ADVERTISEMENT

Linda Blair and Max von Sydow in “The Exorcist.”

File,

He wrote the book on horror

  • Article by: Dan Zak
  • Washington Post
  • November 2, 2013 - 2:00 PM

– Ignore, for a moment, the pea soup. Forget the head swivel, the crucifix, those 75 stone steps in Washington that tumble from Prospect to M Street. Forget that demonic voice and what your mother may or may not be doing in hell.

The creator of the scariest movie of all time would like very much if you’d remember that he wrote the Peter Sellers caper “A Shot in the Dark,” that his early collaborator in Hollywood was the comedy director Blake Edwards, that an esteemed book critic once wrote, “Nobody can write funnier lines than William Peter Blatty.”

This career in punch lines was hurled out the window when Blatty started clacking away on his green IBM Selectric in a cabin near Lake Tahoe during the summer of 1969. For nine months, starting around 11 each night and working through darkness, the unemployed screenwriter wrote in seclusion about the demonic possession of a girl, the troubled priest from Georgetown University who is assigned to her case and the brooding brick Colonial where the nightmare unfolds.

Even as he typed out the vilest of passages, Blatty never thought that his novel would frighten anyone or that it would become and remain (adjusting for inflation) the top-grossing R-rated movie in history.

The comic writer’s legacy is a horror film.

And now it has brought him to a corner booth for a meatball lunch in the lowest level of a popular hangout for Georgetown students.

“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.

William Peter Blatty will emerge from his burrow, the stately home in Bethesda, Md., where he lives with his wife of 33 years, to watch his film on Halloween and submit to questions from audience members. 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.

“I can’t regret ‘The Exorcist,’ ” he says after a moment’s pause for his curtailed comedy career. “It’s done so much for me and for my family. And it’s given me a great deal of freedom to write what I want.”

Blatty mashes his meatballs. Carves up the polenta. Swirls them together with blood-red sauce.

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.”

What was that about Bill Blatty and comedy?

After graduating from Georgetown in 1950, he sold vacuums and drove a beer truck. He spent his 30s in and around Los Angeles, writing three comic novels, one of which became “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home,” starring Shirley MacLaine, who introduced him to Blake Edwards, who directed four of his screenplays from 1964 to 1970. Then the work dried up.

“I had nothing else to do but go down to the Van Nuys unemployment office and collect my check,” Blatty says. “By the way, I saw my movie agent three lines down from mine.” He lets rip a robust cackle. “Anyway, I had nothing else to do, so why don’t I do this?”

This, of course, was write a novel using a story he heard in a theology class at Georgetown. Something about a case of possession in Maryland. The project, he says, was purely apostolic. The obscenity, the occult, the suspense — mere devices, he says, in the service of sharing the faith.

It’s impossible to overstate how much “The Exorcist” rocked the country. Soon after its 1971 publication, it climbed on to the best-seller list and remained there over a year. Blatty wrote and produced William Friedkin’s film version, which opened the day after Christmas 1973 and sent the country into hysterics.

What is the deal with America and exorcism? Look at all those polls, Blatty says. Nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, says one. More Americans believe in the devil than evolution, says another. And it’s the fear that something can possess you — not the devil, but something like rage or jealousy or despair — that haunts everyone regardless of their belief system.

Blatty has a gravity about him and also, somehow, a lightness. An impishness. This is a man who is quick to laugh to the point of tears and also thinks that these may be “the last days.” This is a man who says, after a sip of coffee with Equal sweetener, “It’s a fallen world,” like he’s noting the weather.

Providence led him to Georgetown in his youth, he says, and providence led him back to Washington in 2001 after many years in California. His last two books, 2010’s “Dimiter” and “Crazy,” were well-reviewed, although he wishes he’d published them under a pseudonym. He’s excited about a possible Blu-ray release of his 1980 directorial debut, “The Ninth Configuration.” He has started a memoir, but “Exorcist” commemoration duties get in the way. After 100 pages, he abandoned a novel set in Georgetown because it wasn’t “doing anybody any good.”

Outside on the street, the autumn sun is glaring. Blatty puts on his sunglasses.

“Look,” he says, pointing to the cobblestones of the neighborhood he adores. “My shadow.”

© 2014 Star Tribune