The Exorcist at 40
Often called a horror film, it’s really, says its creator, a “supernatural detective story.”


Garnering a great deal of attention in this, its 40th-anniversary year, The Exorcist remains the most terrifying film ever made. Re-released in a Blu-ray edition with new commentary tracks and features showing screenwriter (and author of the original novel) William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin revisiting the Georgetown locations of the film, The Exorcist holds up remarkably well nearly half a century later.

Now a touchstone of horror-fests and a common allusion in popular culture, neither the book nor the film version of the The Exorcist was expected to have much market value. The 1971 book, unsold copies of which were being returned to the publisher at an alarming rate, got a huge boost from Blatty’s last-second substitute guest appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. That catapulted the book to the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for 57 weeks. The film, initially scheduled for limited release in art-house theaters, collected long lines at the box office and was quickly slated for wide release. So successful was it that, adjusted for inflation, it ranks as the No. 9 film all time for domestic gross and is the highest-grossing R-rated film in history.

It’s even more of a surprise that The Exorcist ever came into being in the first place. Although Blatty’s career is now largely defined by his writing of the novel and the screenplay, for which he won an Academy Award, he was known in the 1960s as an over-the-top slapstick comedic writer, who co-wrote the script for the first — and to my mind the best — of the Pink Panther films, A Shot in the Dark (1964). Blatty’s style of humor found its ideal vehicle in the manic genius of Peter Sellers.

As is now widely known, the idea for the book dates back to Blatty’s undergraduate days at Georgetown University in the late 1940s, where he heard a priest tell the story of an actual exorcism. Twenty years later, unemployed and enduring something of a crisis of faith in the aftermath of his mother’s death — a situation reflected in a subplot concerning the priest character, Fr. Damien Karras — Blatty retreated to a remote cabin near Lake Tahoe and started to compose The Exorcist. It was, he reminisces, “a period when my faith was more a hope than a belief.”

Now in his 80s, Blatty continues to be productive. Just a few years ago, he published a very fine novel, Dimiter. He has also founded the Father King Society in an effort to restore Georgetown’s fidelity to the Catholic faith and has submitted a petition to the Vatican requesting that Georgetown be stripped of its right to use the name “Catholic.” This from an alumnus whose famous film is, as Friedkin has commented, “a hymn to Georgetown.”

With good reason, neither Blatty nor Friedkin accepts the label of “horror film” for The Exorcist. As Blatty comments in a recent interview: “When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones.”