The Exorcist: Horror Filmmaking and Filmmaking Horror
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
*TW: This article displays graphic images of blood and assault-like vaginal injury.
Happy #FilmFriday! Ya know, horror films are a big part of my life. They inspired me to get passed my fears and also inspired me to tell stories. The Exorcist is one of those films that captivated me for the very beginning. From the moment I saw the poster, I knew I was in for a wild ride.
And apparently, I wasn’t the only one. But why is The Exorcist our film of the week? Well, they had a hell of a time making it…
Edited By Emily Laird
The year is 1973, and the world is rocked with the release of The Exorcist, a horror film that was led with anticipation from horror fans across the nation. Before there was any movie, there was the novel. Written by William Peter Blatty, who subsequently produced the film, The Exorcist novel became a bestseller. To some reviewers, the novel highly surpasses the film due to its depth and ability to go into more detail, which is something that could have strengthened the screenplay for the film adaptation. Reviewers, however, still note what the writer was able to bring into the screenplay that ultimately made it comparable to the novel’s bestseller title:
"Blatty shows his knowledge of psychology along the way, in the development of each character and in the techniques used to determine what could possibly be wrong with this child. Beyond just being a classic, this is one of those near-perfect [stories] that is guaranteed to keep you awake.” (#1)
Many of the aspects in Blatty’s novel are said to have come from accounts of an actual exorcism in 1949. In an article posted by The Washington Post, accounts of the last actual exorcism described it as a 27-page ritual, but also reportedly had 20 to 30 attempts and performances of this ritual, lasting over two months. On the front page “Boy ‘Freed… Possession by the Devil’” covered the front page.
Secondary sources and materials culled from journals of priests, describing the exhausting rituals they performed on their subject, only known as Roland Doe, were used to create a lot of the backstory for the novel and consequently, the film. Although Blatty exaggerated many of the details for the novel and film adaptation, where the priests, in reality, described manifestations, voices, and inexpiable moving beds, Blatty and director Friedkin favored projectile bile, spinning heads and striking imagery to better visualize these occurrences. (#2)
But this film had its share of troubles once it was being adapted to film. No one thought the film would do well, there were restrictions and disputes with the MPAA, injuries, fires, months of protest upon release of the film and still, this film triumphed, all due to the work put in by William Peter Blatty, William Friedkin, and their team.
Today I will talk about the journey this film endured while going through production in order to make this film the horror legend it is today. I will also talk about the many roadblocks of the post-production phase of the film and after that, I thought it’d be interesting to also see how horror has changed by examining the new horror films of today.
I also hope to teach myself something about film-making within the horror community and gain insight into what makes a scary movie, a horror legend. Not to mention, it’ll be fun just learning the behind the scene details to one of my favorite horror films.
Watch The Original The Exorcist Trailer Video Courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios
FILM-MAKING TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
Though the novel was a bestseller, the casting process became a more than rigorous undertaking, as it seemed directors and stars alike that had been approached to be part of the film were turning it down left and right. Most director’s rejecting the fact that they’d have to work with a 12-year-old child, as it was a crucial part of the story. A role being rejected sought out by no one. One director approached was Mike Nichols who believe any attempt to work with a 12-year-old girl on a project like this, would lead to failure.
“I’m not going to stake my career and the picture’s success or failure on a twelve-year-old girl!” (#3)
Thankfully, Blatty had always felt that William Friedkin was the right choice from the get-go, much to the studio’s dismay. Once a part of the team the next task was casting. They approached well-known actors such as Stacy Keach to play Father Karras or Audrey Hepburn to play Chris, but ultimately Blatty and Friedkin found it difficult to cast. This idea of this movie flopping was scarier than it’s material apparently. This is what I believe led to their best decision yet.
No one was looking to make this film a reality. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Due to the apparent lack of interest in the film’s screenplay by most of the country’s well-known stars at the time, the creative team decided to go against the grain by casting unknowns, a move adamantly opposed to by the studio execs at Warner Bros. Pictures. Through the team’s defiance though, they were able to cast little-known talents such as Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, and the fan-favorite, Linda Blair.
Burstyn of the bunch actually calling Friedkin to emphatically tell him that she was destined to play the role of Chris! Although Friedkin felt Burstyn had enough experience and knowledge for the role, the studio did not want an inexperienced actress, “who’s never been a lead in anything…” playing this highly important role. Talk about pessimism. Nevertheless, Friedkin continued meeting with Burstyn and since no other actresses were up for the role, Burstyn was approved. (#4)
They found their priest in Jason Miller who Friedkin actually had to loan his copy of the novel to. Originally wanting to use Miller’s background as a catholic with lapsed faith, Friedkin was surprised when Miller called him back. He had read the novel, ready to be Father Karras as he felt their lives were one and the same. He even ignored the fact that the role was already cast to get himself a screen test. A test that inevitably got Friedkin to exclaim that he was wrong about his previous casting, calling Miller “the real deal”.
Their next endeavor was finding an actress who could portray the character of Regan. The actresses considered for the role of Regan were few and far between. The first few only considered for name recognition to the public. The one that comes to mind as a surprise is Violet Beauregarde herself, Denise Nickerson, who couldn’t try for the part due to her parents finding the material “too troubling”. With 600 applicants, up to as many as 30 tried for the role of Regan with no luck. (#5)
The question of whether or not such a young actress, even a talented one, could carry the film on her shoulders was an issue from the beginning. Film directors considered for the project were also concerned for the child actress’s well being, concerned the material may be too heavy for anyone that young, understandably so.
Not only were they worried about the material but Friedkin and Blatty knew the actress would also need to be physically able to handle the grueling hours in the makeup chair and during the production. But Friedkin was about to get a surprise. Friedkin actually met Linda Blair after her mother brought her in to audition for Friedkin, without having an appointment, due to her representation completely keeping her and her mother out of the loop. Talk about a rock star mom. After meeting with Linda and getting a sense of her maturity, he asked if she knew what The Exorcist was about; she told him she had read the book.
"It's about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and does a whole bunch of bad things." Friedkin then asked her what sort of bad things she meant. "She pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she hits her mother across the face and she masturbates with a crucifix.” (#3).
With casting done they believed that it would be smooth sailing from there, as they had their template for the story in the novel. But the casting was not the only issue this movie has had to endure in order to get to where it is now.
You know what’s ironic; a movie about demonic possession being halted in production due to a fire. Sorry, multiple fires. During principal photography, there were said to have been multiple fires on set that even caused some lifelong injuries to both Blair and Burstyn. Yikes.
What’s strange, however, is that the only room that wasn’t burned down was Regan's “demonic” bedroom, leaving many to believe there was a curse on the set. In reality, Friedkin wanted to be able to see the character’s breath in the film whenever in Regan’s presence so they had turned her room into what was essentially an icebox. An ingenious design idea to motivate classic Catholic depictions of hell’s deepest layer.
These fires were so random and frightening that a priest was eventually called to bless the set in hopes of putting the cast and crew at ease, later only to realize that the winged creature that caused the fire was a pigeon who got a little too close to the circuit box. Maybe he wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the action.
As if a literal fire wasn’t bad enough, the film suffered multiple setbacks, taking twice as long to finish which then ultimately caused the production’s budget to balloon and almost double in size. What with all the coincidental deaths and frequent unexplained set disturbances and injuries.
One story recounts how production was delayed due to onset injury when Burstyn’s stuntman pulled on her wire rig harder than expected, which caused Burstyn to severely hurt her back when she hit the floor. If you listen closely, you can hear her scream in the film, it made the final cut, but with permanent spinal injury to Burstyn. Talk about commitment to the craft. (#7)
These injuries and random occurrences caused the project’s timeline to more than double from an 85-day preliminary production schedule, to more than a year until the film was fully shot. But they did eventually get it done. Which means it’s off to the editing stage and then distribution to theaters! Just one small hiccup.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating board.
THE MPAA DOESN’T PLAY
This portion of the article contains graphic images of blood and assault like vaginal injury
It’s said that the original cut of the film had some issues going through the distribution process, one of which was the newly instated MPAA, which casts a rating on all films being distributed for theatrical release. More than a third of the film had to be re-edited in some way after the MPAA cast a rating of X to the film, meaning no minors could be admitted putting up to a third of the movie up for a recut. The main fear being how it could traumatize children if they were admitted.
This really put a roadblock on its release considering they wanted to showcase it to the world and no theater or news publication would ever try to advertise an X rated film. Many people were confused over this association, so through their own “detective work” Friedkin was able to find out that the scene in question was really the dreaded crucifixion scene. A scene Friedkin expressed as a highly important element to the story of this young girl’s possession. So much so, that he had actually spoken to Linda Blair about the scene well before the casting choice to see whether she could handle the material.
Perhaps most telling are Friedkin’s comments in 1998:
“You bring together in one frame two extremely disparate elements that are never seen together in anyone’s conscious mind, and that’s the crucifix and the vagina. And yes, it is a kind of a blasphemous image, but we decided early on to retain it because this is what it means to be demonically possessed. There’s the crucifix that represents something, and there’s the vagina that represents something else. They are at opposite ends of the mode of consciousness that people have.”
Many people speculate that he is describing the vagina to be evil when compared to the holiness of the crucifix, innocence vs. divinity. Incidentally, Blatty’s novel clarifies that Doe, the person possessed in the novel, is actually masturbating with the crucifix (215-216); in the film, Regan, or the demon Pazuzu controlling Regan, looks more like she is stabbing herself, violently forcing the crucifix into her vagina. This leads me, along with others, to wonder if the scene is more of an emphasis on violence on young women rather than sex. Friedkin has not responded to this theory. (#8)
The epidemic amount of sexual violence against women in America in the 1970s could have been an influence on the project itself. A wave of anti-rape activities began in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the heels of the civil rights and student movements. Moreover, the slasher genre was slowly starting to build, fear of the unknown and unexpected intruders permeated society’s fears. The apparent representation decay of our own internal fears, our spiritual fears, made this the perfect time to release a movie this real and troubling. (#9)
This would ultimately be revisited when the head of the MPAA, Aaron Stern, wanted to give Friedkin a chance. See, Friedkin wanted an R rating that would allow more people to watch the film, including children with adult supervision. Stern is said to have watched the original cut only weeks before its release, in order to see for himself, what “an important” film it was. He later called Friedkin that night to let him know the film would get an R rating without any cuts needed.
This was a serendipitous act as Stern’s place as Chairman was ending. He was later replaced by Richard Heffner who actually took it upon himself to be more aggressive with ratings, noting no movie could be worse than The Exorcist, angry at its R rating.
But it did get its R rating. At this point, it’s just a waiting game now. Release the feature and scare the nation.
THE CRITICS AND THE FANS
Critics highly anticipated the worst, calling out the decision for the sake of “the children”. One of the biggest dissenters to this movie’s rating and subsequent release, Roy Meacham, a critic for Metromedia television stations based in Washington, D.C., wrote in The New York Times in February 1974, he had strongly cautioned that children should not be allowed to see it at all, a warning his station repeated for several days. A call many stations followed thereafter.
Nevertheless, children had seen it, with accounts of one girl being taken from a theater in an ambulance, as it was said many people had fainted or collapsed while watching the film out of fear. (#10)
Reviews were mixed when the film was finally released on December 26th, 1973, however, the audience reaction was strong. A glimpse of mass hysteria as many viewers waited in long lines, morning to night, in low-degree weather, some said to have already watched the film, in line for a second or third scare.
While people were more than willing to watch the film multiple times in America, there was a storm brewing over in the United Kingdom. It would actually take them until March 14th, 1974 for the film to be released in the UK due to protest surrounding the film’s release, the strongest of which came from the Nationwide Festival of Light, a Christian public action group, whose mission concerned the influence of media and society on the young. (#11)
Their influence ultimately leading to a letter-writing campaign which resulted in council screenings of the film before being released in the respective districts. Having this system in place made it possible for the film to be banned in a number of counties. (#12)
Passed these speed bumps, The Exorcist actually thrived. Sure it had some hiccups along the way, what with the random fires and subsequent dispute with the MPAA, but one thing that surprised everyone was its success. Audiences of all ages, seemed to respond to the film positively, or whatever way is positive with respect to the subject matter, and the film left its mark in cinematic history, being one of the first horror films to be nominated and considered for a Best Picture Oscar.
Moreover, The Exorcist set box office records that stood for many years. For almost half a century, until the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King's IT, it was the top-grossing R-rated horror film, spawning multiple sequels all with their own success stories to this very day, including the newly released Exorcist television show. (#13)
There’s no doubt that The Exorcist is one of the best horror films of all time. So… where do we go from here?
GHOST, GHOULS, AND NEW HORRORS
New movies of today have a lot to live up too, as The Exorcist is still touted as one of the most frightening films made to date. The genre changed due to The Exorcist’s exploration of faith-based horror, the more nuanced version of horror, and the way it affected the societal perspective. That doesn’t mean that many movies following did not try their best to steal their shine.
It wasn’t until 2017’s release of Stephen King’s IT that The Exorcist’s reign at the box office was once and for all finally defeated, as IT now holds the highest-grossing horror film slot in the box office. (#14)
But why did it take so long to knock a movie made in the ’70s down from its #1 spot? Well, it’s not like they didn’t try. There are a plethora of films made in the horror genre with a great story and great acting and direction but just don’t evoke the same fear that Blatty and Friedkin were able to generate. Films like The Conjuring and Insidious, or my personal favorite Hereditary, all have their own ways of introducing horror in their own standard.
Using CGI, or newly refined editing techniques, but unfortunately don’t compare to The Exorcist. The Conjuring director James Wan understood that the fear doesn’t come from the unnatural but the natural and went back to the roots of horror, with practical effects, which help evoke a similar sensation to what The Exorcist was able to create.
Some films making headlines for their sheer brilliance and others making headlines for the outright and blatant cash grab attitude toward the horror genre. Suddenly films like Paranormal Activity and Ouija were spitting out sequel after sequel because they were inexpensive to make, relatively, and made their success on what has been dubbed the “jump scare” and found footage era, where most of the movie’s “horror” comes in the form of a loud unexpected sound, most times exaggerating small occurrences creating flat scares. That’s not to say that all new horror films do this. Also not to say those films can’t be good.
The state of the horror genre is hotly contested today. With the genre seemingly relying on pushing out a plethora of remakes, or lackluster reboots and endless sequels, when most people, myself included, would much rather a more original approach.
What I find fascinating is the resurgence of the so-called “torture-porn” genre, films that thrive purely on the shock of the horror like SAW or The Purge franchise for their "extrospective" views of fears, versus what The Exorcist was intending on doing which was stoking societal fears on the rise in science-based practices juxtaposed with the fears of individual spirituality and religion.
On the other hand, glimmers of hope shine through with examples of extreme originality and artistry. Some of my favorites are even in upcoming #FilmFriday posting just like this one to gain more in-depth looks into what makes them horror classics, like the originality of Jordan Peele’s Get Out or the haunting effects of grief displayed in the 2014 Australian film The Babadook and the psychology behind a family’s intense secrets in 2018’s Hereditary, which expands on the idea of spirituality in a different perspective.
I honestly believe with the amount of subgenres horror films have been able to create, it’s difficult to see how we can expand or advance on anything that has come this far.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
So much happened in the process of creating this film, from conception to final product, there were long tiresome nights and crazy experiences, shared over several interviews. And still, it is hailed as one, if not the ultimate horror film. I happen to agree. I am biased however as I tend to gravitate towards films that deal with introspection and the supernatural. Which I understand is not for everyone. And that is why I love horror, the genre is filled with so many subgenres, there’s technically a film for every type of horror fanatic.
Friedkin had some genius ideas when it came to representing the film’s most subtle subtext, like the cold rooms to conjure up visible breathing and create visible discomfort by the actors. Or even yet the sound of Regan’s neck twisting in the film was actually just a production worker twisting his leather wallet into the boom microphone. That’s what I call quick thinking. Small details like these can be seen as inconsequential, but effective nonetheless. And that’s film-making for ya, quick and effective thinking.
He was also very interested in staying close to the source materials for a lot of metaphors in the film including the casting out of the demon Pazuzu, as in the sounds of pigs that can be heard. This is an homage the Book of Gospel when Jesus is said to have ridden a man of the demon horde “Legion” into a group of pigs that then plunge to their deaths off a cliff.
Hmm, I wonder where that source material played a part in the film.
So needless to say, the genre has more than enough avenues to find hidden gems and traditional horror classics. Some bring goblins, some bring ghouls, some bring the Devil himself. And I for one am excited to continue learning through dissecting some of my favorite films.
Have a film you’d like to see dissected in a haphazard way, let us know at darkmindproduction.com, or follow our social media @DarkMindProduction on Instagram and @DarkMindPro on Facebook. Also make sure to follow #FilmFriday for more movie news, personal film anecdotes, and our #FilmFriday deep dives.
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Pelan, Tim (2018); Rats In the Attic: William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ • Cinephilia & Beyond
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Nastasi, Alison (February 21, 2015). "The Actors Who Turned Down Controversial Movie Roles"
Fiduccia, Christopher (Oct. 21, 2018) “30 Crazy Details Behind The Making Of The Exorcist”; ScreenRant”
Riley, Brian (2013) “Revisiting The Exorcist: The Forbidden Pleasures of Resistant Reading”
Gillian Greensite (November 2009) History of the Rape Crisis Movement
Meacham, Roy (February 3, 1974). "How Did 'The Exorcist' Escape an X Rating?"
"Clergy Help Those Distressed By "The Exorcist"
"The Exorcist" Banned". The Carmarthen Journal. November 15, 1974.
Exorcist television show. "Horror - R-Rated". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
Mendelson, S. (September 2017) 'It' Passing 'The Exorcist' To Become Highest-Grossing R-Rated Scary Movie Ever.