You know the story. A divorced mom moves from L.A. to D.C. to star in a movie that’s being shot at Georgetown University. When her 12-year daughter conjures up an unhealthful imaginary friend with a Ouija Board, weird stuff starts to go down—driving mom to seek the help of a buffed-out psychiatrist-priest, who’s also new in town and who’s got baggage of his own...
It’s essentially a kidnapping story, one in which the mysterious kidnappers send the mom a string of torture-videos through the girl herself. The rogue cop of a psychiatrist-priest, Damien, having agreed help the mom, goes to the Department to get permission to go in after the captors. The higher-ups agree. On one condition: that a nutty old hand, who’s on a mission of his own, it's personal, lead the operation. Showdown ensues. There’s also a pair of red herrings in the form of a Teutonic butler and maid, and a murder subplot involving a detective who seems to be running the Metropolitan Police Department by himself. Though it helps to break up the main story, which is set almost entirely in the heroine’s rented Prospect Street house, the subplot keeps getting in the way. The detective wanders around too much. He ruminates aloud a bit too much; he pores over evidence for a bit too long. The trouble is that we know that none of this sleuthing is going to matter at all to the resolution. After all, if God’s Own Commandos—and that’s how the book presents its Jesuits—can’t fix this then what's the D.C. Government going to do?
Even in the 2011 revision, in which he polished his one-draft original, Blatty overwrites some of the dialogue, laying in every huh? and what? By way of getting across the movie-making and medical and theological details, in which much of the book's interest lies, he has his characters explain them to one other, like so many Sherlocks to Watson. (The Watson role usually falls to the mom, Chris, who unfortunately for the reader is shallow and an irritant: under her career and wealth she’s just another bird-brained damsel who needs a man to rescue her.) There are an awful lot of significant stares and narrowed eyes and wide eyes and rolled eyes and gazes cast askance. There’s no shortage of hokum, too, a fair amount of it tasty—and outside the rectory with its humorous priests, a lot of cliché (the loner detective, the chilly ex-husband, the binge-drinking Brit). And although the serpent may be the subtlest of beasts, subtle this book ain’t: every foreboding has bells on and every dropped clue makes a reverberating ka-boom! (The 1973 FX movie, adapted by Blatty himself, faithfully preserves the book's garish, noisy, high-strung style, although it leaves out most of the talky exposition and cuts early to the bedroom chase.)
What this book does brilliantly is plotting and pacing. The story leaps out of the gate of a brief adventure-movie prologue in Iraq and seldom drags after that. Blatty clearly made good use of what he brought to and learned in Hollywood, where story is everything and the shark fin must get on screen within the first twenty minutes. The parts are carefully arranged, nothing is overlong, and every other chapter ends with a cliffhanger—like cut to the chase, a loanword from the movie world. That the novel works as well as it does is a testament to Blatty’s skills, because as Damien himself points out, possession makes no sense. Why would an invisible super monster let us know it’s there and what it’s doing, like some crappy Bond Movie Villain? Even merely human crooks—think Harold Shipman or Robert Hanssen—know how to hide their M.O. and their footprints.
Because The Exorcist and its sequels and adaptations went on to overshadow the rest of his output, it’s easy to forget that Blatty was already a veteran at the time he started working on the manuscript in 1968. By then he had two books and eight screenplays to his credit—mostly comedies. It’s tempting, too, to finger the cultural climate for the book’s success: even more than most, the early 1970s were a time when it must have seemed to almost everyone that foulness was afoot and our experts were in over their heads. In fact, the novel was floundering until, as he told it later, Blatty was invited onto what turned into a 40-minute sales pitch on The Dick Cavett Show*. The book went straight from the TV appearance to the top of the New York Times fiction bestseller list, where it remained for four months. The period’s other #1 bestsellers were neither especially horrific nor especially demonological.
Blatty, who spent his final years in Bethesda, said he was inspired by a story of an alleged case of possession he heard about in 1949, when he was a scholarship student at Georgetown—a story that had found its way into The Washington Post and was making noise around campus. (In the late 1990s local writer Mark Opsasnick wrote what is, as far as I know, still the definitive account of that original story and of what didn’t happen in 1949.) A number of elements from the ’49 case, like the “levitations” and the words appearing on the victim’s skin, appear in The Exorcist. Blatty changed the boy into a girl, moved her from Prince George’s County to Georgetown, and upgraded the mom to a movie star. In all this he was just writing what he knew—and the moviemaking details are among the most interesting in the book. (The book’s one Washington Party Scene isn’t as convincing.)
But…that movie. A jillion Lucasfilms later, the 1973 adaptation, with a fourteen-year-old Linda Blair got up in Caligari greasepaint, remains one of the top-grossing movies of all time. It’s also a culturally significant artifact, according to the Library of Congress, which (in 2010) put it on the National Film Registry. Our preservationists may not know how right they are...and not just because of the occasionally literal hysterics and heart attacks spawned by the movie, which got mixed reviews in 1973. According to Fordham prof Michael Cuneo’s 2001 investigation of Charismatic-Revival Christianity, American Exorcism—a look into the televised exorcisms, Satanic Panics, and mass deliverances of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—it was all down, or a lot of it anyway, to that movie. To life imitating art, far beyond the appearance in the early 1970s on the real Georgetown exteriors of a real movie crew with a real movie star (Ellen Burstyn) playing the book’s made-up movie star. Are authors to blame for what people do with their work? Does the stuff in this book really exist? Here’s one thing everyone can agree on: a dazzling yet mysterious power stalks the world, a power that can persuade us that lies are true. The creature hath a name: motion pictures. Cut! Print the myth!
*Cavett’s other guest had to leave early. His name? Robert Shaw, who would go on to play Quint in the horror comedy flick Jaws (1975)…the way for which would be paved by The Exorcist.
PHOTO CREDIT: Public Domain. Goya, St. Francis Borgia Helping a Dying Impenitent, 1788.
A: 1949 in Cottage City, Maryland, which is just across the District line in Prince George's. For an investigation of the story at the base of the novel, see local writer Mark Opsasnick's excellent longform piece in Strange Magazine #20 (1999). (Issue #20 was the magazine's last in print; the magazine continues in an online edition.)
In this month's Capsule: The Exorcist (1971).