William Blatty (COL ‘50) passed away at the age of 89 on Jan. 12 from multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. Blatty, a Georgetown graduate, is best known for his 1971 novel, The Exorcist, and the movie adaptation released two years latter, which he wrote and produced, both of which are set in the Georgetown neighborhood. The film earned Blatty an Academy Award for best screenplay, as well as two Golden Globes for best screenplay and best picture.
University President John J. DeGioia commented on what Blatty has meant to the university since his time as a student. “Our University community was deeply saddened to learn of Bill’s passing. Bill’s extraordinary faith and creativity has made an enduring impact–he was a longtime friend and will be missed,” DeGioia said in a statement.
Blatty graduated from Georgetown in 1950 with a Bachelor’s degree in English before receiving a Master’s degree in English from George Washington University. Blatty’s writing spanned from the comedy of Peter Seller’s A Shot in the Dark to a Julie Andrews’ musical, Darling Lili. Blatty had never written horror until he wrote The Exorcist, which stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list for 57 consecutive weeks.
Following the novel’s success, Blatty turned it into a screenplay with director William Friedkin. The film is set in Georgetown, with some filming taking place on campus and in the neighborhood. The house where much of the movie takes place is at 3600 Prospect Street, next to the now famous “Exorcist Steps.” A false front was added to the house to have it directly overhang the steps, so that a stuntman could jump out the window and tumble down the steps.
Blatty’s relationship with the university changed in 2013 when he submitted a letter and petition to the Pope to address concerns that the university was not following Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), a 1990 apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II that defines what it means to be a Catholic university and grants greater authority to bishops over universities in their diocese. “Our rights to know and follow the truth of the Catholic Church, to a Christian education, and others have been violated by Georgetown University’s twenty-two year refusal to comply with the law of the church through the implementation of the general norms of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” the letter reads.
Blatty and the university were able to put this petition aside on Oct. 30 2015, when the steps were officially commemorated as a D.C. landmark and tourist destination during a ceremony that included Blatty, the film’s director William Friedkin, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, and President DeGioia. Friedkin introduced Blatty, and placed him amongst the highest tier of horror writers. “His name today is in the same rank as Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, and Edgar Allen Poe,” Friedkin said.
During his speech at the commemoration, Blatty said that he was happy to be back in Georgetown and that he still felt like he was a part of it 65 years after graduating. “This is a terrific moment in time for me, to be standing in the shadow of a place that I still think of as home, my beloved alma mater Georgetown,” Blatty said.
At the end of Blatty’s letter to the Pope, he explains what his Georgetown education meant to him both intellectually and spiritually. “Throughout an undeservedly wonderful life, I have been guided by the light of my Georgetown education of many years ago, grounded firmly, as I knew it was even in my youth, in the unmatched intellectual wealth of the Catholic Church,” Blatty wrote. “Each time I faltered, as I often did, that guiding light never failed me.”