Ignore, for a moment, the pea soup. Forget the head swivel, the crucifix, those 75 stone steps that tumble from Prospect to M Street. Forget that demonic voice and what your mother may or may not be doing in Hell. The creator of the scariest movie of all time would like very much if you’d remember that he wrote the Peter Sellers caper “A Shot in the Dark,” that his early collaborator in Hollywood was the comedy director Blake Edwards, that an esteemed book critic once wrote that “Nobody can write funnier lines than William Peter Blatty.”
This career in punch lines was hurled out the window when Blatty started clacking away on his green IBM Selectric in a cabin near Lake Tahoe during the summer of 1969. For nine months, starting around 11 each night and working through darkness, the unemployed screenwriter wrote in seclusion about the demonic possession of a girl, the troubled priest from Georgetown University who is assigned to her case and the brooding brick Colonial on Prospect Street NW where the nightmare unfolds. Even as he typed out the vilest of passages, Blatty never thought his novel would frighten anyone, or that it would become and remain (adjusting for inflation) the top-grossing R-rated movie in history.
The comic writer’s legacy is a horror film.
And now it has brought him to the corner booth in the lowest level of the Tombs for a meatball lunch, a short walk from the AMC Loews Georgetown, where “The Exorcist” begins a one-week engagement Thursday night in honor of its impending 40th anniversary.
“As I say, every Halloween I’m dragged out of my burrow like some demonic Punxsutawney Phil,” says Blatty, a hale and hearty 85. “And if I don’t see my shadow, the horror box office is gonna be great. Either that or I’m dead. Nobody has had the guts — or the kindness — to tell me which it is.”
William Peter Blatty is not dead.
William Peter Blatty will emerge from his burrow, the stately Bethesda home where he lives with his wife of 33 years, to watch the 7:30 p.m. showing on Halloween. Afterward he will submit to questions from audience members. Blatty will bear the cross of his mammoth success, which was fused long ago to the kitschy holiday by virtue of its terrifying imagery. Never mind, he says, that the story is more about the mystery and power of faith than the ultimate violation of a 12-year-old girl by evil forces.
“I can’t regret ‘The Exorcist,’ ” he says after a moment’s pause for his curtailed comedy career. “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.”
Blatty mashes his meatballs.
Carves up the polenta.
Swirls them together with blood-red sauce.
The cuffs on his denim jacket are flipped. Underneath his navy T-shirt is a silver medal etched with the three crosses of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified in the Gospels. The medal belonged to his son Peter, who died seven years ago. One reason “The Exorcist” has endured, Blatty thinks, is because it shows that the grave does not mean oblivion. That there is something after death.