William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist who died Thursday at age 89, was in my father-in-law’s class at Georgetown University. I have one e-mail message from him, through a mutual friend. It said, in toto, “My e-mail address is above. Say hello to your father-in-law for me.”
We were in touch through my friend because Blatty, a devoutly traditionalist Catholic, was involved in a canon lawsuit against Georgetown (my alma mater as well) to try to force it to adhere more closely to Catholic practices. I’m a Protestant, but the suit intrigued me and impressed me with its thoughtfulness and erudition.
Blatty obviously took his faith very seriously. And while many remember his most famous work as merely a horror-shock film, it of course hewed closely to Catholic orthodoxy. As much as we moderns might want to shove aside the idea of the devil as an actual, personal entity, there can be no doubt that a strict reading of the Bible says he exists.
The great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote that believers can make two errors of equal weight: “You can give the Devil too much or too little attention.” Blatty aimed to correct the latter mistake, which seemed a half-century ago to be the one most prevalent.
Still, people miss his message if they think Blatty’s point was merely to frighten us by reminding us that (according to Christian orthodoxy) the Devil truly exists. Instead, his larger message – both in The Exorcist and in its sequel, Legion – was to show that faith and Christ are astonishingly strong.
By portraying the Devil as being so horrifyingly powerful, and yet by showing that even one so powerful could be overcome when “the power of Christ compels you,” Blatty aimed to re-inculcate in us – in the midst of a live-and-let-live world where everything was supposedly copacetic and everyone should chill out – a sense of awe and appreciation for the majesty and goodness of God.
“If there are demons, there must be God,” Blatty once explained. As his character Merrin said in The Exorcist, “I think it finally is a matter of love: of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us.”
And when the young Jesuit priest, Fr. Karras, dies at the end of the book, he has “eyes filled with peace; and with something else: something mysteriously like joy at the end of heart’s longing.”
In the book, not only is it clear that the poor, victimized girl has been dispossessed and restored to health, but also that her exorcist has found peace and joy. This is triumph – both our triumph and especially God’s.
In recent years, Blatty made a stir by publishing a book claiming numerous examples of “evidence” that his son, who died at age 19, is enjoying life after death. Now it is time for Blatty himself to enjoy it, too. His email address is now above, reachable not in cyberspace but through a state of grace. We can only hope that as he experiences that peace and joy, he says hello for us to our heavenly Father.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.