The writer of the ‘greatest horror story of our time’ died and (almost) no one noticed

William Peter Blatty wrote ‘The Exorcist’, the book that became the movie that reinvented the genre.

In 1973, a movie ticket cost one rupee ten paisa at the New Empire cinema hall in Chowringhee, Calcutta. Glen, a family friend, recounts his experience of watching The Exorcist back then: “...They’d sold extra tickets and there were people squatting in the aisles...when Regan’s demonic transformation took hold of her, I looked around and a lot of people had their faces buried in their laps...they even had an ambulance outside for people who were supposedly fainting at screenings...walking home after the movie, one of my friends turned around and hissed at us. It scared the hell out of me...”

Forty-four years on, The Exorcist remains one of the scariest horror films ever made. Based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, the premise of a young girl possessed by a demon is so believable that even today I flinch when I watch the movie or re-read the book. Blatty succumbed to a form of blood cancer in January, 2017, at the age of 89, the author of 12 books, but always to be remembered for his 1971 novel, The Exorcist, which was his fifth.

The recent news of Blatty’s death brought back teenage memories of reading the novel in a frenzy because I just wanted to get it over with. I’m no funk and I enjoy being truly scared by a horror story. In Catholic school I remember one of the priests telling us to stay away from the movie. To us kids in middle school, that meant watching it as soon as possible.

One of the reasons that The Exorcist succeeded when translated into a film is that Blatty’s screenwriting chops were already top-notch before he wrote his novel. He co-wrote the screenplay for A Shot in the Dark, one of the best Pink Panther movies ever made, and a bunch of other well-received comedies in the 1960s. In fact, the screenplay for The Exorcist (also written by Blatty) stays extraordinarily close to the novel, which is rather unusual for book-to-movie transitions. Re-reading the novel after Blatty’s death, I realised he probably knew that he was writing one of the best horror stories of all time.

Horror movies were a joke at the time, and that made The Exorcist all the more frightening. But I’ll still hold out the book is a hundred times scarier. Of course, it may have helped that I saw the movie before reading the novel as a teenager, so the images of Regan in my head were all the more terrifying.

Blatty takes his time to introduce the demon. Regan and her celebrity actress mother have the perfect life. They’ve moved into a Georgetown house to shoot a film on campus, and it all begins with a rapping noise.

“At approximately 12.25 am, Chris glanced from her script with a frown of puzzlement. She heard rapping sounds. They were odd. Muffled. Rhythmically clustered...It seemed to be coming from Regan’s bedroom...She padded down the hall and the rappings grew suddenly louder, much faster, and as she pushed on the door and stepped into the room, they abruptly ceased...Rats! Big tails. Thump, thump...”

About fifty pages in, Regan tells her mother about Captain Howdy, an imaginary friend. “I make questions and he does the answers,” says Regan while sitting across her mother, an Ouija board between them.

“The following morning when Chris opened her eyes, she found Regan in bed with her, half awake. ‘Well, what in the...What are you doing here?’ Chris chuckled. ‘My bed was shaking.’”

This gradually intensifying arc gains momentum through the first half of the novel. Blatty intersperses these unusual, yet sinister, incidents with short bursts of dry humour. A ploy that works best on the page, not so much on screen, because the latter depends more on visual depiction.

When Chris throws a dinner party which includes two priests, an astronaut, her alcoholic director, and a seer, this is how Blatty sets up the scene. The seer, Mary Perrin, recounts a story of a Jesuit priest who was also a medium and a creep, to which the Jesuit dean replies, “Don’t come looking for discounts any more on indulgences, Mary...”

Or when the other priest, Father Dyer, says:

“’Listen, give me a minute...I’ve got something going over there with the astronaut.’ ‘Like what?’ asked the dean. ‘Would you believe,’ he asked, ‘first missionary on the moon?’”

The light-hearted party ends disturbingly when Regan urinates in front of the guests and tells the astronaut he’s going to die in space.

Black humour, too

Even when Regan’s demonic manifestations stump the best psychiatrists and Chris turns to Damien Karras, the priest whose faith is faltering and who eventually takes part in the exorcism, Blatty manages to squeeze in a bit of humour at their first meeting.

“’Got a cigarette, Father?’ He reached into the pocket of his shirt. ‘Can you go for a non-filter?’ ‘Right now I’d smoke rope.’ He tapped out a Camel from the packet. ‘On my allowance, I frequently do.’ ‘Vow of poverty,’ she murmured as he slipped out the cigarette, smiling tightly. ‘A vow of poverty has uses,’ he commented, reaching in his pocket for matches. ‘Like what?’ she asked. ‘Makes rope taste better.’”

When she flat out brings up an exorcism and cites a Biblical example, Father Karras replies, “Look, if Christ had said those people who were supposedly possessed had schizophrenia, which I imagine they did, they would probably have crucified him three years earlier.”

As a teenager, these moments go unnoticed because you’re more bothered about the demon in Regan and the exorcism. Re-reading it now, it’s plain to see Blatty using his experience as a comedy screenwriter to full extent. It comes as no surprise the dialogue, when funny, is wickedly so. When you put them up against the descriptions of Regan and the coarse language of the demon denouncing Christianity, it forms the perfect setting for a horror story that is discomfortingly real on the page.

Which genre, exactly?

Blatty, however, preferred to think of his novel as a supernatural thriller rather than a horror novel. This is because faith and hope are two of the main themes in The Exorcist. Blatty was a religious man, and he owed his education to the Jesuits. His immigrant mother, whom he loved dearly, was a devout Catholic and so was he. Personally, the book and the movie walk a fine line between the two genres. It’s a horror movie because of obvious reasons and a thriller because it is set in ordinary surroundings.

I’m not the kind who’d go on for hours about how you can’t compare Blatty to horror kingpins like Poe or MR James. Thankfully, The Exorcist isn’t going to be dissected by students of literature. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind that, either. But you can’t deny that The Exorcist is a compelling work of fiction whose main purpose is to frighten, to bring up discussions about good versus evil and, finally, to entertain.

Faith and its uncertainty is a major theme in the novel. Father Karras deems himself unfit as a priest because of his loss of faith. The death of his mother compounds his doubt in religion and god.

“As he lifted the Host in consecration, it trembled in his fingers with a hope that he dared not hope, that he fought with every particle and fibre of his will. ‘For this – is – my body.’ he intoned with a whispered intensity. No, it’s bread! It’s nothing but bread! He dared not love again and lose. That loss was too great, that pain too keen. The cause of his scepticism and his doubts, his attempts to eliminate natural causes in the case of Regan’s seeming possession, was the fiery intensity of his yearning to be able to believe. He bowed his head and placed the consecrated Host in his mouth, where in a moment it would stick in the dryness of his throat. And of his faith.”

On the other hand, Father Lankester Merrin, who has faced the demon in Regan before is a man whose faith is unwavering and resolute. Then we have Chris, a non-believer, who is faced with the brutality of seeing her only daughter possessed by a malevolent force that only an exorcism can cure. While she may not believe in god or the devil, Regan’s transformation forces her to believe there are entities in the living world that science or religion cannot fully comprehend.

Frightening forever

This is where Blatty succeeds as a writer. He brings together elements of psychiatry and supernatural happenings in a way that is plausible and scary. There’s a reason Stephen King considers The Exorcist “the great horror story of our time.” He’s looking at it as a story well told. That’s how you separate a good storyteller from an average one.

The novel overwhelms the reader with all sorts of conceivable information about real-life cases of deep psychological disorders, a sharp detective who keeps his ear to the ground, religious doubts, and instances of Black Mass. Add to that Regan and the demon Pazuzu, and you have the perfect horror story on your hands.

News of Blatty’s death barely made the headlines. The hysteria that the movie and the book sparked have waned with time, and its ability to frighten exists merely as a nostalgic memory in some dusty corner of the minds of those it affected when first read or watched. While re-reading the novel and watching the movie, I travelled back to 14-year-old me, who wished I hadn’t started on the book in the first place. And that’s what I’m thankful for.

There are some stories that never leave you. They’re just waiting to be summoned and it works that way for me with The Exorcist. The joy of a hard-hitting horror story lies in its details and the manner in which you walk into it, knowingly, because you’re curious about how it all ends.

When you resurface, it’s like you’ve been in Regan’s bedroom as it all went down. You’ve stared into that horrifying face, smelt the putrid stench in the air, watched the bed rise off the wooden floor and heard the demon neigh like a horse. And, as Blatty intended, you come away fresh with the knowledge that “the universe itself will have a happy ending.” So here’s looking at you, Bill. We’ll see you on the other side and thanks for the nightmares.

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