When William Peter Blatty was a boy he enjoyed the benefits of a Jesuit education. At least one line from the liturgy seems to have haunted him concerning “Satan and the other evil spirits who roam through the world, seeking the ruin of souls.”
In time Blatty spun this idea into an enormous best-seller—The Exorcist—from which he proceeded to write and produce the movie. Some critics have found it an exploitation of violence and gore, pandering to morbid tastes. But that hasn’t stopped the crowds from streaming into the theaters and making the motion picture probably the most profitable of the year, and possibly of all time. At his home in Aspen, Colo., Blatty talked about his phenomenon with People correspondent Nellie Blagden.
Does the furor, the reported fainting and vomiting caused by the movie, bother you?
No. First, the film is designed to have a powerful emotional impact. A sermon that people sleep through is utterly useless. Second, the fainting is very, very rare and highly overdramatized. As I interpret the film on the moral level, it’s doing its job when people react with the shakes.
So you believe you are serving a purpose with The Exorcist?
Some priests have remarked on renewed attendance at Mass and that the film has created some communicants among the young, who were terrified by the evil depicted in the film.
The movie is a sensation, but was the book more religious?
No, I don’t think it was more theological than the movie. Of course, it’s a visual thing. We are dealing with the chemistry of more than one sense at a time. The viewer is looking into and listening to the face of evil. Out of subconscious guilt he is saying, “Oh God, is that me?” He is catapulted into the arena of right and wrong without having to use any intellectual ability at all, and he’s deeply shocked.
What about reports that two girls were institutionalized after seeing the film?
That’s incredible! People are psychotic or neurotic when they walk in. If The Exorcist triggered a situation that permitted those children to cry for help and thus to get the professional attention that they needed, that could be beneficial.
Why did The Exorcist get an “R” rating rather than an “X” rating?
There is nothing in the film that would necessitate our getting anything but an “R” rating. The whole question of whether or not children should see it is moot. What children? Of what age? Of what psychological constitution? There are children who have seen it who love it, who dig it. It’s a big roller-coaster ride; they’re not throwing up or fainting. A Frankenstein movie is what it is. Ohhh wheeee! Is that scary!
But do you really think children should or can see The Exorcist without harm?
It’s their parents who should make the decision as to whether they see it. Of course, I would consider it criminal if some children were permitted to see the movie. But I know 14 year olds who are a lot better equipped to see it than some middle-aged adults.
What about the priests who have been speaking out against the film?
I’m so glad you asked me that. First, there is Father Juan Cortes, who teaches psychology at Georgetown. He’s a very dear, kind, well-meaning man whom I first met in the casting officials The Exorcist. He wanted to be in the film. There is another man, Father Richard Woods, a Dominican from Loyola University in Chicago, who says a lot of contradictory things. He says that priests in the film are depicted as shaky in their faith. The exorcist of the title Father Merrin, is shaky in his faith? What movie did Father Woods see? He also says that the two priests at the end become possessed themselves. Father Merrin, in fact, died of a heavy attack. Again, I ask, did Father Woods see the same movie I saw?
Father Woods also said that as far as he knew no one was ever killed or possessed by the Devil. What about that?
That is absolutely fallacious. Did over hear of the devils of Loudun, here three of the exorcists themselves became possessed and died as a result of complications arising out of fits of rage and cardiac exhaustion? I mean that’s history. That’s one of the primary examples in this field. And that confirms my opinion that Father Woods is a man of spectacularly limited genius.
Father Woods says that in church literature the Devil does not possess; the possessing entity is a demon, a lower arm of angelic being.
Yes. But who said it was the Devil? Till you tell me where we, the film-makers and I the novelist, ever implied that it was Satan himself in there? Never. The little girl at one point says, “I am the Devil.” Are we to believe everything a little girl says? Has either Woods never heard that the devil is the father of lies?
That has been the official reaction from the Catholic Church?
The Catholic News, which is the official journal of the Archdiocese of New York, gave the movie a rave review, written by a priest, calling the film deeply moving and spiritual. He also called it obscene. Cardinal Cooke saw the film, dug it, loved it. The Father General of the Jesuit order sent back word from Rome that he was delighted. The man who taught me English in high school, Father William Wood, who is now director of St. Francis Xavier High School in New York, a Jesuit, took me aside after the press preview and said, “I’m proud of you, boy.”
Are the rumors true that you and the director, Billy Friedkin, are involved in a lawsuit?
That’s highly exaggerated. It’d be remarkable, in two years’ working together very closely on an artistic project, if two people did not have a disagreement. Well, finally after two years we had a disagreement. We argued for about a week. I thought Billy had barred me from the sound stage. I got upset over this absolutely mistaken and meaningless thing. Did you see the Golden Globe awards? We won. We thanked each other lavishly.
There is a rumor that the part of the girl during the possessed scenes was played by an older stand-in.
That is utterly fallacious. The source of that rumor is Linda Blair’s stand-in. I think that it’s disgraceful, her trying to diminish this little girl’s performance. Yes, there is a spot where we used a stand-in. It is when the girl has her back to us. We used Eileen Dietz, and she is performing an action [the masturbation scene] that nobody wants a 12-year-old girl to even see. Eileen was, in effect, the lighting stand-in. Now she is running around trying to take credit for Linda Blair’s spectacular performance. That’s immoral, in my opinion.
Mercedes McCambridge is now credited as the voice of the demon. Why not from the beginning?
I don’t know why Mercedes wasn’t given credit. I haven’t had any contact with her. Billy told me that she didn’t want credit. Why would Billy lie to me.
There were many incidents that plagued the production. Do you think the set was possessed?
I have no rational basis for thinking so, but the occurrences were extraordinary—some tragic, like the death Jack MacGowran, who plays the director, Burke Dennings. There was mysterious fire when a set burned down during a quiet dialogue scene. When we played the sound track back we found these very loud rapping sounds on it. We had not heard then during the actual filming. It is true that we had several blessings of the set and crew and cast, just as a nice little precaution, because whenever we got a blessing these incidents would cease.
Have you tried to make any contact with the boy from the 1949 Maryland exorcism on which you based your body.
No, I don’t even know whether he remembers any of the event, because with children, whether it’s real or a pseudo possession, there is usually complete posterior amnesia.
Was Shirley MacLaine the basis for your character Chris MacNeil?
Yes. And it has caused a lot of trouble, because certain people have assumed that Shirley MacLaine’s daughter was possessed. In particular her schoolmates have come to this conclusion and have twitted the girl mercifully, I want to make it terribly clear that I based the character of Chris MacNeil on Shirley’s personality, he attitudes and her worldly outlook. But she has never had a daughter or a son who is possessed, obsessed or anything.
How about the other characters?
My director was based on a real-life director who used to be a bit of a drunk. Father Karras’s mother is almost entirely my mother. The odd thing is that Billy had a picture of his mother his office, and I had a picture of my mother. We put the two together: this was the actress in the film. Startling.
How did Linda Blair survive the parts played in the movie?
She is so well put together she never had a qualm. Where we were apprehensive and taut right after a take, she would giggle. Her only traumas were that she was always anxious to get back to Connecticut and horseback riding, and her pet mouse died. Once the makeup man insisted that she have a quarter of an inch of her bangs cut off. While in full demon makeup the girl gave every cool and rational argument possible for not doing it. Finally she dissolved in tears: “That means I’ll have to wear my hair in a part for a month.”
Would you explain the special effects in the movie—turning heads, flying beds, etc.?
Oh, you don’t want me to tell you that, it would spoil the magic. Billy Friedkin went to a magicians’ convention in Madison Square Garden and saw this man levitate a woman eight feet off the ground. That’s the man who assisted us.
Aren’t audiences revolted when the girl’s head rotates 180 degrees with that cracking sound?
The audience loves it. The president of Warner Brothers at first wanted the head to revolve 360 degrees the second time, but I persuaded everybody that a human head would fall off if that happened.
How do you feel about some of the most negative reviewers of your film?
I would like to introduce Pauline Kael of The New Yorker to Father Woods and Father Cortes. They hate the movie because they say it is doing the church no good. Pauline Kael hates the movie because she says it is “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Belis of St. Mary’s.” I would like to put these people in a room together.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times said the film was not made without intelligence or talent. He said this only further infuriated him—that we should have wasted the intelligence, talent, money and budget of a lavish production on what he called elegant claptrap.
Why are they so negative?
They belong to a very small, elitist set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their egos that the world of reality outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function. They are malignant Miles of the field.