The prolific writer is survived by his wife, Julie Alicia Blatty

By Christian Holub
January 13, 2017 at 12:21 PM EST
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Oscar-winning writer behind one of the 20th century’s most terrifying tales has died: William Peter Blatty, who both wrote the original 1971 novel The Exorcist and the screenplay for its 1973 film adaptation, died on Thursday, just a few days after his 89th birthday.

Blatty’s death was first announced on Twitter by The Exorcist director William Friedkin, who called him “dear friend and brother.” The writer is survived by his wife, Julie Alicia Blatty, who confirmed to the Associated Press that the cause of death was multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

While The Exorcist was Blatty’s most famous novel, the renowned horror author began as a comedy writer, penning the humorous autobiography Which Way To Mecca, Jack? and comic novels like John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. The latter was adapted into a film, and Blatty spent the second half of the ’60s screenwriting for comedy and musical films, most with director Blake Edwards.

After a few years of that, however, Blatty returned to novel-writing and emerged from a woodland retreat with The Exorcist, the story of a young girl possessed by a terrifying demon and the priest dispatched to help her. The book, first published in 1971, started out small before eventually becoming a huge commercial success, staying on the New York Times‘ best-seller list for over 50 weeks. The film adaptation (directed by Friedkin and starring Max von Sydow) followed two years later, and actually went down the same path of success as the novel; it originally opened in only 26 theaters across the U.S., before building up into a phenomenon and earning Blatty an Academy Award for his screenplay.

The film’s power, like the novel’s, came from the disturbing concept of putting a devil in the body of a 12-year-old girl. Thanks its ground-breaking visual effects, the movie made the horror even more visceral — complete with vomit, blood, and that infamous spinning head. The power of The Exorcist did not fade over the years; in 1999, EW named it the scariest horror movie of all time, noting “The Exorcist is so disturbing it will mess you up for months.” The concept remains so strong that Fox rebooted it as a TV show just last year. In addition to creating the original story, Blatty also directed The Exorcist III.

In addition to Friedkin, other Blatty admirers are collaborators tweeted condolences and goodbyes on Friday, including author Stephen King.