Footnotes: The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

When William Peter Blatty’s bestselling horror was adapted into the blockbuster of the same name, it sealed the career of the late actor Max von Sydow

The Exorcist

What’s the story?

It was announced on Monday that actor Max von Sydow had died, aged 90. Von Sydow was considered one of the best of his generation, but achieved his cult-like following in his later years after playing the titular priest in The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s adaptation of the horror book by William Peter Blatty.

Von Sydow, who was famously tall at 6’3” and brought a Nordic angst to proceedings, came to rescue the possessed girl Reagan in the 1973 film. The Exorcist sold on scandal and intrigue at the box office, with press stories of audience members fainting in cinemas, but it would take a further 15 years for Von Sydow to earn an Academy Award nomination (for Pelle the Conqueror, 1988).

What’s the book?

While it’s difficult to think of The Exorcist and not picture the spinning, vomiting head of a model child actress Linda Blair (an iconic scene from the film), it was a publishing triumph before it was adapted for the big screen. Blatty was as a successful comedy writer for Hollywood before he wrote The Exorcist, which transformed his career when it was published in 1971, while ushering in a new era for theological horror.

The book spent four months on The New York Times bestseller list and went on to shift 13 million copies, but it was hardly an overnight success. Despite his publishers, Harper & Row, spending what he later called ‘a fortune’ on promotion, and Blatty embarking on a gruelling 26 city promo tour, ‘nobody was buying the book’. What saved him was a fortuitous last minute guest cancellation on the Dick Cavett Show. Taking the place of ator Robert Shaw, Blatty ended up talking about The Exorcist for 45 minutes on national television, which sealed its success.


Blatty never intended The Exorcist to be scary. ‘When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones,’ he told The LA Times. ‘To this day, I have zero recollection of even a moment when I was writing that I was trying to frighten anyone.’

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