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Not Just for Thrills: The Real Meaning of ‘The Exorcist’

". . . a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through.”

William Peter Blatty in 1971 wrote “The Exorcist,” a deeply unsettling theological thriller that later became an extremely lucrative -- and controversial -- Hollywood blockbuster.

But unlike the movie, the book is about much, much more than Ouija boards, spinning heads and projectile vomit, Blatty said in an article exactly 40 years later.

I had no “intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying, scale,” Blatty said, adding that his “thrilling and suspenseful detective story” is really about the mysteries of the Catholic faith.

Rather than recoil in terror, the author said, he wants the reader to think hard about the nature of evil and its existence in a world where men also believe in an all-loving and supreme being.

The Exorcist (image source: IMDB)

And considering Blatty's pre-Exorcist background in comedy, including his work on “Which Way to Mecca, Jack?” and the Inspector Clouseau comedy “A Shot in the Dark,” it does seem unlikely that he ever meant to instill in his audiences the type of terror commonly associated with the horror novelist Stephen King. Indeed, his pre-Exorcist résumé shows no indication of a penchant for gruesome sensationalism. (After writing “The Exorcist,” Blatty continued to flex his comedy muscles, penning the humorous and little-known “Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane.")

The simple purpose of "The Exorcist," according to its author, is this: To preach “a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through."

Blatty is still surprised, if not slightly dismayed, that his work continues to be lumped with other great works of "horror." He writes:

When I saw the novel’s early reviews (Newsday: “One of the most terrifying stories since ‘Dracula!’”), for a time I found myself prematurely in that unbalanced and “tricky age” for writers of comedy described by the great James Thurber in his rollicking “A Preface to My Life,” as a period “when they take to calling their office from their home, or their home from their office, asking for themselves, and then collapsing in hard-breathing relief upon being told they ‘were not in.’”

The fact that “The Exorcist” is remembered primarily for spinning heads and projectile vomit is, to Blatty, a great shame. The story's deeper religious meaning is now mostly lost on audiences.

From the author:

I do keep wishing – oh, ever so wistfully and – let’s face it, hopelessly – that “The Exorcist” be remembered at this time of the year for being not about shivers but rather about souls, for then it would indeed be in the real and true spirit of Halloween, which is short for the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day.

Simply put, “The Exorcist” is meant to deal with the question of evil.

“When I first heard, in 1949, of an actual case of demonic possession and an exorcism going on nearby while I was a junior at Georgetown University,” Blatty said, “I remember thinking, ‘Someday, somebody’s got to write about this, because if an investigation were to prove that possession is real, what a help it would be to the struggling faith of possibly millions, for if there were demons, I reasoned, then why not angels? Why not God?’”

Later, in his directorial debut with “The Ninth Configuration,” a film loosely connected to “The Exorcist” and based on the aforementioned "Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane," Blatty continued to ask these questions.

The difference between the two films, however, is that while “The Exorcist” deals with the question of evil -- and some would conclude that its existence implies the nonexistence of a supreme being – “The Ninth Configuration” deals with the mystery of goodness.

Scott Wilson as Capt. Billy Cutshaw in "The Ninth Configuration" (image source: IMDB)

If the existence of evil can be used to “prove” that there is no God, then couldn’t that same logic be used to conclude that there must be a higher being because of the existence of goodness?

Let’s put it this way: If the existence of evil is used to argue that the world is the product of chance and random events, and that we truly are alone, then what are we to make of things known more commonly as “love,” “sacrifice” and “goodness”? Surely, real self-sacrifice cannot be explained as a mere evolutionary mutation (as it is contrary to the principle of self-preservation).

Is there really such a thing as “goodness”?

These are the questions Blatty asks. This is what “The Exorcist” is meant to explore. There is, according to the book's author, a far richer meaning to be mined from his work.

Blatty ends the humorous revisit of his most famous work:

. . . in every period of recorded history, and in every culture and part of the world, there have been consistent accounts of possession and its symptoms going all the way back to ancient Egyptian chronicles, and where there is that much smoke, my reason told me, there is probably fire – and a lot of it, if you get my meaning.

Do you? My faith is strong.

October 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist." For this occasion, Mr. Blatty has re-edited the book and added a new scene.


Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter


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