In the middle of a New York Magazine dialogue on heaven and hell, damnation and salvation, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia offered this theological zinger: “I even believe in the devil.”
The devil is a major player in the Gospels and faithful Catholics know that, he said, before adding: “Most of mankind has believed in the devil, for all of history.”
The principalities and powers of elite America were shocked -- shocked -- by his confession. But one veteran Hollywood scribe pounded out a friendly email of support, from one conservative Catholic to another.
“I told him to quit honing into my territory,” said William Peter Blatty, who won an Academy Award in 1974 for adapting his novel, “The Exorcist,” for the big screen. “I don’t tell him how to write Supreme Court opinions. ... He should let me take the heat for talking about the devil. That’s my job.”
The 85-year-old Blatty was joking and being serious at the same time, which is business as usual whenever he explains the twists and turns in his life since 1967. That was the year when memories of a sobering theology lecture he heard as a Georgetown University student began evolving into the novel that transformed him from a comedy pro into a horror legend.
Grief also helped shape the novel, in which a Jesuit psychiatrist tries to help a 12-year-old girl who is exhibiting the symptoms of demon possession, complete with fountains of green vomit and obscenities.
The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother’s death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death,” said Blatty, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in “The Exorcist.”
After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about “what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real.”
The bottom line: “The Exorcist” scared the hell out of millions of people. There were lines around the block at theaters and reports that janitors -- literally -- had to clean up the mess left by moviegoers who regretted consuming snacks during such a head-spinning, stomach-churning nightmare. When box-office receipts are adjusted for inflation, it remains the most successful R-rated movie ever.
That’s the Hollywood story, which is being marked with 40th-anniversary celebrations. But for Blatty, it’s just as important that his work had an impact on people in a radically different setting. As a Jesuit in Los Angeles once told him, there was a “thundering herd of people headed into the confessionals” at churches in the weeks after the movie opened.
Amen, said Blatty. The goal was to defend the faith through writing that he considered a ministry, his own “apostolate of the pen.”
The key to “The Exorcist,” he explained, is that his protagonist’s crisis of faith is much deeper than his doubts about the reality of demons. Caught up in grief and guilt, this Jesuit is tempted to believe that God cannot condescend to love fallen human beings -- like him.
“Karras has started to doubt his own humanity,” said Blatty. “In the end, he is the ultimate target of this demonic attack. The devil is tempting him to despair.”
In one crucial passage in the novel, an older, experienced exorcist explains: “I think the point is to make us ... see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps. ... For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love: of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us.”
If readers and moviegoers pay attention, said Blatty, the chills caused by the demonic acts on the screen are merely the first step in a spiritual process that should drive them to look in the mirror.
“My logic was simple: If demons are real, why not angels? If angels are real, why not souls? And if souls are real, what about your own soul?”
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.