The Exorcist’s director, William Friedkin, who died in August at the age of 87, was well aware of the horror movie’s lasting cultural impact years following its theatrical debut in 1973. Like several iconic films, the adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel — which chronicled a case of demonic possession in a 12-year-old girl — has a parallel legacy in pop culture surrounding its production, with oft-told anecdotes alleging eerie disturbances behind the scenes.
Speaking with ET in 1985, Friedkin opened up about some of those accounts as he reflected on the making of The Exorcist just over a decade into its cinematic infamy.
RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES
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“What I tried to do with The Exorcist was to do a story about an ordinary street, in an ordinary little town, with an ordinary house on the corner, and everything about it is normal,” Friedkin explained. “Except upstairs there’s a little girl, who’s possessed by the devil.”
Citing a real-life case of suspected possession in 1949 in Silver Springs, Maryland — in close proximity to The Exorcist’s Georgetown location — Friedkin cross-referenced this true story that had inspired the novel with a healthy amount of skepticism.
“[The Silver Springs case] made me realize this was not a horror story. It was something that had actually happened that was inexplicable. There were no answers for it, and I tried to make the film with that as a kind of undertone,” he shared. “And I tried to make the film as realistic as possible, without the classic horror film touches.”
Recognizing the potential for mass hysteria — and pointing to, for reference, Daniel Dafoe’s literary classic, A Journal of the Plague Year — the French Connection director might disappoint fans who want the movie’s helmer to buy into its biblical-based reality.
“If you look at the film very carefully, there’s the possibility that everyone involved is kind of a victim of mass hysteria. They’re just overwrought by their inability to cope with this illness,” he said, adding, “The film to me is more about the mystery of faith” and “the fact that fate takes a hand in people’s destinies.”
A VULGAR DISPLAY OF POWER?
“We had a priest who came on the set periodically who exorcized the set, and then things would go well for a while for a month or so,” Friedkin said. “Then, there would be something extraordinarily weird happening again.”
The fact-or-fiction theme proposed on-screen later extended to stories about making The Exorcist, which was filmed on soundstages in New York City and on location in D.C., the latter of which included the iconic staircase that’s now a popular tourist photo op (or for many like Rob Lowe, as seen in the photo above, who have used it to get in a workout).
One of the most curious incidents was a fire that burned down the three-story, interior house set, which, according to Friedkin, had cost $500,000 to build and, presumably, just as much to rebuild while production stopped for three months.
“At four o’clock in the morning, I got a phone call from the production manager, who said, ‘You’re not gonna believe this, but the whole set has burned to the ground,’” Friedkin recalled. “They never figured out what happened… There used to be birds flying around the rafters. Pigeons. And the theory was, perhaps, a pigeon had flown into a light box and caused a short.”
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He added, “It became very strange. Very strange. Lots of things that happened in connection with the [The Exorcist] that were as inexplicable as the events depicted in the film.”
While Paper Moon’s Tatum O’Neal, at 10 years old, became the youngest person to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1974, the category also boasted Linda Blair, who at just a couple years older had transformed into the demon Pazuzu’s obsession across a series of violent sequences that continue to imprint on incoming generations.
According to Friedkin, a gut instinct led to Blair landing the role of Regan MacNeil out of the 500 other actresses who had auditioned. “She came in to meet with me, and I had a feeling about her as soon as I met her,” he remembered. “She was extremely bright. She was a straight-A student, and she was a champion horse woman at the time… She was an extraordinarily gifted, natural actress.”
So gifted, for better or worse, Blair’s performance led to unwanted attention from obsessed fans, a plight she endured for years following the movie’s release (Warner Bros., in the aftermath, provided Blair security amid the intensifying threats. “I’m appreciative they felt responsible to make sure my safety was in order,” Blair shared with ET in 2000. “It’s just one of those things. This kind of film is going to bring out some different personalities in people.”) This, among other impacts, came as a surprise to Friedkin at the time, whose curiosity in the overall response didn’t extend beyond his role as a storyteller.
“I really didn’t expect that it would cause the kind of panic that ensued in many areas. And so, my reaction was to retreat from it. Get as far away from it as possible,” Friedkin recalled. “Because I realized we were dealing with something that was very deep-seated in the culture.”
As for his reasoning behind The Exorcist’s enduing legacy, Friedkin modestly pointed to his minimalist approach to a complex story. “I just took a long time to try to make it as straightforward as possible… And to rid myself of all notions of making a horror film,” he said.
50 YEARS LATER
In The Exorcist, church officials described Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) as the only person with enough real-world experience to oversee the life-or-death stakes of exorcisms. And now, five decades later, Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil is having a full-circle moment in the aftermath of her daughter’s dip into an Old Testament reality, with Regan’s mother becoming the expert who’s brought in to consult over a pair of possessions in The Exorcist: Believer.
After resurrecting the Halloween franchise, director David Gordon Green and co-writer Danny McBride have turned their focus to Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece. And while picking up Laurie Strode’s journey was — famously — an exploration of trauma, previews for The Exorcist: Believer hint at a study of what truths about humanity remain after a half-century’s worth of evolving perspectives on religion, science and spirituality. Plus, as seen in the most recent trailer, there’s more green vomit.
“[We] have our spin on what for me is another iconic movie of my youth culture,” Gordon told ET last year. “The thought is just honoring the legacy of this story and these characters, taking it 50 years down the line.”
The Exorcist streams on Max. The Exorcist: Believer is in theaters now.