‘Hauntings,’ the ‘impossible’: ‘The Exorcist’ and what you never knew about the iconic horror film (2024)

It takes a lot to scare kids in 2024.

With all the shiny new tricks of CGI movie technology, it is getting harder and harder to deliver that true spine-chilling internal fear that makes horror films so great.

Gen Z and Gen Alpha kids may arrogantly scoff at retro scary movies, but it hasn’t always been this way.

There was once a time when picture-goers were so viscerally terrified by what they were seeing on the big screen that it would trigger powerful physical reactions right there in the theater.

DuringJaws(1975) people fainted and vomited in the cinema during some of the gruesome scenes, while others stopped going swimming in the ocean altogether out of pure fear.

Alfred Hitchco*ck’s classic filmPsycho(1960) sparked mania during the infamous shower stabbing scene, with reports of people hyperventilating and passing out in their cinema chairs.

However, one of the most horrifying movies to ever hit the big screen, causing widespread panic, fear and repulsion, is William Friedkin’sThe Exorcist(1973).

Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, the film follows the demonic possession of a young girl and her mother’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism by two Catholic priests.

With some wildly disturbing scenes, including some bizarre 360 degree head spinning, eerie spider-walking on the stairs and some disgusting projective lime-green vomit, it shocked those 1970s audiences to their core.

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One particular vulgar scene involving a crucifix — that is too crude to describe here — shocked and upset many, especially considering the percentage of people who were religious back then.

The flick was so scary that even renowned Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert was at a loss for words about how it made him feel.

“I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won’t be one,” he stated.

“Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?”

As disturbing as it was to viewers at the time, it was still insanely popular.

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Eager moviegoers were lining up for days to nab a ticket and were even bribing security guards $110 ($773 in today) to skip to the front of the line.

OneNew York Timesreport from January 1974 reported on the unbelievable impactThe Exorcisthad on audiences – with some allegedly even having heart attacks and one woman suffering a miscarriage due to being so terrified.

“Once inside the theatre, a number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings‐on on the screen,” the article read.

“Others fainted, or left the theatre, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me. One woman even had a miscarriage, he said.”

As truly terrifying as the film was to see, have you ever heard about the even more horrifying happenings behind the scenes ofThe Exorcist?

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Was the film set haunted?

Many claim it was a “cursed” or “haunted” production, with some involved in the film meeting unfortunate fates.

Spooky things occurred on the movie set itself, rendering the entire production even more spine-tingling.

Apparently some staff at the cinema where film had its opening night met with tragedy.

An usher at the theatre fell under a subway train and lost his arm, while the mother of a cashier passed away.

During the making the movie, it has been reported that a whopping nine people died.

A huge fire also shut down production for more than a month and star Ellen Burstyn, who played the mother of possessed Regan, severely injured her back.

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“I’m not a convert to the occult, but after all I’ve seen on this film, I definitely believe in demonic possession,” Director William Friedkin, who died aged 87 in August 2023, told horror magazineCastle of Frankensteinin 1974

“There are things that cannot be treated by medical or psychiatric mean. It seems strange, foreign and impossible, but it exists.

“We were plagued bystrange and sinister thingsfrom the beginning, it is simply the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”

Friedkin said his first brush with “bad karma” during production came when the statue of Pazuzu – the film’s evil spirit – did not arrive in Mosul, Iraq, as planned.

The prop, which was built in and shipped from Burbank, California, mysteriously wound up in Denmark instead.

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“It was lost,” the director said onstage at a 45th anniversary event.

“We couldn’t start shooting in Iraq for three or four weeks.”

A far more treacherous delay happened later on at 20th Century Fox’s then-studio on West 54th Street in New York City, when a fiery blaze enveloped the MacNeil house in the early hours of the morning.

Bizarrely, the incident occurred during the time they were filming the famous exorcism scene.

“The production manager called me at 4am and said, ‘Don’t bother to come to work today,’” Friedkin recalled.

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“I said, ‘why? Am I fired?’.

“He told me ‘no, but the set has just burned to the ground’.”

Even more chilling was that while the fire seemed to destroy the entire house, but the room where they filmed the exorcism was miraculously completely unscathed.

The accident, it turns out, was caused by a pigeon that flew into a light box.

After six weeks of rebuilding, filming resumed.

Actress Ellen Burstynwas whacked in the face by the possessed Regan during one scene, causing her to fall backward.

A stuntman with a wire attached to Bustyn’s waist would then rapidly pull her toward the wall.

The actress, who was 40 during the filming of the movie, recalled being “pushed to the brink” filming this scene over and over again.

After three attempts, Burstyn finally said to the director the he was “pulling too hard, ask him to lighten up” with Friedkin replying that “it has to look real”.

Sadly, she was right.

On the fourth take, the actress landed so hard on her coccyx she yelped in excruciating pain.

Friedkin, Burstyn claimed, seized upon the genuine moment and put the still-rolling camera on her.

“I was furious when he did that, exploiting the pain I was feeling,” she said.

“Since then, I’ve always had trouble with my back.”

While no accidents during the filming of the movie were fatal, a whopping nine people involved or associated with the production died during it.

“There were nine deaths, which is an enormous amount of deaths connected with the film,” she said in a documentary about the film calledThe Fear Of God (1998).

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“Some very directly, like the actor Jack MacGowran, who gets killed in the film, completed shooting and died.”

MacGowran played Burke Dennings, the film director who is killed by Regan. The Irish thespian died of influenza at age 54 during the London flu epidemic.

“The assistant cameraman whose wife had a baby during the shoot — the baby died. The man who refrigerated the set died. The young black nightwatchman died,” she continued.

Vasiliki Maliaros, who played the mother of Father Karras (Jason Miller), also passed away during production in February 1973 at age 89.

Joe Hyams, the movie’s publicist, was extremely unnerved by all the unexpected death happening around him during the filming ofThe Exorcist.

“These weren’t casualties from stunts or things like that. These were men standing behind the camera and all of a sudden dropping dead,” he said.

Subliminal horror

One aspect ofThe Exorcistthat makes it so incredibly creepy is the subliminal imagery throughout the film.

The director did this in order to unsettle viewers.

The sound of bees was used in some early sequences, as this apparently cantrigger an innate fear responsein most people.

While you might not know you feel uncomfortable, your flight-of-fight instinct is screaming that something dangerous is near.

While the buzzing of bees is a primal fear, Friedkin said he also layered in “disturbing industrial sounds” in the background of the demon scenes, creating a subconscious desire to back away from danger.

The most notable subliminal trick however is the infamous “white face” that flashes for just a fraction of a second during Father Karras’ dream about his deceased mother.

The face was never meant to be detected by audiences.

But after the introduction of VHS tapes, viewers were able to pause and see it properly for the first time.

“You couldn’t catch it before VHS,” Friedkin lamented.

“And now you can stop the DVD and stare at it.”

That face is actually the stand-in for Regan, played by Linda Blair.

The makeup was actually the first proposal for the little girl’s demon appearance before the settled on the mutilation motif.

“She had all-white face and red lips,” Friedkin said.

“I didn’t like the makeup for the demon, but viewed as a quick cut, it’s very frightening.”

It has now been over 50 years sinceThe Exorcisthit our screens and many would agree it is still are horrifying as ever over five decades later.

‘Hauntings,’ the ‘impossible’: ‘The Exorcist’ and what you never knew about the iconic horror film (2024)

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