1973’s The Exorcist shines as one of the scariest movies ever made. And what makes the film so scary (to me) is what it is not. It’s not based on some silly “campfire legend” like the characters Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. It’s not based on some highly improbable occurrence, like an alien invasion, nuclear disaster or virus mutation. It’s not based on a gimmick (The Blair Witch Project), nor does it have a “lesson” or “moral” that it hits us over the head with (An American Haunting). It doesn’t involve characters that are either much larger than life or blatant charactures or stereotypes (The Haunting, Thirteen Ghosts, etc.). How many times have you watched a movie like that and picked out the “order of death” – “OK, there’s the black guy, he’s absolutely gonna die first… then the stoner guy, then the slut, then the jock… which leaves the pretty (but not too pretty) blonde girl as the lone survivor!”
No, The Exorcist is scary because it goes deep within our collective psyche. It’s a primal fear that yes, after all, The Church might have been right. Because after all, how can you believe in the Devil if you don’t believe in God? The family in The Exorcist was mostly just like us. Who chose that poor girl to be the battlefield between Good and Evil? Could we be next? And how can you fight an evil that you can’t even see or touch? Fighting Jason Voorhees is one thing… but how do you save your daughter from The Devil?
With today being Halloween, I thought I’d do a quick “Spooky History Blog” about my favorite horror movie. Enjoy!
The Exorcist movie is based on a book of the same name by William Peter Blatty. The heart of Blatty’s book is based on a real-life exorcism that took place in 1949 in both Cottage City, Maryland and Bel-Nor, Missouri. The facts of this “case” are actually pretty interesting: the boy in question – given the pseudonym “Robbie” – was taken to several doctors, all of whom were stumped by Robbie’s case. When science had no answers, the family called in their Lutheran priest, who examined the boy and suggested that the family contact a Catholic priest for possible exorcism. While medical knowledge has grown exponentially in the past sixty years, it’s not as if 1949 was the “Dark Ages” as far as medicine was concerned. Modern doctors suspect that “Robbie” was suffering from some form of epilepsy, yet doctors at the time thought he did not suffer from the disease. Most interestingly, “Robbie” is still alive and has never displayed any symptoms of epilepsy since his exorcism.
Once the book was published – and it was a bestseller, by the way – it didn’t take long for Hollywood to jump on the bandwagon. The main problem that Hollywood faced making the film was getting someone to direct it. Warner Brothers initially wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct the film, but he turned it down. The studio then approached Arthur Penn (who refused, as he was teaching at Yale at the time), Peter Bogdanovich (who wanted to pursue other projects), Mike Nichols (who didn’t want to shoot a film dependent on a child’s performance), and John Boorman (who thought that it was “cruel towards children”). The up-and-coming director William Friedkin, who had just made a splash with The French Connection in 1971, was finally chosen to direct.
Warner had no idea of what they were getting into when they hired him. Friedkin kept lots of guns loaded with blanks on the set, and he would either fire them at random to keep tension on the set high, or would fire them when the script called for the actors to look startled. So the look of panic you see on the actor’s faces is very real. As is the look on Father Dyer’s face when administering last rites to Father Karris. Friedkin had shot the scene several times and wasn’t satisfied with the results; he then approached the actor that played Father Dyer (real-life priest William O’Malley) and asked O’Malley if he trusted him. When Father O’Malley said yes, Friedkin slapped him across the face as hard as he could, then yelled “Action!”. So the confused look of Father Dyer’s face is also very real. Also real is the breath leaving the actors’ mouths during the exorcism scenes; Friedkin had the set enclosed and brought in four industrial-strength air conditioners, which brought temperatures on the set to between -30 and -40F (let’s just call it -37C). The set was so cold that perspiration would freeze on the cast and crew, and on at least one occasion the air was so saturated with moisture that snow fell on the set, inside a sealed sound stage before filming could begin. Linda Blair – who had to suffer this whilst wearing only a flimsy nightgown – says that she hates being cold to this day, and blames it on this part of the filming. She also blames filming for the chronic back pain she suffers as a result of being violently yanked by crew members whilst she was wearing a harness. Ellen Burstyn also injured her back, and frequently mentions that her scream and facial reaction (after being slapped by Regan) were from genuine pain due to being pulled too hard by a harness.
And let’s not forget those special effects! Friedkin didn’t think that little Linda Blair could hit Ellen Burstyn hard enough, so an adult body double was used for the actual hit. So poor Ellen was not only yanked by a harness, she was actually hit in the face! And the sounds… remember the sound of Regan’s head twisting around? That was actually the sound of a crew member’s ancient leather wallet being twisted in front of a microphone. And the sound of the demon leaving Regan’s body? A recording of pigs being led to slaughter. The “pea soup” was, in fact, pea soup… but it wasn’t Campbell’s (the SFX guys found that brand to be too thin). Blair hated vegetables at the time, and the pea soup actually made her throw up! And then there was Mercedes McCambridge, the woman that actually did the “demon voice” for the film. McCambridge reportedly drank raw eggs, whiskey and any number of things – as well as chain smoked and deprived herself of sleep – to get the creepy voice for the movie. Her role was initially completely uncredited, so she sued Warner Brothers to get her name in the credits; this cast a shadow over the Academy Awards, where Linda Blair was nominated for “Best Supporting Actress”. Blair’s name couldn’t be withdrawn once nominated, so the controversy effectively torpedoed Blair’s chances.
All in all, the sheer amount of physical effort put into the film is astounding. Take the scene where the exorcist approaches the MacNeil’s house (the same shot is used in the film’s movie poster). Friedkin wanted the spotlight to originate from one of the windows, yet that window had to appear as a normal window – in other words, Friedkin wanted a bunch of light to come from point A, but he didn’t want it to appear as if the light came from point A. It took the crew several days to figure out how to do the shot, then it took 24 hours just to physically set up the lights for the effect. That’s dedication, and that’s probably the reason that filming in the United States took 224 days instead of the 85 days originally scheduled. And the last scenes of the film – shot on location at the actual archaeological dig at Nineveh in Hatra, Iraq – required the use of a British crew, as the United States didn’t have diplomatic relations with Iraq at the time. Amusingly, the crew were only allowed to film if they taught Iraqi filmmakers some advanced film techniques… as well as how to make fake blood!
There were also some… dark things that supposedly happened during the making of the film. Nine people connected with the film allegedly died during filming (false, although two of the actors – Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros did, in fact die. MacGowran died as a result of complications from the flu, and Maliaros died of natural causes at age 89). A fire allegedly destroyed one of the sets (false, although a small fire *did* damage one of the sets). Friedkin reportedly was so despondent at one point during the filming that he allegedly asked technical advisor Rev. Thomas Bermingham to exorcise the set (almost certainly false, although Bermingham did, in fact, bless the set, cast and crew).
The real hysteria didn’t take off until the film was released. Filmgoers screamed, fainted and occasionally threw up. In fact, people threw up often enough that many theatres began offering “Exorcist barf bags” free of charge. Paramedics were often called to theaters showing the film. One moviegoer who saw the film during its original release fainted and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him; he then sued Warner Brothers and the filmmakers, claiming that the use of subliminal imagery in the film had caused him to pass out. The film was banned in several cities in the UK ; this led some enterprising travel companies to organize “Exorcist Coach Trips” to take groups to the nearest town where the film was showing!
Here’s some more Exorcist trivia that I couldn’t figure out how to work in to my story:
The scenes showing Father Karras in his room at Georgetown were filmed on the fourth floor of Hughes Hall, Fordham University’s freshman residence. Since there was no elevator at the time, the windows had to be removed in order to accommodate the crane camera. Each year, Father William O’Malley – who still teaches at Fordam – talks about his experience with the movie after students watch it on the same floor where it was filmed.
The language lab scene was filmed in a room in the basement of Keating Hall on Fordham University’s Bronx campus. The same room was used as a Pentagon office in Russell Crowe’s A Beautiful Mind. In the scene, a white banner is visible with the letters TASUKETE written in red, which means “Help me” in Japanese.
Not only was it difficult in finding a director for the film, it was hard finding a lead actress too: Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine were both asked to play the role, but both turned it down. Audrey Hepburn was also approached, but only agreed to do it if it was filmed in Rome. Anne Bancroft was yet another choice but she was in her first month of pregnancy and was dropped.
The “Exorcist steps”, the 75 stone steps at the end of M Street in Georgetown, were padded with 1/2″-thick rubber to film the death of Father Karras. The stuntman tumbled down the stairs twice. Georgetown University students charged people around $5 each to watch the stunt from the rooftops.
After filming was complete, William Friedkin did post-production at a company whose address was 666 Fifth Avenue, NYC.
If adjusted for inflation, this would be the top grossing R-rated film of all time.