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50 Years Since ‘The Exorcist’ First Terrified America

Sitting at the crossroads of science and faith, the iconic horror story is still scaring audiences

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Noted on many Best Horror Films lists as an iconic masterpiece and trendsetter, The Exorcist celebrates 50 years since its release on December 26, 1973. Emerging at a time when America began questioning the intersection of science and faith, The Exorcist has a revered place in American history for many reasons.

A great story

The Exorcist has persisted because it’s not just a scary movie, but has great resonance with every member of the audience,” Nat Segaloff, author of The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear, told AARP in a phone conversation. Segaloff was the publicist for the movie and a personal friend of the writer and director.

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“There are really four stories going through it. One, a priest who lost his faith and winds up giving the ultimate sacrifice for a girl he’s never met. Secondly, it’s a wonderful detective story about a movie director who’s killed, and a little girl may be the culprit. Thirdly, it’s about an old priest, Father Merrin, who comes face to face with an old enemy. But most importantly, it’s about a mother who will do anything to save her daughter’s life.’’

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Records set

As the first horror movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar — and as the highest-grossing film ever for Warner Brothers at that time — The Exorcist made financial history by signaling to studios that horror motion pictures were a profitable investment. It resulted in two sequels, two prequels, a spin-off and a television series, all attempting to capitalize on its success.

The Exorcist remains the most renowned work of film director William Friedkin, who died in August 2023, leaving behind cinematic gems like The French Connection, for which he won a Best Director Oscar, and To Live and Die in LA.

Written first as a 1971 novel based closely on the details of actual exorcisms performed in 1949 on a teen boy from Maryland, The Exorcist was author William Peter Blatty’s biggest commercial success. It sat on the top of The New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks and remained on the list for over a year, selling more than 13 million copies in the United States alone. Blatty wrote the movie’s screenplay, earning him the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award.

Together, Blatty and Friedkin took the “good versus evil” story beyond America’s imagination to places no movie had ever been before. Blatty, who was raised by a devoutly Catholic single mother, told The Los Angeles Times in 2013 that he was surprised by the audience’s reception of the film.

“When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones. To this day, I have zero recollection of even a moment when I was writing that I was trying to frighten anyone,” he told the newspaper.

Catholicism as hero and culprit

After initial audience screenings, attention to the film exploded around the world. The Exorcist was the earliest Hollywood release that discussed Catholicism so prominently and included it as an integral aspect of both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s actions. Friedkin claimed in a number of interviews that he had the support of many Catholic clerics and paid a priest to stay on set as a consultant for select scenes.

"The cardinal in New York preached about it from the pulpit and said great things about it," Friedkin told Entertainment Weekly in a 2012 interview. "The guy who was the head of the Jesuit order at the time, Father Pedro Arrupe, who was headquartered in Milan, he had his own print of it and would show it to his fellow priests and bishops and cardinals."​​Friedkin added that the church was accepting of the film “because the Roman ritual of exorcism is still in the New Testament."

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While the Catholic Church likely had clergy who disapproved of the film, The New York Times confirmed in early 1974 that the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Division of Film and Broadcasting “rated the film A‐4, which means that, while moral in itself, it could confuse or offend some adult viewers.” The article also reported an uptick in requests across the nation for priests to perform exorcism.

Before the movie, details of ancient exorcism rituals had been kept mostly private within high-ranking Catholic clergy. The concept of satanic possession wasn’t one widely examined in books, TV or film at the time. The Exorcist led the way for an enduring fascination with the subject and fueled numerous cinematic explorations, like The Omen, Amityville Horror and The Conjuring, to name a few.

Yet, as Segaloff points out, The Exorcist remains unique because “how many movies have had priests as heroes?”

A new kind of horror film

In addition to its place in history for educating the public on possession and exorcism, The Exorcist was the first cinematic experience to build tension and fear without numerous jump-scares, unrealistic monsters or fantasy plots. In a new concept for horror films, the director used virtually unknown actors playing characters living a seemingly everyday life, leaving folks to wonder if satanic possession could happen to them. When mother Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn, realized something was wrong with her 12-year-old daughter Regan, played by Oscar-nominated Hollywood newcomer Linda Blair, the audience’s suspension of disbelief was subtly constructed as they watched what any mother would do: She sought a medical explanation from doctors.

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Only when the panel of doctors found no medical cause and began asking about Chris’s faith and her knowledge of exorcism did absolute terror set in. The Exorcist created questions of mortality, love, spirituality and faith. Its refusal to provide nicely packaged answers left unsettled confusion and lingering fear.

The use of a child in such a provocative horror role was another new technique for scary cinema, a choice that intensified the onscreen revulsion. Moviegoers in 1973 had never witnessed anything like demonized Regan’s profanity, blasphemy and violence on screen. Some religious fanatics even threatened Blair’s life, believing she was glorifying Satan through her role.

“It was so controversial, so of course, I am at the very pinnacle of all that, so it all became my fault,” Blair said in a 2016 Oprah Winfrey Network “Where Are They Now?” interview. Even legendary film critic Roger Ebert wondered in his review of the movie why it had been given an R rating, allowing kids under 17 to attend with an adult. To this day, children and their toys are popular horror movie characters.

Tricks without technology​Technology used for special effects in movies was limited when The Exorcist was created. Instead, the director built audience apprehension using creepy music, haunting sounds, a woman drinking alcohol and smoking to create the gravelly voice of the devil and frequent buzzing bee sound effects as background noise. Subliminal images like the terrifying “Pazuzu” demon face were flashed on screen; while it was a first, these cinematographic techniques proved so effective they also continue to this day. ​​According to Segaloff, Friedkin decreed everything would happen in front of the camera without optical illusions. A child’s face gradually morphed – through meticulously applied makeup – into a terrifying caricature of Satan, then spun 360 degrees (using a dummy). To add to the circus, the possessed demon child levitated (on wires), held on to a bed violently attempting to throw her off (using mechanics) and later, projectile vomited green sludge (porridge colored with pea soup). The set of the bedroom was often kept very cold to ensure visible breath condensation from the actors. These effects might be considered low-brow compared with today’s high-tech computer abilities, but in 1973, they were cutting edge, took hours to create on-set and left moviegoers disturbed by how lifelike everything onscreen looked. ​​

Rumors of a ‘curse’​​

A fascination, hyped in the media, remains with what has been called the “curse” of the movie. Even some cast members were affected by this supposed curse. Ellen Burstyn was forced to use crutches for much of the filming and suffered lifelong pain after sustaining a spinal injury in the scene where Pazuzu sent her flying backward across Regan’s room (a hidden harness was pulled too aggressively). Filming began at the same time as the death of Max von Sydow’s (Father Merrin) brother, while Jason Miller’s (young Father Karras) son almost died from being hit by a motorcycle and Miller’s mother died the year the film was released. Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings) died of influenza before the film was released. The set for the family home interior burned down during filming. Actor Paul Bateson, who played a medical technician, was convicted in 1979 of murder.​

Presumably, these strange and sad occurrences added to the fascination with The Exorcist. To this day, film schools continue to study the groundbreaking approaches used all those years ago, leaving The Exorcist to retain its legendary status for 50 years, with no doubt many more to come. "​

Share your experience: Are you a fan of The Exorcist? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

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