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A Sermon That No One Could Possibly Sleep Through': 'Exorcist' Author Looks Back on Horror Classic That Defined His Career

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

[Editor's note: The following is a re-post of an article originally published on TheBlaze in 2011 under the headline "Not Just for Thrills: The Real Meaning of 'The Exorcist."]

When author William Peter Blatty published his deeply unsettling theological thriller “The Exorcist” in 1971, he had no idea that his book would become synonymous with shock and terror.

The purpose of the book, Blatty explained in a recent article, was to explore his Catholic faith by way of a “thrilling and suspenseful detective story.”

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 wrote.

However, his book, and the screenplay he wrote for the film adaptation, would go on to do exactly that – “The Exorcist” would go on to terrorize generations of readers and moviegoers.

Blatty said he wanted to examine the nature of evil and how it can exist in a world where people also believe in an all-loving and supreme being.

The Exorcist (Image source: IMDb)

In short, the goal was to write “a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through,” he wrote.

And considering the author’s previous background in comedy, which includes “Which Way to Mecca, Jack?” and the Inspector Clouseau comedy “A Shot in the Dark,” it seems likely that he wasn’t aiming for terror of the Stephen King variety.

His pre-“Exorcist” resume showed now indication of a penchant for gruesome sensationalism.

In fact, even after writing “The Exorcist,” Blatty maintained his comic flair (his little-known but phenomenal “Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane,” includes multiple comedic moments).

Blatty is still surprised, if not slightly dismayed, that “The Exorcist” is hailed as a horror masterpiece. 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 recognized primarily for its inclusion of spinning heads and projectile vomit is, to Blatty, a bit of a shame, ignoring its much deeper religious subtext.

But what was Blatty aiming for?

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.

“The Exorcist” was 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 wrote, “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, when he made his directorial debut with “The Ninth Configuration,” which is loosely connected to “The Excorcist,” Blatty continued asking these theological (and philosophical) questions.

The difference between the two films 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 mere presence 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 occurrences, and that we truly are alone, then what do concepts such as “love,” “sacrifice” and “goodness” indicate? Surely, real self-sacrifice cannot be explained away as an evolutionary mutation (as it is contrary to the principle of self-preservation).

But is there really such a thing as “goodness”? Those are the questions Blatty asks.

“The Exorcist” is about more than Ouija boards and demons.

There is, according to Blatty, a far richer meaning to be mined from his work. If you can ignore the more sensational moments from the Hollywood adaptation, it may be worth revisiting “The Exorcist” (similarly, a viewing of “The Ninth Configuration” could prove to be equally rewarding).

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.

--

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

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