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William Peter Blatty's Path to The Exorcist





It is Friday, July 13, 1973. As I write, Billy Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, is returning from northern Iraq where he filmed at Nimrud and the ruins of Nineveh and I sit here thinking of many things: of the chain of disturbing and mysterious events that have haunted this project from its inception; of a little girl in demon makeup weeping because her pet mouse has died.

Billy Friedkin and I had offered Miss Fonda the role of Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist. After reading the novel Miss Fonda had reacted, according to her agent, with the following statement telephoned from Paris: "Why would any studio want to make this capitalist ripoff bullshit?" Which, when I'd heard it, I'd understood to mean that she didn't want to do the part. She had heard the report of her comment on my novel and wanted to tell me that it wasn't true. "The reason I didn't want to do it," she explained sincerely, "was because I don't believe in magic."

Well, I do. For I've felt the firm warm touch of a Providence that protects me from what I want; and I've witnessed the making of a film that not only is faithful to the novel but, on certain levels is better. Let me give you the background - the history of the novel and of the film right up to the moment Mr. Friedkin was hired. As producer of the film this involves intrigue; and as the author of the novel and the script - possession.

In 1949, while a junior at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I read in the August 20 edition of the Washington Post the following account [read article here]. The article impressed me. And how coolly understated that is. I wasn't just impressed: I was excited. For here at last, in this city, in my time, was tangible evidence of transcendence. If there were demons, there were angels and probably a God and a life everlasting.

And thus it occurred to me long afterward, when I'd started my career as a writer, that this case of possession which had joyfully haunted my hopes in the years since 1949 was a worthwhile subject for a novel. In my youth I had thought about entering the priesthood; at Georgetown had considered becoming a Jesuit.

The notion of course was unattainable and ludicrous in the extreme, since with respect to the subject of my worthiness, my nearest superiors are asps; and yet a novel of demonic possession, I believed - if only I could make it sufficiently convincing - might be token fulfillment of deflected vocation. Though let me make clear that I would never write a novel that I thought would not engross or excite or entertain; that I thought would have a readership of fifteen people. (It has often worked out that way, yes; but I didn't plan it.)

As the years went by, I continued my studies in possession, but desultorily and with no specific aim. For example, I made a note about a character on a page of a book called Satan: "Detective - 'Mental Clearance Sale.'" The words, in quotes, would turn up eventually very deep in the story, as a thought of Kinderman, the homicide detective in the novel; but at the time I made the note, I knew nothing of its context. Finally, however - I think it was in 1963 - the notion of possession as the basic subject matter of a novel crystallized and firmed.

But the problem was that no one else liked the idea. Not my agent (then). Not Doubleday, my publisher (then). So I dropped the idea. But then, I rationalized, I was a comedy writer; I had never written anything "straight." I was doubtful I could do it; even more doubtful than Doubleday, perhaps. But sometimes something, someone helps. In December 1967, at a New Year's Eve dinner at the home of novelist Burton Wohl, I met Marc Jaffe, editorial director of Bantam Books. He asked me what I was working on.

Finding the shortest line at the unemployment office, I told him; and then spoke of possession. He warmed to the subject matter instantly. He suggested publication of the book by Bantam. He said, "Send me an outline." What could I send him? The small scrap of paper with the cryptic notation about the detective? I had no plot. I had only the subject matter, some hazily formulated characters, and a theme. So I wrote him a long letter.


I began by detailing what I knew of the incident of 1949, including some rather bizarre phenomena that had been bruited about on the Georgetown campus at the time; for example, a report that the exorcist and his assistants were forced to wear rubber windjammer suits, for the boy, in his fits, displayed a prodigious ability to urinate endlessly, accurately, and over great distances, with the exorcists as his target. I went on to discuss the position of the Church on the matter [read letter to Jaffe here].

Virtually none of this plot survived; nor did my notion that "the alien entity possessing the boy should be a woman who claims to have lived in some remote period of history, possibly Judea in the time of Christ; and who attacks the exorcist psychologically by claiming an acquaintance with Christ, then proceeding to describe him in demythologizing, disillusioning terms."

My letter ended the way it had begun: with a truly dazzling display of whorishness which summoned up the powers of rhetoric and logic acquired in eight years of Jesuit education and shamelessly invested them in a theorem proving that the book would sell millions of copies and that Bantam should support me for a year. Jaffe shopped my letter at some hardcover houses, hoping to bring them in on the deal and thus share in producing the required advance.

But a book about possession by a writer of comedy? No one was interested, a phenomenon to which I'd grown accustomed, but which surely should have given Marc Jaffe second thoughts. But Jaffe held fast, and Bantam, on its own, at last came up with the advance. Only then did I begin to believe that perhaps I could write the book. After some intervening screenplay assignments, I undertook a period of intensive research early in 1969. From the outset I was biased by training and religion in favor of belief in genuine possession.

Possession is possible, I thought. But where were the documented cases? Where was even one well-documented case? 1949. I thought of that. The story in the Washington Post seemed factual; and yet, finally, how could I tell? Only an eyewitness could corroborate it for me. In an earlier try at tracing the exorcist, I had queried the Washington Post, but couldn't find the reporter who had written the story; and the names of the exorcist and the fourteen-year-old boy who was the victim had never been known.

I'd also queried the Jesuits I'd known while at Georgetown who were still on the campus. None could help. So I searched the literature of possession. To begin with, though in time they reached back to ancient Egypt, the published sources, notably those in which the insights of psychiatry were fully reflected, were not only few in number, but also repetitious.

And of the cases cited, over 90 percent were conceivably attributable to fraud, delusion, a combination of both, or misinterpretations of the symptoms of psychosis, particularly paranoid schizophrenia, or of certain neuroses, especially hysteria and neurasthenia. A few of my findings were intriguing: the reporting of a common symptomology in cases widely separated with respect to both time and place; and cases where the victims were very young children. Both tend to make hysteria, fraud, or delusion more remote as explanations of possession.

How would an eight-year-old boy, for example, come to know its classic symptoms? It is possible. But likely? Moreover, what was I to think of cases of possession in which the subject's personality, voice, and mannerisms altered so radically that people around them actually believed they were dealing with someone else? It is useless to resort to "dual personality" as an explanation. The case for demonic possession had finally to rest on the reliably witnessed and reported occurrence of so-called paranormal phenomena. Levitating mattresses are very out front.

Of course I found many such cases reported in the literature. And of all the other cases of demonic possession I studied, almost all exhibiting paranormal phenomena had occurred no later than 1900, with some dating back several centuries. I constantly found myself asking: Who were the witnesses? Who had written the report I was reading? Could I trust his veracity and judgment? Did he witness the phenomena himself? I felt that if I couldn't write the novel with conviction I probably wouldn't want to write it at all; for how could it possibly turn out well?

Next I called upon numerous Jesuit friends in the hope that they might lead me to someone now living who had actually performed an exorcism. But I had no luck. I came closest with Father Thomas Bermingham, who had taught me at Brooklyn Prep and was master of studies at St. Andrew's-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary, at the time I sought him out. He recalled that in his earliest years in the priesthood a Jesuit quartered at the seminary was known to have performed an exorcism.

Withdrawn and never known to speak, he haunted the wooded walks alone, a blank, burned-out look in his stare. He was late into his thirties. His hair was shock-white. It had happened in the exorcism, I was told. The story caused my pilot light to flicker back on: and in the back of a book that I used in my research, I have recently discovered a small notation that it doubtless inspired: "Exorcist white-haired man called out of retirement to do it again. He dies early and assistant takes over."

But Father Bermingham couldn't remember the original model's name. I called a Jesuit friend of mine in Los Angeles, thousands of miles away from the event. He gave me the exorcist's name and address. I wrote to him. He answered with the following letter [read letter here]. The letter was electrifying. For at last I felt I was in touch with reality, with a good and sensible man.

I wrote again and asked permission to see his diary, not for the purpose of reproducing any of its details in the novel I would write, but because I am Thomas and needed to put my own fingers in the wounds. But again the exorcist declined, citing the need to protect the boy; he would only assure me that the case had indeed involved unambiguous paranormal phenomena.


I wrote the novel. It was finished by the summer of 1970. Bantam put the novel out to bid for publication by a hard-cover house. 28 While still in New York and in the midst of revising the manuscript, I received a call from a William Tennant, representing Paul Monash. We made a deal whereby Monash would have six months to get a major studio to make the film. If he failed, all rights to the property reverted to me and I would keep the money he had advanced. If he succeeded, I would write the script and produce, with Monash acting as executive producer.

And he did succeed. He made a deal with Warner's to make the film. I began the script. I compressed the first third of the book into only thirty-three pages.I wound up with a first-draft script that ran to over two hundred pages. If shot, it would result in a four-hour film. My contract with Warner's called for a form of mutual approval whereby, before the signing of my contract, we were to shape a list of directors agreeable to both. The list we had agreed upon finally included Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, and Mike Nichols.

I had also suggested Billy Friedkin. I had met him years before. Again they said no. Depressed, I had dinner and then went to a movie. I went for diversion, not to study. But the film was Friedkin's The French Connection. And I went berserk. The pace! The excitement! The look of documentary realism! These were what The Exorcist desperately needed. I called the head of the studio. And soon the executives at Warner Brothers were screening The French Connection. Billy Friedkin was hired.

To read Blatty's complete description in much more detail, click here.







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