It is not surprising that The Exorcist has been voted the scariest horror movie of all time by Entertainment Weekly and Maxim. Just about anyone who has seen the movie can claim a 122-minute anxiety attack. When the theological thriller debuted in 1973 as an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, it brought the ancient concept of demonic possession to the modern world. When it was re-released in 2000 with the benefit of digital restoration, it reinforced its place in pop culture.
Strangely haunting events plagued the cast and crew throughout the production of the movie. However, most of these events were not documented, as they would be today, with state-of-the-art field equipment – as they do in the paranormal reality series Haunted Discoveries. These planned, and not so planned, happenings that surrounded the film further intensified its sense of realism and other worldliness.
Just how much do you know about one of the scariest movies of all time?
1. At least six people associated with The Exorcist died either during production or prior to the release of the movie.
Jack McGowan died of flu complications a little over a month before the movie’s release. McGowan portrayed Burke Dennings, the life of the party, who tells the prominent senator character, “There seems to be an alien pubic hair in my gin. Never seen it before in my life. Have you?” Dennings also dies in the movie at the hands of the possessed Regan.
Vasiliki Maliaros was 90 years old when she died of natural causes not long after she finished filming her role as Father Karras’ mother.
During production of the film, a night watchman for the set and the set refrigeration technician also passed away. Max Von Sydrow’s (Father Merrin) brother, as well as Linda Blair’s (Regan) grandfather also passed away while The Exorcist was being filmed.
2. An unexplained set fire delayed the discovery of the demon.
The original shooting schedule was to be 85 days, but the unexplained fire that destroyed the set delayed production. The last scenes were to be filmed in Iraq to portray the discovery of a small statue of the demon, Pazuzu. It actually took 224 days of American filming to get to the land where the movie’s story line began. The cause of the fire remains unknown to this day.
3. Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil) refused to acknowledge the devil. She also suffered a permanent spinal injury during filming.
The actors that are seen spider crawling down the stairs, thrashing about in bed and being thrown about by demon possessed children were actually rigged to harnesses to achieve these disturbing physical feats. In the scene where Pazuzu-possessed Regan throws mom across the bedroom with superhuman strength, Ellen Burstyn, in reality, was being yanked hard by her harness. The outcome was a blood-curdling scream from Burstyn when she landed on her coccyx, resulting in a permanent spinal injury. It is interesting to note that Burstyn accepted the role only after producers agreed to eliminate her character’s scripted line, “I believe in the devil!”
4. Snow fell indoors, on the set.
Although explainable, it was quite disturbing for the cast and crew to arrive to the indoor set of the demon-inhabited bedroom and see it covered in a layer of freshly fallen snow.
In order to provide the effect of visible breath, the set was refrigerated and cooled by four air conditioners. Temperatures often plunged below freezing and on one occasion when the air was saturated with moisture, the crew arrived to a layer of snow covering the set.
5. A plea for help from Keating Hall was plainly visible to those who wished to see it.
Fordham University’s Bronx campus is the home to Keating Hall and the basement room in which the language lab scene was filmed. In this scene, where Father Karras discovers that Regan’s demon is speaking English in reverse, a white banner is visible above Keating Hall’s audio room window. “TASUKETE” screams from the banner with a bold exclamation in stark red letters. The Japanese to English translation is “HELP!”
6. A shadow of redemption attempted.
In the movie scene where technicians attempt to scan Regan’s brain, an eerie shadow of a cross passes over Linda Blair’s forehead just before the machine starts.
7. The devil gets his due.
Mercedes McCambridge was hired to portray the demon voice of Regan with the promise of prominent mention in the credits. When McCambridge attended the preview, she discovered that her name was left out of the credits. After weeks of grueling work which included regurgitating on a mixture of chewed, mushy apple and raw egg to produce the sound effect of Regan’s projectile vomiting, McCambridge was not acknowledged for her work. She eventually filed suit for the recognition and was later credited for her portrayal of the demon. She suffered much hardship and tragedy throughout the remainder of her life – including a murder/suicide where her son killed his wife and two daughters and then himself, leaving McCambridge with only a bitter suicide letter of resent from her son.
8. Serious forces of nature displayed themselves during the early showings of The Exorcist in Rome, Italy.
According to American Hollywood columnist, Joe Hyams, moviegoers in Rome entered the Metropolitan Theater while rained poured and lightning flashed. Soon after, a noise much louder than thunder could be heard. An eight foot long cross of a nearby sixteenth century church had been struck by lightning. The cross had sat atop that church for 400 years before it fell to the ground of the piazza after being struck.
9. The Number of the Beast figured into the final cut.
Popularly recognized as the Number of the Beast, there is no escaping guilt by association when dealing with the number 666. One has to wonder what possessed director, William Friedkin, to bring the completed project to 666 Fifth Avenue, New York for postproduction editing. One might also wonder if this is what caused evangelist Billy Graham to denounce the film with his claim that an actual demon lived in the celluloid reels of the movie.
10. The Government Accepts The Exorcist as Culturally Significant
As of 2010, The Exorcist claimed its place as an important piece of filmmaking history when the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation as part of its National Film Registry. Films selected for this designation “must be culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Creepy on the big screen as well as behind the scenes, The Exorcist unleashed the spirit of a cultural phenomenon that will now be preserved until the end of time.
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