William Peter Blatty And The Good Among Evil

william peter blatty

William Peter Blatty passed away and I never took the chance to thank him.

Blatty became internationally famous with the publication of The Exorcist. The film based on the novel was a cultural phenomenon, and is among the scariest movies ever made.

I first saw The Exorcist as a teenager up late watching cable TV at a friend’s house. We were horrified by the shocking events depicted. I didn’t watch the film again for decades.

A few years ago I read the novel that became the film. To my surprise, I found that the point of the novel was not the horrific account of a young girl possessed by a demon. The film’s gross-out special effects make the titular exorcism the main event. But the events leading up to it are what drives the novel forward.

The protagonist of the novel is Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest experiencing a crisis of faith. Karras has retreated into the sciences and academia to avoid confronting his doubts about the nature of good and evil.

Blatty’s depiction of a man coming face to face with things that science cannot explain spoke to me. I had long abandoned church at the time I read the book. Despite an interest in returning, I knew it would not be to the denominational muddle I had left behind.

Dimitir and doubts

Wanting to read more of Blatty’s work, I picked up Dimitir, the tale of a mysterious agent of retribution. The events of the novel span the globe, and include a stop at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ burial. His description of the Orthodox Christian guardians of the tomb piqued my interest. Here was a Christian tradition in existence since the time of Jesus. What’s more, it had none of the trappings of American Christianity I had known.

One character in Dimitir comments on the historic roots of Christianity. He speaks of the importance those first believers placed on the events they had seen:

“In less than twenty years they’re recruiting in Rome and practically taking over. You’ve got to wonder. Something happened to these guys. Something big. Like a resurrection, maybe, I dunno. Getting killed is an awful lot of trouble to go to just because you’re feeling bored and the fish aren’t biting.”

Reading Blatty’s work, I began to acknowledge an ancient Christian tradition. It was unlike everything I knew. And it continued unbroken to this day. I knew I had to seek it out and, if possible, become joined to it.

Thanks To Mr. Blatty

William Peter Blatty’s Catholicism runs deep throughout his work. It informed his worldview. His struggles were the struggles of the flawed men and women his novels depict.

His work also helped me make sense of the ancient nature of Christianity. It helped me to abandon Evangelical Christianity for something more like the faith of the first followers of Jesus.

For years I had thoughts of writing to Mr. Blatty, to tell him how much his work had meant to me. But I never took the time. Fan letters aren’t my thing. And why would a famous author care anyway? Now I have missed the chance.

The Exorcist is imprinted on the psyche of America. Most people know it only as a scary movie. But behind the sensation is a serious novel about faith and the real presence of evil in the world. The novel is also about the triumph of good, and the Hope that whispers to us in times of trial.

My belated thanks, Bill.

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Comments 3

  1. Thank you. In 1974 I was flying to London for a time of research about British coal miners. There was a magazine (Time?) on the plane that had a long article about the movie. I read it. At the time, I was not a believer in anything.

    I had to wait for the strike at the mines to get over with. Eventually, I got up to Seaham, County Durham, a town that had three mines. I did my research at Dawdon Colliery and stayed at The Golden Lion, a place near the harbor, that is all boarded up now. One day, I went up to Newcastle to look around and I saw that the film was playing. I went to see it.

    Afterward, I had questions about the film. I knew that it was based on something that had really happened, according to the article that I read on the plane. I returned to Newcastle and saw the film a second time. Two things stuck with me: that there was power in the Name of Jesus (remember the levitation scene?) and my conclusion that the only reason for that horrible being to exist was to oppose an opposite Good.

    I decided to go to Durham Cathedral for Easter. I was sitting on the left-hand side about a third of the way back before the service began and in my mind I said something like, “If this is real, do something so that I know it isn’t just some psychological thing.” Of course, nothing happened – no angels on trapezes hanging from the ceiling, moving back and froth between those incised columns. Just thinking the thought was a milestone for me. Five months later I answered an altar call. Eighteen years later I was chrismated into the Eastern Orthodox Church.

    When I’ve told people about the movie’s role in my spiritual journey, they are usually amazed. I guess there’s a lot of amazing things that can happen, aren’t there?

    1. Post

      When I began this blog, I started a list of all the small moments that, in retrospect, led me to Orthodoxy. Reading Blatty was among them. Legion, his sequel to The Exorcist, is also infused with his concerns about good and evil.

      I believe there are glimpses of God everywhere, and we can ignore them or pay heed. Those who say they would follow God if only He would give them a sign are wanting God on their terms. They are dying of thirst while wading in a river and demanding champagne.

      1. That’s good – demanding champagne! I’ve never cared for champagne but you have a point.

        There are many people that know that being a Christian implies acceptance of certain values. If a person does not want any part of something that will reduce their independence, even if they suspect that the message might be true (as was the case with me), they will go their own way until when they are no longer willing to live their life like that anymore. Of course, sometimes independence is an illusion.

        Most of the adults at my Orthodox church are converts. For many of us, conversion was a struggle because we were already Evangelicals or Fundamentalists or some other Protestant category, with our own highly detailed systems of explaining Scripture and our various positions on things. We had to allow the Orthodox Church to explain itself, rather than accept the explanation given by whatever group we were in at the time.

        That’s how it was for me. The biggest matter that I had was the Eucharist. If the Early Church believed what the Orthodox Church teachers, and my church did not, what was to be my response?

        I remember reading an early edition of Timothy Ware’s “The Orthodox Church” and thinking, “I don’t have a problem with this” – and I’m a Fuller M.Div. I had a friend – also a convert – that helped me along, very patiently explaining what didn’t make sense to me. It took a while but here I am.

        If you are a skeptic, take a look at the latest edition of “The Orthodox church” and read the last three pages or so of the main text where Metropolitan Ware describes what should be the relationship between the Ancient Church, and the two main parts of the west: the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants. Actually, you should read the whole book, but the very end is a good place to start.

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