William Peter Blatty, an author whose novel The Exorcist and his later screenplay for the 1973 film about a demonic possession became a phenomenon and stirred fierce public debate about the occult, died Thursday at a hospital near his home in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 89.
The cause was a form of multiple myeloma, said his wife, Julie Witbrodt Blatty.
Blatty was a junior at Georgetown University when, in 1949, he became mesmerized by a Washington Post story detailing the alleged exorcism by a Jesuit priest of a 14-year-old boy from a Maryland suburb who was believed to be possessed by a demon.
For decades, as Blatty went on to a varied career as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, psychological warfare specialist in the Air Force, U.S. Information Agency magazine editor and university public relations specialist, he continued to explore the topic of what he called “disembodied intelligences,” following stories of exorcism and alleged demonic possession.
He later became a novelist and screenwriter, earning a writing credit on “A Shot in the Dark” (1964), one of the first entries in Blake Edwards’ slapstick Pink Panther film series starring Peter Sellers.
He wrote several novels, to lukewarm reviews and modest sales, and screenplays for other films, including “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” (1966) and the espionage musical “Darling Lili” (1970), both directed by Edwards, before the monumental success of The Exorcist, which appeared in 1971.
In Blatty’s tale, the bizarre, vile behavior of a 12-year-old girl cannot be explained by medicine or rational means, until a young priest concludes that she is possessed by a demon.
Despite critical, even mocking reviews, The Exorcist became a blockbuster, selling 13 million copies in the United States. Blatty wrote the screenplay of the film, directed by William Friedkin and starring Linda Blair as the demonically possessed child. The movie became a runaway box-office hit and helped usher in a series of graphic horror films that thrilled and frightened audiences and kept the cash registers ringing.
Blatty wrote other screenplays and was the producer and director of later horror films, but his reputation was forever connected to “The Exorcist.”
The book and movie also prompted a continuing debate about exorcism and demonic possession within the Catholic Church and among the public.
In later years, Blatty returned to Washington to live and had occasional public disagreements with the church and Georgetown, his alma mater.
“I can’t regret The Exorcist,” he told The Washington Post in 2013. “It’s done so much for me and for my family. And it’s given me a great deal of freedom to write what I want.”