For this installment, we’re taking a look at the year 1973: the year that brought us Aerosmith’s debut album, Dark Side of the Moon’s US release, the Watergate trials, and one of the most iconic horror films of all time: The Exorcist. Based on the New York Times bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty (published two years earlier) tells the now-classic tale of a mother and her young daughter who is inexplicably possessed by a demon and requires a house-call by our titular hero. The legend surrounding the movie is nearly as involved as the legacy that it left behind; today, we’ll be diving into the history of the horror movie that defined a generation of horror.
Several directors were approached by Warner Brothers to work on the film: Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, John Boorman, even Stanley Kubrick, who initially had wanted to produce it himself (tell me you wouldn’t want to see that!). The studio would eventually hire Mark Rydell to direct, but Blatty pushed for William Friedkin after seeing his work in The French Connection, and Warner conceded. With the director chosen, the studio then turned to casting choices.
The casting of The Exorcist was largely of no-name actors and actresses; Jason Miller (who had never acted in a film before; Friedkin spotted him in a Broadway production) beat out Stacy Keach (now known for his role as white supremacist leader Cameron Alexander in American History X) for the role of Father Karras; Linda Blair (whose mother took her herself to audition for the part) got the part of Regan over Pamelyn Ferdin (a classic sci-fi actress), Denise Nickerson (Violet in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory) and Anissa Jones (Buffy in Family Affair). These choices were intentional on the part of Friedkin, who wanted the movie to be artistically pure and untainted by star magnetism; he famously turned down Marlon Brando as Father Merrin because he feared that it would become “a Brando movie.”
It is also important to note Mercedes McCambridge’s role in The Exorcist as the demonic voice of “Pazuzu,” who possesses Regan in the film. Initially uncredited, McCambridge went to great lengths to achieve the voice she wanted: she would swallow raw eggs, chain smoke to alter her vocalizations, and drink whiskey as she knew alcohol would distort her voice even more and create the crazed state of mind of the character (McCambridge had a history of alcohol abuse at the time of filming; she insisted that her priest be present to counsel her during the recording process). At Friedkin‘s direction, McCambridge was also bound to a chair at her neck, arms, wrists, legs and feet to get a more realistic sound of the demon struggling against its restraints. McCambridge would later recall the experience as one of horrific rage, and Friedkin admitted that her performance (as well as the extremes which the actress put herself through to gain authenticity) terrifies him to this day.
This attitude of maintaining the artistic integrity of the film is ultimately what would lead to the film’s success, both in terms of its acting and pacing. However, that isn’t to say that it was an easy-breezy shoot for those involved. Many of the actors and actresses revealed that many of their on-screen reactions were genuine. The infamous projectile vomit scene, for example, had Jason Miller believing that the pea soup (Andersen’s brand, not Campbell’s; apparently the “effect” was better) would hit his chest, where in reality it hits him square in the face; his look of disgust is real. Similarly, there were numerous instances of Friedkin instilling “authentic” reactions out of various actors, which included slapping William O’Malley prior to shooting (causing his hand to tremble during a blessing scene) and firing a real gun near Jason Miller’s ear to get a “shocked” reaction out of him.
But none of these examples can compare to the “refrigerated” bedroom set, which was specifically built with four air conditioners to drop the temperature to well below 30 degrees; supposedly, the perspiration would freeze on the actors mid-shot in this condition. The room was built so that you could see the actor’s breath during the last act of the film; it was so cold that it actually traumatized Linda Blair, whose costuming was only a thin nightgown. Still, the on-screen effect is undeniably creepy and adds to the level of insanity of the final act.
Friedkin was insistent on using practical effects wherever he could in the film, both with visual and audio effects. The writing that appears on Regan’s torso, for example, was made possible with a foam replica of Linda Blair’s stomach, writing the words with latex and cleaning fluid, then hitting them with a blowtorch to make them deflate and playing the footage backwards; Dick Smith was responsible for this and many other of the fantastic makeup effects in the film. Many of the audio effects were created by Gonzalo Gavira (Friedkin called on him after seeing his work in El Topo); one of the most memorable sounds in The Exorcist – that of the possessed Regan’s head turning 360 degrees – was created by twisting his old leather wallet back and forth against the microphone.
The music for The Exorcist was also notoriously unconventional; the original score by Lalo Schifrin was outright rejected, having provided a full orchestral score (the exact opposite of what William Friedkin had requested: music that would inspire chills and a feeling of dread in the audience). Reportedly, Friedkin hated the music so much that he yelled for the orchestra to stop playing, removed the reels from the sound desk, and threw the reels into the streets in front of Lalo and his wife. Friedkin would later use snippets of classical pieces, but also the song Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, which would eventually be considered the theme of the movie and would gain the song significant popularity in popular culture.
When released, the film was met with its share of controversy: many theaters experienced patrons fainting or going into hysterics upon viewing the movie. One filmgoer even fainted and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him during the screening, and would later attempt to sue Warner Brothers for their use of “subliminal imagery.”
But perhaps even more notorious were the accusations of Satanism and the occult that the movie attracted, causing many to denounce the film entirely. Christian evangelist Billy Graham even went so far as to assert an actual demon was living in the celluloid reels of the film. Linda Blair received death threats from religious zealots who believed The Exorcist “glorified Satan,” causing Warner Brothers to hire bodyguards to protect her a whole six months after the film’s release.
Surprisingly, however, one of the most disturbing scenes to a majority of viewers was that of Regan having an arteriogram; this is attributed to the fact that the procedure itself looks horrifyingly realistic, the man who played the doctor was an actual neurosurgeon in real life, and Linda Blair’s acting as a young, scared girl undergoing a scary, invasive procedure was entirely too believable.
The hype that The Exorcist garnered would give rise to a number of rumors about the film, the most famous of which was that the set itself was haunted. While never “officially” proven, it is true that there were a number of suspicious incidents that happened on set: the MacNeil’s house mysteriously caught fire, but Regan’s room was untouched; and a total of nine deaths of those during filming, including Linda Blair’s grandfather, Max Von Sydow’s brother, and actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, who both died while the film was in post-production.
Nevertheless (or, partially in consequence of), The Exorcist gained a legacy that could not be denied, becoming the first horror movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (the others since being Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, and Back Swan) while actually winning Best Screenplay and Best Sound. It was one of the first horror movies that broke the mainstream market, becoming one of the top-grossing films of all time. And naturally, the film would also lead to a major rise in possession-based horror, a trend that would include Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror and still continues to this day with such films as The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity, among many, many others.
All in all, the horror world owes much to the Exorcist, not only for what it did to elevate the genre but also what it did to inspire and set the standard for horror in the industry. It combines the best of an uncompromising artistic vision, fantastic and dedicated talent, and a shocking and terrifying story. If you haven’t seen it in a while (or haven’t seen it at all), do yourself a favor and revisit it. You may see something – white-faced demons aside – that you hadn’t seen before.