William Peter Blatty on rewriting ‘The Exorcist’ for its 40th anniversary
This month, the second annual installment of The Dark Mirror, the horror film festival that I created in Waco, Texas, will culminate with a screening of The Exorcist. (See the article I published about it just two days ago at the festival’s blog: “‘The Exorcist’ and the modern Western zeitgeist.”) So it’s entirely appropriate that 2011 happens to be the 40th anniversary of the publication of the novel itself.
The Huffington Post has just published an interview with Blatty in which he takes a look back at the whole phenomenon and explains his motivations for making some changes for a new edition. “In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post conducted via email,” the site tells us, “we asked Mr Blatty about 40-year-old rewrites, why ‘The Exorcist’ became so popular, and what truly makes him feel scared.” One of the signal moments in the interview comes early on when Blatty reveals that the version of the novel published in 1971 was in fact a first draft, and that when he reread it for the first time only 12 years ago, he was appalled at its stylistic clumsiness.
Here’s an excerpt that shows him musing on the reasons for The Exorcist‘s enduring cultural power and popularity. He also takes the opportunity to set the record straight regarding the book’s famous (notorious) basis in a real-life incident. What’s more, he talks a bit of theology.
Why do you think the story of “The Exorcist,” in its many forms, has resonated so much for so many people?
I can only guess based on what has been written by others. Obviously, of course, a popular novel has to be a page-turning read. Second, everyone likes a good scare, so long as we know we’re not really threatened. And third — and most importantly, I think — because this novel is an affirmation that there is a final justice in the universe; that man is something more than a neuron net; that there is a high degree of probability — let’s not beat around the bush — that there is an intelligence, a creator whom C.S. Lewis famously alluded to as “the love that made the worlds.”
But I suspect that there might have been a somewhat less luminous basis for the power of “The Exorcist”’s argument for faith, which was the widespread and apparently rampant perception that the novel was based on a true story, the so-called “1949 case” of demonic possession of a young boy in Cottage City, Maryland. That perception was – and is – totally false. While writing the novel, the only facts that I had at hand were the classic symptoms of possession that had somehow remained an identical constant in every culture and in every part of the world going back to ancient Egyptian times.
The 1949 case was the novel’s inspiration, the jump-starting electrical jolt being the last line of my first letter from the exorcist in that case, the Jesuit priest Fr. William Bowdern. After informing me that he was bound by the boy’s family to total confidentiality, he ended: “I can tell you this. The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubt about it now.” The words charged me with the confidence to write about possession with the heat of conviction.
Full story at The Huffington Post: “‘The Exorcist’ Author William Peter Blatty on Revisiting His Most Famous Work”
Also of great interest, here’s a “Note from the Author” that accompanies the official press release for the 40th anniversary edition. In it, Blatty explains something about the actual process and locale that were involved in the writing of the novel:
In January 1968, I rented a cabin in Lake Tahoe to start writing a novel about demonic possession that I’d been thinking about for many years. I‘d been driven to it, actually: I was a writer of comic novels and farcical screenplays such as A Shot in the Dark with almost all of my income derived from films; but because the season for “funny” had abruptly turned dry and no studio would hire me for anything non-comedic, I had reached James Thurber’s stage of desperation when, as he wrote in a “Preface to His Life,” comedy writers sometimes take to “calling their home from their office, or their office from their home, asking for themselves, and then hanging up in hard-breathing relief upon being told they “weren’t in.’” My breaking point came, I suppose, when at the Van Nuys, California, unemployment office I spotted my movie agent in a line three down from mine. And so the cabin in Tahoe where I was destined to become the caretaker in Stephen King’s terrifying The Shining, typing my version of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” hour after hour, day after day, for over six weeks as I kept changing the date in my opening paragraph from “April 1” to April something else, because each time I would read the page aloud, the rhythm of the lines seemed to change, a maddening cycle of emptiness and insecurity –- magnified, I suppose, by the fact that I had no clear plot for the novel in mind — that continued until I at last gave up the cabin and hoped for better luck back “home,” a clapboard raccoon-surrounded guest house in the hills of Encino owned by a former Hungarian opera star who had purchased the property from the luminous film actress, Angela Lansbury, and where I finally overcame the block by realizing that I was starting the novel in the wrong place, namely the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., as opposed to northern Iraq. Almost a year later I completed a first draft of the novel. At the request of my editors at Harper and Row, I did make two quick changes: cleaning up Chris MacNeil’s potty mouth, and making the ending “less obvious.” But because of a dire financial circumstance, I had not another day to devote to the manuscript, so that when I received a life-saving offer to adapt Calder Willingham’s novel Providence Island for the screen for Paul Newman’s film company, I instantly accepted and left my novel to find its fate. For most of these past forty years I have rued not having done a thorough second draft and careful polish of the dialogue and prose. But now, like an answer to a prayer, this fortieth anniversary of the novel has given me not only the opportunity to do another draft, but to do it at a time in my life — I will be 84 this coming January — when it might not be totally unreasonable to hope that my abilities, such as they are, have at least somewhat improved, and for all of this I say, Deo gratias!
— From “The Exorcist – The Version You Have Never Read,” Dread Central, Sept. 23, 2011
Personally, as a writer about the intersection of religion, psychology, and spirituality with horror and the paranormal, I’ve long been fascinated and gratified by the fact that what is arguably the best-known horror novel, and what is undoubtedly the single most iconic horror movie — a movie that launched the era of the modern “blockbuster” and thus changed the history of cinema — tells a story that explicitly mingles horror with religion for the purpose of finding or eliciting an experience or intimation of transcendence for a jaded secular society. What’s most significant about the literary-cinematic phenomenon that is The Exorcist is the fact that, in our modern technological society, this story of spiritual horror and redemption still remains, after 40 years, a phenomenon.