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'The Exorcist'

By Matt Slovick Staff


Exorcist stairs
These steps in Georgetown were the scene of two deaths in "The Exorcist."
See more scenes . . .
Many scary people have come and gone from Washington, but maybe none as terrifying as Regan . . . MacNeil. This film about demonic possession and exorcism takes place in upscale Georgetown. (There goes the neighborhood. I'm sure today's advisory board would never allow a demon on the streets.) And Georgetown University, a Catholic university, is the backdrop for numerous scenes.

This movie didn't have a sleazy politician or an evil military leader, but a foul-mouthed, head-spinning, murdering 12-year-old girl. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel and won an Oscar for the screenplay, got the idea for his book after reading about an exorcism reputed to have taken place in a small Maryland town. (More details are below.)

The special effects were groundbreaking for their time – green projectile vomit, spinning heads, shaking beds and gross makeup – and people flocked to see this terrifying movie. People reportedly vomited, fainted and ran from theaters.

Warner Bros. did not preview the film before its opening on Dec. 26, 1973. The studio – not knowing that it had a blockbuster – released the movie in just 30 theaters. The film broke box-office records, grossing $165 million. It's still No. 54 on the all-time list (more than $415 million when adjusted for inflation). It lost the Oscar for Best Picture to "The Sting."

On On this page, read William Peter Blatty's biography, a Q&A with the screenwriter, the first chapter of his new book "Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing" and answers to questions posted to him online.

From The Post: The movie opened exclusively at the Cinema in Washington. This story from January 1974 details how District police barred those 17 and younger from the film, despite its R rating, because of subject matter and reports of people fainting and vomiting.

"I honestly never saw or heard directly of anyone vomiting," Blatty said, "but I can attest to seeing people grow faint. However, this was not a response to anything frightening or shocking. It always occurred during the arteriography scene, when the medical tech inserts the needle and blood spurts from Regan's neck. Apart from the first time Bill Friedkin showed me his first cut of the film on a movieola, every time I happen to watch the film and come to that scene I duck my head and avert my gaze until I know it's over. It's one thing to write 'the two armies fight,' and quite another to watch it."

Washington Sites: The Key Bridge; Georgetown University; Dahlgren Chapel; the 75 steps at Prospect and 36th streets that lead down to M Street in Georgetown; the house near the top of the steps on Prospect Street; a bridge over the C&O Canal. The cardinal's office in the film is actually the office of the president of Georgetown University. Chris MacNeil is invited to a White House dinner, but the residence isn't shown.

It Wasn't Washington: Lt. Kinderman mentions a theater called the Crest, which didn't exist in Washington. Blatty said he was thinking of the Biograph, which closed in 1996. The hospital scenes were shot in New York; the scenes inside the house were shot on a sound stage in New York City. The bedroom set was refrigerated for the frosting of the breath. The lights usually raised the temperature again after about three minutes of filming, so a break had to be taken to re-refrigerate. All the crew worked in polar suits.

Film's Background: The bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty, a Georgetown University graduate, was inspired by a reported exorcism of a young boy that took place in Mount Rainier, Md., in 1949. Here is the story that appeared in The Post. Before writing the novel, Blatty talked to a Jesuit at Georgetown. He told him of a priest at the seminary he attended, who, in his thirties, had shock-white hair and was said to have performed an exorcism. Blatty wrote to this man, who turned out to be the priest who had exorcised the demon from the Mount Rainier boy. The priest, Jesuit William F. Bowdern, was from St. Louis, Mo., and not a local priest. Though he had pledged to keep the exorcism from being publicized, Bowdern said that he and the priest who had assisted him had kept a diary and assured Blatty that what he witnessed was "the real thing." Blatty kept in touch with the priest until his death. Other than the possession syndrome, according to Blatty, everything else in the book was made up. The book isn't the story of what happened in Maryland, it "came entirely out of my head," he said. About 13 million copies of the novel were sold in the United States.

25 Years Later: Author Peter Biskind's 1998 book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drug-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" features filmmakers of the '70s. One of those was William Friedkin, who directed "The Exorcist." An one point, Biskind gives his analysis of the movie:

"It is easy to see why people, especially women, detested the picture. It presents a male nightmare of female puberty. Emergent female sexuality is equated with demonic possession, and the men in the picture almost all of them celibate priests unite to abuse and torture Regan in their efforts to return her to a presexual innocence. Having Regan thrust a crucifix into her vagina is intended to be a fiendishly inventive bit of sacrilege, but it is also a powerful image of self-inflicted abortion, be it by crucifix or coat hanger. 'The Exorcist' is filled with disgust for female bodily functions; it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to see the famously gross scene in which Blair vomits pea soup as a Carrie-like metaphor for menstruation. Indeed, 'The Exorcist' is drenched in a kind of menstrual panic."

Blatty responds: "I heave a sigh of exasperation when I read things like Biskind's analysis, and mentally place them in the same drawer where I keep interpretations of the intended 'meaning' of the film as a 'metaphor for the problems of parents dealing with teenage rebellion.' I once wrote a modest little comic novella supposedly written by the ghost of William Shakespeare in which the ghost 'proves' that Queen Elizabeth was the true author of his plays, and I take the Biskind analysis in much the same spirit. I mean, speaking of 'menstrual panic' . . ."

Plot: Famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who lives in a swank section of Georgetown, seeks medical help when her 12-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), exhibits strange behavior. Doctors administer many tests but find no physical or psychological problem. Chris, an atheist, rejects the doctors' suggestion of religious counsel. But when then now-grotesque Regan begins moving furniture around the room by telekinesis and becomes so violent that she has to be tied to the bed, Chris seeks the help of Father Karras (Jason Miller), whose own faith has been weakening.

During his visits, Karras sees a gross-looking Regan, who utters profanity in a deep voice and has serious convulsions. She can also open drawers without touching them and speaks English backward. The priest believes Regan is possessed and recommends an exorcism. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is contacted and arrives in the middle of a foggy night. Karras and Merrin enter Regan's room to battle the demon.

Memorable Scenes:

  • Karras is called to the house late one night to be shown the words "Help Me" spelled out on Regan's stomach.
  • Regan's green projectile vomit hits Father Karras in the face.
  • Regan's head spins 180 degrees, and later 360 degrees.
  • Regan levitates above the bed.

    Memorable Lines:
    The film's most memorable line can't be printed here. The possessed Regan said it to Father Karras during the exorcism. It involved an activity that the devil said Karras's dead mother was performing on male souls in hell.

    Regan: Mother? What's wrong with me?
    Chris: It's just like the doctor said, it's nerves and that's all. Okay, you just take your pills and you'll be fine really. Okay?

    Dr. Klein: The shaking of the bed, that's doubtless due to muscular spasms.
    Chris: Oh no, that was no spasm. I got on the bed, the whole bed was thumping and rising off the floor and shaking. The whole thing, with me on it!
    Dr. Klein: Mrs. MacNeil, the problem with your daughter is not her bed, it's her brain.

    Chris: You're telling me that, I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?

    Chris: And how do you go about getting an exorcism?
    Father Karras: I beg your pardon?
    Chris: If a person was possessed by a demon of some kind, how do you go about getting an exorcism?
    Father Karras: Well, the first thing I'd do is put them into a time macine and send them back to the 16th century.
    Chris: I didn't get you?
    Father Karras: Well it just doesn't happen anymore Mrs. MacNeil.
    Chris: Oh yeah, since when?
    Father Karras: Since we learned about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia. All the things they taught me in Harvard. Mrs. MacNeil since the day I joined the Jesuits, I've never met one priest who has performed an exorcism, not one.
    Chris: Yeah well, it just so happens that somebody very close to me is probably possessed, and needs an exorcist. (she bursts into tears) Father Karras, it's my little girl.

    Chris: You show me Regan's double: same face, same voice, same everything. I'd know it wasn't Regan. I'd know in my gut, and I'm telling you that that thing upstairs isn't my daughter! And I want you to tell me that you know for a fact that there's nothing wrong with my daughter except in her mind! You tell me you know for a fact that an exorcism wouldn't do any good! You tell me that!

    Father Karras: Hello Regan. I'm a friend of your mother, I'd like to help you.
    Regan/Demon: You might loosen the straps then.
    Father Karras: I'm affraid you might hurt yourself Regan.
    Regan/Demon: I'm not Regan.
    Father Karras: I see. Well then let's introduce ourselves, I'm Damien Karras.
    Regan/Demon: And I'm the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps!
    Father Karras: If you're the devil, why not make the straps disappear?
    Regan/Demon: That's much to vulgar a display of power Karras.

    Father Merrin: We may ask what is relevant, but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar, the demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don't listen, remember that, do not listen.
    Father Karras: I think it would be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, there seems to be three. She's convinced
    Father Merrin: There's only one.

    Memorable Song: On Halloween, as Regan's mother walks home along Georgetown streets, the haunting song "Tubular Bells" is played. The film helped Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" album reach No. 3 on the charts and sell more than 10 million copies.


  • The British Board of Film lifted a 15-year ban in 1999 and allowed Warner Home Video to distribute "The Exoricst" in the United Kingdom. The film was re-released in England's theaters in the second half of 1998 and made more money than any other Warner Bros. film that was released in the country during the year.
  • Blatty can be seen briefly talking to Burke Dennings, who is directing a scene with Chris MacNeil on the Georgetown campus. Director Bill Friedkin had asked Blatty do improvise the unscripted scene the night before.
  • The character of Chris MacNeil was based on Shirley MacLaine, who was once a neighbor of Blatty's. Jane Fonda was also considered. MacLaine wanted to star and produce the film, as well. However, Blatty had decided to be the producer.
  • Regan plays with Captain Howdy on the Ouija board. Blatty chose the name because he thought that in its seeming innocence, it was all the more frightening, like the ventiloquist's dummy that comes alive in "Magic." It was also a play of her father's name, Howard.
  • The scene in which Father Dyer (Rev. William O'Malley) gives the dying Father Karras his last rites took many takes. Friedkin finally slapped O'Malley across the face before the final take.
  • During a scene in which Regan backhands her mother across the face, sending her crashing to the floor, stuntmen pulled her with a wire that had been rigged around her midriff. Burstyn complained that they were pulling to hard. On the next take, Burstyn landed on her coccyx and screamed in pain. Friedkin zoomed in on her and used it in the film.

    Rating: R for profanity, violence, horrifying scenes.
    Release Date: 1973 (by Warner Bros.).
    Running Time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
    Director: William Friedkin
    Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil); Linda Blair (Regan Teresa MacNeil); Max von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin); Jason Miller (Father Damien Karras); Lee J. Cobb (Lt. William F. Kinderman); Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings); Kitty Winn (Sharon Spencer); Mercedes McCambridge (voice of the demon); Rev. William O'Malley (Father Dyer).
    Total Oscar Nominations: 10.
    Oscar Wins: William Peter Blatty, best adapted screenplay; Robert Knudson and Chris Newman, best sound.
    Other Nominations: Best picture; Ellen Burstyn, best actress; Linda Blair, best supporting actress; Jason Miller, best supporting actor; William Friedkin, best director; Owen Roizman, best cinematography; Jordan Leondolpoulos, Bud Smith, Evan Lottman and Norman Gay, best editing; Bill Malley and Jerry Wunderlich, best art direction.

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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