William Peter Blatty, who won an Academy Award in 1974 for the screen adaptation of his own bestselling novel, The Exorcist, a harrowing tale of demonic possession, died at age 89 on 12 January 2017. His widow, Julie Alicia Blatty, said he had been suffering from a form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma and passed away in a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, near their home.
Considered the seminal horror film of its time by many, The Exorcist left an indelible impression on audiences, as remembered by Associated Press writer Hillel Italie:
Even those who thought they had seen everything had never seen anything like the R-rated The Exorcist and its assault of vomit, blood, rotting teeth, ghastly eyes and whirlwind head-spinning — courtesy of makeup and special effects maestro Dick Smith. Fans didn’t care that Vincent Canby of The New York Times found it a “chunk of elegant occultist claptrap,” or that the set burned down during production. They stood for hours in freezing weather for the winter release and kept coming even as the movie, with its omnipresent soundtrack theme, Mike Oldfield’s chilly, tingly “Tubular Bells,” cast its own disturbing spell.
From around the world came reports of fainting, puking, epileptic fits, audience members charging the screen and waving rosary beads, and, in England, a boy committing murder and blaming The Exorcist. The Rev. Billy Graham would allege that the film’s very celluloid was evil.
Though he remained best known for The Exorcist until the end of his life, Blatty was a prolific writer who finished 11 novels, 12 screenplays, three volumes of nonfiction, and a memoir over the course of his long career. He also directed two films, including an Exorcist sequel, The Exorcist III, which was released in 1990.
Blatty was born into a Lebanese immigrant family in New York City. Despite growing up in poverty, he graduated high school as a class valedictorian and attended George Mason University on a scholarship, earning a master’s degree in English Literature.
In a tweet acknowledging his death, novelist Stephen King hailed Blatty as the author of “the great horror novel of our time”:
RIP William Peter Blatty, who wrote the great horror novel of our time. So long, Old Bill.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) January 13, 2017