On its anniversary, we discuss the enduring legacy of “The Exorcist” — widely considered one of the best and scariest films ever, nearly 50 years later.
The Exorcist caused a stir when it opened in 24 theaters in the United States and Canada in late December, 1973. The story of a 12-year old girl possessed by a demon included some of the most controversial scenes in horror history. At the time, audiences had never seen a movie like it. Audience reactions even made headlines; some fainted during the movie and others left the theaters in tears.
Directed by William Friedkin and produced and written for the screen by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist set the bar high for horror. Besides topping most “scariest films of all time” lists since its release, it was also the first horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (taking home the honors for Best Screenplay).
Shock value aside, the story was original for its time, including a strong cast of compelling, three-dimensional characters.
Besides the timeless theme of good versus evil, there was a richness to the plot which drew audiences in and made them care about the characters, including the mother who stops at nothing to protect her child.
Regan (Linda Blair) shares a close bond with her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). Chris is divorced from Regan’s absentee father, and she must attempt to juggle the demands of being a single parent along with her busy acting career. When Regan mysteriously becomes ill, Chris exhausts every possibility to find out what’s wrong with her daughter. Even though she has no religious beliefs, she doesn’t hesitate to contact the Catholic Church for an exorcism when she thinks it may help Regan after all else has failed.
Enter Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who himself struggles with issues of family and religious faith.
Besides being at odds with his religious faith, Karras is unable to care for his elderly mother. Chris arranges a meeting with Karras, where she begs him to help save her daughter. After he witnesses Regan speaking backward, in different voices, and sees the words “Help Me” suddenly appearing to be carved onto Regan’s stomach, he becomes convinced the young girl is possessed.
Believing her soul is in danger, he convinces the Church to let him perform an exorcism. Given his lack of experience in the area, the Church contacts Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) to perform the exorcisms, with Karras assisting. Merrin has performed exorcisms before — one of which almost killed him.
The movie is based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, which was inspired by the supposedly true account of an exorcism of a young boy.
The Washington Post published a story in 1949 about an exorcism performed on an adolescent boy, called “Roland Doe.” Blatty based his book on the diaries kept by the two priests who performed the exorcism. The supposedly true tale of demonic possession centers around a 13-year-old boy whose real may be (but not confirmed) Ronald Hunkeler. The Hunkelers lived in a suburb of Washington, D.C. during the late ’40s.
Shortly after Ronald’s aunt Harriet passed away, he began experiencing paranormal phenomena in his bedroom. Water dripped from the pipes and walls, he heard scratching noises from the walls and floor and his mattress moved. He reportedly had a close relationship with his aunt, who was a spiritualist. She taught Ronald about spiritualism, specifically Ouija boards.
The Hunkelers went to doctors and psychiatrists before paying a visit to a Lutheran minister. The minister referred them to the Jesuits. In February 1949, Father E. Albert Hughes attempted an exorcism. Hughes decided not to go further after Ronald assaulted him. A few days later, the family saw scratches appear on Ronald’s skin. One of the marks was interpreted as the word “Louis.” The Hunkelers happened to have relatives in St. Louis and took this as a sign that they should go there for help.
A relative, who was a student at St. Louis University, put them in contact with two Jesuit priests, Father Walter H. Halloran and Rev. William Bowdern. The two priests began the exorcism in March 1949.
The diaries the two priests kept served as a resource for Blatty’s novel.
A non-fiction book, mostly based on Halloran’s account, Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism, by Thomas B. Allen, was published in 1993.
Some of the details of the priests’ account include: the bed moving, scratches appearing on Ronald’s skin, Ronald’s demeanor and voice changing (mostly at night), screaming and violent outbursts and objects”flying” around the room. Ronald reacted violently to religious objects. The activity escalated to the point where Ronald was moved to Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis.
On April 18, shortly after Easter, Ronald suffered seizures. He told the priests that Satan would always be with him. The priests placed holy objects including rosaries and crucifixes on him. That night, they pulled out all the stops and called on St. Michael the Archangel to intervene. Seven minutes later, Ronald came out of his trance and said “He’s gone.” He told them that he dreamt that St Michael defeated Satan on a battlefield.
Ronald reportedly went on to have a normal life. The room that the exorcism took place in remained boarded up until the hospital was torn down in 1978.
Strange things reportedly happened when making the film, leading to many believing the production was cursed.
The MacNeil house burned down. Everything was destroyed except Regan’s bedroom. The cause was never determined. There was no arson or electrical problem detected.
There are also nine deaths associated with the film, including two actors whose characters die in the film: Jack MacGowran, who played Burke Dennings, and Vasiliki Maliaros, who played Damien Karras’ mother.
An elderly priest gave Jason Miller a medal to protect him. The priest died three days later.
Weird events aside, the film had such an impact that it spawned sequels, prequels, and a television series.
While the first film earned Academy Award nominations, The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) is considered one of the worst movies of all time.
Written by William Goodhart and directed by John Boorman, the story picks up four years later after the original. Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), now age 16, is undergoing psychotherapy because of her experiences during the exorcism. Meanwhile, Father Lamont (Richard Burton) is investigating the death of Father Merrin during Regan’s exorcism. Lamont contacts Regan, and the demon returns to torment Lamont.
The series picks up with The Exorcist III (1990) based on William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion (1983).
Blatty wrote and directed the movie, which ignores the events of The Exorcist II. The main character, Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott) from the original movie, is investigating a series of murders. The killings resemble the crimes of deceased serial killer James Venamun, known as “The Gemini Killer” (Brad Dourif). Eventually, Lt. Kinderman’s investigation leads to a psych ward where he finds a possessed Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller).
Two versions of a prequel appeared, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005). William Wisher and Caleb Carr wrote the prequel with Renny Harlin as director of The Beginning and Paul Schrader as director for Dominion.
Both films follow priest Father Lankester Merrin (Stellen Skarsgard) and his experiences leading up to an exorcism he performs in Africa years before encountering Regan MacNeil. Before performing the exorcism, Merrin is losing his religious faith. He decides to take a break from the church and concentrate on archeology which is what brings him to Africa. The excavation is of a church built around 500 A.D., long before Christianity had reached that area of Africa. There’s a demonic relic supposedly in the church. Strange things start to happen during the excavation.
The Exorcist TV Series (2016-17) ignores the sequels and is a direct sequel to the 1973 film. The series follows two exorcists (Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels) who investigate cases of demonic possession.
It has been 47 years since the release of this controversial movie, and it’s safe to say that The Exorcist and its controversial imagery and themes are still with us. In all that time, the film hasn’t lost a shred of its impact or influence.
Some Fright Fun Facts:
1. Stanley Kubrick was originally tapped to direct but turned it down. It was author William Peter Blatty who specifically wanted Friedkin to direct. Blatty even fought with studio executives about it. Executives finally gave in after watching Friedkin’s film, The French Connection (1971).
2. There were several well-known actors who wanted to play Father Damien Karras including Jack Nicholson and Paul Newman. Friedkin didn’t want to go with a famous name. Friedkin knew about Miller because he’s seen a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that Miller wrote, The Championship Season (1972). Marlon Brando reportedly wanted the role of Father Merrin. Again, Friedkin decided to go with a lesser-known actor.
3. Casting the role of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil was a challenge. Friedkin at first considered older actresses around 15 or 16-years-old. In a 2018 interview, he told NPR that he rethought this because he “felt that the experience of doing this film would have damaged most of those young girls.”
4. Friedkin was about to give up on making the movie when Linda Blair showed up with her mother — without an appointment. He described Blair as “…so well-adjusted. She was a straight-A student in Westport, Connecticut. And she was a totally together young girl.”
5. Linda Blair received death threats from religious groups. The consensus among these fanatics was that Blair’s performance glorified Satan. As a result, Warner Bros hired bodyguards to protect her.
6. Max Von Sydow, who plays the elderly Father Merrin, was only 44-years-old and wore extensive make-up to play the role.
7. Mercedes McCambridge provided the demonic voice. To make her voice sound as gritty and growly as possible, she maintained a diet of raw eggs and whiskey and chain-smoking. During her voice work, she was also restrained like Linda Blair in her possession scenes.
8. The famous vomit scene only took one take to complete. Miller’s disgust when he was hit square in the face with the pea soup vomit satisfied Friedkin on the first take.
9. The set was freezing cold. The crew kept Regan’s bedroom refrigerated to make sure to capture the actors’ icy breath on camera. The technology didn’t exist at the time to artificially create the effect.
10. Ellen Burstyn injured her back during a scene where she falls to the floor in the bedroom. Friedkin ignored the injury. He continued to film because of the extremely pained expression on Burstyn’s face. She yelled for him to turn the “f-ing camera off.” Burstyn said, “My dear friend Billy Friedkin is a maniac. I love him but he’s a maniac.”
11. William O’Malley, a real-life priest, plays Father Dyer in the film. Friedkin slapped O’Malley because he didn’t like his performance in one scene. Specifically, it was the scene where he’s giving Damien Karras last rites. O’Malley said that his shaking hands in that scene weren’t an act.
12. The demon possessing Regan in the movie isn’t actually Satan. The demon in the film is called Pazuzu, who was the king of wind demons in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology.