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by Bamber Gascoigne

William Peter Blatty (1928-2017)


American screenwiter and novelist, who gained international fame with the theological horror tale Exorcist (1971), in which a small girl is unaccountably possessed by the devil and turned into a repellent monster. The book was also filmed (1973) and together with a worldwide boom for the supernatural, it gained enormous commercial success. Blatty did not start as a horror writer, but a with comedies. His early works include the screenplay for A Shot in the Dark (1964), a hilarious Peter Sellers farce about the accident-prone Inspector Clouseau's investigations.

"I remember very distinctly reading a funny ghost or terror story in Unknown by Robert Bloch. He started me on my writing career. I just fell apart with laughter, and I would call my friends and read the entire story to them. And I caught fire. I wanted to write something like that. And I started trying comedy, because it was the laughs that got me." (from Faces of Fear by Douglas E. Winter, 1990)

William Peter Blatty was born in New York City, the fifth and youngest child of Lebanese Catholic immigrants. His great uncle, Germanios Mouakad, was one of leading philosophers in the Middle East in his day. When Blatty was six, his father left home, and in the space of the years the family lived at twenty-eight different addresses. Blatty's mother, Mary, made and packaged her own quince jelly, selling it on the streets of New York. She was deeply religious, which influenced Blatty's childhood and choice of schools. He attended a Catholic grammar school, St Stephen's in New York, Brooklyn Preparatory, a Jesuit High School, and Georgetown University, also a Jesuit school, receiving a bachelor's degree.

Blatty studied English literature at the George Washington University. His relationship with his mother was very close and when he married in 1950, his  mother grew hysterical. After receiving his M.A., Blatty entered the U.S. Air Force in 1951 and was stationed in Beirut, Lebanon, where he analyzed Soviet propaganda. During this time he started to write. His early pieces appeared in magazines and newpapers. After returning to the U.S. Blatty worked as the director of publicity at the University of Southern California, but quit his job when he won $5,000 as a contestant on Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life.

As a novelist Blatty made his debut with Which Way to Mecca, Jack? (1959), about his experiences in the Middle East. It was based on a series of comic articles written for The Saturday Evening Post. His script for a Danny Kaye comedy, The Man from the Diner's Club, was produced four years later. Directed by Frank Tashlin it told of a clerk who accidentally lets a credit card go to a notorious gangster. Blatty quickly became one of Hollywood's leading writers of off-the-wall farces. In the mid-1960s Blatty began his cooperation with the director Blake Edwards in such films as A Shot in the Dark, perhaps the best in the "Pink Panther" series, What Did You Do in the War, Daddy (1966), a WWII comedy, Gunn (1967), a spin-off from Peter Gunn TV show, and Darling Lily (1970), starring Julie Andrews, Rock Hudson and Jeremy Kemp.

A Shot in the Dark was based on Harry Kurnitz's play, which was an English-language version of L'Idiote (1960), written by the French playwright Marcel Achard. Kurnitz's adaptation enjoyed a successful run at Broadway's Booth Theater, starring Julia Harris and Walter Matthau. Blake Edwards and Blatty turned the character of Detective Paul Sevigne into Inspector Jacques Clouseau, played by Peter Sellers. The production began well, but then Sellers got bored with the role, and eventually the star and director stopped speaking with each other and communicated with little notes slipped underneath each other's door.

In 1969, comedies were suddenly out of favour in Hollywood. Unable to find work, Blatty rented a cabin in the woods near Lake Tahoe and began writing The Exorcist. The idea for the story dated to 1949, when Blatty was at Georgetown University and read a local newspaper accounts of an exorcism, involving a fourteen-year-old boy in Mount Rainer, Maryland. Blatty, who had once considered becoming a Jesuit and entering the priesthood, launched his research by looking into incidents of reported exorcism. Ultimately the book was based on an earlier case from 1928, which took place in Earling, Iowa, and other historical cases dating back to the Bible. Blatty said in his autobiography I'll Tell Them I Remember You (1973), that he finished the novel because he had a sign from his dead mother to carry on. He wore a Jesuit medal on a single chain around his neck, and one morning there was two chains and two medals – the second was exactly like the one his mother had worn.

In the prologue of the novel Father Merrin discovers in Iraq an amulet of the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu. Soon in Georgetown a young girl, Regan MacNeil starts to act strangely. Meanwhile Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest and psychologist, fears that he is losing his faith. Regan's mother Chris seeks Karras's help, her character was partly based on the actress Shirley McLaine, Blatty's neighbour. Father Merrin performs the exorcism, but dies of a heart attack. Karras expels the demon from Regan by taking it into his own body and then killing himself.

The book became a worldwide bestseller, sold 13 million copies in the U.S. alone and paved the way for the rise of the horror-supernatural genre of the 1970s, with its famous representatives Peter Straub, Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Ira Levin and others. For some reason the writer Stephen King dismissed Blatty's bestseller in Danse Macabre (1981): "... two novels of the Humorless, Thudding Tract School of horror writing are Damon, by C. Terry Cline, and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty – Cline has since improved as a writer, and Blatty has fallen silent... forever, if we are lucky."

Blatty sent the book to William Friedkin, the director of The French Connection, known as a documentary filmmaker. Friedkin was an agnostic Jew. His movie version, which opened in December 1973, broke box-office records. It transformed the horror genre with its realistic and shocking effects – Friedkin retained many of the novel's images, including the projectile vomiting, head rotations, and the scene in which the possessed girl masturbated with a crucifix. In Britain this particular scene was cut by the censor. Understandably, the Catholic Church was not pleased although three priests served as consultants on the film. However, the shot of the exorcist standing outside the MacNeil home, in the middle of a mist, is one of its most effective visual images.

Despite ten nominations, only sound and Blatty's screenplay won an Academy Award. The soundtrack consists primarily of sound effects and the occasional use of previously composed pieces, including Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells.' Fiedkin initialy planned to make the film in "documentary fashion" and have a soundtrack with no music. When this plan foundered, he approached Bernard Herrmann, and after quarrels, he commissioned a score from Lalo Schifrin, and reportedly, threw a reel of his recordings out of a studio window. Schifrin's score was released as a limited-edition CD alongside the "Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition" DVD in 1998. The revised version of the film was released in 2000 as The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen.

Unhappy with Friedkin's ambiguities and treatment of theological concerns, Blatty published his original screenplay six months after the premiere of the film. The Exorcist was followed by two sequels: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), written by William Goodhart and directed by John Boorman, starring Richard Burton, Linda Blair, Louise Fletcher and Max von Sydow. In the story Father Lamont, investigating the case related to the first film, has found that the evil Regan, apparently exorcized, is only dormant. After many plot twists, Regan and Lamont enter the Washington house where Merrin performed the first exorcism. Again the demon is defeated, but at the cost of Lamont's life. The third installment in the trilogy, entitled Legion: The Exorcist III, repeated in flashback's the scene of Karras's death. 

In the novel Legion (1983), the sequel to Exorcist, Blatty utilized the mystery story as a vehicle to convey his theological message, which can be seen as a backward proof of the existence of God: if the devil exists there must also be a God. The psychologist Nicholas P. Spanos argued in Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (1996) that both the exorcist and the possessed person are engaged in learned role-playing. People who have seen the film Exorcist have taken the role of Linda Blair, imitating her husky voice and smirking and snarling. The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D'Souza, ordered a priest to perform an exorcism on Mother Teresa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, shortly before she died in 1997. It is not known, if she had ever seen The Exorcist. According to a Vatican source the ritual  was "like something out of a Hollywood horror flick" (Weekly World News, October, 9, 2001). 

After the commercial disaster of Exorcist II, Blatty wrote and directed himself the film adaptation of the book. The plot centers around a serial killer, who is caught and executed, but whose soul is inserted by "The Master" into Father Karras's soul, who died in the original version. The traces lead to a hospital, where a catatonic patient has woken and is becoming violent. Blatty's The Exorcist also inspired The Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), directed by Renny Harlin, born in Protestant Finland, and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), directed by Paul Schrader, a Roman Catholic.

Blatty received several awards, including Golden Globe Awards (1973, 1980), Academy of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror award (1980), and The American Film Festival Blue Ribbon and Gabriel Award for an episode of the religious 'Insight' television series titled 'Watts Made Out of Thread'. In 1998 Blatty received the Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement. Much of his live he  lived in California. Blatty was married four times; he had seven children. In 1983 he married Julie Alice Witbrodt; they remained together untill his death  on January 12, 2017, in Bethesda, Maryland.  Blatty had been suffering from multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

For a moment there was silence. Dare gulped down the scotch and stared into the fire. "All that rot about eternal hell's fires and damnation. Just because I like Mackinaws more than silk blouses, I'm condemned to take bath in jalepeño juice and eat napalm hot fudge sundaes with Son of Sam for all eternity in some Miltonesque Jack in the Box. Is hell fair?" (from 'Elsewhere', 1999)

After Exorcist Blatty mostly published horror, although he did not wish to be regarded as a "horror writer". An exception in his early period, when he wrote comic novels, is Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing (1966), a thinly veiled satirical fable about the author's involvement with the film. In his novels Blatty debated the existence of God, the soul, the afterlife, and the nature of good and evil within a specifically Roman Catholic framework. Blatty's short novel, 'Elsewhere' (1999), drew from the idea that ghosts are dead people who refuse to accept that they are dead. Dimiter (2010), Blatty first full-length novel since Legion, was a theological thriller, which takes place in Albania and Jerusalem. With Crazy (2010), tale of an 82-year-old former screenwriter, Blatty returned to the hilarious side of life. "It's like a classic Jean Shepherd anecdote with supernatural overtones." (Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post, November 23, 2010)

For further reading: The Story Behind the Exorcist by Peter Travers and Stephanie Reiff (1974); 'The Exorcist and Jaws' by Stephen E. Bowles (1976, in Literature/Film Quaterly); 'William Peter Blatty', in Faces of Fear by Douglas E. Winter (1990); The Monstrous-Feminine by Barbara Creed (1993); Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror, compiled by Stephen Jones (1997); Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1998); The Exorcist by Bob McCabe (1999); If There Were Demons, Then Perhaps There Were Angels: William Peter Blatty's Own Story of the Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and Rae Smith (2001); American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty by Benjamin Szumskyj (2008). Blatty's film cameos: No Place to Land (1958), The Exorcist (1973), The Ninth Configuration (1980). Quote: "I don't believe believers can be possessed by the Devil." Reverend Billy Graham on The Exorcist.

Selected works:

  • Which Way to Mecca, Jack?, 1959
  • John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, 1963
  • The Man From the Diner's Club, 1963 (screenplay, also co-story)
    - Prod. Dena Productions, Ampersand, dir. by Frank Tashlin, starring Danny Kaye, Cara Williams, Martha Hyer, Telly Savalas
  • A Shot in the Dark, 1964 (screenplay with Blake Edwards, based on a play by Marcel Achard)
    - Prod. The Mirisch Corporation, dir. by Blake Edwards, starring Peter Sellers, Elke Sommers, George Sanders, Herbert Lom. "The storyline is fairly conventional – in fact, Edwards and William Peter Blatty adapted a play - but Sellers makes it unique. He is a joy, whether mispronouncing words like bump and monkey, getting his finger stuck in his globe, falling into water, leaning back in a chair and toppling over, engaging in brutal hand-to-hand combat with Japanese houseboy Burt Kwouk (whom he's ordered to attack him at all times), trying unsuccessfully to synchronize watches with his assistant, setting his coat on fire, or stripping so he can do some sleuthing at a nudist colony." (Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic, 1986)
  • Promise Her Anything, 1965 (screenplay, story by Arne Sultan)
    - Prod. Seven Arts Productions, dir. Arthur Hiller, starring Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron and Robert Cummings
  • I, Billy Shakespeare, 1965 (drawings by Victoria Chess)
  • John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, 1965 (screenplay, from his own novel)
    - Prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. J. Lee Thompson, starring Shirley MacLaine, Peter Ustinov and Richard Crenna
  • What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, 1966 (screenplay)
    - Prod. The Mirisch Corporation, Mirisch-Geoffrey Productions, dir. Blake Edwards, starring James Coburn, Dick Shawn and Sergio Fantoni
  • Gunn, 1967 (screenplay with Blake Edwards)
    - Prod. Geoffrey Productions, music by Henry Mancini, dir. Blake Edwards, starring Craig Stevens (as Peter Gunn), Laura Devon and Edward Asner
  • Watts Made Out of Thread, 1978 (teleplay)
    - Episode in Insight TV series, prod. Paulist Productions, dir. Jack Shea, with Roscoe Lee Browne, Alice Ghostley and Harold Gould
  • The Great Bank Robbery, 1969 (screenplay, based on a novel by Frank O'Rourke)
    - Prod. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, dir. Hy Averback, starring Zero Mostel, Kim Novak and Clint Walker
  • Darling Lili, 1970 (screenplay with Blake Edwards)
    - Prod. Geoffrey Productions, dir. by Blake Edwards, starring Julie Andrews, Rock Hudson and Jeremy Kemp
  • The Exorcist, 1971
    - Paholaisen riivaama (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1972) / Manaaja (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1988)
    - film 1973, prod. Hoya Productions, directed by William Friedkin, starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack McGowran. "As for the impious thrillseekers and obscenity hounds, have they no pride? The Devil in Miss Jones is one thing, but the devil in Little Nell is quite another, devious, craven, hypocritical way of coming by one's smut. Is there no honor left among thieves?"(John Simon, Esquire, April 1974); TV series 2016 (inspired by the novel), prod. Morgan Creek Productions, New Neighborhood, 20th Century Fox Television, starring Alfonso Herrera (Father Tomas Ortega),  Ben Daniels (Father Marcus Keane),  Hannah Kasulka (Casey Rance), Geena Davis (Angela Rance)
  • The Exorcist, 1973 (screenplay, from his own novel, also producer) 
  • I'll Tell Them I Remember You, 1973
  • William Peter Blatty on 'The Exorcist': From Novel to Film, 1974
  • The Man from Inner Space, 1975 (teleplay)
    - Episode in Insight TV series, prod. Paulist Productions, dir. Richard C. Bennett, with Frank Aletter, James Franciscus and Louis Gossett Jr.
  • Mastermind, 1976 (screenplay)
  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, 1979
  • The Ninth Configuration, 1980 (screenplay)
    - Prod. Ninth Configuration, dir. William Peter Blatty, starring Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Neville Brand
  • Legion, 1983
    - Paholaisleegio (suom. Pirjo Helasti, 1985)
  • The Exorcist III, 1990 (screenplay based on the novel Legion)
    - Prod. Morgan Creek Productions, dir. William Peter Blatty, starring George C. Scott, Ed Flanders, Brad Dourif, Jason Miller, Nicol Williamson, Scott Wilson
  • Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing, 1996
  • 'Elsewhere', 1999 (in 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense, ed. Al Sarrantonio)
  • Elsewhere, 2009 (with Alex McVey, illustrator, Bruce Haley, photographer)
  • Crazy, 2010
  • Dimiter, 2010

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