Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Page 94: The Exorcist in truth and in urban legend

This classic horror movie from 1973—in which the young Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) is possessed by the demon Captain Howdy and requires an exorcism—needs no introduction. Not only is The Exorcist a #DevilReference in The Billionth Monkey, but the film itself is surrounded by urban legends. This last fact should come as no surprise given that this movie was a phenomenal success…and by “success” I mean it turned heads and stomachs around the world.

A movie poster for The Exorcist
(1973, dir. William Briedkin, Warner Bros.)
The film’s creators primed audiences ahead of the release—the day after Christmas, of all days (talk about a study in contrasts!). On the eve of the film’s release, author William Peter Blatty said of the production, “It was as if some evil force was haunting the film.” He also told People magazine in 1974 that when they played back the audio, they heard “loud rapping sounds” that were not present during filming.

The press supported these claims with reports that the production was cursed with a number of tragedies and catastrophes:  Actors Jack MacGowran (drunken film director Burke Bennings) and  Vasiliki Maliaros (the mother of Father Karras) both died before the movie’s release. Ellen Burnstyn and Linda Blair were injured while filming separate stunt scenes. And a weekend fire destroyed part of a set, causing production delays.

When the movie finally came out at the end of 1973, audiences had never seen anything like it. They trembled and wept with fear. Many walked out, unable to sit through it. At every screening, several people routinely fainted…some while attempting to leave the theater. Others became physically ill. Theater owners complained of carpets ruined by vomit, and stories soon circulated about barf bags being handed out to theater patrons. According to Ruickbie, “there were even unsubstantiated accounts of heart attacks, a miscarriage, a frenzied attack on the projection screen by a man trying to kill the demon, other acts of unspecified violence at showings, and between two and four institutionalizations” (p. 32).

The May 2014 issue of the Fortean Times celebrated
the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist and its urban legends.
People called for the movie—which religious journalists called “thoroughly evil”—to be banned. Some local communities did exactly that. Protestors picketed cinemas showing the film. Religious authorities claimed that the movie had actually caused dozens of viewers to become possessed. In London, clergy and laypeople with “experience in dealing with demonology” set up a hotline and fielded 600 calls in the first three weeks of the movie’s run. Church attendance spiked.

To be fair, the movie also received plenty of praise from religious quarters for being “deeply spiritual,” and it was showered with secular awards and box office profits.

Because The Exorcist is the first horror movie whose production is claimed to have been cursed, this distinction spawned a number of urban legends about the production:
  • For instance, the aforementioned set fire morphed into a legend that the entire set of the McNeil house burned down on a Sunday of all days…except for Regan’s room (in which the exorcism takes place): it was mysteriously untouched.
  • Another legend claims that nine people died while making the movie. Much like the rumor of a curse on King Tut’s tomb, most of these deaths have nothing to do with the movie, while others occurred years after filming was completed. Four deaths apparently occurred during filming, but the “victims” were not people actually involved in making the movie (e.g., an assistant camerman’s baby, actor Max von Sydow’s brother, or Linda Blair’s grandfather).
  • Another urban legend has it that The Exorcist was banned on video in the UK until 1999. In fact, the film was released on home video in 1979. The Video Records Act of 1984 required all home videos to be classified, and Warner Brothers did not submit The Exorcist until 1999…whereupon it was passed by the board and promptly re-released.
  • Three Jesuits served as technical advisors on the film, and two even appeared in the movie: William O’Malley as Father Dyer, and Thomas Bermingham as the president of Georgetown University. According to urban legend, the film crew were so disturbed about the project that the director had Bermingham perform an exorcism on the set. Other versions say that Bermingham visited the set every morning to bless it before filming began.

For Further Reading

Leo Ruickbie. “What Possessed Us?” Fortean Times, May 2014, 313: 30–35.

Mark Feldt, “Urban Legends of The Exorcist,” https://film-production.knoji.com/urban-legends-of-the-exorcist/

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