“Star Wars” often gets credit for introducing the concept of the blockbuster to American cinema. But three and a half years before a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the story of a single mother in Washington, D.C., fighting to save her little girl from the devil created its own cultural phenomenon. People waited in line six or seven hours to see “The Exorcist,” then fainted in the theaters, became physically ill, wept, had to leave.
Reporters camped out in theater lobbies looking for interviews with moviegoers about their experiences; months later, magazines and newspapers were still wrestling with the cultural significance of the film, in an early version of the “think piece.” America dedicated a whole issue to the film and later printed a two-page response by the film’s screenwriter, William Peter Blatty.
“The Exorcist” exposed people around the world to the question of evil in a new and terrifying way.
“The Exorcist” exposed people around the world to the question of evil in a new and terrifying way. It also laid the groundwork for a different kind of horror story, one based in a vision of Christianity as something strange and otherworldly. “There’s always fascination with priests and nuns and this very odd celibate lifestyle we lead,” notes film scholar Richard Blake, S.J., who was on the America staff at the time “The Exorcist” was released. A film like “The Exorcist” suggested to people, “See, there is craziness and occult power going on here,” Blake says.
And it all started in the late 1940s with a poor Lebanese-American kid from Manhattan.
In 1946, William Peter Blatty was a senior at the Jesuit-run Brooklyn Preparatory School. He was the class valedictorian, but had no thoughts of further education. “I was there on scholarship,” he said in interviews later. “College was out of the question as we couldn’t even afford to pay for the books.” In fact, for years he, his four siblings and his single mother had never lived at the same address for more than a couple months. “Eviction was the order of the day,” he told The Washington Post.
But a chance meeting between his mother and a Georgetown University theology professor convinced his mother that Blatty belonged there. Georgetown offered one full scholarship a year to the applicant who scored highest on its seven-hour entrance exam. To his surprise, Blatty won.
In Blatty’s junior year, he read an incredible article about a 14-year-old Maryland boy who had been supposedly “freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil.”
“Those years at Georgetown were probably the best years of my life,” he would later say. “Until then, I’d never had a home.”
In Blatty’s junior year, The Washington Post published an incredible article about a 14-year-old Maryland boy who had been supposedly “freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil.” The piece described objects moving across the room of their own accord, the boy speaking in Latin and shouting obscenities, and neurologists and neighbors admitting to having witnessed uncanny events.
“I wasn’t just impressed: I was excited,” Blatty, who died in 2017, later wrote of reading the Post story. In his 1974 book William Peter Blatty on ‘The Exorcist’ From Novel to Film, he explained, “For here at last, in this city, in my time, was tangible evidence of transcendence. If there were demons, there were angels and probably a God and a life everlasting.”
Twenty years later, following a series of colorful jobs that included vacuum cleaner salesman, head of the policy branch of the U. S. Air Force’s Psychological Warfare Division and public relations director for Loyola University of Los Angeles, Blatty had settled into a successful career as a comic novelist and screenwriter. Groucho Marx had called his 1960 novel Which Way to Mecca, Jack? “that rare thing, these days, a truly funny book.”
But that 1949 story about the possessed child stayed with him. He wanted to turn it into a serious novel, “a supernatural detective story,” but for years neither his agent nor his publisher would consider it. Then a conversation with an interested editor at a New Year’s Eve party gave him his chance.
The story about the possessed child stayed with him. He wanted to turn it into a serious novel, “a supernatural detective story.”
In his book proposal he wrote that the “novel would ask…what effect a confrontation with undisputed paranormal phenomenon would have on the book’s main characters.” Its theme would be “the mystery of goodness”: “in a mechanistic universe, where the atoms that make up a human being should logically be expected, even in the aggregate, to pursue their selfish ends more blindly that the rivers rush out to the seas, how is it there is love in the sense that a God would love and that a man will give his life for another?”
But researching the phenomenon of possession for the novel proved difficult. Much like his character Father Karras, Blatty found most tales of possession inconclusive and overly credulous. The lack of real evidence shook his faith in the project. “I felt that if I couldn’t write the novel with conviction I probably wouldn’t want to write it at all,” he wrote. “A hollow heart cannot excite.”
Then, through his Jesuit connections, Blatty was able to contact one of the exorcists from the 1949 case. The priest had kept a detailed diary of the process of exorcising the boy; while he refused to give it to Blatty out of concern for the privacy of those involved, Blatty somehow got ahold of a copy of it through others. He found it “beyond any doubt, the thoroughly meticulous, reliable—even cautiously understated—eyewitness report of paranormal phenomena.” And the novel proceeded.
The Exorcist came out in 1973 to strong reviews. The only real criticism from the church, Blatty wrote later, “emanated from a Jesuit named Raymond Schroth who assailed me in Commonweal…. [He felt] that The Exorcist fostered belief in Satan, thus prompting a return to ‘the superstitions of the Middle Ages. He suggested I ought to be writing about social action. Perhaps he was right.” (Father Schroth also served for many years as an editor at America.)
But readers did not immediately take to this novel about an 11-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who was possessed by the devil. In fact, on a 26-city book tour, Blatty kept arriving in cities to find bookstores uncomfortable with the content and returning their copies.
What saved the book was another happy accident. Blatty had pre-auditioned to be on “The Dick Cavett Show” weeks before and had been told not to expect an invitation, as “Cavett’s a total nonbeliever and he’ll just wrinkle up his nose at this.” But when a guest had to drop out at the last minute, the show reached out to Blatty. And his comments about whether the devil actually exists enthralled Cavett’s audience.
Two weeks later, Blatty recalled in later interviews, the book was number one on the New York Times best-seller list. It stayed there for four months, and in the top 10 for more than a year. Ultimately it sold more than 13 million copies in the United States alone.
Creating a Nightmare
Even before the novel’s success, Blatty had been in talks about turning the book into a movie. In fact, the character of mother Chris MacNeil, an actress, had been based on Blatty’s friend and neighbor Shirley MacLaine. “She seemed touched by the characterization,” he remembered. “There were even lines of dialogue scattered throughout the novel that she recognized as having said many years ago.”
MacLaine was definitely interested. But when Blatty demanded that he not only write but be a producer on the film, MacLaine’s business partners balked, and she was out. Later Jane Fonda would be offered the role. Fonda reportedly told her agent, “Why would any studio want to make this capitalist ripoff bullshit?” Later she apologized to Blatty and clarified her position: “The reason I don’t want to do it is because I don’t believe in magic.”
Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols were all pursued to direct the film. Blatty wanted William Friedkin.
Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols were all pursued to direct the film. Blatty wanted William Friedkin considered as well, but had no luck until the others passed and Friedkin’s “The French Connection” came out. “The pace! The excitement! The look of documentary realism! These were what ‘The Exorcist’ desperately needed,” Blatty insisted. Warner Brothers agreed.
When a director comes onboard a movie, the one thing you can count on is that he or she is going to make changes in the story. But to Blatty’s great surprise, Friedkin’s main note about his first draft of the film script was that it was not faithful enough to his novel. “Billy wanted the sequences of events to be exactly as they were in the novel,” Blatty wrote in ‘The Exorcist’ From Novel to Film. “Even where the changes I’d made in the dialogue were only slight, Billy would cringe and ask that I keep the dialogue exactly as it had been in the book.”
An insistence on being faithful to your sources came from an even more unexpected quarter: One of the film’s religious advisors, the Rev. John J. Nicola, who Blatty said “opposed both the desecration and masturbation scenes,” nevertheless thought the demon should be more obscene in what it said. “While he never suggested we change what we had,” Blatty wrote, “he did point out that in actual case the language was far beyond what we had.” They adjusted accordingly.
Today most of the special effects in a film like “The Exorcist” would be done digitally in post-production. But in the 1970s that was not an option. A stunt man actually had to fall down the frighteningly steep 97-step Georgetown flight of stairs featured at the end of the film. Regan’s bedroom was built on eight wheels to allow the room to actually shake; it was also kept refrigerated to 30 below zero so that the cameras could pick up the actors’ breath. One morning the crew arrived to find the room had gotten so cold there was a thin layer of snow covering the set.
On set, Friedkin was both god and devil, fighting to get a very challenging shoot completed, but sometimes going to extremes. Regularly and without warning he would shoot off guns to produce startled reactions in the actors. When actress Ellen Burstyn complained that she was getting pulled across the room too hard by special effects supervisor Marcel Vercoutere, Friedkin said he would have it fixed, then instead encouraged Vercoutere to pull her harder. Burstyn flew across the room, then writhed and screamed in actual pain on the floor. That’s the shot used in the film.
Likewise, when Friedkin wasn’t getting enough emotion from William O’Malley, S.J., who plays Karras’ friend Father Dyer, Friedkin slapped O’Malley hard across the face, then immediately ran the scene again. “It was beyond what anyone needs to do to make a movie,” Burstyn said in the 1988 documentary “The Fear of God.” (O’Malley was accused of sexual abuse earlier this year by a former student at McQuaid High School, in Rochester, N.Y.)
“It was a very difficult film,” admitted cinematographer Owen Roizman in the same documentary. “Billy was reaching for the limit, he was committed to it, and he was obsessed by it himself. And that obsession was contagious.”
“It was a very difficult film,” admitted cinematographer Owen Roizman. “Billy was reaching for the limit.”
A certain anxiety proved contagious too. A number of people connected with the film died during production, among them actor Jack McGowan (whose character dies in the film), the night watchman, the person responsible for the set refrigeration, the newborn baby of the assistant cameraman, cast member Max von Sydow’s brother, and cast member Linda Blair’s grandfather. The son of another cast member, Jason Miller, was also hit by a motorcyclist on an empty beach and almost died.
A carpenter lost a thumb, a lightning technician a toe. And one weekend the set for the MacNeil home caught fire when no one was there, shutting the production down for weeks. The only part of the set that didn’t burn was Regan’s bedroom.
Said Vercoutere in “The Fear of God”: “There was definitely a feeling it [something bad] could happen. I felt I was playing around with something I shouldn’t be playing around with.” Friedkin eventually asked technical advisor Thomas Bermingham, S.J., to exorcise the set. Thinking that an exorcism would only increase people’s anxiety, Bermingham came and did a blessing over the entire cast and crew instead.
Through it all, 13-year-old Blair, who played the possessed Regan, impressed everyone with her poise. Though she was raised a Christian, Blair was not troubled by the idea of demonic possession. “In my religion we never discussed the devil,” she explained in “Fear of God.” “So to me it was a fictitious character, like people think of Frankenstein. It wasn’t real to me.”
While she had an adult body double for certain moments, at others, such as when her body is being thrown around on the bed, Blair was herself tied into the rigging creating the effect. At one point the straps began to come loose, causing the rig to hurt her, but because her lines at the time were “Please make it stop,” no one initially understood. (That was the take Friedkin used, of course.)
On Linda Blair: “Her capability at that age of handling what she went through was remarkable.”
“Her capability at that age of handling what she went through was remarkable,” says Vercoutere. Blair would be nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress and win a Golden Globe for the same category.
After the release of “The Exorcist,”Blair began receiving death threats from religious people offended by the film. Warner Brothers had to hire bodyguards to live with her family 24 hours a day for six months. The threats continued off and on for years; at times her parents had to hide her with friends in other states.
Women, Horror, Power
At the film’s first sneak preview, cast and crew were stunned to find viewers screaming and running out of the theater. The production designer, Bill Malley, said, “When it was over, nobody applauded. Everybody just sat there. They still didn’t know what they had seen.”
The response horrified Warner Brothers executives. They decided to release the film slowly, just in a few theaters across the country at first. But every day the enormous interest pushed the film to more screens.
A few months later, the film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including all the major categories. It was the first horror film ever to be nominated for best picture; print ads for the Oscars that year depicted the golden statue with horns and a tail surrounded by fire. “Is Oscar Going to the Devil?” read the caption. The film would win for best adapted screenplay and sound.
Almost 40 years later, it is hard to find a horror film that can match the cinematic power of “The Exorcist.”
Almost 40 years later, it is still hard to find a horror film that can match the cinematic power of “The Exorcist.” In part that is a result of the film’s marriage of shocking supernatural material to an almost documentary-like realism. In precisely the moments where a typical horror film gives you a hundred quick cuts matched to a shriek of instruments, “The Exorcist” offers long takes conducted without scoring. Its cinematography likewise has an artistry much more akin to the great masters of cinema than to standard horror fare. It is a film that takes on big questions and aspires to do much more than shock.
When Blatty was writing the novel he was concerned about his capacity to get Chris’ voice right. “I had always felt inadequate and insecure in my handling of female characterizations,” he admitted years later.
Yet in the film Blatty and Friedkin’s interest in the place of women in American society is clear. Everywhere Chris goes, she is confronted by patriarchal figures—doctors, priests, the detective—who insist they are the ones to figure out what is really going on with Regan, when in fact Chris herself is the only person with any understanding of what is happening. Meanwhile these men dehumanize Regan; she is bled, poked and scanned in ways that are unsettling to watch and bring tears to her eyes.
Blatty and Friedkin’s interest in the place of women in American society is clear.
For a time Chris refuses to accept their answers. The first half of the film shows her challenging the men around her more and more vociferously. She shouts down a room filled with doctors who can’t quite admit they do not know what is going on. Soon thereafter she does the same to Father Karras, demanding “Jesus Christ! Won’t somebody help me? Can’t you help her, just help her?”
Yet for all this, says Jennifer Moorman, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, once Chris finds Father Karras, her role in the film diminishes dramatically: “We do have these presentations of traditional masculine authority—in this case the medical establishment—trying to assert their authority, and her maternal knowledge is more valuable. But ultimately she has to be rescued by this patriarchal authority.”
In fact, Moorman argues, “I think ultimately she’s put in her place. This is about punishing her: Regan is the child of divorce, Chris is a single working mother. And [to save Regan] she has to...become more and more domestic. She fades to the background of the narrative in order for Regan to survive.”
The film is a far cry, one scholar notes, from other horror films of the era: “In the late ’60s and especially the ’70s, you start to see women as survivors in a meaningful way.”
It is a far cry, Moorman notes, from many other horror films of the era. “In the late ’60s and especially the ’70s, you start to see women as survivors in a meaningful way.” Moorman also notes the degree to which Regan’s possession is associated with her adolescent sexuality. “Her face is broken out, she is not acting like herself anymore, there’s that horrible scene of female masturbation. If you look at all the most horrific moments [in the film],” she says, “they’re all sexual, they’re her asserting her sexuality.”
“To me the ‘horrifying thing’ [of the film] is a child coming into her sexuality as a woman. And she has to be cleansed of that in order to be brought back into the normal social order.”
The Reality of Evil
At the end of the day, what keeps “The Exorcist” alive in people’s imaginations are the questions it poses about good and evil and the reality of possession. In the 1960s, Blatty had a hard time finding cases that had the ring of truth about them, but in recent decades the number of exorcisms seems to have increased considerably. The Vatican now has a school for training exorcists. Pope John Paul II asked every diocese to provide an exorcist.
In researching this article I spoke to a practicing exorcist about current practice in what is now often called the “ministry of healing and deliverance.” He agreed to talk about his work but asked that his name and diocese not be used.
In recent decades the number of exorcisms seems to have increased considerably.
The phenomenon of possession, he explains, does not necessarily entail the kind of dramatic things you see in the movies. But it may be more widespread than a film like “The Exorcist” imagines: “I think it’s going on in many people’s lives,” he argues. “If a person has a serious recurring sin, I’m wondering if evil is a part of that somehow.”
Likewise the practice of healing and deliverance today takes a variety of forms; he uses the official rite in less than 5 percent of cases. What’s really essential, he says, is getting to the root of the problem, what he calls “the point of entry.” “They [the possessed] have to be engaged in some kind of activity, normally, that tells the evil one you’re willing to interact with him.
“You can be meeting with someone for months before you’re able to discern how this got involved in their life.”
The priest praises “The Exorcist” for getting the process of evaluation right. “She goes through a very serious medical evaluation, and a very serious psychological evaluation. The church is still doing that.”
“Because the real thing,” this priest explains to me, “is more frightening than the movies.”
At the same time he critiques the film and the Hollywood cottage industry it has spawned for its lack of honest appreciation for the ministry. “These films are rarely done by people who believe. If you write an article about medicine and you don’t believe in medicine, it’s probably not going to come out in a way that’s helpful.” He notes that before Blatty died he apologized for never having seen an exorcism himself. “He saw one later in life, and if I’m not mistaken it scared him really good.”
“Because the real thing,” this priest explains to me, “is more frightening than the movies. When you are in the room and someone is possessed, the hair on the back of your neck stands up. You sense there is something very unnatural present. Sometimes you hear it in the voice, you hear the hate in the voice.
“When you look into people’s eyes and they have no care for life, that’s scary.”
The Elusiveness of Goodness
In the novel, directly before the final confrontation, Father Karras asks Father Merrin what exactly is going on. Why would the devil attack a little girl?
Merrin proposes the target is not really the girl at all. “It is us…the observers…every person in this house. And I think—I think the point is to make us despair, to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love, of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us.”
For Blatty, the question of despair and love lies at the heart of the story.
For Blatty, this question of despair and love lies at the heart of the story. And he saw “The Exorcist” as depicting the triumph of good. Karras overcomes his despair and doubt to sacrifice himself for Regan.
But the exorcist I spoke to saw it differently. The demon, he says, “gets Karras so angry he makes the ultimate mistake, which is to [goad the devil into taking] himself, not her.” I questioned him on this. How can it be wrong to save an innocent girl? The exorcist explained that Karras’ self-assertion is itself a kind of despair, a forgetting of the power of God.
Christopher J. Duffy, S.J., works in administration at Georgetown University. He recalls a strange experience he has had in recent years near the famous stairs where the movie ends: “I was standing on the stairs, about three stairs from the top, looking up at the people I was with, explaining to them the background of the movie,” he says.
“And I noticed there were a couple of people coming up the stairs, and they were walking by me very slowly. The husband of the first couple to come up looked very concerned.
“Finally, he interrupted me. ‘Father, would you mind going up to the top of the staircase and moving in about a yard, so you’re away from being able to fall backward by accident? Because if you did we would just be devastated.’”
Father Duffy was happy to oblige. “I was impressed the movie could have had that much of an effect. But I thought that was just a one-off experience…. It’s happened four other times since then.”
Among the millions who went to see “The Exorcist” when it first came out, just after Christmas in 1973, was my mother.
She went with a friend, both of them young mothers. My mom had also read the book. Still the movie horrified her. “The fact that it was a child that was possessed,” she told me recently, “that that could happen so easily, it was terrifying. It made us both think of what if it happened to one of our children.” She even worried whether being in contact with the film in any way might somehow put her family at risk. “After the movie I went home and threw the book in the garbage,” she tells me, laughing about it now. “I didn’t want it anywhere near the house.”
Having explained what Blatty had in mind with the film, I asked my mother if she would agree that the film is in the end a story of the triumph of love. “Honestly, I don’t really remember the ending,” she tells me, “just everything else: the horror and the sounds, the head turning round, things moving.
“I can still hear the voice of that child,” she says. “Of the devil.”