16th January 2017

R.I.P William Peter Blatty

Last week I heard the sad news that another icon had passed on – the writer of one of the scariest books I’ve ever read – William Peter Blatty author of The Exorcist.
I suspect that most people won’t have realised that Blatty was actually a successful writer before the publication of this bestseller, but he was. He had already collaborated with the director Blake Edwards, writing scripts for comedies such as the 1964 Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau film ‘A Shot in the Dark’.
Then in 1971 The Exorcist was published, a book as far removed from his comedy scripts as it could possibly be, and it became a worldwide bestseller.
Of course a film followed and when The Exorcist came out in the States there was a massive furore. The news coverage over there said it was so scary people fainted whilst watching the film and had to be carried from cinemas. There were also protestors outside the theatres wanting it banned on religious grounds. Of course, even though I was probably much too young, I rushed out and bought the book – and wow was it scary.
Even now, forty odd years later, my overriding memory of the book is, funnily enough, the prologue at the very beginning. It was set in the desert, far away from where the story is eventually played out and is where the reader first meets The Exorcist. Maybe it was because I knew what was to come from all the publicity, but I still remember getting goosebumps as Father Merrin realises he is soon to confront a terrible evil that he has already met once before.
I don’t remember there being such a commotion in the UK over the film, but having read the book I just had to go and see it. Again I was probably too young, in those days we didn’t get films made in the US quite so soon, but I was definitely under eighteen.
The film was showing at my local cinema – the Regal in Beckenham. In those days there was usually a supporting movie shown first and I still remember that rather bizarrely this was a naked ballet. It was awful, and I think after the initial titillating five minutes everyone was pretty bored. We were all there to be scared half to death not see people, who should have known better, dancing around with no clothes on.
Then at last the main feature started and I don’t think anyone in the audience was disappointed, except maybe that no one was carried out on a stretcher. The film was not only tense and frightening it was incredibly moving and I loved it. There was nothing not to like. Even the musical score – Mike Oldfield’s wonderful Tubular Bells was just perfect and I still get shivers when I listen to it.
It no doubt helped that the screenplay was written by Blatty, who also produced the film, so it remained very much faithful to the book and became one of the highest grossing films in history and is said by some to be one of the best horror films of all time.
As is the way at the moment a lot of classic films and TV series are being remade and brought up to date and not surprisingly a series based on The Exorcist is currently on air. I haven’t seen it yet, and probably never will (more about that later), but I’ve read pretty good reviews.
Going back to the book and the original film; both were of course mega hits and that should have been more or less the end of it (apart from the not so great sequels – which I won’t go into here). Life goes on and Blatty wrote more screenplays and novels. However, there was, if you like, a sub plot to all this success. Rumours started to spread that there were those who thought the film was cursed. There had been a few deaths and some accidents within cast members’ families whilst filming followed by two of the actors dying during post production. Sounds spooky on paper, but I suspect if you took a look at any project that runs over a few years this sort of thing is probably going to happen. There were also stories that watching the film could be enough for you to be cursed, though that could be put down to publicity or the Evangelists who tried to get the film banned.
That’s what I tell myself anyway. Thing is I did have a rather creepy experience after watching The Exorcist about ten years after the film had first come out.
My significant other had never seen the film and based on my raving about it being such a good film we hired it from a local store. At this point I think I should explain that although H isn’t much of a reader he does enjoy films and like me doesn’t mind a good horror movie. The difference between us is I’m the one hiding behind my fingers while he laughs at me every time I jump at any unexpected thump, bump or monster popping out of the closet. I’m the one who’s scared to walk up the stairs in the dark after a particularly scary movie, while with him as soon as the movie is over that’s it, all done.
This particular evening we watched the film, the credits rolled and off we went to bed and within minutes he was out like a light as usual completely unaffected by the tale of demonic possession. That is until a few hours later.
I awoke from a sound sleep and of course, despite trying really hard not to, I started to think about the film. But it was really weird – instead of scaring myself silly and having to hide under the duvet – I was eerily calm as a sequence from the film began to play out in my head just like I was watching it again. It was a particularly frightening scene when Reagan is totally possessed and speaking in a really deep, terrifying voice. Even so I wasn’t at all frightened.
As I lay there thinking H started to murmur in his sleep and then began to get quite agitated, so much so I was about to try and wake him when he suddenly cried out and sat up bolt upright waking himself up. After assuring me he was okay, “it was just a nightmare”, we both lay back down and I drifted off to sleep, though I’m not sure he did.
The following morning I asked him what he’d been dreaming about as it was obviously something pretty bad; I was the one who usually had to be woken from nightmares. He looked a bit sheepish and said, “it was that bloody film”. He then proceeded to tell me about his nightmare and I must admit I did get a shivery “someone’s just walked over my grave” feeling as he described the exact scene I’d been thinking about as I’d been lying there next to him.
Of course it was a coincidence. What other explanation is there? But the long and the short of it is H will not watch the film ever again and I doubt that I’ll persuade him to even give the TV series a try.
So, do we still watch horror movies? Yes. Has he ever had a similar reaction after watching one? No. Have we ever had any other experiences that could possibly be construed as supernatural? Hmm – I’d be lying if I said we hadn’t, but I think I’ll save those stories for another day.
To end I would just like to say a sad farewell to William Peter Blatty and if you’ve never read The Exorcist and you love horror I suggest you give it a go; it’s a fantastic read – but please – don’t have nightmares.

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