Evening Standard, January 1972
Before Bill Blatty began to write The Exorcist he was told by a priest friend that merely investigating the occult might lay him open either psychologically or in reality to possession. Undeterred, he wrote, and turned out what has become one of the best-selling novels in years in the United States.
But the priest was partly right: things did begin to happen to Blatty which he was unable to explain. It was a scary period, he says.
The Exorcist is what Blatty likes to call a theological thriller. It’s what I’d call a riveting read, about a young girl who begins to show severe psychological disturbances, which cannot be explained psychiatrically, and which eventually lead her mother to call in a Jesuit priest to perform an exorcism.
The detective work comes on several levels; there’s a murder, so the police begin to get suspicious, and then there’s the much more interesting detection carried out by the priest to find out if the girl really is possessed or simply in a state of hysteria.
It’s the kind of book you pick up (and after a seducingly slow start) find that there’s no way you can put it down again.
On Monday The Exorcist is published in Britain, and in May the film version goes on location, under the direction of William Friedkin, the man who made The French Connection.
Blatty, who was paid a record fee for the novel by a film company of more than a quarter of a million pounds, plus a big percentage, is to co-produce the film. As a screen writer of long standing (he wrote among others the Peter Sellers film A Shot In The Dark and What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?) he wants to make sure that everything goes just perfectly considering the size of his percentage.
He’s 44, the youngest son of a Lebanese couple who emigrated to New York on a cattle boat in 1923. He won a scholarship to a Jesuit school, and then another to the Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington.
Even today, although he describes himself as a relaxed Catholic, and is divorced from his wife, he still has many Jesuit friends.
After a spell in the United States Air Force he joined the U.S. Information Service and worked in the Lebanon for some time. He speaks, what he calls, kitchen Arabic.
After becoming director of publicity at the University of Southern California, he began writing articles and eventually screenplays and novels. For years he had a good and comfortable living, although he recalls that just two years ago he was reduced again to collecting 65 dollars a week as an unemployed writer. And then came The Exorcist.
He’s a tall and very dark and quiet man who looks considerably like King Hussein. And he chooses his words with utmost care.
“The Exorcist is based in part on a case which occurred in 1949 when I was an undergraduate at Georgetown which involved a 14-year-old boy. After a thorough psychiatric observation at a clinic over a period of weeks, it was clear that paranormal phenomena were happening to him that just couldn’t be explained.
“And then, when you realise that these things are happening in your own time you tend to re-examine sinister stories from history which you discredited because the observers at the time lacked psychiatric insights and the people were generally overly credulous.
“It is a fact that as early as 1583 the Catholic Church pointed out to its priests that people who thought they were possessed were usually in far greater need of a doctor than a priest.
“My interest in possession began with that case, and just to satisfy my own interest I read widely on it over the next twenty years.
“Then in 1969, I decided that I wanted to write something other than comedy, just to show that I wasn’t only a funny writer, and I began a thorough study of the subject over about eight months. I’ve now read every single work published in English on possession since 1940, as well as a few earlier things by Freud. And I would estimate that I’m certainly the leading expert on possession in America, possibly even the world. My Jesuit friends don’t know anything like as much as I do.”
But surely the Church still doesn’t admit to people being possessed by demons?
“In the Roman Ritual, large edition, you’ll find not only the ritual for exorcism, but the instructions for the exorcist, too. In fact, I believe there’s a major exorcism going on in the Eastern part of the United States at this very minute.
“In a review of the book recently in a Catholic magazine, a priest pointed out that there were striking similarities between the manifestations I’d written about and a case which he was following day to day. It’s apparently his job to follow these cases.”
Was he not afraid that his book, which is in parts terrifying, might induce people with certain neuroses to imagine that they too were possessed by some demon?
“Yes,” he admitted. “That’s true. We know that possession is at least 90 per cent of the time at least simply auto-suggestion in nature and I expected that there would be an increase in the number of people with these symptoms. And apparently there has been a dramatic rise in the number of people who think they need an exorcist.
“But I really don’t feel guilty about it because in the main these delusions have been present in other forms before the subjects read my book, and only now have they taken the form of possession.
“I had a fascinating letter from a woman who didn’t sound at all like a crank who told me that she had an incubus (a dream demon lover that is invisible: the feminine version is a succubus) and she told me that she’d been to two psychiatrists, one of whom had told her that any woman would give her right arm to have her problem and another who told her that she ought to go home and enjoy it. She didn’t think it was funny though, and had turned to me asking if I knew of anyone who could help her.
“But most of the mail I get is from people who have had some bizarre symptoms of some neurosis syndrome, and now having read about exorcism have decided ‘ah, that’s what I need’.”
Did he ever frighten himself when writing the book?
“Well, I don’t want to sound like a nut but as I was writing the last chapter and the epilogue I did have a series of bizarre experiences. For the first time in my life I got hung up on a Ouija board for 10 days.
“I’d never done it before but I found I couldn’t leave it alone. And I had the most definite feeling that I was communicating with the dead. Yes, I agree an awful lot of it could be auto-suggestion, and I knew all about how Ouija boards worked because I’d researched it so much for the book, but there were certain things which are not susceptible to explanation by the subconscious mind.”
He pauses for a long time here. Wondering. I think, whether to go on and risk ridicule. Then he went on.
“I thought it was my father communicating with me, and I got someone in to help validate the experience. She was a girl who could put herself into a self-imposed hypnotic trance and who would operate the planchette on the Ouija board. I didn’t touch it at all, and asked the questions in Arabic, which she didn’t understand a word of, and I got precisely the right answers.
“But then I thought well maybe subconsciously I was formulating the answers in English and she was picking them up from me telepathically.
“But then there were poltergeist experiences. Doing revision of the book at a friend’s house, the telephone rang and suddenly the receiver leapt off the hook. It happened to him first and then to me. So I asked a friend who did the acoustics for the Kennedy Centre what the possibilities were electrically and he said it was impossible. Then telephone engineers in two states confirmed that it was impossible. But we both saw it happen. That was the culmination of several incidents, but it was the one that in no way could be explained.
“An electric typewriter wrote a line of gibberish, but what do I know about electricity. Maybe there was a short circuit somewhere.
That was possible.”
Does he believe in possession?
“Well,” he looks cautious, “there’s almost nothing in this world that I know to be a fact. I think we make prudent judgments on things.
“Now while 97 or 98 per cent of the reported cases of possession can be explained by either fraud or a mental disturbance there still remains the two or three per cent that can’t. And, concerning these, I have made a prudent judgment that a bodyless, intelligent, non-human entity has somehow managed to take possession of a human being.
“Now whether that is the spirit of something dead, whether it’s a demon, or a devil in the sense of a fallen angel or whether in fact it’s just some kind of pure energy I don’t know.”
The reaction by the Jesuits has been amazing, and his book is, he says, considered as a great apologetic work in defence of Christianity and the supernatural. And in Rochester, New York, The Exorcist appears on the required reading list in the senior class at a Jesuit school. At other schools, however, and in more remote parts of the United States, there have been strong protests about the amount of obscenity in the book.
Did he know when he was writing it that he was on to a major best seller?
“Yes, I knew. I knew from the reaction of my secretary, who was too spooked to work on it when she was alone in the house. And somehow about half way through I realised that I’d achieved much more than I set out to do.”
Already they’re casting for the film version, and an offer has been made to Jane Fonda to take the part of the girl’s mother.
What about the priest, I asked? Isn’t it true that he’s based very much on yourself? “Yes,” he says. “Very much.”
And won’t you admit that you really want to play the part in the film? “Yes. That’s true, too. But how can I? I wrote the novel, the screenplay and I’m producing the film. Unless someone asks me to screen test for the part it would be just too embarrassing to suggest it myself.”