Buckle up, this one's long. I wrote this three years ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, and the site I published it on has gone the way of the buffalo. Happy Halloween!
Forty years ago The Exorcist opened to the greatest hype of any R rated film before or since. Lines stretched around the block despite the cold weather, additional showings had to be added to cater to the masses desperate to see it, it earned a ten minute segment with Tom Brokaw on the national news program, and reviews of the film made the front page of newspapers around the world. Reports of audiences responding by jumping out of their seats, running up and down the aisles, fainting, and leaving the film early in horrified tears came in from all over. By the time The Exorcist hit the UK, the theaters had ambulances standing by during showings. Something else happened at these showings, too. Something more interesting than reports of a man in San Francisco charging the screen in an attempt to kill the demon possessing Regan MacNeil. When people left the theaters, whether they left early or made it all the way through, they didn’t go home. They loitered around the theaters eager to connect with their fellow viewers over what they had just witnessed. People couldn’t stop talking about The Exorcist, and it appears we still can’t. The obvious question is: why?
The Rev. Billy Graham had harsh criticisms for the film, insisting that it had “a power of evil”, and believing the mass viewings would damage the souls of the nation. Other religious leaders condemned the film, too, but interestingly, many applauded it. Father Robert J. Henle of Georgetown was so supportive of the film that he not only allowed director William Friedkin full access to film anywhere on campus, including his own office, but also gave him the diaries of the two priests that performed the last sanctioned exorcism in America. William Peter Blatty, author of the book and screenplay, believed that by confronting evil, he was doing something positive for the Catholic Church. Many Catholics agreed.
Hype and controversy aside, one element of the film stands out in a way that may explain the public’s reaction to it. Realism. Blatty said he believed that the real reason audience members suffered nausea, panic, and fainting was not the horror elements of the film, but the realism of the medical procedures. In the scene Blatty cites as the one he can’t stomach seeing, the doctors perform a procedure on young Regan known as an Arteriogram. This scene was shot at the NYU Medical Center, using the actual lighting of the room, and rather than using actors, a radiologist and neurosurgeon from the university performed the fake procedure for the cameras.
It’s important to remember than in 1973, filmmakers did not have CGI, green screens, or even equipment modern filmmakers take for granted, like steady cams. What we see while watching the film is what actually happened on set. Friedkin was intent on making this film feel like a documentary, to make the symptoms of Regan’s possession as real as possible, sometimes going to dubious lengths to achieve that realism. Perhaps the most famous example is how cold the working conditions were on set. He wanted the actors’ breath to be visible. In today’s filmmaking, breath would be added in postproduction, but Friedkin did not have this kind of technology. So in addition to having the room on pneumatic wheels to simulate earthquake, he refrigerated the room to at least 30 below zero, leaving the cast and crew in ski suits, and Linda Blair restrained to the bed in nothing but a nightgown and long underwear. The lights and body heat warmed the room so quickly that they could only film for an hour or so before it became too “warm” and they had to stop filming and turn everything off so the temperature would drop again, and the breath would again be visible when the actors spoke. Crewmembers recall coming to the set one morning to find “snow” that had been created as a result of the overnight cooling mixing with the natural condensation inside the room.
Friedkin was not above endangering the actors to get a perfect scene. In one instance, Ellen Burstyn approached him to ask that her harness not be pulled so hard in the scene where she is thrown from Regan’s bedside, because she was afraid she would be injured. He agreed with her but instead had the man working the rope pull as hard as he could, yanking her back and slamming her into the floor, resulting in intense back pain for the actress. Friedkin’s response to her screams of pain was to motion for the cameraman to get in for a close up. That is the cut that made the film. When the real Jesuit priest playing Father Dyer couldn’t affect the emotion required of him as he performed last rites on the character Father Karras, Friedkin slapped him across the face as hard as he could, causing the young priest to cry and shake through the final take of the scene. Friedkin was rumored to have fired a gun off at random times during filming to shake the actors. Chris Newman, a sound engineer, said that Friedkin “would do anything to motivate an actor.” Burstyn had a different opinion, she said in the BBC documentary Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist that Friedkin went “beyond what anyone needed to do to make a movie.” It is rumored that her back injury affected her throughout her life, while some who worked on the film claim it wasn’t a serious injury. So many times, what the audience sees isn’t acting at all, but a response to a real stimulus that wasn’t filmed (or in some cases, was).
Some of the more impressive feats are seemingly small in light of today’s technology. To get an unbroken shot from the front door of the house, all the way up the stairs to Regan’s room, they had to build a chair rigged up on a wire that could be moved smoothly and quickly, lighting the scene with extreme care to keep the rig from casting shadows. For a very small scene, where Regan injures the psychiatrist visiting her, they built a contraption the actor could lay on, with a camera mounted in front of his face to get the shot of him falling just the way Friedkin wanted it. There were a number of devices built specially for the film, but perhaps the most unsettling was the life sized, photo realistic dummy of Linda Blair they used to film the scene where her head turns completely around. Blair claimed that she didn’t even want to be in the same room as the thing. Watching the film, it’s nearly impossible to tell it is a dummy, even if you already know. One of the things that add to that realism is that they made sure the dummy “breathed” during the shot, her breath condensing in the freezing room.
Not only are the visuals incredibly realistic, and the actors responding sometimes genuinely to fear and pain inflicted on them by the director, but the story itself is about what happens when otherwise pragmatic people cannot find a logical explanation of events. Father Karras is a Jesuit priest who has lost his faith, and is considering leaving his position. Chris MacNeil is described by Blatty as “an atheistic woman”. When faced with the strange behaviors, vulgarity, and violence of her daughter, she first turns to her doctors, then to psychiatry, and only after one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, where twelve year old Regan is shown stabbing herself in the vagina with a crucifix, bleeding and taunting her mother, shoving her face into the bleeding crotch, does Chris seek the counsel of Karras. One of the many things Jesuits are responsible for is education, and Karras was sent to medical school by the Church to become a psychiatrist. He neither knows much about, nor believes in, exorcism and possession. He isn’t even sure he believes in God. He attempts to find an alternate explanation, even tries to point Chris MacNeil back to psychiatry, but in the end, he has to admit to himself that this is a genuine possession.
What is terrifying about this, is the feeling that we could be wrong. I don’t believe the viewer is afraid that they or someone they love will become possessed nearly as much as they fear the idea that events could conspire to prove our understanding of the world around us completely void. In many ways, this film doesn’t rely on the supernatural to get under the audience’s skin, it relies on the failure of medicine, science, and logic. Blatty himself doesn’t consider the story “horror” at all. He once said that while writing the book he never set out to scare anyone, while admitting that his words would be “an admission of failure on a stupefying level”, he felt that this story was a “supernatural detective” story. Friedkin says he never saw it as a horror film, either, going so far as to say, “Anyone who thinks this is a horror film is wrong”. They both claim it is a story about the mysteries of faith. Through the beginning of the film, that by modern accounts is quite slow, it is a mystery. Is the girl possessed? Will her mother realize it in time? Will Father Karras be able to help her? But the questions it raises when paired with the incredibly real effects create a horror, whether Blatty and Friedkin intended it or not.
William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist in a cabin that cost $70 a month, holed away from his wife and children, only leaving to buy groceries and visit his mother who was in a convalescent home. Originally a comedy writer, it was the first time he wrote without the intention of getting laughs, and the first time he felt that the characters had taken over. He said he never had a plot in mind, but instead used notes on the physical symptoms of a possession instead. After a seven year correspondence with a priest named Father Bowdern, a man who had actually performed an exorcism, his notes must have been fairly in-depth. He based the characters on people he knew, and inserted his own grief over the loss of his mother into Father Karras’s narrative. Some of the events in the story were inspired by actual events unrelated to possession and exorcism, like the story he tells of a student attempting to steal a physics test from a classroom and being discovered, only to launch himself through a window and down a set of stairs. Even the bits not based on Father Bowdern’s 1949 exorcism case are steeped in realism.
The effects, make up, and compelling journey from skepticism to belief was so compelling that the cast and crew felt a deep unease. After a mysterious fire on set that delayed filming, and some accidents on set like Linda Blair’s back harness coming loose, causing her to be thrashed about on the bed while screaming, “It hurts! Make it stop!” which also happened to be her lines for the scene, it was believed that there was a curse on the film. Some posited that the Devil himself was attempting to keep the film from being made; afraid it would reveal him to the world. Most horror films have rumors of a curse surrounding the filming, as it adds a mystique to the film. The Exorcist is no different. Several members of the cast and crew said that nine people who were involved in the film died. It is difficult to corroborate the number as they counted relatives of the cast, and rarely name more than four people, to include the ninety-year-old woman who played Father Karras’s mother. The deaths all appear to be from natural causes, and some occurred years after the making of the film. Still, during filming the cast and crew were so unnerved that Friedkin asked a priest to come in and exorcise the set. The priest refused, in part because it was nearly impossible to get Church approval for an exorcism at the time, and because he felt it would only serve to unnerve the cast and crew further. He did come in and bless the set and speak with the cast and crew in an attempt to calm them.
Even after the filming was complete, the sense of evil looming infected people working on the postproduction. Not satisfied with the 150 hours of work the sound people put into making Linda Blair’s voice sound demonic, Friedkin hired renowned radio actress Mercedes McCambridge to do the vocal work. McCambridge asked to be bound to a chair, and have the restraints tighten during the lines where Regan was distressed. To achieve the rasping, deep, demonic voice she drank whiskey, chain smoked, and swallowed raw eggs, even her breathing sounded ominous. Despite her dedication to the role, or perhaps because of it, she had to take frequent breaks to be comforted by priests and read scripture. There were times that she spontaneously erupted into tears while recording, as she was so disturbed by the work.
Adding to the idea that the film was cursed, or evil in and of itself, it was sent to 666 Fifth Avenue to be edited. Friedkin writes in his autobiography that if he had believed that there was a curse he would not have been able to go on with it, despite asking for an exorcism and having priests standing by during postproduction voice recordings. In the same writing, Friedkin shares that Fr. Bowdern had written to Blatty saying, “I can assure you of one thing: The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then, and have no doubts about it now”. He also claims that Fr. Henle had felt that Blatty’s writing was a faithful, but fictionalized account of the 1949 case Fr. Browdern had participated in. Given his inclusion of the letter that wasn’t even addressed to him, is difficult to believe that Friedkin was completely divorced from the idea that the film was cursed or under some sort of supernatural black cloud, even as he talks about the good he feels the film did in confronting evil and bringing matters of faith to the mainstream.
The end result of all of this is a film that produced visuals years ahead of its time. Audiences had never seen a film where so much attention to detail and innovation had been put into what ended up on screen. Regan’s levitation was accomplished with a trick the director of photography had learned in advertising – if you paint dotted lines on the strings holding her and light the scene just right, the lines become invisible. Without the experience of seeing hundreds of films using CGI to create illusions, film goers of the seventies saw a girl rise up from the bed and float in midair, without any evidence of the device allowing it to happen apparent on screen. When the bed shook, jumped, or bucked like an untamed horse, it required the use of four different mechanized beds. Even the scene where Father Karras jumps out of the window and to his death, tumbling down those infamous stairs, a stunt man had to do just that.
In addition to that, we have the unsettling visual of Regan MacNeil’s demonic, gashed, bleeding and cracking face, the result of hours in the make up chair each day, but not so overwhelming that the audience cannot see the young, innocent girl beneath the demonic thing inside of her. Audiences were faced with the kind of vulgarity that was not commonplace in films of the time at all, let alone from the mouth of a twelve-year-old girl. Friedkin admits that casting Regan proved incredibly troublesome, as he needed a young actress that could portray innocence as well as possession, and could also deal with the subject matter and the possible results of portraying the character. Blair won the part after he had auditioned thousands of girls to no avail, and her mother brought her to his office without an appointment.
To hear Linda Blair tell it, she “simply did as she was told”, and in many cases had no idea what the things she did and said meant. Friedkin recalls the masturbation scene, telling her she had to thrust the cross into her crotch, and Blair responding that she wouldn't do that because it was “bad”. He had to coax her into it, and even then Blair says she didn’t really understand what she was doing, she just thrust the cross into a box between her legs that held a sponge soaked in Karo syrup, without fully understanding the vulgarity. Further, she says that her Lutheran family didn’t speak much of the Devil or evil, and thus she didn’t understand much of what she was portraying. As an adult, she says her mother told her “To play Jesus or to play the Devil will change your life forever”. She recalls having to explain to people that she was okay, that the film was just a film, and she had not been affected in any significant way by portraying Regan MacNeil.
Part of the reason The Exorcist lives on in several rereleases, documentaries, interviews, and books is because the themes are universal. One cannot put a date stamp on the fear that results from not being able to find a logical answer to a terrifying problem. There will always be things we cannot explain, things we cannot put a name to, things that get under our skin and cause us to doubt what we believe. Whether this doubt is doubt in a particular god or religion, or it is doubt of the institutions we have grown to trust in our modern world – hospitals, psychiatry, scientific research—it still arises for everyone at one time or another. So long as religion asks for blind faith, and so long as science leaves some questions unanswered, people will face disappointment in both. The story of Regan MacNeil put the audience face to face with that reality and forces us to ask ourselves how we would respond to an unanswered question with such high stakes.
Poor special effects have dated and made irrelevant many films. In refusing to take the easy route, Friedkin insured that the effects seen in The Exorcist will never be distracting. The realism of the film itself, when paired with the realism of the characters, and the questions of faith and logic, make this a timeless tale. It’s a film I watch at least once a year leading up to Halloween and it never fails to entertain me. It has aged well thanks to Friedkin’s obsessive directing style that took the film almost three times over budget, leaving the viewer unable to laugh off the more intense parts of the film because of dated effects. Though Blatty and Friedkin will disagree, I think it is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and deserves both the hype it drummed up in the seventies and the continued interest in the film and the work done to make it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the book is, in fact, better than the movie. Some things are harder to communicate on celluloid, and Friedkin and Blatty worked hard (and argued often) about what would be included and what would be cut. We cannot get inside Father Karras’s head as he does everything he can to convince himself that Regan is suffering from a psychosomatic illness, or be drawn by his interior arguments that keep leading him to possession as the only answer. The friendship between Father Dyer and Father Karras is likewise explored more deeply in the novel, giving Karras’s sacrifice a more intense sting. The feeling of dread, the feeling of evil, and feeling of logic being stripped away little by little as things escalate are captured in the film brilliantly, but they will overcome the reader of the novel.
Great essay. Thanks for reprinting this!
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