Big feuds in horror arrived on the big screen most famously in 2003’s Freddy Versus Jason. Now thirteen years later, the concept is coming back with the much anticipated film, Sadako Vs Kayako which was released in June 2016 in Japan and will hopefully appear soon in the U.S. Horror feuds have been around much longer than Freddy and Jason, or Sadako and Kayako. Literary feuds among writers are nothing new either—Faulkner and Hemingway, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, and a list that goes back a few hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It should come as no surprise that the writers behind two of horror’s most influential novels (later adapted into beloved films) that positioned humans against evil forces—The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby—hated one another.
Ira Levin published the novel Rosemary’s Baby in 1967, and in 1968 Roman Polanski adapted it into a classic movie. It’s a psychological thriller, one of, if not the best, ever made. It was received well at the time of its release and is generally acknowledged as a great movie by just about everyone, that is, except for the writer behind The Exorcist: William Peter Blatty. In the 1974 book, The Story Behind the Exorcist, Blatty is quoted as wanting to make a realistic demon movie that didn’t make, “philosophical and moral compromises of Rosemary’s Baby” (Travers and Reiff, 25). It would be impossible to understand what Blatty meant by “compromises” without knowing that he was a Catholic. In Rosemary’s Baby, the Church is an almost non-entity, certainly not a real force for good and didn’t put up much of a fight in the film. He wanted to change that.
Blatty’s novel challenging Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1971. The film was released with only a few days left in 1973; it was rushed out in order to be eligible for that year’s Academy Awards, of which it won two. For Blatty, it was a religious text. The number of Catholic priests in the 60’s and 70’s was dwindling, a theme hit on in both the book and movie version of The Exorcist as both plots revolve around Father Karras’ struggles with his faith. It’s also apparent in movie through the jokes that Father Karras and Father Dyer make about leaving the priesthood, and in the book when it shows the work Karras does counseling new priests. For a man like Blatty, who went to Catholic schools growing up and had a tremendous amount of faith, this was a serious moral conflict. After all, in traditional Catholicism the only way to enter into the kingdom of Heaven is by believing. A cultural slide away from that would be terrifying for Catholics.
The Catholic Church has been no stranger to using fear to inspire faith, and Blatty followed suit as he worked on The Exorcist. He believed that the challenge of making the movie was “to sell demonic possession, even if real, to a highly skeptical and fearful audience” (Travers and Reiff ,25). And Blatty wasn’t just selling the concept of demonic possession; he was selling a specific demonic possession. Blatty based the manifestations off of what the Catholic Church deemed a real life possession. The real case happened in Maryland, 1949 (Bajjada). Blatty switched the biographical information, but he consulted with the records from that case and with the who taught at the schools he attended to ensure realism. For Blatty, this was a story about something that could happen and had happened in living memory. A good adaptation could restore the faith in some of his viewers by warning them what could happen if they strayed too far from the doctrines of the Catholic Church like in Rosemary’s Baby.
In contrast, Ira Levin was not a believer—not in any organized religion, not Satanism, not witchcraft, not in any of the myths or charismatic real-life figures who have engendered worship. In fact, he had rather hoped that his novel would help to increase the skepticism that had always resided with him” (Penzler, VII). In Levin’s novel and Polanski’s movie adaptation, religion is completely circumvented, and not acknowledged as a potential solution to the problem; something that must’ve irked Blatty. In The Exorcist, Chris MacNeil turns to Jesuits for help. In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary turns to her neighbor Hutch who in turn goes to a library, picks up some books on Satanism, and does a bit of research on his own. Hutch has replaced the priest as the bringer of knowledge and the secular library has replaced the Church as the source of it.
Which brings up possibly the most interesting part of their feud: the two men told variations on nearly identical stories. Both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are tales of possession. While The Exorcist is of the more easily identifiable variety seen in horror today with an innocent being possessed internally, Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of a woman manipulated into possession by her husband and neighbors. In Polanski’s film and in the book as well, Rosemary is raped by a devil after being drugged. The rape of the innocent happens in most possession films, but the evil is brought on by neighbors that she and Guy had to first invite in, again, calling back to traditional vampire and demon narratives; the evil didn’t find them without their help. As a result, Rosemary carries an evil body inside her. She is isolated from her family (much more in the books than the movies) in the same way that the possessed are put into confinement by the demon inside them, which typically does the speaking. She struggles to break free while questioning her sanity. These are all characteristics of typical possession films, which The Exorcist refined on the way to becoming the de facto blueprint for later possession films.
Rosemary Clooney and Chris MacNeil are also incredibly alike as characters. Both works feature a young woman as the protagonist who isn’t sure if the things in front of her are really happening or not. In both the young woman is fighting to protect her child from outside evil forces. Both young women begin as lapsed Catholics, though their trajectories vary throughout the story. Along with Blatty and Levin’s ideological disagreements, the similarities between the stories they told bred contempt between the two. If they’d told diametrically different stories, they probably wouldn’t have had the beef that they did.
They clashed over writing styles too. While both were screenwriters first, something that shows in the amount and crispness of dialogue in both novels, Blatty had a particular dislike for the frequent movie-name dropping in Rosemary’s Baby. In the book, Levin makes frequent references to famous directors and actors, but the one that Blatty seems to fixate on is during the scene where Rosemary meets Terry in the laundry room. After they introduce themselves:
“Do you know who you look like?” Terry asked [Rosemary]; and Rosemary, unscrewing the cap, said, “No, who?”
“Piper Laurie.” (Levin, 28).
It doesn’t seem like much until you read Detective Kinderman’s dialogue in The Exorcist. The movie thankfully cut most of it away, as it did a lot of jokes that former Marx Brother’s writer included, but in the book it reads as though Kinderman’s entire character is dedicated to mocking this moment in Rosemary’s Baby. When he meets Father Karras for the first time, he says:
“Excuse me; that scar, you know there by your eye?” He was pointing. “Like Brando, it looks like, in Waterfront, just exactly Marlon Brando. They gave him a scar”—he was illustrating, pulling at the corner of his eye—“that made him look a little dreamy all the time, always sad. Well, that’s you,” he said pointing. “You’re Brando. People tell you that, Father?” (Blatty, 168).
Which might’ve been a serious description on its own, but Karras answers quickly: “No they don’t.” (Blatty 168).
And then at the end of the same conversation, Blatty hits on it again:
“Karras turned, closed the door and leaned into the window with a faint, warm smile. “Do people ever tell you you like Paul Newman?”
“Always. And believe me, inside this body, Mr. Newman is struggling to get out. Too crowded. Inside,” [Kinderman] said, “is also Clark Gable.” (Blatty 181).
While Levin never answered Blatty’s criticism, he notoriously told the LA Times:
“I feel guilty that Rosemary’s Baby led to The Exorcist, The Omen,” he says. “A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan. I don’t believe in Satan. And I feel that the strong fundamentalism we have would not be as strong if there hadn’t been so many of these books. Of course,” he adds, with that laugh again, “I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”
Which leads me to suspect that Ira Levin never responded to Blatty’s criticism of Rosemary’s Baby because he felt that The Exorcist was too derivative to call for a response, or that it was part of a flock of movies that he’d inspired not memorable enough to pick out of the bunch. With the aforementioned similarities, it’s easy to see how he’d dismiss The Exorcist as something that couldn’t have happened without Rosemary’s Baby, but it seems near impossible to lose The Exorcist in the slew of supernatural horror around it. There were other great supernatural horror movies (Don’t Look Now in particular) released in that time period, but none held a candle to the influence that The Exorcist had on horror cinema. It sparked an entire genre of half to full baked movies with only slight variations. It captivated audiences at its release so much so that people were passing during screenings and sparking nationwide controversy over this new genre. There were lines outside of theaters and protesters. Blatty ignited a tremendous debate, with even those in the Church he meant to support taking sides.
But whether Levin or Blatty were right or wrong about their criticisms, both movies have stood the test of time. They are still watched and revered as classics today. Blatty struck success again with The Exorcist III, though many of his other films and books did share The Exorcist’s success. The Exorcist is the rock upon which the slew of current haunting and possession films (Insidious, The Conjuring, The Taking of Deborah Logan, etc.) is built upon. It informs the way they are shot and viewed, and more importantly, the mythos that they’re based upon. Every time a priest turns to a scared parent and lays out the rules, they are variations on the themes set out by The Exorcist. Though the rules and methods may have been taken from the Catholic Church, the rules persist into movies that are not based in Catholic theology, such as The Taking of Deborah Logan, and Stoker award winning novel, A Head Full of Ghosts. I’m not convinced these movies and books could exist without The Exorcist having come first.
Levin, opposed to Blatty, had nearly everything he’d written made into movies, with some of the most famous adaptations being The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil. Rosemary’s Baby, while spectacular, has not exercised the same influence that The Exorcist has on the horror genre. It’s certainly a touchstone; there were psychological thrillers before, and there have been many psychological thrillers after. You can’t sit through a screening of Black Swan or Goodnight Mommy and say, “This couldn’t exist without Rosemary’s Baby.” It certainly has an impact on those, and many other great, films, but it’s not the cultural shaper that The Exorcist is. The horror genre is indebted to both of these men. Now if only we could get them to get along with each other.
Bajjada, Chéyenne. “The True Story that Inspired the Movie The Exorcist.” MoviePilot.com. 14 March 2015. Web. 7 July 2016. <https://moviepilot.com/posts/2779117>.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: Harper, 1971. Print.
Travers, Peter and Reiff, Stephanie. The Story Behind The Exorcist. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1974. Print.
Levin, Ira. Rosemary’s Baby. New York: Pegasus Books, 1967. Print.
McNamara, Mary. “The Art of Darkness.” The Los Angeles Times. 22 September 2002.
Web. 5 July 2016. <https://articles.latimes.com/2002/sep/22/news/lv-levin22>.
Penzler, Otto. “Introduction.” Rosemary’s Baby. New York: Pegasus Books, 1967. VII- X. Print.