The legendary horror writer who penned The Exorcist has passed away at the age of 89.William Peter Blatty’s death was confirmed on social media by the film’s director William Friedkin this afternoon. He is survived by his wife, Julie Alicia Witbrodt. The writer won the Oscar in 1973 for his screenplay, based on his own book that was published in 1971 which told the story of a child possessed by a demon. And thanks to the film’s success, the possessed child’s image has become iconic among horror fans.
As many now know, Blatty based the film on a true life story that he learned about while he was a student at Georgetown University:
One afternoon in theology class, his professor riffed about a case of demonic possession that had recently occurred in the Washington area. Something about it struck a nerve. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, if somebody would dig into this and authenticate it and show that it’s the real thing, what a gift to the faith,’ ” Blatty says. “It stayed in my mind, and I thought maybe someday I’d try to write a nonfiction account.”
Years later, he had his chance:
As the war in Vietnam raged and inner cities smoldered, the off-the-wall farces Blatty was known for saw dwindling demand. Unemployed, he recalled something he’d learned about as a junior back at Georgetown: that 1949 case of possession in Prince George’s County. Blatty wanted to try a nonfiction treatment, and he contacted the Jesuit priest who had performed the centuries-old Roman Catholic ritual for the victim of possession. He offered to help on a ghostwritten account of what happened. The priest said his superiors had nixed attempts to publicize the events because the family had requested anonymity. So Blatty opted for the fictional route, relying on his Catholic upbringing and overactive imagination (kindled in boyhood by fantasy-thriller pulp anthologies like Unknown, in which a story by Psycho author Robert Bloch sparked Blatty’s storytelling aspirations) along with a steady supply of nicotine and caffeine. He took full poetic license, with two key creative touches that lent the story much of its power and frisson: He changed the target of the spiritual tug-of-war between good and evil from a 14-year-old boy to an adolescent girl. And he set the story in his old haunt, Georgetown. Blatty had other reasons for the work’s religious underpinnings. His mother died shortly after he began writing, leaving him to wrestle with his faith. “There was a period of time after my mother’s death,” he says, “when I would describe my faith as more of an intense hope than a solidly held belief.”
The rest is history.
More recently, Blatty became an outspoken critic of his alma mater. A few years ago, he filed a petition with the Vatican:
The author of “The Exorcist” has filed a petition against Georgetown University. The nearly 200-page document written by William Peter Blatty says the college shouldn’t be considered Catholic anymore, citing the university’s failure to comply with certain guidelines and moral “scandals.” The petition has 1,200 signatures from alumni, students, parents, teachers and other laity from around the world, according to a statement. Blatty, 85, points to “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” a Vatican decree issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990 that says Catholic universities and institutions require approval by “the Holy See, by an Episcopal Conference or another Assembly of Catholic Hierarchy or by a diocesan Bishop.” The decree outlines several characteristics that Catholic universities must have to be considered Catholic. Blatty argues that Georgetown University is violating a number of these.“What we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic, but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked. Georgetown is being dishonest. Together, we need to end that!” Blatty wrote on the “Father King Society” website.
Archbishop Angelo Zani, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, said the case could not be handled in the way Blatty had asked, because Blatty himself had not “suffered an objective change” at the hands of Georgetown. However, the letter, first reported by the National Catholic Register, also said this: “Your communications to this Dicastery in the matter of Georgetown University . . . constitute a well-founded complaint,” Zani wrote. “Our Congregation is taking the issue seriously, and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…