Blatty on his novel

Bill Blatty on "The Exorcist"

Welcome to the page that brings you head-spinning volumes of information on the novel, "The Exorcist," in the author's own words!

The Source

The Beginning

The seed of what would eventually become "The Exorcist" was planted in Blatty's head In 1949. While at Georgetown University, he stumbled on an account of an authentic exorcism as reported in the Post. The story alleged that a fourteen year old boy from Mt. Ranier, MD had been "freed by a catholic priest from possession by the devil," and that the exorcism had required 20-30 recitations of the standardized Catholic ritual of exorcism called the Roman Ritual. Each time the ritual was read, the boy had erupted in violent tantrums of screaming, cursing and "voicing of Latin phrases - a language he had never studied." Sound familiar? The priest and other eyewitnesses also described psychokinetic phenomena such as shifting of furniture and the tipping of a chair. The story went on to say that numerous doctors had been enlisted to relieve the boy's peculiar symptoms, and that the boy was even examined extensively at two hospitals but no physiological basis for the symptoms could be deduced and no treatment was rendered. It was then that the priest had been summoned.

Naturally, Blatty was moved by what he read:
...I was exited! For here ate last...was tangible evidence of transcendence. If there were demons, there were angels and probably God and a life everlasting. And thus it occurred to me not long afterward, when I'd started my career as a writer, that this case of possession which joyfully haunted my hopes in the years since 1949 was a worthwhile subject for a novel. In my youth I had thought about entering the priesthood; at Georgetown had considered becoming a Jesuit. The notion of course was unattainable and ludicrous in the extreme, since with respect to the subject of my worthiness, my nearest superiors are asps; and yet a novel of demonic possession, I believed - if only I could make it sufficiently convincing - might be token fulfillment of deflected vocation... I think it was in 1963 - the notion of possession as the basic subject matter of a novel crystallized and firmed."

By '67, the idea had "crystallized" enough that he began shopping it around to friends and publishers. He was, however, greeted with consistent disinterest, including discouragement from both his publisher and his agent who declared it "too weird." Only Marc Jaffe, editorial director at Bantam, warmed to the idea. To justify a salary advance, Blatty would have to produce a clear outline and submit it to Jaffe. Of course, at that early stage, Blatty had no such thing, but he did scrounge together some ideas about themes.

The Theme

To Jaffe he wrote:
...Is there a man alive who at one time or another in his life has not thought, Look, God! I'd like to believe in you; and I'd really like to do the right thing. But twenty thousand sects have different ideas about what the right thing is. So if you are out there, why not end all the mystery and hocus-pocus and make an appearance on top of the Empire State building. Show me your face. We follow this through by thinking that God doesn't take this simple recourse, this reasonable recourse, and therefore isn't there. He isn't dead, and he isn't alive in Argentina. He simply never lived.

But I happen to believe - and this is part of the theme of the novel - that if God were to appear in thunder and lightening atop the Empire State building, it would not affect (for long, at least) the religious beliefs of anyone who witnessed the phenomenon. Those who already believed would find the incident a reinforcement of their faith; those who did not already believe would be impressed for a while, but with the passage of time would convince themselves that what they saw was the result of either autosuggestion, mass hypnosis, or hysteria, or massive charlatanism involving nuclear energy and NASA. On a theological level, I happended to believe that if there is a God who is somehow involved with us and our activities he would refrain from appearing on top of the Empire State Building, because he would only induce trauma for those who did not will to believe, and thereby increase their guilt. The Red Sea's parting and the raising of Lazarus are not viable entries to religious belief. The trick of faith lies not the magic but in the will of the individual...

I went on to say the novel would ask...what the effect of a confrontation with undisputed paranormal phenomenon would have on the book's main characters: the atheist mother of the boy (as I then intended the victim should be; I had named him Jamie), and the priest of weak faith called in for the exorcism, whom I first named Father Thomas.*

*Anthony Burgess would later refer to this as the "nice irony" of the Exorcist: an atheist heroine who comes to believe that her daughter is possessed, in opposition to the Jesuit hero who does not.
Whether Jaffe was dazzled or not, Blatty admits that what the theme would eventually become is best expressed by Father Merrin to Father Karras in the following scene:
...I think the demon's target is not the possessed; it is us...the observers...every person in this house. And I think the point is to make us despair, to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity, ugly, unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us..."

And perhaps even this would seem merely an insight into the stronger, more encompassing theme that would spring from the Jesuit psychiatrist's act of ultimate self-sacrifice and love: the theme I call 'the mystery of goodness.' For in a mechanistic universe, where the atoms that make up a human being should logically be expected, even in the aggregate, to pursue their selfish ends more blindly that the rivers rush out to the seas, how is it that a man will give his life for another?

The Plot

In addition to his transcendental ramblings, Blatty offered the following plot to Jaffe that would play out in response to a murder committed by the boy while he was possessed:
...The mother seeks psychiatric help to establish the boy was deranged at the time of the murder. The effort proves unpromising. She then seizes upon the device of calling in the psychologically intimidating forces of the Catholic Church in an effort to prove (although she doesn't believe it for a moment) that her son is "possessed" - that it was not Jamie but an alien entity inhabiting his body who committed the murder. She resorts to the church and requests an exorcism; and soon it is arranged for a priest to examine the boy. She grasps at the desperate and bizarre hope that if the exorcist concludes that the boy is possessed and is able to restore him to a measure of normalcy, she will have a powerful psychological and emotional argument for securing both release (even if the boy is imprisoned) from humiliation and degradation. The exorcist selected for the task is, by the one coincidence permitted us, the priest who has lost his faith... Ultimately, the boy is exorcised, although his fate is not the concern of this novel. Our concern is the exorcist. Has his faith been restored by this incredible encounter: Yes. But not by the exorcism itself, for finally, the exorcist is still not sure what really happened. What restores - no; reaffirms - his faith is simple human love, which is surely the fact of God made visible.
Obviously, this plot would evolve considerably, but thankfully the "mystery of goodness" hangs on as the principal theme.

As a footnote to his early ideas on the plot, Blatty describes his style of plot conception in this way:

...I believe my subconscious, once it has the necessary raw material (data and research) and sufficient prodding (sweat), does most of my plotting; and that it knew...almost the entire plot of The Exorcist, slipping portions of it to my conscious mind a little bit at a time. I remember, for example, being so surprised at the moment it occurred to me that Burke Dennings, and not an offstage character as originally planned, would be the demon's murder victim, that from my desk I cried out aloud, "My God, Burke Dennings is going to be murdered!" Yet an early and seemingly accidental detail - Dennings' Habit of tearing off the edges of pages of books or scripts and then nervously twisting and fiddling with them - would later prove vital to a major piece of plotting. What I often call inspiration, I think, are in fact subconscious disclosures.

The Research

Next, Blatty would begin his research on demonic possession in earnest:
...From the outset I was biased by training and religion in favor of belief in genuine possession. Furthermore, replace the word "demon" with words "disembodied malevolent intelligence," and one has a concept not repugnant to reason or in apparent contradiction to the laws of matter, whatever they happen to be this year... Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit philosopher-paleontologist (and the inspiration behind Father Merrin), once proposed that what we think of as matter and spirit are but differing aspects of something else, some third and fundamental reality in which matter and spirit commune. And indeed, the views of modern physicists on the ultimate nature of matter seemed to be leaning toward support of Chardin; seemed increasingly to be edging toward something like mysticism, a paradoxical consequence of the steadily deeper probings into the Chinese box of the atom. Consider the neutrino. It can speed through a planetary thickness in a twinkling, yet has no mass and no magnetic or electrical charge. Real, yet lacking fundamental properties of matter, the neutrino is a ghost.

Although he naturally leaned toward credulity, Blatty would soon discover the facility with which science - namlely psychopathology - could render reasonable explanations for even the most convincingly unreasonable evidence:

...Of all the cases cited, over ninety percent were conceivably attributable to fraud, delusion, a combination of both, or misinterpretations of the symptoms of psychosis, particularly paranoid schizophrenia, or of certain neuroses, especially hysteria and neurasthenia. Eighty percent of the victims were women, moreover, a ratio so disproportionate as to suggest, as opposed to possession, a common disorder once alluded to as furor uterinus... This would surely account for the extraordinary lewdness of speech and behavior that I found to be present, without exception, in every case of so-called demonic possession. And it surely is significant that LaTourette's syndrome, a still mysterious neurological disorder only recently isolated and labeled, is primarily characterized by the sudden, apparently unmotivated and unprecedented onset of a usually irresistible compulsion to shriek out a torrent of verbal obscenities not noticeably lacking in nauseating grossness.

A few of my findings were [however] intriguing: the reporting of a common symptomology in cases widely separated with respect to both time and place; and cases where the victims were very young children. Both tend to make hysteria, fraud, or delusion more remote as explanations of possession. How could an eight-year-old boy, for example, come to know its classic symptoms? And consider what happened to four of the exorcists sent to deal with the outbreak at Loudun*? Three of them, Tranquille, Lactance, and Lucas, successively appeared to be possessed themselves, and while in that state, died, perhaps from cardiac exhaustion. The oldest of these men was forty-three. The fourth, Surin, a noted intellectual and mystic, a truly good man, only thirty-three, became totally insane and so remained for twenty-five years. If these exorcists were faking, they carried it far; if temporarily hysterical, they were so in defiance of a psychological principle that tells us that hysterics do not blossom overnight; and if hysterical beforehand, though of differing backgrounds, then their hysteria must surely have been the criterion employed by the cardinal who picked them for the mission, for how could we otherwise account for the coincide involved in his selection of four closet hysterics? I do not find these possibilities alluring to reason.

*From the book by Aldus Huxley, Devils of Loudun, which investigates an epidemic of demonic possession in a convent in France.
Blatty's research into multiple personality proved promising; it turned up examples of the presence of personalities which were too foreign to the host personality to have possibly been conceived by it:
...Dr Alan Cohen, a Ph.D. from Harvard...told me that in paranoid schizophrenic subjects experiencing auditory hallucinations, the verbal patterns of association of ideas should be identical to the patterns in the content of what is hallucinated, since both patterns have a common source. But in certain of his patients, Cohen told me, these patterns were totally dissimilar, suggesting separate intelligences.

And what of William James...who investigated the case of a girl in Illinois, who underwent a total and abrupt transformation of personality and identity, claiming for months to be someone named Mary Roff who turned out to be a real person whom she had never met: a sixteen year old girl who had died in a state insane asylum years before? And Carl Jung...was connected to another case of possession [that] involved a fifteen-year-old girl. Normally dim-witted, she manifested three distinct personalities, one of them a chatty and eloquent old man who spoke high German, a dialect completely unknown to the girl. She demonstrated telepathic abilities and an astoundingly accelerated intelligence, all of which phenomena were frequently witnessed firsthand by Jung, who found in them no possibility of fraud.

Still, however, Blatty was not easily swayed:
...But the case involving James lacked paranormal phenomena, and the case involving Jung, while it apparently did exhibit such phenomena, was however totally lacking in the fits of rage, the malevolent activity, and the demonic self-identification that characterize so-called demonic possession. And of all the other studies of demonic possession I studied, almost all exhibiting paranormal phenomena had occurred no later than 1900, with some dating back several centuries. I constantly found myself asking: Who were the witnesses? Who had written the report I was reading? Could I trust his veracity and judgment? Did he witness the phenomena himself? If so, how much time intervened between event and the preparation of the report? Or was the record based on hearsay? And if so, how far removed was it from the eyewitness source?

In ordinary circumstance when there is continuing and universal testimony that such-and-such a thing has occurred, we allow for inaccuracies and falsehood but accept the main core... Yet I could not apply that kind of thinking to possession. Not that such reasoning is invalid, for in life - and sometimes in science, especially in physics - very little is "proved" before we give it assent; instead, what we do is make prudent judgments. But prudent judgments do not satisfy when dealing with the supernatural; for the ultimate issue is too important; the issue is God and our hope of resurrection. Thus, on hearing a secondhand report from Martha and Mary that "He is risen," I would first stroll over to the tomb and examine myself; and then, if the women claimed to have personally witnessed the actual resurrection, I would have a little chat with them to try to determine if they had been stoned at the time... Only then would I begin to form a prudent judgment based on what they had said.

And so it was with possession. I felt if I couldn't write the novel with conviction I probably wouldn't want to write it at all; for how could it possibly turn out well? A hollow heart cannot excite.

At that point, Blatty called upon his Jesuit friends in the hope that they might lead him to someone who had actually performed an exorcism, but no one seemed able to help. He came closest with Father Thomas Bermingham, whom Blatty had known at school and who would later be enlisted as a consultant to the film production:
...He (Bermingham) recalled that in his earliest years in the priesthood a Jesuit quartered at the seminary was known to have performed an exorcism. Withdrawn and never known to speak, he haunted the wooded walks alone, a blank, burned-out look in his stare. He was late into his thirties. His hair was shock white. It had happened in the exorcism, I was told.
Blatty then wrote to this priest and solicited an encouraging, if not unconditionally helpful response. The priest, it turned out, was indeed the priest who had exorcised the demon from the Mt. Rainier boy. Unfortunately for Blatty, he had also pledged to the cardinal who had deployed him to do what he could to ensure that the case never be publicized; there was the boy to consider, after all. He also revealed that he and the priest who had assisted him in the exorcism had meticulously kept a diary of the event as it unfolded, and he assured Blatty that what had transpired there was "the real thing," and that he was as convinced today of its authenticity as he was then.

Somehow, this was the spark that rekindled Blatty's enthusiasm and replaced some of his natural credulity that his research to that point had stripped away. To hear from a living, rational, firsthand eyewitness was just what the doctor ordered. Blatty, of course, requested the diary, but the priest declined, again citing the best interests of the boy.

Evidently, diary or not, this one exchange would prove to be all that was necessary to catalyze Blatty's change of heart. For he would immediately begin writing.

After nine long months, sometimes working fourteen hours a day, Blatty - presumably with the abundant assistance of his subconscious* - finished the novel. This was the spring of '70, and Bantam promptly put it out to bid for publication. Of the four firms to whom it was submitted, two became "active, if not vigorous bidders," with Harper&Row; at last winning out:

...I went to New York and heard Harper's suggestions for revisions of my first draft. I was asked to drop the prologue, which I considered but didn't do; and to make the ending less obvious, which I did. In my original version of the epilogue, both Chris and the reader realized fully what Karras has done: that he has lured the demon out of Regan's body into his, and after doing so is aware that the demon, when in total control of his body, will murder Regan and anyone else in the household and then leave him, once more in control of his own body, to face the horror he has wrought. Karras, apprehending this, makes a superhuman effort to regain full control of his body and battles the demon's will just long enough to hurl himself out the window in a final saving act of love*.

And so I rewrote it. The basic elements remained the same but I made the exposition more oblique.
*This little tidbit was just what I had desperately been craving. It was tremendous, after weeks of wondering, to hear from Blatty himself what had truly happened in Regan's room that night.

After The Exorcist was published, several newspapers and periodicals managed to resurrect the original account of the Mt. Rainier case as given out by the victim's minister. Blatty, upon learning the specifics of the case, reflected on his novel and the accuracy of the Post report that inspired it:

...The Post story proved accurate, except where it is implied that the boy knew Latin. It is true that he was able to parrot long phrases, and even sentences, in Latin just spoken by the exorcist as part of the ritual; and that he always burst into fury at the exorcist's command of "pricipo tibi...," the beginning of the first of the stern adjurations of the Catholic ritual of exorcism. But the parroting is easily attributable to the heightened unconscious intellectual performance - sometimes fifty times normal - that is cited by Jung as a possible concomitant of certain forms of hysteria. And the rages were doubtless cued by the abruptly loud and commanding tone recommended for delivering the adjurations in the Catholic "Instructions to Exorcists." The "unknown language" specification used by the Church as a sign of possession requires that the person allegedly possessed be able to engage in intelligent dialogue in that language. I cannot vouch for whatever may have happened prior to the exorcist's appearance on the scene; but certainly no intelligent dialogue in Latin was ever in evidence thereafter, even though the exorcist frequently demanded certain questions required by the ritual; and although the "demon" protested at that point, "I speak the language of the persons," a seemingly childish, if not fraudulent, evasion.

But there is nothing evasive about the levitation of a hospital night stand beside the boy's bed, which was witnessed by a physics professor...; nor could one so characterize a repeated and striking phenomenon not mentioned in the post account: the various markings - described in the diary as "brandings" - that appeared on various parts of the victim's skin. Many times they were words clearly etched in fiery red block letters that were usually a little over two inches tall; other times they were symbols. But by far the most frequent and alarming of the brandings were the lengthy lines that at times broke the skin, as if the boy had been raked by the prongs of an invisible miniature pitchfork. Or, one could say, claws. During brandings, the [boy's] hands were at all times in view of the exorcist and his assistants and others in the room. One branding that ran from the boy's inner thigh to the top of his ankle, drawing blood, occurred while the exorcist was seated on the edge of the bed, his eyes on the boy, and no more than about a foot away. Other of the brandings were on the boy's back. And one, the word SPITE, did not fade from his skin for hours.

In a footnote, Blatty addressed the extent to which his novel mirrored the specifics of the Mt. Rainier case:
...In both the novel and the film, the levitation of the bed stand would translate into the levitation of the bed itself. Other phenomena taken from the actual case would be: the rappings; lesser manifestations of telekinesis, such as the drawer popping out and objects flying around the room; the "brandings"; the transformations of the voice; new abilities (such as perfect pitch) never before manifested by the subject; paranormal strength; the bellowings; and a few lesser ambiguous phenomena, such as the accurate "blindfolded" spitting. The icy cold, the shaking of the room, and the cracked ceiling did not occur in any of the cases I studied. Neither, of course, did the turning of the head, at least to the extent depicted in the film. I still believe it to be excessive and unreal, but audiences love it... Moreover, there is some factual basis for it. In the state of possession, and among hysterics, you will find one medical case after another in which the subject - no acrobat - was nonetheless able to perform such incredible physical contortions as bending over backward and touching his heels to his head. What distinguishes possession and pseudopossession - from hysteria in this context is that the possessed subject, when performing these actions, seems to doing so involuntarily, for throughout he shrieks in pain.

The Response

By June of '71, shortly after the novel was finally published, mail from his readers began to flow in. Naturally, he was asked by conservatives everywhere to account for the uncompromising unpleasantness of numerous scenes: including Regan masturbating with a crucifix, others that featured torrents of hair-curling obscenities, or the desecration of a church, and one passage that described in detail the rites of the Catholic Black Mass. The Catholic Church got into the act, too, although most of it's more learned representatives who spoke out applauded Blatty's efforts and even found justification for the magnitude of the obscenities. None, however, could condone the masturbation scene. The consensus seemed to be that Blatty's vulgarity was a necessary means to an end. Portraying a demon in all his splendor required, most conceded, some pretty heavy artillery and Blatty had done no more and no less than had been required for the portrayal. Other readers voiced concerns which arose from their misunderstanding of the plot, particularly the epilogue:

...I heard from [a] humorist, who began his letter with the comment, "I sure wish Karras was still alive - I've got a couple of kids I'd like him to take a look at." Another who wished Karras had lived was my friend the exorcist. For in a letter which remarked on the authenticity of the book, he decried the impression that Karras had "lost." I was stunned. For he thought it was the demon who impelled Karras out through the window to his death. I was a view shared by many other readers, I learned, and accounted in part for my hate mail. With such an interpretation, my novel was received by the reader as a definite "downer" and construed by many to mean that evil finally triumphs. I really don't know what to do about "speed readers." Shooting them comes to mind. Although most of the hate letters that I received - and by far the most virulent - had nothing to do with sloppy reading, but came instead from those who presumed to lecture me obscenely on obscenity.

Not so with some others, perhaps mainly those who felt the book's shocking aspects to be unnecessary. I did not share their belief. To begin with, the descriptions of demonic behavior are authentic (as are also the descriptions of rites at Black Mass; and everything else in the book that relates to satanism or possession). Furthermore, and purely apart from dramatic considerations - the need for something so unthinkably horrible (the crucifix masturbation scene) that it drives an atheist to a priest - if you're attempting to present possession as possible evidence of an unutterably evil and malevolent intelligence, then you must back up both in concrete detail... You cannot say, "Regan did something awful"; for if demons exist, that is not the way to argue it; and not the way to make us abhor what is evil. Oddly, the only blast in print or in the mail, from any formal religious source, emanated from a Jesuit...basing his attack not on "obscenity" but on his feeling that "The Exorcist" fostered belief in Satan, thus prompting a return to "the superstitions of the middle ages." He suggested I ought to be writing about social action. Perhaps he was right.

I myself, in considering the question of Satan's existence, reflect upon the fact that every primitive culture has had a myth about an evil being or "magician" who cames to earth and spoils the work of the creator; who introduces hatred, disease, and death. Then I think of the soldier who deliberately throws himself atop a freshly hurled grenade in order to shield his comrades from the blast... And I cannot help feeling, when I consider these things, that the world holds far more monstrous evil than can be accounted for solely by man, who is essentially good. I have not reasoned to this, I feel it.

But is Satan a single personal intelligence? Or even, as has been conjectured, the stuff of the universe; matter itself, Lucifer working out his salvation through the process of physical evolution that ends in Teilhard de Chardin's* "omega point." I surely do not know, nor can I even make a prudent judgment. Whatever my beliefs concerning Satan's existence, however, we have no record of reliable data that would link him to possession. I know that will surprise many readers and reviewers. But historically, the "demons" involved in possession and pseudopossession only rarely identify themselves as Satan. And surely the chief of the fallen angels has far worse things that he could be doing. Even in terms of my novel, I have never known the demon's identity. I strongly doubt that he is Satan; and he is certainly none of the spirits of the dead whose identity he sometimes assumes. If I had to guess, I would say he is Pazuzu, the Assyrian demon of the southwest wind. But I'm not really sure. I know only that he's real and powerful and evil and apparently one of many - and aligned with whatever is opposed to love.

The Accolades

For his efforts, Blatty garnered less critical praise than mass appeal. "The Exorcist" would sell 6,000,000 copies and be translated into 18 languages. In '72, Blatty did get the nod from The Commonwealth Club of California who awarded him their Silver Medal for Literature. Hollywood would follow suit with an Oscar the following year for his adapted screenplay.

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