After 40 Years, Grisly 'Exorcist' Book Gets A Rewrite
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:
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."
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."
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