‘Every Halloween I’m dragged out of my burrow like some demonic Punxsatawney Phil. And if I don’t see my shadow, the horror box office is going to be great.” That’s how William Peter Blatty, who died Thursday at the age of 89 from complications from a form of blood cancer, often described his odd, late-in-life celebrity as the author of the novel The Exorcist and the screenplay of its 1973 film version. Alongside wistful tweets from his longtime friend (and collaborator on the film), the director William Friedkin, Stephen King tweeted, “RIP William Peter Blatty, who wrote the great horror novel of our time. So long, old Bill.”
Blatty rocketed to fame in the early 1970s, when that novel became a bestseller and the film version a huge box-office success that won numerous Oscars. Blatty liked to joke that the success of the book ruined his writing career — his comedic writing career, that is. In the 1960s, he was known for comedy. With Blake Edwards, he co-authored the script for A Shot in the Dark, the best of the Peter Sellers Pink Panther films. Indeed, his writing resists facile classification. Blatty’s range is evident from his penchant, even in his more dramatic works, for comic farce, the sort of humor prominent, for example, in The Ninth Configuration, of which Blatty wrote both a book and a screenplay version — and the screenplay earned him a Golden Globe over a list of competitors that included The Elephant Man, Ordinary People, and Raging Bull. It is instructive that the book he wrote after completing The Exorcist is a memoir (I’ll Tell Them I Remember You) about his childhood in New York being raised by his immigrant mother — a wonderful account of a certain type of pre–Vatican II American Catholic childhood with the Jesuits (both at his prep school and at Georgetown University) as priestly and academic heroes.
Despite praise from such aficionados as Stephen King, Blatty resisted the notion that The Exorcist was a horror story. He thought of it as a supernatural thriller. The Ninth Configuration, meanwhile, has accurately been dubbed a surrealist film. Just as Blatty’s characters are typically either believers undergoing a crisis of faith or agnostics who find their anti-creeds threatened by evidence for God that they cannot quite dismiss, so too his plots create doubts about the clear lines of demarcation between sanity and insanity, between modern rationalism and primitive myth, between comedy and tragedy, and between time and eternity.
For someone associated with demonic darkness, Bill was in person disarmingly genial, witty, and winsome. I met him through NRO. Back in the innocent days when NRO appended the personal e-mail addresses of its writers to articles, I was surprised to find an e-mail from “Hoya”; it turned out to be the Georgetown alumnus, Bill Blatty, who had read a piece I had written on some horror film that had attempted and failed to mimic The Exorcist and in which I had commended to readers the original film and Blatty’s novel.
We struck up a friendship that consisted mainly of fairly regular e-mail exchanges about current films. I looked forward each winter to his assessment of the best and worst films of the year. Our family also had occasion to dine with Bill and his warm and generous wife, Julie. Bill was as comfortable talking film and theology as he was engaging my children in conversation about their lives. He was also generous with his time. He agreed to meet and take photos with my daughter and her friends from the Catholic University of America at a Halloween screening of The Exorcist in Georgetown.
When prodded, he would share stories about his life and time in Hollywood. His stories were always told with self-effacing humor, an ironic sense of the irrationality of the world of Hollywood, and a grateful sense of how fortunate he had been.
Bill moved to Hollywood after serving in the Air Force. Trying to make it as an actor, he had a casting call for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. With visions of himself on Mount Sinai, he showed up for his interview only to be excused because of his blue eyes. Told that DeMille was a “‘stickler’ for realism,” he explained that both his parents were from the Middle East. To which an assistant retorted, “Show some respect, kid, come on.”
Perhaps the strangest event in Blatty’s life led to his achieving unanticipated celebrity in Hollywood: his appearance in 1958 as a Saudi Prince on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, during which he won the jackpot of $10,000, an amount that enabled him to begin writing full time. He also liked to tell the story about how The Exorcist itself became famous only because of a chance invitation to appear on The Dick Cavett Show. Not long after its release, bookstores were returning it to the publisher because it was not selling at all. Then he received a call from his agent saying that Cavett had had a cancellation and there was an opening for him. Then the guest scheduled before him tanked and Cavett gave a large portion of this show to Bill’s telling the story of the novel — a book Cavett had not yet read. Within days, The Exorcist was a bestseller.
Whatever Blatty’s reservations, he and The Exorcist will be forever linked. Part of the attraction of the story, I think, is the way it encapsulates the violence, angst, and despair of the end of the late 1960s. An early scene — a film within the film — features anti-war protesters on the campus of Georgetown University. And one of the sections of the book has an epigraph from Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Those were of course the words Bobby Kennedy spoke at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, at an impromptu press conference moments after Kennedy learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Whatever one makes of the most visually offensive images in the film, it cannot be doubted that it embodies a desperate search for faith and sacrificial love in a world that has lost its ethical and metaphysical bearings, where modern science apparently has no need for God and where the pervasive suffering of the innocent casts doubt on the existence of a good and all-powerful God.
Blatty’s classical education had taught him that God is not found by ignoring science or incomprehensible suffering but rather through science and in the encounter with evil. An admirer of the famous Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin — the model for Lankester Merrin, the elderly priest in The Exorcist — Blatty was preoccupied with cosmology, with the place of human persons in a vast and seemingly indifferent universe. Blatty’s cosmological musings are rarely ponderous. Existential issues are just as likely to surface as comedic farce. In that same film, another character exclaims, “I believe in the Devil alright. And you know why? Because the prick keeps doing commercials!”
Bill aged gracefully without any loss in his sense of humor. He also continued to be productive: publishing a very fine novel, Dimiter (reviewed by me here), working on the Blu-ray version of the film The Ninth Configuration, and composing Finding Peter, a reminiscence about the life and death (and afterlife!) of his son.
More than anyone I’ve ever met, Bill lived between this world and the next, between time and eternity.
More than anyone I’ve ever met, Bill lived between this world and the next, between time and eternity. The wall between the two worlds was permeable for him. He had a conviction that dead souls — his mother, his son Peter, Blake Edwards — were communicating with him, communicating gently and humorously but clearly. He said that he had described what he thought was a communication from Blake Edwards to Julie Andrews and that she had responded matter-of-factly, “Yep, that’s Blake.” I never quite knew what to make of these stories, which were told in such a casual way and with such a wry sense of humor that you almost doubted he believed them. But believe them, he did. And his manner of describing the experiences made me doubt my doubt — that was one of his gifts to the skeptical, modern world.
That communication between the dead and the living is a theme of one of the finest horror stories — or rather, supernatural thrillers — of recent years, a Spanish-language film, The Orphanage, produced and presented by the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who has expressed his debt to Blatty. With echoes of The Sixth Sense and The Others, The Orphanage poses the question whether, as the poet John Donne puts it, death is nothing more than “one short sleep.” The film recalls Blatty’s Ninth Configuration, in the role played by a religious medal (of St. Anthony) and in the theme of death embraced as a proof of love. “Can I wake up now?” is a question a young boy poses to his mother early in the film. That question resonates throughout this convincing portrait of souls caught between two lives, in the short sleep that is death.
That is the sleep into which William Peter Blatty has now entered. May God grant him rest.