In 1971, a novel set off a frenzy that soon inspired a film — and then a firestorm.
In The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty told the spine-chilling story of a little girl named Regan MacNeil, the daughter of a Hollywood star shooting a film in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Funny things start happening in the MacNeils' rented house: They hear noises in the wall, and Regan starts speaking in a growl, levitating, turning her head 360 degrees and spitting up green slime. Then, Regan's bedroom gets as chilly as a frozen foods case and her bed starts flying around.
Readers were drawn to the novel's profane subject matter, making it a best-seller. When the book's film adaptation came out two years later, fans waited in lines that stretched around city blocks to catch the first screenings; some even tried using battering rams to force their way into theaters.
Forty years later, Blatty has revised and polished his landmark novel, even adding a whole new character. The result is a 40th-anniversary edition that's just as terrifying as the original.
'A Blessing From Above'
Blatty tells NPR's Scott Simon that before he started writing The Exorcist, he'd been working as a comic novelist, and screenplay writer for comedian Peter Sellers. Then, in the summer of 1969, the comedy job market dried up.
"I said, 'What am I going to do?' " Blatty remembers. " 'There is this novel I have been thinking about writing since my junior year at [Georgetown University] and what else have I got to do now? I'll do it.' "
Blatty spent the next nine months working on the novel. About three weeks before it was finished, he received a lucrative offer to adapt it for the big screen.
"I raced through the ending of the novel and that's it. I had no time to do another draft. It was my first draft. Now, you know, I virtually prayed for a chance to do it again and then along comes [HarperCollins], and on the 40th [anniversary] I'm still around," he says. "I thought it was like a blessing from above."
'I'm The Devil!'
About halfway through Blatty's novel, Damien Karras — a priest and psychiatrist experiencing a crisis of faith — is called in to help the troubled Regan. Their first encounter is unsettling, to say the least. Blatty writes:
Regan's eyes gleamed fiercely, unblinking, as a yellowish saliva dribbled down from a corner of her mouth to her chin, to her lips stretch taut into a feral grin of bow-mouthed mockery.
"Well, well, well," she gloated sardonically and hairs prickled up on the back of Karras's neck at a voice that was deep and thick with menace and power. "So, it's you ... they sent you!" she continued as if pleased. "Well, we've nothing to fear from you at all."
"Yes, that's right," Karras answered; "I'm your friend and I'd like to help you."
"You might loosen these straps, then," Regan croaked. She had tugged up her wrists so that now Karras noticed they were bound with a double set of leather restraining straps.
"Are the straps uncomfortable for you?"
"Extremely. They're a nuisance. An infernal nuisance."
The eyes glinted slyly with secret amusement.
Karras saw the scratch marks on Regan's face; the cuts on her lips where apparently she'd bitten them. "I'm afraid you might hurt yourself, Regan," he told her.
"I'm not Regan," she rumbled, still with that taut and hideous grin that Karras now guessed was her permanent expression. How incongruous the braces on her teeth looked, he thought. "Oh, I see," he said, nodding. "Well, then, maybe we should introduce ourselves. I'm Damien Karras. Who are you?"
"I'm the devil!"
Blatty says he actually didn't mean to make the book as scary as it turned out. Instead, it was meant to be a novel about faith, in which Father Karras' beliefs are tested by Regan's possession.
"It's a humiliating confession. I have no recollection of intending to frighten anyone at any point in time," he says. "That's Stephen King — he's the master of terror."
An Accidental Success
According to Blatty, his book was initially a disaster. It was so bad that his publisher went so far as to treat him to a farewell lunch. But in the middle of lunch, Blatty got a call from The Dick Cavett Show. They had lost a guest at the last minute and wanted him to fill in.
"I came out onstage, and Dick Cavett said, 'Well, Mr. Blatty I haven't read your book.' I said, 'Well, that's OK, so I'll tell you about it,' " he recalls. "I got to do a 41-minute monologue. That was it."
The next week, Blatty picked up a copy of Time magazine at the airport and found that his book was No. 4 on the best-seller list. Not long after, it reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list — and it stayed there for 17 weeks.
"I still didn't plan on frightening anyone. I sleep with a night light!" Blatty says, laughing. "It was all an accident."