Exorcising the demons: 25 years after the film

Looking down the steep gray stone steps that lead from Georgetown University to M Street on a dreary autumn eve, it’s not hard to picture Father Karras’ broken body laying at the bottom in a pool of blood, his head twisted 180 degrees.

It’s Halloween. It’s Georgetown. It’s the 25th anniversary of the film The Exorcist.

Though it has aged a quarter-century, The Exorcist remains a chilling horror film. It traces a young priest’s battle to rid an innocent girl of the demon that inhabits her body and terrorizes her soul. Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 bestseller of the same title, the movie portrays the timeless battle between good and evil, and confronts the issue of the survival of faith in a secular world.

On the special digitally remastered anniversary release of the film, cast and crew members recount the perilous months of production and offer behind-the-scenes insights into the film that would become one of the first blockbusters of all time. The half-hour pre-show segment reveals some startling details.

“There were nine deaths connected with the film, some directly and some indirectly,” actress Ellen Burstyn said in the segment. Actor Jack McGowan, whose character was the first to be killed in the film, died shortly after shooting concluded.

Burstyn also recalled that the assistant cameraman’s baby, born during taping, did not survive, along with a young night watchman and a technical worker who refrigerated the set for some scenes.

“I think we knew we were playing around with something we shouldn’t have been playing around with,” said special effects director Marcel Vercoutere.

Friedkin said he intentionally set up the film to play to visual extremes that would come to represent spiritual ones. The blazing sun of Iraq, juxtaposed with the darkness of Georgetown in the fall accentuates the distinction, he said.

Blatty has said his novel was inspired by an account of a real exorcism in Mount Rainier, Md., in 1949. He first read about the Roman Catholic Church’s successful riddance of the devil from a 14-year-old boy in the pages of The Washington Post while he was a junior at Georgetown.

The article touted the exorcism as “one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history.”

Rev. Jim Greenfield of GW’s Newman Center said remnants of exorcism remain part of the Catholic baptism ceremony, but for all practical purposes, it has rarely been practiced since the early years of the church when the faithful held a more simplistic view of good and evil.

Nevertheless, the notion of exorcism gripped Blatty and never left his consciousness. He would later note, “If there were demons, there were angels and probably God and a life everlasting.”

In the case of the Mt. Rainier boy, Blatty found the tangible evidence he needed to make his case for the existence of God.

In 1963, already a successful comedy writer, Blatty sought out the priest who performed the exorcism of the Mt. Rainier boy, hoping he would collaborate with Blatty in authoring an account of the event. The Jesuit priest from St. Louis, William F. Bowdern, refused Blatty’s request. He was concerned that further publicity would negatively impact the young man involved. Blatty was undeterred. He released his novel, inspired by the Mt. Rainier case, in 1971.

The novel and subsequent film begin in Northern Iraq as Rev. Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) supervises the site of an archeological dig in the biblical town of Ninevah. As the blazing sun beats down on him, he observes a small, unearthed gargoyle, a symbol, in his judgment, of “evil against evil.”

Merrin, who nearly was killed presiding over an exorcism years earlier, takes the statue as an omen that he will confront evil again. Swiftly, he returns to the United States to meet his fate.

The bright desert of Iraq dissolves into the everyday bustle of an autumn morning in Georgetown. In her upper-class home, actress Chris MacNeil (Burtsyn) is alone in her bedroom, studying lines for an upcoming shoot. Suddenly she is disturbed by scratching sounds, apparently emanating from her 12-year-old daughter Regan’s room. She goes upstairs to investigate and finds the child (Linda Blair) sleeping peacefully in bed, her window ajar and cold air beginning to fill the room. Once downstairs, she instructs the housekeeper to buy traps for the rats she assumes must be causing the eerie scratching.

Meanwhile on Gergetown’s campus, a statue of the Virgin Mary has been desecrated, one more sign of the threat of impending destruction.

A few days later, Chris hears chilling noises coming from Regan’s room. In one of the film’s most gruesome scenes, she opens the door to find the girl masturbating with a crucifix. Covered with blood, Regan uses her telekinesis to attack her mother with a chest of drawers, then taunts her with a 180-degree turn of her head.

Doctors attribute Regan’s strange behavior to a brain imbalance and convince Chris to submit her daughter to a painful surgical treatment. In an excruciating ceremony, Regan is prepared for surgery and then subjected to the tortures of the doctor’s needle slowly invading her neck. As she undergoes the final phase of the procedure, doctors view the interior of her skull only to conclude nothing is physically wrong with the girl.

After further psychiatric evaluations, doctors finally conclude that Regan has a rare condition in which she believes her body is inhabited by some life force other than her own. In a last effort, they recommend that Chris, a woman with no specific religious beliefs, seek out help from her neighboring Catholic church.

Chris finally consults Father Karras about the possibility of an exorcism, only to be told that they have not been performed since the 16th century. He too, believes that Regan’s illness is purely biological. She pleads with him, and he replies that the church needs specific proof of incarnation before granting the procedure.

He begins the evaluation, noting Regan’s telekinesis and ability to speak Latin and French, languages she has never studied. When he sprinkles holy water over her in the shape of a cross, she shouts that it burns. Later he sees the words “help me” scrawled on the girl’s stomach – a relic of the little girl trapped inside the body. Merrin is called to oversee the exorcism.

Together, he and Karras do battle with the demon in Regan, armed with religious texts and artifacts. They begin to pray and sprinkle holy water on the demon-child as she hurls her foulest epithets, spews yellow slime and spins her head. The ultimate battle of good and evil begins.

The film was shot on location at Georgetown University, where students charged their classmates $5 a head to watch actor Jason Miller’s fall down the infamous steps. Another piece of footage in which Regan spins her head several times, what Friedkin describes as “the most shocking piece of footage ever made,” required the special effects crew to construct a life-size robot.

“When we were done with her, we’d prop her up in the front seat of a New York taxi cab, just to see people’s reactions as she spun her head around,” Vercoutere said.

“Today they could make you think the Titanic was sinking, but back then it was hard enough to make a bed look like it was floating,” Friedkin said.

A lengthy article in the October issue of Gadfly magazine maintains that against the background of the Manson Cult killings and John Lennon’s assertion that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, The Exorcist filled America’s spiritual void by specifically defining the existence of God in the universe.

Debate has erupted over the film’s conclusion. Who wins in the end: good or evil?

“Most people take out of The Exorcist what they bring to it,” Friedkin said.

“If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place, then The Exorcist will reinforce that,” he said. “If you believe there is a force for good that combats, and eventually triumphs over evil, then you will be taking out of the film what we tried to put into it.”

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