William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist
was published in 1971, he had no idea it would become
a national phenomenon. The Exorcist
would eventually sell over one million copies and
be transformed into a now classic film which Blatty
produced and for whose screenplay he received an
Academy Award (he also authored the comic masterpiece
A Shot in the Dark). Twenty-five years
later, the film is still a poignant tale of one
man's struggle to believe in God in the twentieth
century. And it still packs a punch. Recently re-released
in Scotland, it received the same response—and
audience—as the first time around. It will
be re-released throughout the U.K. this month and
may receive similar treatment in the U.S. with a
restored 15 minutes that were dropped from William
Friedkin's first cut. Currently at work on a novel
called Dimiter, a theological thriller
set in Jerusalem, and a novella called Elsewhere,
Blatty spoke with us on the eve of The Exorcist's
a threshold level, The Exorcist
does not seem to be a horror movie. Rather, it asks
the really big spiritual questions. Were you writing
horror or something else entirely different?
I intended that the novel be an "apostolic"
work, one that would either strengthen one's faith
or lead one to it. I'd planned it as a non‑fiction
exploration of one particular case I'd heard about
in 1949. When the real exorcist in that case couldn't
get permission from his superior to talk to me about
it, I switched to fiction. However, the religious
themes so explicit in the novel were—much
to my regret—dropped from the film in the
course of editing it down to a two‑hour length.
However, I note with some pleasure, if not inordinate
pride, that a couple of years ago Cardinal O'Connor
read excerpts from the novel as part of his homily
at Sunday Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral. I'm guessing
that it was the exchange between Karras and Merrin
late in the book.
do you think the film addresses these issues (i.e.,
transcendency, the nature of people, the spiritual
on the most basic level, i.e., if there are immaterial,
intelligent forces of evil, this alone suggests
the possibility of other such forces that are good.
And since the demonic intelligence responds to the
ritual used by the Jesuits, it appears that there
book and film are both titled The Exorcist.
Who is the primary exorcist—Merrin or Karras?
If it is Karras as I suspect, is the character of
Regan really just a side story?
right, the exorcist (of the title) is Karras. And
Regan's possession is the crucible of his struggle
for faith, his salvation.
you saw the film were you concerned at all that
the spectacle of Regan and the special effects would
overwhelm the audience and negate anything else
you were trying to do with the film?
never entered my mind. A movie is just a movie.
If it holds, it's working.
the movie version, Father Merrin plays a much larger
role than he does in the book, even coming down
to the movie poster with Merrin under the streetlamp.
How did this come about?
don't agree with you. It just seems so because so
much of Karras is missing.
it is not as clear in the movie that Karras is the
exorcist of the title as it is in the book.
think this is an audience misperception problem.
It's all there. It's clear.
much if at all did Friedkin change your vision of
is just so much you can do in two hours. Bill Friedkin
kept everything he felt would keep the audience
gripped to their seats and threw away everything
else. I wish it had been otherwise, but I cannot
fault him. As Bill told me afterwards, "I didn't
know it was going to be a hit."
people place The Exorcist within
the horror genre. Do you disagree with this?
much gratitude I recently accepted a "Lifetime
Achievement Award" from the Horror Writers
Association of America. But as my high school classmate
George Paterno (yes, Joe's brother) said in accepting
for me, "Bill Blatty is not a horror writer."
Before The Exorcist I had a rather
nice reputation ("Nobody can write funnier
lines than William Peter Blatty," Martin Levin
wrote in The New York Times) as a writer
of comic novels and films. The Exorcist,
in my view, is not horror at all. It is a supernatural
detective story. But then what do I know?
that most people took Regan's possession as representative
of demonic possession, did you think the film accurately
portrayed possession? Do you believe in demon possession?
In the Western world it's now extremely rare, but
back down to ancient Egyptian chronicles we find
accounts of possession and exorcism. And since I
firmly believe in life after death, there is nothing
offensive to my intelligence in the possibility
of a discarnate intelligence in rare and extraordinary
circumstances taking temporary possession of a shattered
personality, as in certain types of serious mental
disturbance. Moreover, the New Testament is replete
with reports of Christ performing exorcisms.
your views changed at all concerning demon possession
and the supernatural?
you were to write it today would you take a different
movie caused an uproar from critics and audiences
alike. Did this surprise you?
had no idea there would be such a response. As a
comedy writer, my hopes for the novel were only
that it be taken seriously and that it be received
respectably. I had a sense that the novel would
be popular, but nothing like what eventually happened.
As for the film, at first I thought it simply couldn't
the rites of exorcism and the actions of Regan once
she was "possessed," were these directly
drawn from your research or were they spiced up
with a little bit of imagination? In both the book
and the movie, the sexual prohibition of the priests
is set against the destructive perversion of the
black mass and the possessed Regan, especially the
scene in her bedroom with the crucifix. Was this
opposition a burning question in your own mind or
did it just set up a striking contrast of good versus
of the symptomology in the novel came from research.
With the film, on the other hand, a couple of things
crept in that were a bit over the top, in particular
the famed "spinning head," which is not
supernatural, but rather impossible. If the head
did a 360 it would come off and you'd have a lot
of blood. I didn't want it in the film. As for the
apparent "opposition," this was never
in my mind. Specifically, the crucifix masturbation
came about as the result of a mental search for
the most hideous and obviously Satanic action I
could think of for that point in the story, something
that would send an atheist like Chris MacNeil running
critics have seen The Exorcist
as a statement about the horrors of adolescence
or as reflecting men's anxious relationships with
women—either with their mothers or with various
aspects of female sexuality. What do you think of
these interpretations? Why does Karras's mother
(and Regan's) play such a dominant role in the film?
don't know what to do about such theories. Giggling
comes to mind.
about the end of the film? Is Karras's leap a victory
leap—done only so as to prevent the demon
from re‑taking control and then killing the
girl—is his total triumph. It is this act—an
act of love and self‑sacrifice—that
entirely constitutes the exorcism of Regan MacNeil.
It was a writer I admire, Ray Bradbury, who saw
this most clearly when he referred to The Exorcist
as "a great love story." Think about it.