To date, The Exorcist is without a doubt the scariest movie I have ever seen. Even for its 1973 release year, it still is one of the only films I have currently vowed to never watch again (I know the saying is “never say never,” but I am committed).
Years ago, I worked at a movie theater. If any of you have ever had the pleasure of working at one, you can attest to it probably being one of the best jobs you’ve ever had—especially as a teenager. For the digitally remastered release of The Exorcist, I happened to still be employed at a cinema. I remember it bringing people in droves. For the first few weekends, it was selling out from open to close. One night, a group of friends and I went to see the remastered version. Now, if you have seen this film, surely you will remember the part where Regan comes down the stairs backwards on all fours and spits out blood? It would have thoroughly scarred me if it hadn’t been for my friend sitting next to me laughing so loud and so hard, all of the people surrounding us laughed too, making it seem much less scary.
Then last year around Halloween, my best friend went to go see The Exorcist at our famous Tampa Theatre. It turned out to also be a meet and greet mixed with a Q&A session with the one and only Linda Blair (Regan herself). As you can surmise, I did not attend this event. She did however tell me all about it. She said Ms. Blair was incredibly sweet and had no idea of the lasting impression this role would have among society so many years later. Ms. Blair said that when she was filming that movie she was just a child and didn’t realize what she was doing would come off as scary. She also said that she was mostly bored around set waiting for her scenes to be shot. Funny, huh?
As Halloween is quickly approaching, let’s see how many more creepy movie facts we can learn. Enjoy!
16 Lots of Different Actors Were Considered for Various Roles
Jack Nicholson was up for the part of Father Karras, before Jason Miller landed the role. This happened to be Jason Miller’s film debut in which he received an Oscar nomination for his role of Father Karras. William Friedkin (director) thought Nicholson was too unholy to ever play the character role of a priest. I’m not really sure why Friedkin had that opinion of Nicholson, but it’s Jack freaking Nicholson.
Moving on, the studio wanted Marlon Brando for the role of Father Merrin. Friedkin vetoed this immediately by stating Brando in the film would make it a Brando movie, instead of the important film he wanted to produce.
Father Dyer (William O'Malley), is an actual priest who until 2012 taught at a Jesuit High School by the name of Fordham Prep.
Producers sought out to have Jamie Lee Curtis audition for the role of Regan MacNeil but her mother Janet Leigh (Psycho, 1960) refused.
Barbra Streisand declined the role of Chris McNeil; Sharon Stone was considered for Regan McNeil; and lastly, the agency representing Linda Blair overlooked her, recommending at least 30 other clients for the part of Regan. Blair’s mother brought her in herself to try out for the role.
15 The Vomiting Scene Required Only One Take
The scene where Regan (Linda Blair) projectile vomits at Father Karras (Jason Miller) only required one take. The vomit was originally intended to hit him on the chest. The plastic tubing that sprayed the vomit accidentally misfired, hitting Miller in the face. His look of shock and disgust while wiping away the vomit is genuine. Miller admitted in an interview that he was very angered by this mistake.
With all of the reading I’ve done, I have noticed that the horror genre gets some pretty high profile flack. For instance, Linda Blair had death threats against her from religious zealots who believed the film “glorified Satan.” Warner Bros. hired bodyguards to protect her for six months after the film’s release.
14 A Contortionist Was Hired for the “Spider Walk” Scene
Linda R. Hager, a contortionist, was hired to perform the famous “spider walk” scene. This filmed on April 11, 1973. Ms. Hager performed the scene by use of a harness and flying wires hung above the staircase used in the set; she would advise Friedkin (director) when she was just barely touching the stairs with her hands and feet maintaining the light touch as she was moved down the staircase by the harness and wires. Friedkin deleted the scene before the film’s December release. He felt it carried “too much” of an effect because it appeared so early in the film. Friedkin later admitted that another reason for omitting the scene was that there was no way to hide the wires from view at the time.
Almost 30 years later, Friedkin had a change of heart and decided to add the scene back for the extended 2000 version, with the wires digitally removed. In the original take, it had Regan sticking out a long, snakelike tongue and trying to grab Sharon (as opposed to the blood).
13 Mercedes McCambridge Went for True Authenticity
I don’t believe the actor Mercedes McCambridge is well known to an audience in terms of her involvement in The Exorcist (at least she wasn’t to me), but she played the voice of the demon for Regan MacNeil’s character. McCambridge insisted on many things to help her reach the true potential for the voice of the demon. She swallowed raw eggs, chain smoked to alter her vocalizations, and, even with a history of alcohol abuse, drank whiskey as she knew alcohol would distort her voice even more and create the crazed state of mind of the character. Since her commitment to this character meant she would be giving up sobriety, she maintained her priest be present to counsel her during the recording process. Let’s pause here for a second. She asked her priest to counsel her as she recorded her emulating the voice of a demon. I don’t know, but that seems blasphemous to me in some way. No?
Friedkin (director) had some of his own ideas to make McCambridge’s performance authentic as well. This included binding her to a chair with pieces of a torn sheet at her feet, legs, wrists, arms, and neck, to get a more realistic noise of the demon struggling against its restraints. Later on, McCambridge recalled the experience as one of "horrific rage", while Friedkin admitted that her performance—as well as the extremes she went through to gain authenticity—terrify him to this day.
12 William Friedkin Missed a Dinner Appointment Due to the Script
Let me clarify. William Friedkin (by now I’m sure you all know he was the director for the film) was supposed to attend a dinner engagement the night he received William Peter Blatty’s screenplay. Out of curiosity, Friedkin started reading the first few pages and ended up missing his engagement completely.
Blatty is the author of the novel by the same name, as well as the screenplay writer for the film.
I know this novel was based on an actual exorcism (we will get to that later), and in my own curiosity, I wonder if at any point whether or not Friedkin or Blatty were scared or superstitious while reading or writing it? For 1973, it was (and still is) a pretty terrifying movie, so I’m sure the script was no less terrifying.
11 Behind the Scenes: “Help Me” on Regan’s Torso
Remember the scene where the words “help me” rise out of Regan’s torso? Well, this effect was achieved by constructing a foam latex replica of Linda Blair’s belly. Special effects wrote the words out with a paint brush and cleaning fluid, then filmed the words as they formed from the chemical reaction. Dick Smith (special effects artist) then heated the forming blisters with a blow dryer, which caused them to deflate.
When the film was run backwards, it looked as though the words were growing out of young Regan’s (Blair) skin in an attempt to summon intervention to help her.
For a lot of these horror flicks I’ve been researching, it is amazing to me how resourceful they were when it came to special effects. I never stop to really think about how much easier technology makes a lot of things these days.
10 The Novel Was Based on an Actual Exorcism
William Peter Blatty (author, screenplay writer) based his novel on a supposed genuine exorcism that happened in 1949, which was performed in both Cottage City, Maryland, and Saint Louis Missouri. Priest William S. Bowdern, who was assisted by Jesuit priest, William Halloran, and later on a third priest, William Van Roo, claimed to have exorcised a demon from a 13-year-old boy named Robbie (other pseudonym used: Roland Doe). This ordeal was said to have lasted a little more than six weeks. These events were also supposedly recorded by an attending professor from St. Louis University by the name of Raymond Bishop, who was the professor initially contacted by Roland/Robbie’s cousin about his strange behavior.
What was seen in the actual film was along the same lines of what was claimed to be observed: bed shaking, aversion to anything sacred, a guttural voice when the boy spoke, flying objects, “evil” and “hell” being scrawled across the teenager’s body. There was no known origin for the claims of this demonic possession, but it was said that his Aunt, who was a spiritualist, introduced Roland/Robbie to the Ouija board. After a number of exorcisms were performed successfully, claims are the boy went on to lead a pretty normal life.
Blatty stumbled across this story and called to interview Father Bowdern as research for his novel.
As a side note: I messed with a Ouija board once in my life—never again. We will leave it at that.
9 Regan and the Crucifix
Eileen Dietz (uncredited as Pazuzu’s face) was used for the shot where Regan belts her mother across the face. Friedkin felt they needed someone physically bigger to perform the stunt. The double was shot from the back. The crucifix scene was also filmed with Dietz, according to an interview with her in the documentary Starz Inside: Fantastic Flesh (2008).
In A Decade Under the Influence (2003), Friedkin talks about what the original poster created by the studio was for the film. It was a drawing of Regan’s hand holding the bloody crucifix that she masturbates with. The original tag line was going to be: “God help this girl.” Friedkin completely rejected the poster, stating the word “God” should not be used in a movie tag line. To be fair, I agree with him on this one.
Just as an FYI, if you thought this scene in the movie was bad, it’s worse in the book. Gorier, much longer, more sexually explicit, with Regan suffering a broken nose, her genitals butchered, and orgasming. You can’t take back what you just read, guys, sorry.
Side note about Dietz’s uncredited portion for the film: Pazuzu is the demon seen, but not named, throughout this movie. This demon is known in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology as the demon that brings famine during the dry seasons and locusts during the rainy seasons.
8 The Set Was Kept at Freezing Temperatures
The bedroom where all of the mental scarring took place was refrigerated and cooled with four air conditioners. Temperatures would plunge below the 30 degree mark, meaning it was so cold, perspiration would freeze instantly on some of the cast and crew. In one instance, the air was completely saturated with moisture resulting in a thin layer of snow falling on the set before the crew arrived to film. The purpose of this was so that Friedkin could capture the icy breath of the actors in the exorcising scenes authentically.
Linda Blair has stated that to this day she cannot stand being cold. Considering she was in nothing but a flimsy nightgown for those particular scenes, I can’t say I blame her.
7 Audrey Hepburn Was First Choice for Chris MacNeil
We all know Audrey Hepburn, correct? She had such hits as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), and Wait Until Dark (1967). Now knowing how wonderfully Hepburn came across on the silver screen, could you imagine her playing a major role in The Exorcist? Not to take away from Ellen Burstyn because she is a brilliant actress, but Hepburn was Friedkin’s first choice for role of Chris MacNeil. Warner Brothers supported him because of her good critical and commercial reputation with the studio. However, Hepburn only agreed to do it if it was filmed in Rome, Italy.
There were other contenders for the role, however, Burstyn landed it.
6 There Was Some Tension Between Friedkin and Blatty
William Friedkin was advised by studio execs to make several cuts to the movie prior to its release, stating some scenes weren’t necessary. Friedkin and Blatty had become friends by this time, so naturally Blatty was offended. Blatty thought the scenes that were cut formed the heart of the movie and even refused to speak to Friedkin for some time. Many years later, having made amends with each other, the movie ended up gaining immense popularity and warranted a re-release. Friedkin agreed to go over some of the deleted scenes and put several of them back in as a favor to Blatty, thus creating a never before seen extended version.
Friedkin has since admitted the extended version is his favorite.
5 A False Wing Was Added to the House
The residence in Georgetown used for the exterior shots in the film had a rather large yard between it and the infamous steps. The window that lead to Regan’s room is at least 40 feet from the top of the steps. This distance would make it practically impossible for anyone “thrown” from the window to realistically land on the steps. In the movie, set decorators added a false wing to the house, which would in fact make Regan’s supposed window close to the infamous steps.
Another tidbit of interest? Friedkin ended up asking technical advisor Thomas Bermingham to exorcise the set. Fearing increased anxiety, he refused. Eventually, Father Bermingham wound up visiting the set, gave a blessing, and talked to the cast and crew for reassurance.
4 Viewers Opinions Differed on the Most Disturbing Scene
At a cast reunion in 1984 on Good Morning America (1975), Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil) told a story of what happened to her when she was shooting another movie in Tucson, Arizona. The Exorcist had opened in that city while she was there, so she went to see it. Burstyn stated that the scene where Regan has her arteriogram was the part where most people fainted (Regan’s first visit to the hospital when she gets an arterial catheter inserted into her neck). After that scene she saw a woman wobbling up the aisle, and followed her. As the woman fainted, Ms. Burstyn was at her aid. When the woman began to come to, Burstyn realized if this woman opened her eyes and saw her, it might have caused the woman to panic. Burstyn’s exact words were that “she might think she was in the Twilight Zone or something.” As such, Burstyn asked another person for assistance help the woman recover.
3 The Sound of Pigs Being Herded Was Used in the Film
When the demon left Regan’s body, the sound used is actually pigs being herded for slaughter (this makes me very sad). This choice for the film alludes to a story in the Bible from the New Testament where Jesus casted out several demons (collectively called Legion) from a man and transferred them into the bodies of pigs. The pigs then rushed down the steep bank into the river and drowned (Matthew 8:28-34), similar to Father Karris dying after accepting the demon.
The “Exorcist steps” at the end of M Street in Georgetown, were padded with ½”-thick rubber to film this death scene of Father Karras.
Fun fact: Georgetown University students charged people around $5 each to watch the stunt from the rooftops. These students sound like my kind of people.
2 Joel Schumacher Tried to Film in a Georgetown School and Was Denied
Back in 1985, when Joel Schumacher (director and writer) was filming St. Elmo's Fire at Georgetown, he attempted to get permission from the Jesuit priest faculty at that school to film there. The Jesuit priest faculty rejected this request. Schumacher disagreed and combatted with the faculty stating: “You let Bill Friedkin film the Exorcist here in 73, and one of the characters in that movie said, ‘Your mother sucks c___ in hell!'” One of the Jesuit priests responded with the following insult: “Yes, but the devil didn't win in their movie”.
Ooo, burn. Get it? Burn? St. Elmo’s Fire. Okay, I’m done.
1 William Peter Blatty Inhabited the Apartment Where Filming Took Place
The apartment on Prospect Avenue where the story takes place was once inhabited by the author himself, William Peter Blatty, while he was just a student at Georgetown University. The house was owned by a Ms. Florence Mahoney and is at the corner of 36th and Prospect (I’m sure you can google maps this location).
During shooting of the exterior scenes, the crew had to build specific sets to allow sunlight in to keep Ms. Mahoney’s garden plants from perishing. I assume this was the price the cast and crew had to pay to film in the house she owned?
Alright folks, thus concludes things to know (if you didn’t already know) about what went on behind the scenes of The Exorcist.