30 Terrifying Facts You Never Knew About The Exorcist
By | October 28, 2022
When The Exorcist premiered in 1973, horror-movie audiences had never seen anything quite like it. But was the movie cursed? The tale of a young girl possessed by an ancient demon was graphic, profane, and to some religious groups, even blasphemous. Apart from the action on screen, the movie is disturbing because of the calamities that occurred during production and the oddities, and tragedies, that happened in the years since.
The Exorcist, was based on the real-life exorcism of a 13-year-old boy
Horror movies often confront us with the unimaginable, but sometimes, the terror is all too imaginable. One of the most frightening and disturbing movies of all time, The Exorcist, was based on the real-life exorcism of a 13-year-old boy known by the pseudonym Roland Doe who lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s.
Ronald Hunkeler, identified as "Roland Doe" in the diaries of a priest who attended his exorcism, was born in 1935, the only child of a Lutheran family from Cottage City, Maryland. As a young boy, he spent a lot of time with his Aunt Harriet, a spiritualist who introduced him to the ouija board, but after she died unexpectedly, the family claimed they started hearing eerie noises and seeing objects move on their own. Ronald, who claimed to hear scratching beneath his bedroom floor and water dripping in the walls, was apparently the focus of these incidents. The Hunkeler family called the police, their doctor, and finally, their Lutheran pastor, who was so disturbed and dumbfounded by their stories that he suggested the family contact a Catholic priest.
The Story Behind The Movie
In late February 1949, Father E. Albert Hughes sought permission from the local archdiocese to perform an exorcism on Ronald. He strapped the boy to a bed and began to pray, but Ronald somehow slipped one hand out of the restraints, clawed through the mattress, and snapped off a piece of a metal mattress spring. When Father Hughes approached him, he lashed out at the priest, slashing him across his shoulders. Father Hughes halted the exorcism, after which the word "Louis" allegedly appeared mysteriously on Ronald's body.
It was not uncommon, according to witnesses, for words to appear as if scratched into his skin, and his parents took this one as a sign that they should seek help in St. Louis, where their niece was attending school. She put them in touch with Father William S. Bowdern, a professor at St. Louis University, who obtained permission to perform a second exorcism on Ronald after claiming to have witnessed him speak Latin in an unearthly voice as objects flew across the room and the boy's bed shook.
Exorcism Take Two
Roland Doe's second exorcism took place at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, where two other priests, Father Walter Halloran and Father William Van Roo, assisted Father Bowdern. In one fit of violence, Ronald broke Halloran's nose, but on April 18, after nearly a month of tireless work by the three priests, Ronald experienced several seizures and screamed that Satan would not leave him.
The priests placed rosaries and crucifixes on his body and prayed to Saint Michael to free Ronald from Satan's grip, and within minutes, Roland appeared to snap out of his trance, looked the priests in the eyes, and said, "He's gone." Later, the boy claimed he saw visions of Saint Michael and Satan in battle and watched as the saint forced Satan to flee.
William Peter Blatty Took The Story And Spun It Into Gold
By all accounts, Ronald Hunkeler went on to live a normal life, and his story remained largely unknown outside of a scarcely detailed Washington Post article. One person who did take note of it was William Peter Blatty, who used Hunkeler's story as the basis for his 1971 novel The Exorcist, which became a pop culture phenomenon when it was published in 1971 and sold more than 13 million copies.
This new attention came with an increased interest in Hunkeler's case by researchers, however, who uncovered a wealth of conflicting information and failure of due diligence from those who documented the supposed events as well as Ronald's reputation among his peers as a spoiled bully who was prone to tantrums. They determined that the supposed symptoms of demonic possession alleged by witnesses were almost certainly either exaggerated or intentionally caused by Ronald.
From page to screen
The success of Blatty's novel led to immediate interest from Hollywood, and in rewriting his own story for the screen he kept pretty close to his original story. A few subplots from the novel were jettisoned from the script, specifically Karras' attempts to cut through the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. There are also a few things about the medical investigations into Regan's condition as well as the time length of the original story.
The Catholic Church Wanted More Cursing In The Movie
One of the more fascinating thing about the pre-production of The Exorcist was the fact that a religious advisor from the Catholic Church was on board from moment one. Father John Nicola, the advisor, was strongly against all of the sexual scenes with Regan and the shots of the desecrated church, but when it came time for the possessed Regan to start cursing up a storm he suggested that she should spew even more profanity.
Blatty Wanted Everyone To Know That Regan was possessed.
The biggest change from page to screen was the nature of Regan's condition. In the novel it's ambiguous as to whether or not Regan is actually possessed, but in the screenplay Blatty makes it clear that there's no scientific or natural cause behind her affliction. The movie is all the better for it.
Auditions For Regan Were Extreme
Breakfast At Pazuzu's
Before settling on Ellen Burstyn, Warner Bros. looked to Audrey Hepburn and Jane Fonda to plays Regan's mother. As interesting as Hepburn would have been in this role, Burstyn brings something natural to the film that make it feel incredibly real. Her standout performance was honored with a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Jack Nicholson Is... The Exorcist
Casting is obviously a huge part of the filmmaking process, and with such a small collection of leads in The Exorcist it's paramount that the actors are perfect in their roles. Warner Bros. initially wanted Jack Nicholson or Gene Hackman for the part of Karras, a role eventually won by Jason Miller. For the role of Merrin, the distributor wanted Marlon Brando for the role, which would have been interesting, but director William Friedkin vetoed the casting because it would have become a "Brando movie" if he were given the role.
The Curse Of The Exorcist
Problems with the production began early in the filming, which was directed by William Friedkin, a director who was riding high after having directed the 1971 action film The French Connection, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The set, which was a reproduction of a Georgetown house, caught fire when a pigeon flew into a circuit box. Oddly enough, Regan’s room was not harmed in the fire.
In the film, during one of the scenes, Regan, played by Linda Blair, throws her mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, to the floor, injuring her. The actual shot and Burstyn’s scream were used in the film and Burstyn suffered permanent damage to her back from the incident.
A Priest Blessed The Film Set
The "curse" of The Exorcist is probably not a real thing, but the subject matter of the film and the fire led someone from the production to enlist a Jesuit priest to bless the set following the fire. Whether or not the blessing worked is up for debate, the one thing that's clear is that The Exorcist has a strange energy around it to this day.
Injuries And Other Mishaps
Linda Blair was also injured during the filming. In one of the possession scenes, the rigging broke and Blair was thrown from the bed, also sustaining injuries to her back.
On the set, other people suffered injuries as well. A carpenter cut off his thumb and a lighting technician lost his toe. The film's opening sequences were filmed on location in Iraq, where a delay caused the production to work there in July, the hottest part of the summer.
Nine crew members were unable to work at one point or another, due to heat stroke and dysentery while the heat soared to 130 degrees. While not an injury, during the projectile vomiting scene, the tubing misfired and the vomit hit Jason Miller in the face. His reaction is quite genuine and the scene only required one take.
Multiple People Connected To The Film Died Young
In addition to the injuries on set, nine people associated with the film died, including a janitor who was shot and killed, and Linda Blair’s grandfather. Less than a week after his character, Burke Dennings died in the film, Jack McGowran died. Others faced unusual tragedy. Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the demon Pazuzu, faced tragedy when her son murdered his wife and then took his own life in 1987. Jason Miller’s young son was nearly killed when he was struck a beach by a motorcycle that appeared to come out of nowhere.
More Proof (?) Of The Curse
Additionally, there were strange images that appeared on the film, including double exposures of Linda Blair’s face, fueling even more concerns about the curse.
Real Evil In The Film
Interestingly, though there are alternative explanations for many of the curse claims, there was at least one instance of evil present in the film. Several years after the release of the film, Paul Bateson, one of the radiologists in the carotid angiography scene, was convicted of killing Addison Verill and there is evidence that he may have been a serial killer.
The spider walk was cut because William Friedkin could see the strings
One of the more famous scenes cut from a film is the infamous "spider walk" in The Exorcist where a possessed Reagan turns upside down and walks backwards down the stairs of her home like a spider. A contortionist performed the role, but there were strings attached to the actor to help them move in the right direction, Friedkin hated the way it looked so he cut it. The scene was restored for the film's re-release in 2000, and it's interesting to see but it doesn't really work.
Max Von Sydow Isn't That Old
Much hay is made of Regan's makeup, but the greatest special effect in The Exorcist is Max Von Sydow's old man makeup. Sydow was only 44-years-old at the time, so playing a priest in his 80s required quite a bit of nuanced facial work. The makeup was so good that it actually convinced casting directors that Sydow actually looked super old, leading to a few missed opportunities.
Pea Soup Never Looked So Good
Ellen Burstyn was not on board with the Devil
Aside from her fear of the supernatural, Burstyn hated being on set with Friedkin. The director was prone to slapping actors and firing guns before a take, which led Burstyn to call him out for being a straight up maniac.
The White Face Demon Was Taken From A Makeup Test
One of the most stark images of the film occurs when a freaky demon with a white face pos up onscreen in an almost subliminal manner. The design of the demon is absolutely terrifying, and it wasn't meant to be in the film. This is one of the many makeup tests performed on Linda Blair's body double, Eileen Dietz.
The Set Was Freezing
Okay so The Exorcist wasn't a comfortable set, but it was more than the subject matter or William Friedkin slapping everyone, it was the temperature. One of the more memorable visuals from the film is the foggy breath of the priests and Regan in the back half of the film. In order to do this the set had to be completely refrigerated.
The poster is inspired by a painting
Even if you haven't seen The Exorcist you've seen the poster for this film. The image shows Max Von Sydow standing in front of Regan's gloomy house, and while this visual has been parodied and copied time and time again it's not actually completely original. The poster was designed by Bill Gold, who took inspiration from a Magritte painting titled "The Empire of Lights." It's a simple and evocative image that remains chilling decades later.
The Teaser Trailer Was Too Scary For Many Theater Goers
It wasn't just the film that terrified audiences in the 1970s, the teaser trailer was freak enough to send people running from their seats. The teaser is fairly simple. Father Karras gets out of his cab and looks toward Regan's house. There are some shots of the white face demon, and then Regan goes nuts. It's simple, but it was so effective that it had to be pulled from many theaters at the time.
Merry Christmas, here's your barf bag
When The Exorcist was released on December 26, 1973, some theaters handed out barf bags to the audience because people couldn't stop vomiting due to the intense onscreen visuals. Aside from puking all over the place, some audience members fainted, and others just left the theater because the movie was too much for them to take in one sitting.
Linda Blair had to get bodyguards after the film's release
The Exorcist was such a sensation that not only was Linda Blair thrust into the spotlight at a young age, but she was on the receiving end of death threats because of the sacrilegious acts she carried out in the film. Things got so scary for Blair that she had to have bodyguards for six months after the release of The Exorcist.
Billy Graham Gave The Film A Rave Review
Just kidding! Evangelist Billy Graham was so disturbed by this film that he claimed that he was being haunted by an actual demon. Whether or not this actually happened it's pretty cool that Graham plunked down a couple of bucks to see one of the scariest horror films of the 1970s.
The Exorcist courted controversy all the way to the bank
The film was released on Boxing Day, 1973, or as we call it in the States, "the day after Christmas." The very fact that a movie about a possessed 12-year-old girl was released so close to Jesus and Santa's birthday through people into a tizzy. Pearls were clutched and religious leaders were less than enthused.
The film was banned in every Middle Eastern country except Lebanon. People viewing the film reported illness, including vomiting and hallucinations and one woman at a showing passed out from terror, fell, and broke her jaw. The studio actually used the rumors of a curse to their advantage. The Exorcist became highest grossing horror film of all time, making $441 million and was the first horror film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It also fueled the rise of people hoping to make a profit from the furor, by making claims of being exorcists and demonologists.