the write-up of our Person of the Year:

The daughter of a conservative Christian pastor, Sandra Fluke, 31, became a women’s-rights activist in college and continued her advocacy as a law student at Georgetown. After she complained about being denied a chance to testify at a Republican-run House hearing on insurance coverage for birth control, Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut.” Democrats and many Republicans reacted with outrage, and the left made Limbaugh’s slur Exhibit A in what they called a GOP “war on women.” Fluke, meanwhile, weathered the attention with poise and maturity and emerged as a political celebrity. Democrats gave her a national-convention speaking slot as part of their push to make reproductive rights a central issue in the 2012 presidential campaign — one that helped Barack Obama trounce Mitt Romney among single women on Election Day.

Technically the hearing was on religious liberty, but the media have long decided that the issue is best framed otherwise.

But what I found interesting was that Time has described Fluke’s father as a “conservative Christian pastor.” We learned earlier that “The Rev. Richard Fluke, Sandra’s father, is a part-time licensed local pastor who shares the pulpit at Tatesville United Methodist Church in Everett, Pa., with two other pastors. Both he and his wife, Betty Kay, are proud of their daughter.”

I know enough Methodists to know that some are very conservative and some are very progressive. The leadership of the denomination tends to be liberal but Methodist polity and culture permits some significant variance. I would love to know more about his conservatism or how that descriptor was chosen. What does it mean in this context? Maybe when she wins the award, we’ll get some substantiation about Fluke’s conservative Christian upbringing.


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