Based (loosely) on a true story, The Exorcist is arguably one of the most spine-chilling films ever created. It’s a petrifying tale of a demon-possessed little girl who can speak tongues, levitate, and turn her head around 360 degrees. And while that might not sound too creepy on paper, it’s pretty intimidating when you watch it on the big screen. Just ask the horrified viewers who watched it when it first came out in 1973.
People vomited, fainted, and covered their eyes to shield them from the film’s horrors.
Incredibly, the making of it was no less – and maybe even more – disturbing than the actual movie. So disturbing, in fact, that a priest had to be called on to the set (and not for acting purposes).
Here are some insane stories from this allegedly cursed set.
Several Eerie Deaths
While it’s considered pretty rare, sad incidents like a cast member passing away mid-production is something that can happen. But what’s odd about the making of The Exorcist, is that a total of nine crew members died during the film’s production.
The film’s actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros died shortly after filming began, but what’s terribly strange is that both of their characters passed away in the movie as well. In addition, Linda Blair’s grandfather, Max von Sydow’s brother, a nightguard, and a special effects worker all lost their lives either during or after shooting the film.
The Entire Set Was Refrigerated
All of the cast and crew working on the film set were terribly uncomfortable, thanks to director William Friedkin’s bizarre decision to refrigerate the set. The effect he was hoping to get was twofold – 1. He wanted viewers to see the characters’ breath, adding a creepy touch to the film.
And 2. He wanted the cast to be cold, uncomfortable, and miserable so that he could get the best possible emotions out of them. In behind-the-scenes photos, the crew can be seen in chunky winter coats, trying their best to stay warm.
The Director Was Maniacal
Making a scary film look as real as The Exorcist was a grueling and exhausting task. As a result, director William Friedkin had some pretty intense directing techniques. In the 2010 documentary of The Exorcist, it was shown that William would often slap actors in the face right before the cameras turned on.
He would also fire guns to startle them. And while this did wonders in creating genuine reactions from the cast, it also ticked them off. One incident resulted in actress Ellen Burstyn screaming at William and calling him a total maniac.
A Priest Was Ordered to Bless the Set
There were several eerie occurrences that happened during the shooting of The Exorcist. Many crew members genuinely believed that the set was haunted, especially after the house that was being used for the film caught on fire. The sudden accident delayed production for six whole weeks.
What’s weird, though, is that the only space that wasn’t burned down was Regan’s “possessed” bedroom. As a result, a priest and professor of theology from Georgetown University named Thomas M. King was called onto the set to bless it and calm everyone’s nerves down.
One Viewer Sued Warner Bros.
It’s well known that The Exorcist made people sick to their stomachs. Some vomited, and some fainted. Still, these people willingly bought tickets and made the decision to see the film for themselves. So, it’s not the studio’s problem, right? Well, not exactly.
When one viewer fainted during a screening, she collapsed and broke her jaw from the fall. The woman ended up suing Warner Bros., claiming that the frightening subliminal messages led to her injury. They eventually settled the dispute outside of court, agreeing on an undisclosed amount.
A Serious Malfunction
In the film, before Regan begins speaking in tongues, she flops uncontrollably on her mattress. “I’m laced into this piece of equipment which is literally manipulated by men. And in this particular take, the lacing came loose,” Linda Blair explained.
Blair’s back was repeatedly pounded, and her cries and screams were genuine, even though everyone around her believed she was acting. The scene seriously damaged Blair’s lower spine. “The back injury was far more serious than I ever imagined and really affected my health negatively for a long time,” she shared.
Linda Blair Had to Hire Bodyguards
There are a ton of movies that have been deemed “too offensive.” Typically, any film that has to do with religion needs to be wary of how they represent certain ideas and beliefs. In The Exorcist, a few sacrilegious acts were performed because the movie’s premise is a girl possessed by a demon.
Some viewers of the film were so offended by those sinful acts that they threatened to harm Linda Blair. There were people who believed that the film glorified Satan, so Linda had to have bodyguards always surround her for six months after the film’s release.
During the exorcism scenes, Linda Blair was usually strapped into a harness. In these obscene moments, while her character thrashed and jerked about, Regan suffered repeated hits by the harness against her spine. Ouch!
In addition, the child star had to sit still for at least two hours every day in the makeup chair. Some makeup sessions lasted as long as five hours. The application process was grueling, Blair once admitted. She revealed that the glue used to hold some of the prosthetics in place ended up burning her face.
Viewers Were Handed Barf Bags
Plenty of films are marketed as being terribly frightening, but not many movies have had the ability to make their viewers physically ill. When The Exorcist hit the big screen, many theaters handed out barf bags because everyone kept puking in the auditoriums. A lot of people were repulsed by the film’s horrific and graphic content.
There are a ton of accounts of people passing out, falling to the floor, barfing, and even leaving the theater altogether because the movie was simply too much to handle. There are some appalling horror movies out there today, but none have impacted their viewers like The Exorcist has.
The Creepy Spider Walk Was Originally Cut
By far one of the most frightening scenes from The Exorcist is the one when Regan spider walks down the stairs of the MacNeil home. Incredibly, the iconic shot wasn’t in the film when it first hit the cinemas because of visual mishaps.
Apparently, director William Friedkin decided to cut the scene after he struggled with making some of the wires invisible. In later editions of the movie, and with the help of CGI, the spider scene was thankfully restored with the wires holding the contortionist no longer visible.
Ellen Burstyn’s Genuine Screams Made It Into the Film
Just as viewers screamed when they watched The Exorcist, the film’s characters were screaming as well. Poor Regan was demonically possessed, and her even poorer mother, Chris, was forced to witness as the demon took over her little girl. In the scene when Regan harms herself, Chris rushes over to stop her but gets pushed onto the floor by the violent demon.
Actress Ellen Burstyn did a wonderful job of letting out a dreadful shriek. The reason for her great acting probably had to do with the fact that she was genuinely screaming. The actress was in terrible pain because the stuntman had pulled the wire attached to her a lot harder than she expected, causing her to fall violently on her back, leading to a severe spinal injury.
The Woman Who Voiced the Demon Gave Up Her Sobriety
While Linda Blair gave an outstanding performance at the young age of 14, the voice of Satan was actually done by actress Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge added a chilling dimension to the film by providing an eerie voice you could never imagine comes from a small child.
Director William Friedkin once mentioned that Mercedes smoked packs of cigarettes, swallowed raw eggs, and chugged alcohol, all so she could nail the perfect demonic voice. Incredibly Mercedes was so devoted to the part that she was willing to give up her sobriety.
The White-Faced Demon Wasn’t an Original Character
One of the many visuals that made a permanent mark on viewers’ memory was the image of the white-faced demon. He’s seen in various parts of the film, most of which are flashed onto the screen subliminally. While this added to the film’s creepiness, it wasn’t originally part of the plan.
The face was actually a result of rejected makeup tests that were done on Linda Blair’s double, a girl named Eileen Dietz. Filmmakers liked the face so much that they used it in the teaser trailer for the movie and in the film’s final cut as well.
They Used Low-Tech Special Effects
Plenty of scary movies that are released today rely on clever computer-generated effects to frighten the audience, but in the ‘70s, filmmakers didn’t have that same technology. While the special effects seen on The Exorcist were completely low-tech, the filmmakers still managed to pull it off.
For Linda Blair’s freaky 360 degrees head twist, the crew used a rubber dummy and genius lighting tricks to make it look as real as possible. As for the puking sequences, a hidden tube was attached to Linda’s chin which shot out green slime. The set also had cameramen hanging from wires in order to perfect certain shots from certain angles.
The Movie’s Poster Was Inspired by a Painting
Even if someone hasn’t watched the film, they will surely recognize the movie’s poster. It shows Max von Sydow’s character in a suit standing by a streetlight, as the light from the MacNeil home shines on him. This iconic poster was actually inspired by a well-known painting.
The image was created by graphic designer Bill Gold, who was inspired by René Magritte’s famous painting Empire of Lights. The movie’s poster is simple, without too much detail or color, yet it has become one of the most recognizable images of the film.
The Original Teaser Trailer Was Banned
This epic horror has been scaring audiences for years, but the chills first began when the movie’s teaser trailer first came out. The teaser trailer showed the iconic scene of Father Merrin stepping out of his cab, followed by flashes of Regan, demented and creepy, as well as flashes of the white-faced demon.
By today’s standards, the teaser seems pretty tame. But in the early ‘70s, it was apparently too gory for the public’s eye. The trailer was pulled from several cinemas because its viewers complained it was too horrific for their liking. Those people were probably the same ones who had to be carried out by paramedics once the movie came out.
It’s Based on an Actual Exorcism
Horror movies can be scary without having to be based on true events, but when a scary film is based on an actual story, it takes the horror to a whole other level. While the film was based on William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist, both the book and movie were inspired by the real tale of a teenager with the fictitious name Roland Doe.
Doe’s exorcism was allegedly performed in a house in Missouri in the late ‘40s. Apparently, Satan’s face had appeared on the boy’s leg, and the voice of Saint Michael came out of his mouth, yelling and pleading that the devil leave the poor boy’s body.
Linda Blair Beat 500 Other Girls for the Part of Regan
Filmmakers usually hold numerous auditions to decide which actor or actress is the perfect pick for the role. For Regan MacNeil, Linda Blair beat 500 other actresses, an incredible achievement for a child actress! Not many young stars would be able to handle the intensity Blair had to go through while shooting the film.
Linda Blair’s mom actually brought her to the audition without an appointment because she fully believed her daughter could perfect the role. Linda was cool as a cucumber when she talked about the disgusting things her character would have to do, and with that, director William Friedkin knew he had found the one.
Regan’s Makeup Was Supposed to Be Way More Hideous
The makeup in the film is what truly helped The Exorcist turn out as horrific as it did. Regan’s makeup was done by makeup artist Dick Smith, but originally, it was supposed to look very different. The original look for the character was a lot more demon-like and less human.
But director William Friedkin disapproved of the look. He wanted the makeup to look more like self-inflicted injuries and less like a completely different creature. Both makeup styles looked alarming, but the one that made it into the film was the better pick.
The Vomit Wasn’t Supposed to Hit Father Karras’ Face
Actress Ellen Burstyn was not the only cast member to show real emotion in the film’s final cut. Actor Jason Miller did so too. The nasty projectile vomit scene was filmed in just one single take because Jason’s reaction was 100% authentic.
When the green slime projected onto Father Karras, it was supposed to splatter all over his chest, but instead, it launched and sprayed him straight in the face. The plastic tube they used misfired, causing the fake vomit to shoot all over his face and mouth. Miller was seriously disgusted, and his reaction to it was totally genuine.
Makeup Took Forever
While Linda Blair had to go through a tiring and long makeup session, actor Max von Sydow did so as well. The star was only 44, yet he was cast in a part that was intended for someone twice his age. Makeup expert Dick Smith made Sydow appear 40 years older than he really was, a process which took around four hours.
Apparently, after the film was released, Sydow found it difficult to find work because other film studios believed he was too old to star in many roles, despite being in his 40s! The things makeup can do to a person…
Director William Friedkin Wasn’t the First Pick
Through the years, some outstanding directors have blessed the cinematic world with their creations. And director Stanley Kubrick is one of those people. He’s directed movies like The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But when Warner Bros. sent him The Exorcist’s script, he answered, “I only like to develop my own stuff.”
Ultimately, William Peter Blatty fought for William Friedkin to get the directing gig, which, luckily, is what ended up happening. Even though Friedkin did an incredible job, it’s hard not to wonder what the film would have looked like if Stanley Kubrick had directed it.
It Was the First Scary Film to Be Nominated for Best Picture
Scary movies are usually overlooked when Oscar season comes around. Still, there are a handful of films that have snatched awards through the years, including Silence of the Lambs and, of course, The Exorcist. The film was actually the first horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture back in 1974.
Even though The Exorcist ended up losing to The Sting, it was still nominated for a total of 10 Oscars, winning two of them. In all honesty, Linda Blair should have definitely finished the night with an award, and the incredible artist Dick Smith should have been nominated for Best Makeup.
The Vomit Was Pea Soup
Nearly five decades later, it may not be too much of a secret that the vomit wasn’t actual vomit. It was pea soup. The mixture for the disgusting looking green puke was a blend of pea soup and porridge. But not just any old pea soup. It was one that was specifically picked out for production.
Filmmakers tested several pea soups before ultimately agreeing on Andersen’s brand. This just further highlights that the production used low-cost effects yet achieved pretty neat results. The vomit ended up looking incredibly revolting.
Audrey Hepburn and Jane Fonda Were Almost Cast
Actress Ellen Burstyn had been in the industry since the late ‘50s, which turned her into the ideal candidate for the part of Regan’s mom in the film. But even though she was their final pick, she wasn’t the only woman considered for the role.
Actresses Audrey Hepburn and Jane Fonda were also on the cast list. And given their reputations at the time, they both would have been a wonderful contribution to the film. That being said, Ellen brought something which neither of them had. She had a special something about her performance that captivated the casting directors.
The Head Spinning Scene Almost Didn’t Make It
There are several moments in The Exorcist that are horrifying and have become iconic scenes. One of these memorable bits was when Regan props herself up in the bed and twists her head ALL THE WAY around. Ugh, a genuinely creepy scene!
Amazingly, it almost never made it into the final cut. When the book’s author William Peter Blatty viewed the head-spinning scene, he believed it should be cut from the film. Luckily, after some convincing, the filmmakers managed to keep it in.
Max Von Sydow Forgot His Lines
No matter how many scary movies you’ve seen, it’s still startling to hear some of the stuff Linda Blair blurts out in The Exorcist. Even though Mercedes McCambridge did most of the vocal work for the demon, Blair still had to say several of the obscene lines herself.
When Max von Sydow first heard Linda Blair go off in the outrageous exorcism scene, he reportedly tripped over his words because he was so taken aback by what Linda had said. After viewing the film’s final cut, it isn’t hard to see why.
Jamie Lee Curtis Was Considered for Regan
Jamie Lee Curtis is a scream queen in her own right, appearing and perfecting her part in the original Halloween by legendary director John Carpenter. So, when Curtis was 13, she was asked to audition for The Exorcist, but her mother instantly said no.
Her mom is, of course, the original scream queen, Janet Leigh, who is known for playing alongside Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Psycho. Looks like horror runs in the family!
Even though Linda did an incredible job as Regan MacNeil, it’s interesting to picture how it would have turned out if Curtis had taken the role.
The Sound Effects Came From Unlikely Places
People usually underestimate the importance of sound design in films. But the audio is no less important than the visuals! Especially in a movie like The Exorcist, which has such gory scenes that require especially disgusting sounds. In some of the scenes, audio experts combined the noise of agitated animals with the demon’s voice to create an especially creepy effect.
To perfect the sound for certain vomit scenes, it’s been said that voice actress Mercedes McCambridge had to throw up raw eggs and mushed apples voluntarily. In addition, to get the painful sound of Regan’s snapped neck, a leather wallet with cards was twisted in front of the microphone.
The Demon’s Name Is Pazuzu
It’s easy to assume Regan is possessed by Satan. But in reality, it’s not Satan who has taken over the poor girl’s soul, it’s actually a mischievous demon named Pazuzu. Based on the novel’s explanation, Pazuzu is “the demon of the wind.”
If you look closely at the film, the name begins to make sense. At the start of the film, Father Merrin digs up the demon’s amulet during an archaeological dig in Iraq. Later, he spots a larger statue of the figure portrayed in the amulet. Perhaps it was the unearthed amulet that summoned the demon in the first place.
Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson Could Have Been the Priests
Several well-known actors were considered when it came to the characters Regan and her mom Chris. However, even more famous stars were considered for the role of the priests. Before Jason Miller was cast as Father Karras, the directors considered Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman.
And for the part of Father Merrin, casting directors suggested Marlon Brando. By 1973, Brando was well known and established in Hollywood, especially after his role in The Godfather. But director William Friedkin didn’t allow Warner Bros. to cast him for fear of turning it into a “Brando movie.”
The Dummy Creeped Linda Out
People who saw the film were terrified of both Linda Blair and the possessed dummy. And while Blair wasn’t spooked out by her own image, she could relate to the audience’s feelings toward the dummy. For the scene where her character spins her head around 360 degrees, the young actress had to sit next to the dummy in the makeup room.
When asked about the scene, she confessed that she “didn’t enjoy the experience of being in its presence.” Given how realistic the dummy looked, it’s safe to say that the majority of humanity wouldn’t enjoy the experience either.
A Box Office Success
Despite all the controversies, lawsuits, and “cursed set” rumors, the film ended up being a massive success. The film’s initial release grossed around $190 million, with subsequent releases collecting an additional $40 million.
The film won several awards, including Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Sound. In addition, the movie snatched four Golden Globe Awards and is one of the only horror films to be nominated for Best Picture. Since its release in the early ‘70s, the film has been the subject of numerous podcasts and documentaries.
Blair’s Uncomfortable Interviews
While the issues discussed in the film may have been totally fictional for the young Linda Blair, but for many of its viewers, the concepts of possession, Satan, and other religious themes were taken seriously. After the film’s release, the child star found herself in a truly uncomfortable position.
Reporters wanted to know her perspective on the controversial themes explored in the film. “The amount of pressure that came down on me wasn’t anything I was prepared for,” she told Dread Central. “Especially all the pressure the press put on me. They thought I had all the answers about faith and Catholicism. … It was probably the most awful thing you could imagine.”
Life After The Exorcist
Even though she demonstrated incredible acting skills, starring in The Exorcist put a toll on her career. She found it difficult to get cast for roles that weren’t related to being a helpless victim. Unable to break free, Linda attempted to refresh her image by doing some odd jobs.
She no longer wanted to be taken as this innocent damsel in distress, so she decided to take part in a string of nude photoshoots, hoping that by doing so, she would prove her worth as a grown woman capable of starring in serious roles. Unfortunately, the nude shoots didn’t do very much to boost her image. If anything, they did the opposite.
The Exorcist’s Steps
During the dreadful exorcism, Father Karras strangles Regan and sucks the demon out of her, before flying out of the window and tumbling down a flight of stairs straight to his death. The steep staircase is located in Washington D.C. and can be visited by whoever wants to see it in person.
In 2015, it received a dedicatory plaque, declaring it an official tourist site. Director William Friedkin told Vice that the plaque meant more to him than the Academy Awards he won. “[It’s an] absolutely great honor because the Academy may come and go. But that plaque on those steps is going to be there for a very long time.”
The Film’s Director Was a Believer
Director William Friedkin genuinely believed (and possibly still does) in the possibility of demonic possession. In his eyes, he wasn’t directing a magical, irrational event. He was showing the audience something very real.
“I believed in the possibility of demonic possession and the possibility of exorcism, and this novel was based on an actual case,” he explained. Friedkin made it clear in all his interviews that he made the film as a full believer, not as a skeptic. This is probably why the movie turned out the way it did.
The Director Thought People Would Laugh
William Friedkin admitted he never imagined it would become a huge hit. On the contrary, he believed most people would laugh and ridicule the whole thing. Needless to say, he’s incredibly proud of the cast and what they managed to create together.
“To this day, [the film] still runs. It’s still seen every year by I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands or millions of people. Probably to this day, it is one of the five most popular films ever made,” Friedkin proudly gloated.
What the Director Thinks About the Franchise
Friedkin admitted to having never seen one of The Exorcist films other than the one he created. He saw a few minutes of “Exorcist II” but hated it. “After five minutes, it just blasted me. I couldn’t take it. I thought it was just ridiculous and stupid,” he admitted.
But because he didn’t see the whole thing, he said he couldn’t actually make an ultimate judgment about it. All he knows from those few moments was that it looked to him like the sequel had nothing to do with the original film he directed.