It’s impossible to overstate how much “The Exorcist” rocked the country, and Washington itself, soon after its 1971 publication. By June of that year, shortly after Blatty’s appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” it climbed on to the bestseller list and remained there for over a year. Blatty wrote and produced William Friedkin’s film version, which opened the day after Christmas 1973 and sent the country into hysterics. Prolonged bouts of screaming were common in theaters. Interlopers flocked to Georgetown University to see filming locations, to sop up the psychic residue of the newly spookified neighborhood. “We’re here because we’re nuts and we want to be part of the madness,” one Long Islander told the New York Times while he waited for hours in Manhattan to be repulsed and transfixed by Blatty’s story. Over the ensuing decades, it inspired a legion of weak imitators that profited from the culture’s bizarre obsession with possession.
What is the deal with America and exorcism?
Look at all those polls, Blatty says. Nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, says one. More Americans believe in the Devil than evolution, says another. And it’s the fear that something can possess you — not the Devil, but something like rage or jealousy or despair — that haunts everyone regardless of their belief system.
Blatty has a gravity about him, and also, somehow, a lightness. An impishness. This is a man who is quick to laugh to the point of tears and also thinks that these may be “the last days.” This is a man who says, after a sip of coffee with Equal sweetener, “It’s a fallen world,” like he’s noting the weather.
Mere steps away from lunch is evidence of the fallen, in his eyes: his beloved alma mater, which he believes has drifted perilously into secularism. This month, Blatty submitted to the Vatican a petition with thousands of signatures and a 120-page institutional audit that calls for the removal of Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit designations if it does not comply with every little rule in “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” John Paul II’s constitution for affiliated colleges. The university, for its part, says the “Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger.”
Bill, what are you doing? people have asked him.
Bill, times change. Let it go.
Bill, why are you punishing the school you love, the school whose scholarship money rescued you from a childhood of restless poverty in New York, the school that made possible your life, that cemented your faith?
“If you truly love someone that you think needs to be in rehab, you’ll do everything you possibly can to get them into rehab,” Blatty says. The last straw, he says, was Georgetown’s invitation of Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, to be a commencement speaker in May of last year. Sebelius has a record of supporting abortion rights, and abortion is the issue that really sets Blatty’s nerves on fire.
He describes, his voice trembling, a particular abortion procedure in graphic detail.
He pauses. His voice is nearly a whisper.
His work is here now, he says as he climbs the steps out of the Tombs. Providence led him to Georgetown in his youth, he says, and providence led him back to Washington in 2001 after many years in California. His last two books, 2010’s “Dimiter” and “Crazy,” were well-reviewed, though he wishes he’d published them under a pseudonym. He’s excited about a possible Blu-Ray release of his 1980 directorial debut, “The Ninth Configuration.” He has started a memoir, though “Exorcist” commemoration duties get in the way. After 100 pages, he abandoned a novel set in Georgetown because it wasn’t “doing anybody any good.”
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