William Peter Blatty, “Exorcist” author, is dead at 89

NEW YORK -- Novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty, a former Jesuit school valedictorian who conjured a tale of demonic possession and gave millions the fright of their lives with the best-selling novel and Oscar-winning movie “The Exorcist,” has died. He was 89.

Blatty died Thursday at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he lived, his widow, Julie Alicia Blatty, told The Associated Press. The cause of death was multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, she said.

“RIP William Peter Blatty, who wrote the great horror novel of our time,” Stephen King tweeted Friday. “So long, Old Bill.”

Inspired by an incident in a Washington suburb that Blatty had read about while in college, “The Exorcist” was published in 1971, followed two years later by the film of the same name. Blatty’s story of a 12-year-old-girl inhabited by a satanic force spent more than a year on The New York Times fiction best-seller list and eventually sold more than 10 million copies. It reached a far wider audience through the movie version, directed by William Friedkin, produced and written by Blatty and starring Linda Blair as the young, bedeviled Regan.

“I was standing in the back of a theater in New York at the first public press screening of the film, too nervous to sit down,” Blatty told IGN.com in 2000. “And along came a woman who got up in about the fifth or sixth row. A young woman who started walking up the aisle, slowly at first. She had her hand to her head. And then I could see her lips moving. She got close enough, and I could hear her murmuring, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.’”

Named the scariest movie of all time by Entertainment Weekly, “The Exorcist” topped $400 million worldwide at the box office, among the highest at the time for an R-rated picture. Oscar voters also offered rare respect for a horror film: “The Exorcist” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and received two, for best sound and Blatty’s screenplay. Imitations, parodies and sequels were inevitable, whether the Leslie Nielsen spoof “Repossessed”; the four subsequent “Exorcist” movies (only one of which, “The Exorcist III,” involved Blatty) or a stage version performed in 2012 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

“When I was writing the novel I thought of it as a super-natural detective story, and to this day I cannot recall having a conscious intention to terrifying anybody, which you may take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying scale,” Blatty told The Huffington Post in 2011.

Blatty was married four times and had eight children.

“He was an absolutely wonderful, kind, generous, faith-filled man, and I was very blessed to be his wife,” Julie Blatty said.