Press-Republican

On Religion

November 11, 2013

Taking the devil very seriously, for 40 years

In the middle of a New York Magazine dialogue on heaven and hell, damnation and salvation, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia offered this theological zinger: "I even believe in the Devil."

The Devil is a major player in the Gospels and faithful Catholics know that, he said, before adding: "Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history."

The principalities and powers of elite America were shocked -- shocked -- by his confession. But one veteran Hollywood scribe pounded out a friendly email of support, from one conservative Catholic to another.

"I told him to quit honing into my territory," said William Peter Blatty, who won an Academy Award in 1973 for adapting his novel, "The Exorcist," for the big screen. "I don't tell him how to write Supreme Court opinions. ... He should let me take the heat for talking about the Devil. That's my job."

The 85-year-old Blatty was joking and being serious at the same time, which is business as usual whenever he explains the twists and turns in his life since 1967. That was the year when memories of a sobering theology lecture he heard as a Georgetown University student began evolving into the novel that transformed him from a comedy pro into a horror legend.

Grief also helped shape the novel, in which a Jesuit psychiatrist tries to help a 12-year-old girl who is exhibiting the symptoms of demon possession, complete with fountains of green vomit and obscenities.

The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.

"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in "The Exorcist."

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