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The devil’s advocate

Decades before Saddam or Osama struck fear in the world, this Arab gave us the chills with just the swing of his pen. Meet William Blatty, author of ‘The Exorcist’.


It’s one of the scariest books ever written, and certainly one of the scariest movies ever made, capable of making even the most macho man cringe at one point or another. For those who are clueless, ‘The Exorcist’ is the masterpiece written by William Blatty that shot him to superstar status, about a teenage girl’s demonic possession. The book was later turned into a movie for which Blatty earned an Academy award.


Finding his place

Blatty was born in New York City on January 7, 1928 to Lebanese parents. His father left home when he was six-years-old and he was raised in relative poverty by his deeply religious Catholic mother. He apparently lived at 28 different addresses during his childhood. 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, and after completing his MA, he enrolled in the US Air Force in 1951 and was stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. In the mid-1950s, Blatty was a contestant on the quiz show ‘You Bet Your Life’, winning USD 10,000- enough money to enable him to devote more time to writing professionally.


Several years later, Blatty garnered a great deal of press coverage by posing as the son of Saudi Arabian King Saud, whereupon he was given the red-carpet treatment by Hollywood. When the ruse was revealed, Blatty was congratulated rather than condemned for his trickery, which encouraged him to continue writing, and to briefly pursue an acting career. During this time he started to write, and published his early articles in magazines, among others ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. After returning to the US, he worked as the director of publicity at the University of Southern California.


A whole different story

Despite the international success and recognition that he received from ‘The Exorcist’, Blatty never meant to start out as a horror writer- he wanted to write comedies. “I distinctly remember 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,” he said.


All of his works prior to ‘The Exorcist’ were comedies, beginning with his 1960 novel, ‘Which Way to Mecca, Jack?’, which dealt humorously with his work at the US Information Agency in Lebanon. He then published the comic novels ‘John Goldfarb’, ‘Please Come Home’, ‘I, Billy Shakespeare; and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane’.


Though he achieved a modicum of critical success with these books, commercial acceptance was lacking. He then had a run of screenwriting success under the name ‘Bill Blatty’. His first screenplay credit came for ‘The Man From the Diner’s Club’, and he was working on a script (‘What Did You Do in the War, Daddy’) for director Blake Edwards when Edwards replaced the original director of ‘A Shot in the Dark’ in production as a drama based on the successful play by Harry Kurnitz. Together, Edwards and Blatty turned it into a gaspingly hilarious farce, reviving Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) from ‘The Pink Panther’ as the film’s lead. The funniest of the Clouseau comedies, it was one of four collaborations between Blatty and Edwards, ending with ‘Darling Lily’.


"And the sad truth is that nobody wants me to write comedy. ‘The Exorcist’ not only ended that career, it expunged all memory of its existence".


The start of an era

In 1969, unable to find screenwriting work, Blatty rented a cabin in the woods near Lake Tahoe and began writing ‘The Exorcist’. In his autobiography ‘I’ll Tell Them I Remember You’, Blatty mentioned that he stopped work on the book after his mother died, returning to it only after he received what he believed was a message from her, indicating that he should continue. “Well, the research into it affected me. And the novel, it very much strengthened my faith. The phenomenon in general is authentic,” he said.


The inspiration for the book dated to 1949, when Blatty was at Georgetown University and read local newspaper accounts of an exorcism, involving a 14-year-old boy in Mount Rainer, Maryland. In 1970, Blatty, who had once considered becoming a Jesuit and entering the priesthood, started his research work for the novel. He vividly remembers the time that he knew he was on the right track with the book. “His (Father William Bowdern, the exorcist ) first letter was clear, he wanted to help me. He told me, ‘I think it would do a great deal of apostolic good for the details of this case to be widely known’. I went to the Archbishop and he said no, that the family of the boy involved still insisted upon total secrecy, which of course, in itself, helped persuade me that this was the real thing- these were not a bunch of kooks,” he explained.


Ultimately, it was based on an earlier case from 1928, and other historical cases dating back to the Bible. In 1971, the book became a worldwide bestseller, sold 13 million copies in the US 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. The shot in the movie of the exorcist standing outside the MacNeil home, in the middle of a mist, is one of the most famous visual images of the film. However, despite 10 nominations, only sound and Blatty’s screenplay won an Academy Award.


Since then, Blatty worked on projects that although did not garner the same amount of success as ‘The Exorcist’, still managed a cult following. In 1980, he wrote, directed and produced a film version of ‘The Ninth Configuration’, a remake of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane’, a story about ex-soldiers in a mental institution during the Vietnam war.


Then in 1983, he wrote a novel called ‘Legion’, a sequel to ‘The Exorcist’, which later became the basis of the film The Exorcist III. Blatty originally wanted the movie version to be titled ‘Legion’, but the film producers wanted it to be more closely linked to the original. One interesting thing is that Blatty had no involvement in the first sequel, ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ and his own follow-up ignored it entirely.


The new century

Already regarded as one of the greatest horror movies ever made, Blatty decided to re-release ‘The Exorcist’ in 2000, incorporating 11 minutes of additional footage, including the incredibly chilling sequence in which the possessed child descends the stairs of her home in an upsidedown ‘spider walk’. The progression of her possession was also captured in greater detail and the movie’s score was redesigned to beautiful effect.


In 2003, ‘The Exorcist’ director William Friedkin and author Blatty settled their lawsuit over profit participation. The case revolved around Friedkin’s and Blatty’s profits on ‘The Exorcist- The Version You’ve Never Seen’. The duo claimed the Warner Bros studio breached its fiduciary duty by self-dealing the rights for a newer version of the film. They also claimed the studio would sell the rights to its sister cable TV networks TNT and TBS for little to no profit. Three years after the suit, rumours started kicking around the internet that Blatty had died. However, the deceased was actually Peter Vincent Galahad Blatty, his 19 year-old son, who died of Myocarditis, a rare condition often triggered by a viral illness, in which a person’s own immune system attacks their heart.


The strength of Blatty’s popularity was evident when condolences poured in from his fans all over the world. He may have written his last book, but his legions of fans, together with the undying attraction of ‘The Exorcist’ ensures that Blatty has penned his name as a literary great.


Source: Arabian Man






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