45 years ago The Exorcist premiered amidst hype, criticism, and controversy. Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, the film went on to become infamous in the horror community and in religious circles for its daunting themes and startling visuals that jangled the nerves and left audiences shaken.
I haven’t come across a film in recent years that hits me the way The Exorcist did the first time I watched it at age 8 or 9. I remember staying up long after my parents had fallen asleep to catch a late night showing on television. The opening sequence with Father Merrin on an archaeological dig in Iraq was a slow start leading to things I couldn’t comprehend at the time. I was scared by the sounds, particularly by the voice of the demon, and wanted to run into my parents’ room for comfort but knew I’d get in trouble. As I got older and explored the movie more in depth, I became fascinated with the imagery, the psychological impact on viewers, and it helped plant the seeds for my love of backstage film stories. The Exorcist’s production was rife with rumors, a supposed curse, and drama.
In 1949, while attending Georgetown University, William Peter Blatty heard the story of a family in a nearby suburb who had allegedly been under attack by demonic forces. Over the course of about three months, a 14 year old boy underwent a form of illness after experimenting with an Ouija board. The boy exhibited a change in personality, welts and lettering appeared on his body, and there was also alleged poltergeist activity in the home. He underwent 20-30 exorcisms by a Catholic exorcist before being declared free of demonic influence.
The story stuck with Blatty once he left Georgetown University and pursued a career in screenwriting. He began working exclusively in comedy on such films as A Shot in the Dark (1963) and The Man from the Diners’ Club (1964). However, it wasn’t long before comedy writing dried up and Blatty was on the hunt for something new. He wanted to work in a different medium from film, choosing to write a novel. In Blatty’s own words, “I had nothing better to do and I might prove that I can write respectably in another medium.” The thought of writing something serious and dramatic intimidated him, but he was determined to take the story of the boy from 1949 and weave it into something worth reading. He had no idea what that novel would become or what it would lead to.
When I was growing up, I happened to find a copy of this novel in a used book store and secreted it away to read later. I was only about 13 and when I read that novel the hair on the back of my neck stood up and it actually scared me, no small feat even then. This wasn’t a story about a movie monster or some relatively benign antagonist; it was a story set on a real street in a real town and the people were so ordinary they could be your neighbors. Regan’s possession almost seemed like a dirty secret that needed to be kept to salvage some vestige of sanity. A self-described Atheist is forced to confront something she doesn’t believe in a last ditch effort to save her daughter and keep her from being institutionalized. There were scenes, such as when the doctor hypnotizes Regan, that gave me chills. I could almost feel the room getting colder and see the changes on Regan’s face as the demon surfaced. I will never forget the experience of poring over those pages, getting more disturbed and frightened as time slipped by,unable to stop myself from continuing; little did I know that the book had done the same to millions of readers just 20 years earlier.
The Road to Film
After Blatty’s novel had sat on best sellers lists for more than a year, he toyed with the idea of turning it into a film. Blatty consulted one of his former teachers, Father Tom Bermingham, about writing a screenplay. They discussed the story for about a year before Blatty even started writing. Fr. Bermingham acted as consultant and technical advisor for the film under the condition that Blatty didn’t let it turn into another Rosemary’s Baby and that he took it seriously. Fr. Bermingham wanted something that would “really confront the awesome power of the evil in God’s world.” Blatty wrote his screenplay, which was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood. Blatty wanted a director that wasn’t a Catholic and was an Agnostic on the subject; it was with great hesitance that Warner Bros. let William Friedkin direct the movie. At one point, director Stanley Kubrick was approached to take on the project but refused because he preferred to develop his own projects. However, Blatty was happy with Friedkin because he felt Friedkin could bring a sense of documentary reality to the film that could make it work. In truth, to present The Exorcist as anything but reality could have been devastating to the filmmakers.
During one of their early discussions, Blatty presented Friedkin with his screenplay. Friedkin thought it wasn’t very good. Friedkin felt the film was “overwrought, filled with a lot of symbolism…it wasn’t the novel.” Blatty, in his naiveté about serious films, thought that he had to condense the first third of the novel in order to present it faithfully on screen. I honestly wish I could get my hands on Blatty’s original screenplay to see how far removed it was from the novel. Friedkin, after reading through the script, took his copy of The Exorcist novel and picked passages he thought they could put up on the big screen. Friedkin and Blatty went through the book together, page by page, discussing how to put the movie together. They avoided some of the slower moments in the novel but still did a faithful adaptation that actually felt complete. All too often film adaptations are hollow copies of the source material that leave readers annoyed, but Friedkin definitely steered the film in the right direction.
A Cast Given by Fate
Director William Friedkin has often stated during interviews that the cast came together in a way that seemed preordained. For the role of Chris, Warner Bros. wanted Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, or Audrey Hepburn. Ellen Burstyn called him up one day and said that she felt like she was meant to play Chris MacNeil. After meeting with Burstyn, Friedkin lobbied for her but was turned down flat by Warner Bros; Burstyn had done well in supporting roles but hadn’t had the chance to step out in a lead role yet. However, Burstyn ended up being the last actress standing since Bancroft was pregnant and couldn’t film for a year, Hepburn wanted to film in Italy, and Fonda was in the middle of her anti-Vietnam War phase and called the movie a “piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit.” Friedkin has cited Burstyn’s intelligence as a deciding factor, something he does highly value in his actors, but I think it had something to do with the fact that she looked like anyone off the street and wasn’t a huge star.
When thinking about who should play Father Lankester Merrin, Friedkin had envisioned the French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. When Friedkin saw de Chardin’s picture, he saw Max von Sydow; they do look remarkably similar. At the time, Friedkin was unaware that von Sydow was actually much younger than most of the roles he had portrayed up to that point. He wasn’t a stranger to long hours in a makeup chair and was practically a guaranteed performance. The 44-year old actor spent four hours in the makeup chair to look like the 80-something Father Merrin. This later caused him problems finding work because studios thought he was much older!
In the part of the troubled priest, Father Damien Karras, Friedkin set his sights on Jason Miller. Miller was a playwright who had never acted, but had written a Pulitzer Prize winning play called That Championship Season. Miller had attended Catholic University but dropped out in his third year after a crisis of faith which mirrored that of Damien Karras. Their first meeting didn’t impress Friedkin, but he kept Miller in his mind as the studio hired another actor. After reading the book, Miller called Friedkin and told him that Karras was him and the role was meant to be his. Friedkin was convinced following a screen test and the other actor was let go.
For the titular role of Regan MacNeil, hundreds of girls read for the part, but none seemed to have what Friedkin and Blatty were looking for. They were looking for a 12 or 13 year old girl with the mental stability to handle what they were asking, both on screen and off. The talent agency that represented Linda Blair had sent several other actresses to audition, but not Blair. At the time, Blair had done several commercials and was a print model. Her mother brought her in on her own and had the girl audition. Friedkin asked her if she knew what the movie about and if she had read the book. Blair’s frank answers assured Friedkin that he had found the right little girl for the part.
After fighting with the studio for the cast he wanted, Warner Bros. finally gave in since there were no big names involved. I think Friedkin’s desire to cast relatively unknown actors worked to the benefit of the film. There was no real hype surrounding the actors and no Hollywood egos involved. With the cast finalized, filming began in August of 1972.
One of the things I’ve always loved about older movies is the use of practical effects, whether they are simple makeup and prosthetics or rigs built to accomplish certain effects. The Exorcist isn’t often thought of as an effects-heavy film but in 1974, before the advent of digital effects and CGI, it took a great deal of ingenuity to bring home the visuals of this film.
A number of off-putting things occurred in the film, such as the masturbation via crucifix. They’re shocking for obvious reasons and audiences were appalled. Some wondered how the filmmakers were allowed to keep such a scene in at all. Apparently, it has to do with the fact that the hand and legs seen were those of Blair’s double, Eileen Dietz. The vomit scene with Father Karras was achieved using Eileen Dietz, as well. Makeup artist Dick Smith created the rig used to achieve the vomit effect. Flat plastic tubing was formed to fit Dietz’s face and tubes were run behind her head and down the back of the bed. The take that made it into the film, where Karras is hit full in the face, was a mistake. Jason Miller (Karras) was pissed and it showed up very clearly on film. Special effects artist Marcel Vercoutere felt that his fake vomit (which was actually a porridge mixture) was getting a little cold while the lighting was finalized, so he raised the trajectory a little bit and applied more pressure when Friedkin called action. Miller had been told he would get hit in the chest, so his reaction was true anger and disgust.
Linda Blair has joked in interviews over the years of hating the cold ever since the scenes filmed in the refrigerated set. Chilled to a numbing -30 to -40 below zero, the young actress performed her scenes in a thin nightgown while the director and crew were wearing parkas; even actors Max von Sydow (Fr. Merrin) and Jason Miller (Fr. Karras) were given coats. By all accounts, she was a trooper during the month it took to shoot the full exorcism scene.
My favorite story from behind-the-scenes is one told by Dick Smith. After he had created the doll, with the help of Marcel Vercoutere creating the internal mechanics, they placed the life-sized head spinning Reagan doll in the front seat of a car and drove around. The doll was made in a way that the head would wobble a little and looked very realistic in the passenger seat. They’d give passersby a start by giving the head a spin and sending the poor people running.
When creating the voice of the demon, the sound crew initially processed Linda Blair’s voice to deepen it and make it sound masculine and guttural. Unfortunately, William Friedkin didn’t want that kind of stereotypical masculine sound, nor did he want a feminine sound. The head of the sound department, Chris Newman, was crushed when Friedkin didn’t like Blair’s processed voice because it had taken roughly 150 hours to complete. He and Friedkin sat down to discuss what Friedkin really wanted for the voice. Friedkin showed Newman the Hieronymus Bosch painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights. In the painting are dozens of figures; Friedkin stated he wanted his demon to sound like a chorus of voices, the vocal equivalent of the painting.
While Newman mulled over how to deliver what Friedkin wanted, Friedkin went on the hunt for a voice that sounded neither masculine or feminine and eventually found Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge was a radio and film actress who gave up her sobriety to perform the voice of Friedkin’s demon. She reportedly swallowed raw eggs; chain smoked, and drank alcohol to make her voice rougher. She delivered the lines to chilling effect. During the film, her voice was mixed with that of screaming pigs and other animals to create Reagan’s screams.
The sound design was something I hadn’t encountered before. There were moments of complete silence and others of such an assault of sound that it nearly gave me a headache. A prime example is exhibited early on when we see Father Karras dreaming of his mother. The dream ends abruptly with him chasing after his mother and the audience is hit a beat later with Reagan’s piercing scream as she fights a doctor and nurse trying to give her a shot. This juxtaposition was also used visually in scenes that alternated between searing brightness and gloomy darkness, such as Merrin’s dig in Iraq versus the darkness of the subway tunnel where Karras encounters a homeless man. Both gave an overall unsettling quality to the movie that kept me on edge.
A Curse, Lawsuits, Religious Zealots, and Other Madness
Even before The Exorcist hit theaters, there were rumors surrounding the film and some circles felt the film was cursed because the filmmakers dared to tackle the subject of demons and the devil. Evangelist Reverend Billy Graham is on record stating his belief that a demon lived in the celluloid film reels and that they must be destroyed. On the other hand, there were stories that the Archdiocese of New York and even reports from Rome that many priests and religious leaders were pleased with the movie and its presentation of such a serious subject. However, stories from the cast and crew did little to quell rumors of a curse. I think it can be agreed that there was a fair amount of hype building done to increase interest in the film.
Many deaths are associated with the film, which is only natural when a film shoots for nearly a year. Max von Sydow’s brother, Linda Blair’s grandfather, actor Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings), a night watchman, and five others allegedly died over the course of filming. In 1987 Mercedes McCambridge, the voice of the demon, also suffered a family tragedy when her son murdered his wife and two children before taking his own life.
After the film released, Linda Blair and other cast members started receiving death threats from an individual that was never arrested. Warner Bros. hired a team of bodyguards and police to protect Blair for six months. She recalls that the police basically lived at her home for those six months. Blair was also subject to rumors and suspicion because people seemed to have difficulty separating the actress from the role she portrayed.
There were a couple lawsuits filed after The Exorcist premiered. One was filed by Eileen Dietz, Linda Blair’s body double. She claimed that she had portrayed the demon on screen and that Blair was only used during the “normal” scenes. Dietz was mostly used as a lighting stand in, for the part in the crucifix masturbation scene, and as a stand in during the scene when Regan backhands Chris across the room. She was also used during the makeup concept stage (the white faced demon makeup). She was on screen for less than a minute. The other noted lawsuit was filed by a woman who passed out at a screening of the film and broke her jaw. She alleged that subliminal messages caused her injury. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Under “other madness,” I simply have the tale told by the actors that William Friedkin was a bit of a “maniac” on set. He wasn’t above getting physical with his actors to get what he wanted. When the actors didn’t look scared enough, Friedkin would fire off a pistol or a small rifle to shake them up, much to the actors’ displeasure. He also slapped the actor portraying Father Dyer (Father William O’Malley) in order to get a proper emotional response during Karras’ Last Rites. O’Malley was a priest; he wasn’t an actor and didn’t know how to emote.
After the premiere and initial run of The Exorcist, churches saw an increase in parishioners and what amounts to freelance exorcists saw an upswing in the requests for exorcisms. The film seemed to temporarily create a type of mass hysteria that had people jumping at shadows and blaming demons for their problems. When I read this during my research all those years ago, I had a difficult time understanding how people could be affected in such a way- it’s just a movie. Granted, it explores the dichotomy of good and evil in us all, but it’s still just a movie. Now, as an adult and somewhat jaded by years of horror movies and my general indifference toward religion, I see that sometimes people need something to cling to. If it makes an individual feel better to pray and attend the religious establishment of their choice, I’m happy for them.
I’ve seen this movie more times than I care to admit, but something that struck as an adult was how mental illness was handled in the film. Chris MacNeil goes to many doctors about Regan only to be told that her condition is caused by a lesion on the brain, then when the tests are negative, Chris is told that her daughter should be institutionalized. After meeting with Father Karras about an exorcism he recommends that Regan would benefit from at least six months in a psychiatric hospital. Chris’ frustration, anger, and belief that there is a deeper issue that’s being ignored mirror that of people I know. These people are desperately searching for a diagnosis, fighting for someone to listen to them, and give them an answer that’s not, “It’s all in your head.” Blatty and Friedkin inadvertently shined a light on mental illness in the 1970s and it’s heartbreaking that people are still facing the same problems today.
To quote Director William Friedkin, “The Exorcist is a film about the mystery of faith…and it’s a story that can, perhaps, make you question your own values system, even your own sanity because it strongly and realistically tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe, both good and evil.” Along those lines, I would have to agree with Mr. Friedkin. We also agree that you take out of The Exorcist what you bring into it. If you believe that the world is dark and evil, the film reinforces that idea. On the same token, if you believe that there is a good force in the world, that there is hope against evil, then the film will reinforce that for you.
It is this second idea, that there is a positive force at work in our world, which Blatty and Friedkin tried to present to audiences. They weren’t out to bring us another horror film, but wanted to make something meaningful. After finishing the film for the first time I was shaken, but also curious about movies and religion.The Exorcist sent me on a path which led me to be the movie trivia miner I’ve become. This film made me want to dig into the backstory and find its origins. I wanted to know every story the actors had to tell and hear others’ experiences concerning the film. Every movie that has captured my imagination has been subject to rigorous research to find the roots of its creation.
I hope you enjoyed reading this and if you haven’t watched The Exorcist, I urge you to do so. You may find it sparks something in you. If you have any ideas or comments please leave them below or you can find me on Twitter @InsomniacTx where I post movie trivia and updates on other projects.