Think "The Exorcist" Was

Just a Horror Movie?

The Author Says You're Wrong.

Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

Strange things have been happening at the House The Exorcist Built.

An office lamp flares up, then snuffs itself out. The lights of a chandelier fade back and forth from darkness to full illumination, ever so slowly, as if an unseen hand is on the dimmer switch. A back-yard tree sprouts buds in the dead of winter.

The mysterious events, with their glimmerings of a supernatural realm, are described in the latest book by the man behind what may be the 20th century’s most famous horror story. Only this time William Peter Blatty’s readers are in for a different surprise. Unlike The Exorcist, this isn’t a novel set in a sinister Georgetown. It’s a work of nonfiction, the author insists, that takes place in contemporary Bethesda. And the protagonist is the 87-year-old author himself.

Part memoir and part argument, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death chronicles Blatty’s experience with the paranormal. And unlike the work that made the author’s $2.8-million suburban spread possible, it’s not scary at all. The “messages” he describes turn out to be reassuring and quite welcome—communications from the beloved son he lost in 2006, delivered in a style that matches the spirit of the sender.

Released earlier this year by the conservative publisher Regnery, Finding Peter is the latest in a string of somewhat unlikely instances of the occult-fiction maestro of the 1970s jostling for his place on the frontline of the culture wars. Over the past dozen years, Blatty has waged a public battle with Georgetown University (he says it has stopped being a Catholic institution) and come to the defense of the embattled Mel Gibson (he says The Passion of the Christ, the controversial 2004 film directed by Gibson, is “a tremendous depiction of evil”). And when reporters called for comment a couple of years ago about the 40th anniversary of the movie that made him famous, Blatty surprised them by talking about the theology behind the genre-defining cinematic phenomenon he helped create.

So it is when I come calling about Finding Peter. Surrounded by mementos of a career spent scaring the bejesus out of millions, Blatty has the air of an ex-boxer who still has a hankering to mix it up, raising his voice in the foghorn bellow of old-school Brooklynese. There’s an earthy exuberance about him: Think Zorba the Greek played by Jerry Stiller. Except what he wants to talk about is your soul.

In the years since his son’s death, in fact, Blatty has had a burst of productivity—three novels, the memoir, and a possible upcoming TV miniseries. Nearly all of it seems designed to tell the world he’s no mere horrormeister.

“For so many people of faith,” he says, “our belief in life after death is often a very intense hope—more than a full knowledge of fact—and this book gives them some tangible evidence. My task was to prove to readers that they could trust my word that these things happened. If I wanted to make stuff up, it’d be light years more dramatic than most of the things I’ve experienced.”

That may be. But the life story Blatty unfurls while testifying to Peter’s presence—the son of immigrants who made his fortune in America’s great melting pot; the gifted street kid who found a haven among the Jesuits at Georgetown; the turns as a CIA wannabe, a comic writer, a Hollywood hanger-on—is awfully dramatic itself. And whether or not you believe the details of his communications with the great beyond, this much becomes clear: Much of what you thought you knew about The Exorcist is wrong.

• • •

Every year on his birthday, Blatty makes a pilgrimage to Georgetown University.

William Peter Blatty. Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

He walks to spire-topped Healy Hall and sits on the steps reminiscing about that day during his freshman year in 1946 when a surprise visitor appeared. Through the doors of Healy stormed his mother, who had taken the train to DC from New York. She was singing “Happy Birthday” and carrying a shopping bag with a bottle of Ballantine Scotch. Father Leo Monaghan, the prefect, helped locate a bowl of ice and a carton of milk so they could make a birthday batch of nog to raise a toast together.

“I still have no idea how Mama made it all the way from Union Station, because she knew very little English,” says Blatty, who cherishes his Hoya years as a sort of golden age of spiritual and artistic awakening. “Those years at Georgetown were probably the best years of my life. Until then, I’d never had a home.”

To understand the man behind The Exorcist, you have to start with the two most important influences in his life: his mother and his surrogate fathers, the Jesuits—the wellsprings of his calling as a Catholic writer. When he refers to the Hilltop as home, he means it literally. His family moved dozens of times in his boyhood due to evictions or debt collectors. His father walked out when Blatty was three. What he craved most was to be like other neighborhood kids: rosy-cheeked, Irish, part of the community.

Blatty’s Lebanese-bred mother couldn’t provide many material comforts. She made up for them with a devotion reserved for her youngest. She called him Il Waheed, Arabic for “the One,” and raised him in the Catholic faith. She never learned to read English but survived on her wiles, such as peddling homemade quince jelly.

“My mom kept us going,” he says. “It was the power of her faith and conviction that God would eventually make everything right. It just flowed out of her onto everything that she touched.”

It was thanks to his mother—and to what he calls providence—that Blatty reached one of the East Coast’s most exclusive universities. During his senior year of high school, there was a chance Thanksgiving meal with a Georgetown professor who accompanied a friend of Blatty’s mom. After the guests had left, his mother shouted, “Willie, you gonna go Georgetown!” When he said they could never afford tuition, she had the answer: “You gonna win scholarship!”

If his mother gave him the faith, Blatty says the Jesuit fathers gave him the tools to forge an intellectual defense of his faith, as well as the rudiments of his craft. In the acknowledgements to The Exorcist, he thanks an English professor, Bernard Wagner, “for teaching me to write” and the Jesuits “for teaching me to think.” They also gave him the manly guidance he couldn’t get from his dad. They were not only his mentors and spiritual advisers but also encouragers, even to the point of cheering on collegiate pranks.

Blatty, after kidnapping the mascot of Georgetown University's rival school Villanova. Photograph courtesy of William Peter Blatty.

In fact, it was Father Monaghan who lent the vestments Blatty wore when he disguised himself as a priest and led a cadre of fellow Hoyas on a raid at archrival Villanova. The mission was to kidnap the school mascot, a wildcat, before the big football game. The heist, which proved a success, also had the blessing of the prefect of discipline. “He told us, ‘Go get ’em, boys!’ ” Blatty recalls.

For the most part, a strict, molding-of-young-men discipline reigned on campus. There was daily Mass as well as classes in cosmology, ontology, and epistemology. “It was a hard-ass school,” says Blatty. “We had a unique kind of camaraderie, and we shared a gallows humor that grows between confined men. It was wonderful.”

But for all his odes to the school’s rigor, Georgetown was also where he nurtured his talents as a funnyman. Blatty penned surreal send-ups of Cicero, among other zany bits, for the literary journal and had the lead roles in student plays. His dream was to make it as a movie actor.

One afternoon in theology class, his professor riffed about a case of demonic possession that had recently occurred in the Washington area. Something about it struck a nerve.

“I remember thinking, ‘Boy, if somebody would dig into this and authenticate it and show that it’s the real thing, what a gift to the faith,’ ” Blatty says. “It stayed in my mind, and I thought maybe someday I’d try to write a nonfiction account.”

• • •

During his senior year, Blatty dated an Irish girl named Peggy.

At first, she took him for a Cherokee, thrown off by his dark complexion, according to Blatty’s first book, a fictionalized account of his early years called Which Way to Mecca, Jack? They married at DC’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

Thus when he graduated, Blatty had a family to support. He interviewed with the FBI and the CIA, he says, but didn’t get far because the sheer number of address changes before college rendered a background check impossible. To make ends meet, he sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners door to door and drove a Gunther beer truck. He enlisted in the Air Force, where the recruiting sergeant didn’t give a rat’s ass where he’d lived as a kid. He spent four years in uniform, landing in the Psychological Warfare Division, where his bilingual skills made him valuable. “He talks Ay-rab,” Blatty recalls them saying. He later used the stint as material for his 1980 movie, The Ninth Configuration.

By the mid-’50s, Blatty was stationed in Beirut as an editor for the US Information Agency. On a lark, he wrote a satirical story about eavesdropping on the locals who didn’t know that this American diplomat could understand their every insult. The Saturday Evening Post published it in 1957.

At the time, Beirut was in its salad days as a resort for the wealthy of the Middle East. Blatty initially planned to take his three-month home leave and then return for another hitch with the USIA in his ancestral country, which he’d come to love. But he still had the Hollywood bug. Spurred by “that old need to be somebody else,” as he later put it, he headed west with a wife and three children in tow.

To pay the bills, he worked as a flack for the University of Southern California. Meanwhile, he soothed his acting jones by posing as Prince Xeer, the make-believe black-sheep son of King Saud. The nearly yearlong caper was facilitated by former Hoya classmate turned FBI agent Frank Hanrahan, who would explain to Sunset Strip nightclub owners that he’d been “saddled by the State Department with the task of being ‘this pain-in-the-ass Prince’s’ guide and bodyguard while he ‘cooled down’ from some grave but unspoken problem back home,” Blatty writes in his memoir.

The gambit fooled stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor and led to another stereotype-skewering article in the Saturday Evening Post. There was also a ghostwriting gig for “Dear Abby,” Abigail Van Buren, on a book for young adults. In his memoir, he writes that the result, Dear Teen-Ager, earned a Mother of the Year Award from the Los Angeles Times for its “matronly wit and wisdom,” even though it was mostly concocted by a chain-smoking Blatty during a break from USC.

Talent agents said his “ethnic looks” made him a long shot for leading-man roles, but he had attitude in spades. An appearance on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, plugging Which Way to Mecca, Jack?, won Blatty his first 15 minutes of fame. When Paar ribbed his guest with “Your parents are Arabs, right? So where did you get those blue eyes?,” Blatty replied: “The Crusades.” His charisma caught the attention of an executive at Columbia Pictures. The studio hired him as a rewrite man and then a screenwriter.

Blatty was soon cranking out scripts for hit comedies including Blake Edwards’s 1964 Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark. Edwards and star Peter Sellers proved to be kindred spirits—court jesters on the cutting edge. The movie’s nudist-colony scene was bawdy for the times, and Blatty says one of the more risqué bits was cut: Sellers, as Inspector Clouseau, bumbles his way around with only a guitar to shield his private parts, then bumps into a blond nudist, who scolds him: “Monsieur, you are no gentleman.” Sellers sneaks a downward glance, then replies, “And you, madam, are no blonde.”

The early ’60s were a good time to be a writer in Hollywood, before the Establishment burned and from its ashes arose the culture wars. Social mores were loosening: Blatty himself split from his wife, though not from his faith. For the most part, mainstream entertainment was tame. His early screenplays, even with the suggestive Sellers line, were written in a G-rated era.

“As far as sexuality goes, my writing has always been pretty square,” he says. Most of the unbuttoned fun was the stuff of double-entendres and razor-sharp dialogue. It was, at the time, Blatty’s forte.

Before "The Exorcist," Blatty was also a wannabe actor and wrote comic novels. Photographs courtesy of William Peter Blatty.

But just a few years later, the industry was on the verge of upheaval. As the war in Vietnam raged and inner cities smoldered, the off-the-wall farces Blatty was known for saw dwindling demand. Unemployed, he recalled something he’d learned about as a junior back at Georgetown: that 1949 case of possession in Prince George’s County.

Blatty wanted to try a nonfiction treatment, and he contacted the Jesuit priest who had performed the centuries-old Roman Catholic ritual for the victim of possession. He offered to help on a ghostwritten account of what happened. The priest said his superiors had nixed attempts to publicize the events because the family had requested anonymity.

So Blatty opted for the fictional route, relying on his Catholic upbringing and overactive imagination (kindled in boyhood by fantasy-thriller pulp anthologies like Unknown, in which a story by Psycho author Robert Bloch sparked Blatty’s storytelling aspirations) along with a steady supply of nicotine and caffeine. He took full poetic license, with two key creative touches that lent the story much of its power and frisson: He changed the target of the spiritual tug-of-war between good and evil from a 14-year-old boy to an adolescent girl. And he set the story in his old haunt, Georgetown.

Blatty had other reasons for the work’s religious underpinnings. His mother died shortly after he began writing, leaving him to wrestle with his faith. “There was a period of time after my mother’s death,” he says, “when I would describe my faith as more of an intense hope than a solidly held belief.”

By now, Blatty was separated from his first wife. He rented a cottage a few blocks from his family to write in solitude and channeled his mood into the novel, fueling his portrayal of the doubt-haunted priest, Father Damien Karras.

What emerged in 1971 was a publishing juggernaut. The novel’s ambience of mounting terror and its scenes of extreme vileness in the girl’s bedroom—splattered bodily fluids, blasphemous obscenities—was bolstered by the matter-of-fact minutiae of a clinical case study, its macabre elements made plausible and more disturbing against a backdrop of solid theology. The Exorcist was one of those rare instances when a popular page-turner attains instant-classic status with the public and critics. “Poe and Mary Shelley would recognize [Blatty] as working in their ambiguous limbo between the natural and the supernatural,” Life declared.

And then, two years later, the story became a cinematic sensation. By age 46, Blatty was a celebrity, thanks in no small part to the faith that his mama and his fathers in the black robes had bequeathed him.

“It’s an argument for God,” he says today of the novel more often considered an entertainment. “I intended it to be an apostolic work, to help people in their faith. Because I thoroughly believed in the authenticity and validity of that particular event.”

Of course, when the film appeared in December 1973, the pastoral mission was lost on most people. In the 42 years since, the film has had an afterlife on Saturday Night Live (an early episode with Richard Pryor as the priest and Laraine Newman channeling a head-spinning Linda Blair) and seen two sequels (Exorcist II: The Heretic, which Blatty was not involved in, and The Exorcist III, which he wrote and directed) plus cinematic rip-offs (2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and, now, a Halloween TV special (this month, stay tuned for the “first live televised exorcism” on Discovery’s Destination America).

"The Exorcist" was a smash upon its release, drawing long lines. Photograph by Evening Standard/Getty Images.

When The Exorcist opened, lines wound around the block and moviegoers fainted and vomited.

Today, people remember it as a trailblazing horror flick, whose shockability stands up even in the age of Saw. Washingtonians also recall it as a rare pop-culture moment for the city—a local movie that wasn’t about senators or spies. Four decades later, residents still take visitors to the flight of stairs in Georgetown where Father Karras tumbled to his death.

It might have been different. One director had wanted to change the setting to Salem, Massachusetts, for a more conventional aura of spookiness. Blatty argued that would ruin the story’s dramatic tension: evil forces amid the routine of bureaucratic Washington.

“Nobody’s going to expect this to happen here,” he says, “and that’s what I was trying to get across: This is not a horror story. This is real. Something really happened here in Washington, DC, with ordinary life buzzing all around.”

As they scouted locations, Blatty steered director William Friedkin to spots such as the 11 pm campus Mass at Georgetown University’s Dahlgren Chapel. After Blatty took Communion, he saw the director in line ready to receive the sacrament. “Billy [Friedkin] was a Jew coming here to do a Catholic story, and he wanted to totally familiarize himself with this place,” Blatty says with a booming laugh. “He was very big on research!”

And yet, when the movie took off, the religious dimension was treated more like a prop for the action than an animating idea. Insofar as there were philosophical interpretations, they were often about politics: Released in the fractious Vietnam era, a movie about a demonically possessed preteen played as a metaphor for a country whose youth were out of control.

“I’ve read some of the most ridiculous theories, even by critics that I respect, about how the novel symbolizes teenage rebellion and all sorts of sociological nonsense,” Blatty says. “There’s no hidden message. The book is the book, and it says what I wanted it to say.”

Soon he might get another chance. He has talked to Sony about a possible TV miniseries, which Blatty says would run four hours. “The whole novel from scratch!” he crows, with subplots and theological themes intact and Georgetown still the star, including many scenes that didn’t make it into the film. At last, all of what Blatty said on the page, now on the screen.

• • •

The success of The Exorcist has brought Blatty wealth, security, and an Academy Award—“a tremendous blessing,” he says, for someone who grew up with no fixed residence and stale pita bread for dinner.

It also killed his career as a comic writer.

Blatty proceeded to rewrite one of his ’60s-era novels, gutting the broad farce to craft a taut drama with elements of black comedy and the most warped dialogue of his career. The Ninth Configuration is set in a military insane asylum for Vietnam vets suffering from PTSD. One patient works feverishly on a production of Hamlet performed by dogs. “I don’t belong to the God-Is-Hiding-In-Argentina club but I believe in the devil, alright” says another character. “You know why? Because the prick keeps doing commercials.”

Blatty says its publication in 1978 heralded “the beginning of my being recognized as a literary writer.” But a 1980 movie adaptation—partly financed by the sale of his Malibu home—was a commercial dud.

In the following years, Blatty penned several thrillers in the same vein, including Legion, a 1983 sequel to his magnum opus, whose 1990 film adaptation he wrote and directed as The Exorcist III (a title forced on him by the studios). Filmed partly in Georgetown, the $16-million production starred George C. Scott and featured cameos by Hoyas including Patrick Ewing. It was another flop. Blatty was seen by studio bigwigs (one of whom blurted that he’d made “too much money” with his original Exorcist) as a Johnny One-Note. To his lasting unhappiness, that single note was seen as horror, not homiletics.

In 1983, Blatty wed his current wife, Julie, at Dahlgren Chapel. They had met on a blind date; she was a former cheerleader for the Los Angeles Rams—one of the original Embraceable Ewes—2½ decades his junior. He says despite his previous marriage travails he remains in good standing with the Catholic Church, having obtained the proper annulments. Julie is a spiritual counselor at Our Lady of Bethesda Retreat Center, and the couple are longtime parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac.

In fact, it was love of the Church that brought the Blattys to Washington. When they arrived from California in 2000, it was to provide their sons, Peter and younger brother Paul, with a solid Catholic education. They picked the Heights School, an all-boys academy in Potomac run by Opus Dei, a traditionalist Catholic order.

For years, the boys thrived. But Peter, a stalwart of the school lacrosse team, developed bipolar disorder and struggled with drug addiction. Blatty says his son attended rehabilitation programs and was making progress in treatment when, in 2006, he died suddenly of viral myocarditis. He was 19.

"The Exorcist's" gore made it enough of a pop-culture phenomenon the "Mad" magazine depicted an "Exorcist"-inspired barf bag. But it still won Blatty an Oscar. Photograph of "Mad" magazine and Oscar by Andrew Propp.

In the decade since, the parents’ grief has been assuaged by “messages” detailed in the memoir.

Blatty says he and Julie aren’t surprised, because they recognize traces of the boy they loved. “There was something unearthly about Peter,” Blatty writes. “He was mystery enough in himself.” As a toddler, he’d say things that startled his parents, such as telling his mother, “Do you know why I came here, Mommy? I came here to help people.” He asked Blatty, “Daddy, how do you learn?” Blatty said through reading and experience. Peter replied, “That’s not how I learn. I learn from the sky. God teaches me.”

Following Peter’s death, a classmate planted a dogwood tree in the Blattys’ yard as a memorial. One day shortly after that, Blatty asked for a sign from his son. On the morning of Peter’s January 7 birthday, he saw that the tree had sprouted buds. It then began a slow death. The same fate awaited a halogen lamp in Blatty’s study, which one day flared on for 20 seconds, then burned out. Why these events ended with such finality is part of the mystery not to be taken lightly, Blatty believes: “Petey was a very special person, and there were never halfway measures with him. It’s a powerful mojo that we must invoke with care.”

In the Blattys’ eyes, the messages’ mundane nature, along with their continuation for more than eight years, only confirms their validity. Blatty lost a religious medallion of Peter’s that he had taken to wearing after his son’s death. He trusted Peter would help him find it, and on the day he was to give a speech—Blatty dreads public speaking—he found the medal on the shower floor. For Blatty, it all points to one thing: “He wants to reassure Julie and me that he is still here with us.”

Likewise, Blatty wants to reassure his readers—especially those in despair over the loss of a loved one—that death is not the end, and to share this news with the world, the same way he wanted to share The Exorcist’s argument for God. Since the publication of Finding Peter last spring, he says he has heard from many of the bereaved who have found solace and comfort in his account. As it happened, the memoir accomplished something else: It reminded people that he wasn’t just a guy the media hounds hunt down every Halloween.

• • •

In 2010, Blatty gave a reading at Barnes & Noble in Bethesda to promote his novel Dimiter, which Publishers Weekly called a “beautifully written, haunting tale of vengeance, spiritual searching, loss and love.”

His fans included the requisite oddballs and possession-obsessed misfits taken with all things diabolical.

“They were asking bizarre questions, and Blatty was affable and funny and down to earth, and undoubtedly not what they were expecting from their favorite cult novelist,” says local author Robert Girardi.

This was the new, Washington Blatty. Not a celebrity, not a horrormeister. This Blatty moves in conservative political circles and highbrow literary ones. His friendship with Girardi is an example.

The two men connected after Girardi ripped into Blatty’s 2009 novel, Elsewhere, in National Review, calling it a “negligible” novella that “mines the already exhausted self-haunting-ghost subgenre and finds no ore at the bottom of the shaft.” Blatty e-mailed Girardi to say it was the worst review he’d ever gotten but also the best written. The author of acclaimed novels including Madeleine’s Ghost, Girardi bonded with Blatty over life as a Catholic novelist—a shared sense that there’s much that 21st-century America could learn from the virtues and values of its forebears.

“Here I was panning his novel, and the way he responds is with generosity and genuine class,” says Girardi. “We both come from the old melting-pot idea of America that has been cast aside.”

Against this backdrop, Blatty’s recent forays into the news don’t seem so surprising. Take his public fight with his alma mater. Two years ago, Blatty filed a canon-law petition that formally complained to Church authorities that his beloved Georgetown was in violation of its charter as a Catholic university. He says his grievance—unmentioned in the memoir—began when he learned that the school no longer required students to study theological classics. In the years since, he claims, Georgetown has further surrendered to secular selfie culture. He has claimed that only 20 percent of the teachers on the Hilltop campus are Catholic, well short of the more than 50 percent suggested by the papal guidelines for Catholic colleges.

Last spring, the Vatican ruled that the petition, signed by more than 2,000 people, was “well founded.” But the response didn’t provide hierarchical recourse or order the school to implement changes. Blatty has appealed the ruling. He says he expects to meet with Pope Francis, whom he lauds for “bringing the papacy down to earth. I love Pope Francis—he’s so warm and so compassionate.”

This is the Blatty he wants us to know: a man for all seasons, not just autumn’s witching time. This is the one his late-life burst of productivity is designed to showcase. Even so, his fame was forged in an entertainment-industry culture known for its excesses—and fame, even as it brings attention to things such as his Georgetown crusade and his memoir about faith, makes it hard for people to interpret him as he wants.

And he’s not exactly hiding from it: On his study wall are mementos chronicling his famous horror story’s impact, including a 1974 Newsweek cover featuring a priest holding a crucifix with the headline the exorcism frenzy. On a desk is a stack of periodicals—a recent issue of the Jesuit publication America next to a Mad magazine, also from ’74, with a grinning, horned Alfred E. Neuman on the front of an “Exorcist barf bag” with the slogan “If the devil makes you do it.”

“To get on the cover of Mad,” Blatty says, “means you’ve really made it.”

A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Eddie Dean is the author of several books, including “Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times,” cowritten with mountain-music legend Ralph Stanley.

See this article in our October 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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