As he sat in a theology class at Georgetown taught by Fr. Eugene Gallagher, S.J., a young student learned of an exorcism that occurred in the Washington area. Inspired by the incident, William Peter Blatty (CAS ’50) went on to write a novel that would serve as the foundation of an internationally renowned franchise —“The Exorcist.”
Blatty died Jan. 12 in Bethesda, Md., from multiple myeloma, passing away just five days after his 89th birthday Jan. 7.
“The Exorcist” helped raise the profile of both horror films and Georgetown. The film includes shots of Dahlgren Chapel, Healy Hall and “The Exorcist Steps,” the 97 steps located next to Car Barn where a priest is possessed to jump from a window and tumbles to his death in the film.
By the end of his career, Blatty had accrued numerous accolades for his work, including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Exorcist,” two Golden Globes for Best Screenplay for “The Exorcist” and “The Ninth Configuration” and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
“The Exorcist” is mainly set in Georgetown, and one of its most famous scenes being shot on the “Exorcist stairs” on Prospect and 36th streets.
The son of Lebanese immigrant parents, Blatty was born in New York City, N.Y., in 1928, and was raised by his mother. In a 1972 interview with The Washington Post, Blatty recounted a childhood marked by unpaid bills and frequent moves that led him to accumulate 28 different addresses.
“We never lived at the same address in New York for longer than two or three months at a time,” Blatty said. “Eviction was the order of the day.”
Blatty attended Brooklyn Preparatory, an all-male Jesuit high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., on a scholarship and graduated as valedictorian in 1946 of his class. For a while, he was uncertain as to whether he would able to afford a university education, writing “it was out of the question” in his 2015 memoir “Finding Peter.”
Blatty met Georgetown professor Neil Sullivan during a chance dinner with his mother in high school. It was this meeting that prompted Blatty’s mother to declare, “Willie, you gonna go to Georgetown!”
Encouraged by his mother, Blatty applied for and received a full-ride scholarship to the university, arriving in the fall of 1946 with only a footlocker, a briar pipe and a copy of “The Confessions of St. Augustine” in tow.
On the Hilltop, Blatty majored in English, contributed to literary journal The Georgetown Journal and performed lead roles in Mask and Bauble plays. He lived in Ryan Hall and attended mass in Dahlgren Chapel every morning, where he would later marry his fourth wife, Julie Witbrodt Blatty, in 1983.
In an October 2015 profile in the Washingtonian magazine, Blatty characterized Georgetown as both academically rigorous and an environment that cultivated close relationships with fellow classmates at Georgetown, which was an all-male school when he attended.
“It was a hard-ass school,” Blatty said. “We had a unique kind of camaraderie, and we shared a gallows humor that grows between confined men. It was wonderful.”
This humor was perhaps most prominent when Blatty led a group of Hoyas to Villanova University two weeks before a Georgetown-Villanova football game. Disguised as a priest, Blatty stole the rival school’s mascot, an untamed wildcat.
Blatty would later recall his time at Georgetown with fondness.
“Those years at Georgetown were probably the best years of my life,” Blatty said to Washingtonian. “Until then, I’d never had a home.”
In a statement to The Hoya, University President John J. DeGioia said Blatty left a deep-rooted legacy at Georgetown and a lasting impact in the creative field.
“Our University community was deeply saddened to learn of Bill’s passing,” DeGioia wrote. “Bill’s extraordinary faith and creativity has made an enduring impact — he was a longtime friend and will be missed.”
In his acknowledgements in “The Exorcist,” Blatty thanked Georgetown professor Bernard Wagner “for teaching me to write” and the Jesuits “for teaching me to think.”
Upon graduating from Georgetown, Blatty received a master’s degree in English literature from George Washington University before working a range of jobs, including as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, beer truck driver and ticket agent for United Airlines. He also served as the public relations director at Loyola University of Los Angeles and the director of publicity at the University of Southern California.
In 1961, Blatty appeared as a contestant on the Groucho Marx quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” His winnings of $10,000 enabled him to quit his job and focus on writing full time.
Though considered a leading figure in the genre of theological horror, Blatty’s early beginnings as a novelist were rooted in comedy. Inspired by his time in the Psychological Warfare Division of the U.S. Air Force, Blatty authored the comedic autobiography “Which Way to Mecca, Jack?” in 1960.
However, following the publication of “The Exorcist” in 1971 — which has sold over 10 million copies worldwide to date — and the subsequent film adaptation two years later, for which he wrote the screenplay, Blatty found his status as a horror writer firmly cemented.
In a 2003 address at Georgetown hosted by the Lecture Fund, Blatty said his foray into horror was not a deliberate decision.
“Terror has never been my day job,” Blatty said. “When I was writing [‘The Exorcist’], scaring people was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Though Georgetown served as the backdrop for “The Exorcist,” Blatty’s relationship with his alma mater was not without conflict.
In October 2013, the writer spearheaded a petition calling on the Vatican to strip Georgetown of its Catholic and Jesuit identity, citing that the university did not uphold Catholic morals. The petition, which garnered over 2,000 signatures, urged Pope Francis to require that Georgetown implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a 1990 papal decree governing Catholic universities’ teachings in communion with the Church.
Prior to petitioning the Vatican, Blatty had filed a similar appeal with Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington in May 2013. The appeal was rejected.
“The exercise of the authority vested in Your Eminence … to remove the privilege of Georgetown University to represent itself as ‘Catholic’ is now required,” Blatty wrote in the petition, which was released to The Hoya by Blatty’s counsel Manuel Miranda (SFS ’82).
In April 2014, the Vatican responded to the petition, but did not pursue further action in the process of hierarchic recourse.
In 1995, Blatty was involved in the movement protesting proposed changes to Georgetown’s English department. The curricular restructuring, which was ultimately implemented in 1996, came under fire for its elimination of the requirement for English majors to study at least two of three canonical writers —Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton.
English professor Henry Schwarz, who was present during the time of the controversy, said Blatty played an important role in the resistance to the reforms.
“Many of us who were coming had been educated with African-American, Latin American and Asian-American literature, and our teachers had encouraged us strongly to revise what we saw as a very old-fashioned and exclusive, divisive kind of curriculum,” Schwarz said. “Mr. Blatty was a strong opponent of that.”
Following his death, Blatty was commemorated for his wide-ranging accomplishments in horror fiction.
“RIP William Peter Blatty, who wrote the great horror novel of our time,” author Stephen King tweeted Jan. 13. “So long, Old Bill.”
Actress Linda Blair, who played the character of Regan MacNeil in the first “Exorcist” film, paid tribute to Blatty in an interview with KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles.
“This is really about how special Bill Blatty was because he was intense when I was young. I was a little nervous around him, but when I got to know him later in life he was a teddy bear, he would laugh, and he was funny, and he was interesting and he was special that’s what I think the world doesn’t know about him,” Blair said.
Blatty is survived by his wife, six children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. The 2006 death of his son Peter at age 19 inspired Blatty to write a memoir, “Finding Peter,” in 2015.
“Death is not a separation,” Blatty wrote in the book. “When our loved one dies, they do not leave us. They remain. They do not go to some distant place. They simply begin their eternity.”
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