The comedy writer who spooked readers with The Exorcist
William Peter Blatty 1928–2017
For millions of readers, William Peter Blatty was a master of horror. The Exorcist, his 1971 novel about two Catholic priests trying to oust a demon from a 12-year-old girl, sold more than 13_million copies and became a blockbuster film in 1973, earning Blatty an Oscar for his adapted screenplay. Yet before his best-selling book hit the shelves, Blatty was best known as a comedy novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, whose credits included 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. After The Exorcist, though, neither publishers nor readers were interested in Blatty’s jokey side. “The Exorcist not only ended that career,” he said, “it expunged all memory of its existence.”
Born to Lebanese immigrants in New York City, Blatty had what he called a “comfortably destitute” childhood, said The New York Times. In 1960, he appeared as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s TV game show, You Bet Your Life, and won $10,000. The money freed him from his day job in public relations, and he began writing full time, producing screenplays and farcical novels, including 1963’s acclaimed John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!
All that time, a 1949 newspaper account of a “notorious case of exorcism” performed by Jesuits on a 14-year-old Maryland boy had been rattling around in his head, said The Guardian (U.K.). That story inspired The Exorcist and changed the course of Blatty’s life. Flush with cash and no longer able to write what he wanted, Blatty spent much of his later career producing more traditional works of horror. “The Exorcist was a blessing and a curse,” he said in 2011. “Would I rather not have written it? Hell no. We can’t have everything.”