William Peter Blatty is author of the bestselling book The Exorcist and won an Academy Award for its movie adaptation. A comic novelist and scriptwriter in Hollywood for four decades, he won a Golden Globe for “The Ninth Configuration” and wrote many popular screenplays, including the first draft of Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas.” Mr. Blatty talked to me about his latest New York Times bestseller, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death (Regnery, 242 pages, $27.99):
Decker: In your new book Finding Peter, you say that our loved ones are not gone, that you have experienced confirmation of life after death. What evidence do you have?
Blatty: The evidence is an array of phenomena that, taken one at a time, could be explained as coincidence, but in the context of similar occurrences over a span of many years in this case — suggest that much more is at play. One example: In the month of my son Peter’s death, November, I stood out on my back patio and, looking at a tree planted there in Pete’s memory by a high-school classmate, I asked Pete, as a sign of his continued life and presence, to make the tree bloom on my birthday on Jan. 7, a practical impossibility since I live in Maryland. And on that very day, when I examined the tree close up, I saw green shoots ready to pop. They didn’t. The tree died.
In a similar incident, one night while watching a British homicide series on TV, one of the characters, a detective who gets drunk every night while sitting on a bench and talking to his dead wife who is buried in his backyard, called out to her, “Sara, why don’t you ever give me a sign? Why don’t you turn on a light or something?” My gaze instantly went to a chandelier hanging above the TV area in the mad hope Peter would turn it on, then shook my head to mean, “No way” when suddenly my wife Julie and I turned to look at one another because a light source had suddenly appeared in the room. It was a halogen lamp sitting atop one of my filing cabinets. It stayed on, steady, not flickering, for 10, maybe 15 seconds, then went out. Julie and I leaped to examine it. It was dead. It never worked again. These and many similar occurrences are detailed in the book.
Decker: “The Exorcist” is universally viewed as the best horror movie ever made, but the story is really a spiritual tale more than a slasher flick. How does the message of faith in The Exorcist tie into the theme of Finding Peter?
Blatty: It’s quite basic: There can be – and in fact, there are – bodiless entities. In The Exorcist, demons, and in Finding Peter, spirits of the so-called dead.
Decker: Do you think there is an under-appreciation or de-emphasis on the supernatural in contemporary times?
Blatty: No, thanks to the quantum physicists who are more or less telling us that, the materialist clockwork universe of the 19th century was doubtless the greatest superstition of that age. For example, we are told now that there really are no such things as things, there are only processes, and that matter is a kind of illusion; that an electron can move from point A to point Z without traversing the space in between, and that a positron is an electron traveling backwards in time. And on and on. No, I suspect that belief in “things not dreamt of” in a materialist’s philosophy are on the rise, although, chillingly, more on the dark side.
Decker: Given your fame related to the subject of demonic possession, you must have come into contact with many strange occurrences and stories over the years. What’s the scariest – or freakiest – thing you’ve seen or heard about?
Blatty: Nothing scary, actually, but a few events I would call paranormal: an electric clock in my kitchen (over 30 years ago, thank God, not my current kitchen!) flying off the wall and into the fridge across the way from it, this two nights in a row; a ringing telephone receiver that levitated off the hook before I could pick it up; and then there was a dinner party at Richard Pryor’s house, at which I offer Sidney Poitier as a witness for he was there and saw it. I was sitting in a love seat with my wife, in front of an enormous fireplace hearth. Richard had just arrived in front of us with a tray bearing sugar and cream when an enormous oil painting – about 5 feet by 6 feet – suddenly levitated and crashed to the ground in front of us. It had been hanging by a long, thick ingot tilted upward so that it could not have “slipped” off, and the leather thong by which it was attached was unbroken. There was dead silence, and I felt every gaze in the room fixed on the back of me as the “probable cause” because there had been some strange phenomena since The Exorcist was released, such as “The Tonight Show” losing sound and picture for the first time in history when I was on the program. Richard, with a slight quaver in his voice, asked us, “Sugar?”
Decker: There are many near-death stories out there in which people recount being in a tunnel of light, hearing music, sometimes sensing a figure at the end of the tunnel, and then they come back to life. What do you know about what comes next?
Blatty: There are three things that assure me that what comes next is more life: 1. My Catholic faith; 2. my capacity to reason, as follows: Never in history — never! – has there been a universal yearning by all of mankind for something that does not exist. But we have all and everywhere desired perfect happiness. But if death means final extinction, perfect happiness is something mankind cannot have. And, 3. my messages from Peter as detailed in Finding Peter, messages that are not unique to me. All who have lost a loved one can have them. The trick is as expressed by a character in the movie, “The Orphanage”: “First you must believe; then you will see.”
Decker: Pope Francis has shifted the focus of the Catholic Church more towards social justice and material issues and away from the moral and spiritual. Do you think this is the right direction for our increasingly irreligious age?
Blatty: He has done no such thing. It is the media’s misinterpretation of his words that have created this impression, sometimes a single sentence wrapped inside a statement many pages long taken out of context.
Brett M. Decker is a director at the White House Writers Group and a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @BrettMDecker.