William Blatty: In December 1967, at a New Year's Eve dinner at the home of novelist Burton Wohl, I met Marc Jaffe, editorial director of Bantam Books. He asked me what I was working on. Finding the shortest line at the unemployment office, I told him; and then spoke of possession. He warmed to the subject matter instantly. He suggested publication of the book by Bantam. He said, "Send me an outline." I had no plot. I had only the subject matter, some hazily formulated characters, and a theme. So I wrote him a long letter:
It cautions exorcists that many of the paranormal phenomena can be explained in natural terms. The speaking in "unknown tongues" (unless it is part of intelligent dialogue), or possession of hidden knowledge, for example, can be explained in terms of telepathy - the possessed may simply be picking the knowledge out of the brain of the exorcist or someone else in the room.
And as for levitation, Hindu mystics reputedly can manage it now and then, and what do we really know about magnetism and gravity? The "natural" explanations are, of course, somewhat mystical themselves. But the occurrence of one or two of these phenomena, exorcists are cautioned, does not justify assuming one is dealing with true possession.
What the Church does tell its exorcists is to go with the laws of chance and probability which tell us that it's far less fanciful to believe than an alien entity or spirit has control of the possessed than to believe that all or most of these paranormal phenomena are likely to occur all at once through purely natural causes. When all of them occur, and psychological causes are eliminated, then try the cure.
Still loftily avoiding such crass considerations as a discussion of plot, I nimbly leaped to the next sure peak - my intended theme:
Is there a man alive who at one time or another in his life has not thought, Look, God! I'd like to believe in you; and I'd really like to do the right thing. But twenty thousand sects and countless prophets have different ideas about what the right thing is. So if you are out there, why not end all the mystery and hocus-pocus and make an appearance on top of the Empire State Building. Show me your face. We follow through by thinking that God doesn't take this simple recourse, this reasonable recourse, and therefore isn't there.
He isn't dead, and he isn't alive in Argentina. He simply never lived. But I happen to believe - and this is part of the theme of the novel - that if God were to appear in thunder and lightning atop the Empire State Building, it would not affect (for long, at least) the religious beliefs of anyone who witnessed the phenomenon.
Those who already believed would find the incident a reinforcement of their faith; those who did not already believe would be impressed for a while, but with the passage of time would convince themselves that what they saw was the result of either autosuggestion, mass hypnosis, or hysteria, or massive charlatanism involving nuclear energy and NASA.
On a theological level, I happened to believe that if there is a God who is somehow involved with us and our activities he would refrain from appearing on top of the Empire State Building, because he would ultimately only cause trauma for those who did not will to believe, and thereby increase their guilt. The Red Sea's parting and the raising of Lazarus are not viable entries to religious belief. The trick to faith lies not in magic but in the will of the individual.
The novel would ask, I went on to explain, what effect a confrontation with undisputed paranormal phenomena would have on the book's main characters: the atheist mother of the boy (as I then intended the victim should be; I had named him Jamie), and the priest of weak faith called in for the exorcism, whom I first named Father Thomas. This thematic aspect would prove only a suggestion of what it would become in the book I eventually wrote, expressed by Father Merrin as follows:
I think the demon's target is not the possessed; it is us … the observers … every person in this house. And I think - I think the point is to make us despair, to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity, ugly, unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us . . .
And perhaps even this would seem merely an insight compared to the stronger, more encompassing theme that would spring from the Jesuit psychiatrist's act of ultimate self-sacrifice and love: the theme I call "the mystery of goodness." A murder. "The killer is the boy; the mother knows this, and against the eventual arrest of her son," I wrote to Jaffe:
The mother seeks psychiatric help to establish the boy was deranged at the time of the murder. The effort proves unpromising. She then seizes upon the device of calling in the psychologically intimidating forces of the Catholic Church in an effort to prove (although she doesn't believe it for a moment) that her son is "possessed" - that it was not Jamie but an alien entity inhabiting his body who commited the murder.
She resorts to the church and requests an exorcism; and soon it is arranged for a priest to examine the boy. She grasps at the desperate and bizarre hope that if the exorcist concludes that the boy is possessed and is able to restore him to a measure of normalcy, she will have a powerful psychological and emotional argument for securing both the release of the boy and the equally important release (even if the boy is imprisoned) from humiliation and degradation.
The exorcist selected for the task is, by the one coincidence permitted us, the priest who has lost his faith. Ultimately, the boy is exorcised. Although his fate at the hands of the law is not the concern of this novel. Our concern is the exorcist. Has his faith been restored by this incredible encounter? Yes. But not by the exorcism itself, for finally, the exorcist is still not sure what really happened. What restores - no; reaffirms - his faith is simple human love, which is surely the fact of God made visible.
To read much more detail on Blatty's reflection on The Exorcist, click here.