(From Fear Magazine)

(Issue 24 December 1990)


Haunted by demons?  Jinxed by evil spirits?  Responsible for suicides, murders and madness?  Seventeen years after the first shocking appearance of The Exorcist --- and on the eve of the release of both Exorcist 3 and Repossessed --- Mark Kermode sifts through the rumours, innuendoes and porky-pies surrounding this milestone in horror Cinema and asks: 'Who's still afraid of The Exorcist?'

"What must be the reputation of the film? ", asked William Peter Blatty in FEAR a few months ago, recounting how an associate refused to allow his cobra to be used in The exorcist 3 because he felt it would become jinxed.  What indeed?  Yet glancing back to 1973, when Blatty and Friedkin's ground-breaking collaboration first heralded in a new era of horror, the rumours of the 'jinx' which haunted The Exorcist can be recognized as a crucial element in the promotion of the movie --- a promotion which resulted in a staggering $66.3 million taken at the box office in the film's initial release period, making it the most successful movie of all time.
        Perhaps more than any horror film, The exorcist generated rumours of unholy goings on.  'It was as if some evil force was haunting the film,' Blatty told journalists in December 1973, on the eve of the film's release, adding ominously: 'It is impossible to put all these things down to coincidence --- if anyone wanted proof that evil forces do exist, I think the strange and inexplicable events that occurred during the filming of The Exorcist would be enough to convince them.'
        The most widely reported 'strange and inexplicable event' was clearly the death of Jack MacGowran, who passed away two weeks after completing his scenes as Burke Dennings.  Other fatalities obliquely attributed to the movie included those of Max Von Sydow's brother (who died in Sweden) and Linda Blair's Grandfather.  To add to this litany of casualties, Jason Miller's son Jordan was struck by a speeding motorbike during a beach visit, putting him (briefly) in intensive care, a gaffer cut off his own fingers (or toes, depending on your source) on set, and Ellen Burstyn ricked her back.  More bizarre still, it was widely reported that Blatty's secretary, Noni, had been mysteriously taken ill, whilst her room-mate had gone insane and been carted off to an asylum in a straight jacket.  Oh yes, and the set of the MacNeil house constructed at the Ceco 54th Street studios burned down... on a sunday, no less.  'There were in fact some thirteen episodes during the making of the movie that seemed like diabolical interventions,' wrote unit publicist Howard Newman in his splendidly Hokum paperback, The Exorcist: The Strange Story Behind The Film.  'Coincidence or not, numerologists will enjoy speculating on that...'

Most of the events cited above would have simply been put down to bad luck but for the press' reporting of the 'jinx' theory.  Talking repeatedly of the 'amazing double images' which showed up on the shots of Linda Blair, director and shrewd publicist William Friedkin also embarked upon what amounted to a campaign of disinformation regarding the movie's special effects, causing one critic to comment that Friedkin would only be happy if everyone thought that poor old Linda Blair had actually become possessed on set.  'There are strange images and visions that showed up on the film that were never planned,'  Friedkin told journalist Benjamin Fort in late 1973.  'There are double exposures in the little girl's face at the end of one reel that are unbelievable!'
        More unbelievable, however, were Friedkin's increasing bizarre claims about how the special effects were done, most significantly his repeated assertion that the levitation scene 'was achieved by the use of magnetic fields'; Ms Blair is in fact hanging from a harness suspended by piano wires, which are clearly visible even on a video print.  Friedkin also attempted initially to convince journalists that the demonic voice provided by Mercedes McCambridge was actually the voice of Linda Blair, an endeavour in which he was thwarted by Ms McCambridge's demand for a screen credit.  'It's not true that some of [Blair's] words were blended with mine on the final track,'  McCambridge told the New York Times early in 1974.  'All of the devilish vocality is mine --- all of it.  Every word!'  After threats of legal action, Friedkin was forced to acknowledge McCambridge's work, and she received a credit (although not as the demon's voice) on all but the first thirty prints of the Exorcist.
        Other 'areas of uncertainty' included the 'intensive psychological testing' through which the director claims he put Ms Blair, but of which Linda Blair's mother has no recollection.  This was to be particularly significant later on when the newspapers became flooded with stories that Linda Blair had been driven insane by her performance, despite the numerous public appearances made by the clearly healthy young actress.  'It did not bother me very much to do the film, and I was not disturbed in any way,' a feisty Linda told The Guardian newspaper in March 1974.  'People felt I would have problems after doing it, but i have never had any.'  Friedkin also attempted, for a number of conflicting reasons, to convince the press that Blair was used for every scene in the film, including the notorious crucifix masturbation scene.  'She did everything in the picture, she had no double, no stand in.  It's all her,' he claimed.  In fact, a stand-in named Eileen Dietz was used for a number of brief shots including the projectile vomiting effect, a scene of Regan struggling with her mother, and most significantly the controversial shot of Regan's hand driving the crucifix beneath her night-gown.

Released on Boxing Day 1973, The Exorcist generated a wave of audience hysteria the likes of which had not been seen since the opening of the 1931 Frankenstein, from which patrons ran screaming, causing cinema managers to lay on smelling salts and ambulance crews for the adversely affected.  Within weeks of the first public screening of the exorcist, reports were flowing in of fainting, vomiting, heart attacks, and at least one mis-carriage.  In Berkeley, a male patron received injuries when he threw himself at the screen to 'get the demon'.  Later, the Toronto Medical Post reported that four women had been confined to psychiatric care after seeing the film.  'There is no way you can sit through that film without receiving some lasting negative or disturbing effects,' announced Chicago psychiatrist Dr Loyis Schlan, whilst Oakbrook theatre manager Frank Kveton was somewhat more down to earth in his assessment: ' My janitors are going crazy wiping up the vomit!' he opined ruefully.
        More seriously, European press reports in the months following the movie's world-wide release concentrated upon a number of cases of criminal and suicidal behaviour for which The Exorcist was squarely blamed.  In West Germany the death of 19 year old Rainer Hertrampf, who shot himself with an automatic rifle some time after seeing The Exorcist, led to calls for the film to be banned.  In England, a much publicised inquest concerning the death of 16 year old John Power, who had seen The Exorcist the day before he died, revealed that the teenager had suffered a totally unrelated epileptic attack, but public fears of the film's harmful potential were aroused nonetheless.  In October 1974, The Exorcist was cited as responsible for the murder of nine year old Sandra Simpson by teenager Nicholas Bell who told a York crown court: 'It was not really me that did it.  There was something inside me.  It is ever since I saw that film The Exorcist.  I felt something take possession of me.  It has been in me ever since.'
        Adding to the fervent zeal with which some condemned The Exorcist was the increasing worry voiced in certain quarters that both the English and American censors had been too lenient with the movie.  The American ratings board, the MPAA, rated The Exorcist 'R' which allowed children to view the film with parental approval.  MPAA President Jack Valenti stressed that the picture contained 'no overt sex' and 'no excessive violence', but community pressure in Washington and Boston forced the DA's office to overturn the 'R' rating and slap a 17 age restriction on the movie.  In Britain, The Exorcist ws passed uncut for an 'X' certificate ( the equivalent of the modern '18' rating), but found itself under attack from the Christian lobby, The Festival of Light, who picketed performances of the film, handing out leaflets to potential viewers warning them of the 'dangers of opening themselves up to the forces of darkness.'  Claiming (without evidence) that two people had already died as a result of watching The Exorcist, Festival Chairman Peter Thompson demanded that the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins conduct a public inquiry into the regulation of admission to 'X' films.  In a wave of media prompted hysteria worryingly similar to the current panic surrounding 'horror videos', The Exorcist was promptly blamed for all manner of social ills ranging from a series of sexual assaults to the theft of a jacket and trousers by a woman who hadn't actually seen the movie, but whose eighteen year old daughter had become disturbed after a viewing.  Ironically, on February 24th 1975, the Government censorship board of Tunis banned the movie outright on the grounds that it presented 'unjustified' propaganda in favour of Christianity!

Recently, The Exorcist has run into problems under the Video Recordings Act and is currently deemed illegal on video in England.  'The problem with video is that you cant really control the age at all,' explained BBFC director James Ferman.  'There are so many well documented cases of teenagers having hysteria from seeing The Exorcist.  It's a scary story for an age-group of maximum superstition, and we've been very cautious about it.'
        One oft cited explanation for the traumatizing power of The Exorcist is the use of subliminal visual and aural stimulants, to which Friedkin candidly admitted in 1973, citing director Alain Resnais' documentary Night and Fog as his inspiration.  'The subliminal cut is the most important discovery the motion picture has made since the close-up,' said Friedkin.  'It is the most provocative and useful tool that a filmmaker has today as a storytelling device because it really expresses the way we all think in cinematic terms.  The way when we're walking down the street or talking to each other and while you're looking at me, or I at you, we're flashing on something else constantly.  The way the mind reaches into God knows where for a picture out of our subconscious.'  There are indeed two significant 'subliminals' in The Exorcist whose presence is easily identifiable --- firstly during Karras' dream of his mother, the screen is filled for two frames with a white-painted image of Jason Miller's leering face, appearing as a death mask; and during the exorcism itself, Linda Blair's tossing head is replaced momentarily with Miller's similarly deathly visage.
        Yet jumping the apocryphal-rumour-bandwagon, some writers have claimed that The Exorcist is littered with such 'tacischoptic displays', most notably Wilson Bryan Key who, in his influential work media Sexploitation: The Hidden Implants of America's Mass Media make a number of startling accusations against Friedkins movie, asserting that 'for a small minority The Exorcist could be threatening or even dangerous.'  Amongst Key's charges of sneak subconscious foulplay is the claim that, during a scene in which Merrin sits by Regan's bed ' his breath condensed [and] a ghostly face appeared momentarily in the cloud.  'The face, apparently drawn on several frames, was also consciously invisible to the audience.'  Furthermore, Key insists that 'while Father Karras prays in church, a skull-shaped shadow appears on the white wall behind him.'   Close examination of a video print of The Exorcist fails to support these outlandish claims, however, along with Key's assertion that the death mask of Karras flashes up 'many times' during the film.   One possible explanation for these discrepancies is a theory which has since passed into modern mythology which states that Warners actually withdrew and recut The Exorcist after its initial release, removing the subliminals for fear of legal recriminations.   A more likely explanation is simply that they were never there in the first place.
        If key's claims of sneaky visual stimuli were 'exaggerated', there is no doubt that in one area at least, The Exorcist is indeed a Pandora's box of weird and unsettling delights --- the soundtrack.  Talking to Cindy Ehrlich in 1973, soundman Ron Nagle revealed that amongst the noises incorporated on the movie's soundtrack were fighting dogs, squealing pigs on their way to the slaughter, and an angry bee trapped in a jar; all of these sounds were treated and vari-speeded to produce rumbles and undertones that appear throughout the exorcism scenes.   Nagle also claimed that he had pounded his girlfriend's back and recorded her groans, and had her swallow pulpy raw egg whites and taped her convulsing.  However, since Mercedes McCambridge has subsequently announced that during her work on The Exorcist, she swallowed eighteen raw eggs and a pulpy apple, and was tied to a chair with bed-sheets, Nagle's claim about his mistreatment of his 'girlfriend' may well be yet another in the bizarre catalogue of half truths, misleading rumours, and devilish deceptions which surrounded the first release of this most extraordinary horror movie, and which still haunt The Exorcist today.