The Legend of “The Exorcist”

If you’ve never seen “The Exorcist”, chances are you’ve at least heard of it. Its reputation actually reaches more people than the film does, with many intentionally avoiding it at all costs. Why? What is it about this particular story, this particular film that seems to be so terrifying that people won’t even take a peek?

The Story

When sweet young Regan meets “Captain Howdy” on her Ouija board, her actress mother Chris MacNeil thinks nothing of her 12 year old daughter’s games and imagination. When Regan’s behavior changes, like that of something not of this world, Chris finds herself asking a priest for an exorcism.

The Inspiration

The best selling novel, “The Exorcist” (1971), was written by Willam Peter Blatty after having been influenced and inspired by several interesting stories he read in the newspaper when he was just 21.

Some say it happened like this…8dc2318f-f873-4d00-94cd-f03fcf8d0b63

Cottage City, Maryland. 1949. Robbie Mannheim (aka Roland Doe, Rob Doe, all pseudonyms) is a withdrawn 13-14 year old boy; quiet, not very popular, not very athletic, but incredibly studious. Life was normal… until the summer of 1948, when Robbie’s aunt taught him how to use a Ouija board. After a few weeks of playing on the board, the aunt unexpectedly died from what could only be classified as “natural causes”. Shortly after her death, the family reportedly started noticing strange occurrences; unexplained noises, things moving on their own, frantic scratching or knocking. As things got worse, the family finally contacted a priest. When the priest asked the boy for his name, the boy replied, “I am legions.” And the exorcism began… and ended with success – “Jesuit Priest Routs Evil Spirit”. Many have since stated that the boy was mentally ill, disturbed, and that details were exaggerated and even fabricated. Others have claimed the boy was simply throwing fits to get out of school, the “clever trickster”.
The identities of the boy and his family are still unknown, so who knows what really happened?

The Production

The cast and crew were excited to get things rolling on this fantastic adaptation, written by Blatty himself. Director William Friedkin was insanely devoted to making this a true adaptation, but also, a very scary film… both for the audience and for his cast and crew.

  • Friedkin would randomly fire a gun on set to elicit “honest” reactions from the performers. Jason Miller (Father Karras) talked of being annoyed by this the most, prompting Friedkin to do it right behind him many times.
  • Actress Linda Blair (Regan) was injured during the scene when she’s being thrown around by an unseen force. The harness strapped to her body d62959dc-91ca-4f51-ba8b-ab3de2d7eda3was hard on the front and back, and tied with laces on the side – the laces came loose and every time the man behind the wall would pull the cable, the hard frame of the harness would slam into her back. Blair has mentioned that her performance in the film includes her real cries for help, crew thinking she was saying “really” when she was actually screaming for “Billy”, the director.
  • Actress Ellen Burstyn (Chris) was injured during the infamous “crucifixion masturbation” scene, when Regan hits Chris. The harness wrapped around her with a stuntman pulling her back via cable to make Regan’s hit appear more powerful. 8ebc91fe-2a11-47db-bd0b-c5adb8efb8e0After one take, Burstyn went to Friedkin complaining that he was pulling too hard, she was going to get hurt. He said okay, but after she walked away, he turned to the stuntman and said, “Give it to her!” The next take is the one seen in the film. The man pulled her back and those cries (when the camera closes in tight on her face) are real and Burstyn said that during filming, when she noticed the camera coming at her catching her real pain, she said to them, “Turn that fucking thing off!”
  • In order to make Regan’s bedroom appear cold, Friedkin went for reality. He had the set of her room refrigerated, which was incredibly uncomfortable for the cast and crew. The temperature was reportedly so low that ice actually started to form around Blair, who was only allowed to wear her nightgown.
  • Friedkin slapped Actor/Reverend William O’Malley (Father Dyer) in the face to “help O’Malley’s performance” during an emotional scene.
  • During production, there were reportedly 9 deaths connected with the film, most notably actors Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings) and Vasiliki Maliaros (Karras’ mother), whose characters also died in the film.
  • The set was destroyed in a mysterious fire one weekend. According to the cast and crew, no cause could be found. It delayed shooting for 6 weeks.
  • Mercedes McCambridge, to master the voice of the demon, took up chain-smoking and forced herself to vomit up a mixture of raw eggs and mushed apples. She later sued Warner Bros. because she wasn’t originally credited for her hard work.

The Reaction

Horror audiences in 1973-1974 were stoked to see this scary and controversial film, waiting in ticket lines for hours, often in the cold and rain. However, it seems that many of them bit off more than they could chew.

  • The original teaser trailer, featuring a series of flashing black and white images, was banned from many theatres for being “too frightening”
  • Vomiting (many theatres handed out what they eventually called “Exorcist barf bags”
  • Running from the theatre, often leaving their friends or belongings behind
  • Fainting
  • Seeking professional help after seeing the film
  • During a 1974 screening, an audience member fainted and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him. He claimed the movie’s subliminal imagery caused him to lose consciousness. He sued Warner Bros. and they settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
  • Blair received death threats following the release of the film because people believed she was “glorifying Satan”. As a result, Warner Bros. had to hire bodyguards to accompany her for six months.
  • Town councils throughout the UK banned screenings of the film, prompting travel companies to create “Exorcist Bus Trips” for those hoping to find a theatre that actually played the movie.
  • The evangelist Billy Graham claimed that an actual demon lived inside the celluloid reels of the film.

The first time I saw “The Exorcist”

I believe I was between 5-7. Yes, I was wayyyy too young to be watching it, but my parents had this theory that if they exposed me to scary films early on, I’d grow up being able to distinguish between rational and irrational fears. Funny thing is, it backfired and I became obsessed with all things macabre, disturbing them quite often. They eventually started calling me Darko, haha! Anyway… growing up in the Bible Belt, I was raised to believe in the existence of God and the Devil. Before pushing play, I was told, without any further explanation, that the film was based on a true story. So naturally, I was scared shitless! I didn’t sleep alone for weeks. I was terrified that my bed would shake and the Devil would come after me. I became uncomfortable every time I heard growls similar to what came from the demon. For many years, my mother would even make faces and sounds like she was possessed, to scare me, thinking it was hilarious. Psh, family 😛 This caused me to stay away from the film for a while, ignoring it entirely.
As a young teen, after I started forming my own ideas of religion (and the like), I decided to revisit the film when it was re-released in theatres in 2000. It was a completely different experience and I found myself laughing at how terrified even 2000’s audiences were. I remember one guy sitting near my friend and I, he turned to us after screaming and said “What the fuck is wrong with you people?!” He was shocked to see two young girls laughing at what he thought was insanely disturbing. We couldn’t help it, we’d been there before!

I then became obsessed with learning all things “Exorcist” related. It was the first time I really studied a film. I did term papers on it in high school, getting excellent grades and even being asked to read them for the class. I still can’t believe I got away with that, haha!
“The Exorcist” was the one that started it all… my film obsession, my horror film obsession, my obsession with the macabre, etc.
It was the first and only horror film to scare me, and for that I have to say… bravo!


4 thoughts on “The Legend of “The Exorcist”

  1. I’m the same way with horror films. Exorcist was my first and I was 8. So you beat me there. 🙂 But I haven’t had a good scare in a looooooong time. Thanks for the great info on the film. Makes me want to watch it again.


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