The first major blockbuster in the history of horror cinema, William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) has exerted a powerful influence on the subsequent development of the genre and on public reception of it. Never before had a horror film been the subject of so much prerelease hype, so much gossip about postproduction strife, so much speculation as to why people of all ages would stand in line for hours to watch something reputed to induce fits of vomiting, fainting, even temporary psychosis. The cultural impact of The Exorcist can hardly be overestimated: it challenged existing regulations specifying what was acceptable to show on the big screen, stole U.S. newspaper headlines away from the ongoing Watergate scandal (at least for a little while), led to a detectable increase in the number of "real-life" possessions reported, and, in the words of gross-out film expert William Paul, "established disgust as mass entertainment for a large audience."
In 1949, reports came out in the press of a thirteen-year-old Maryland boy whose body was said to have been taken over by demonic forces. After seeing household objects fly around his room, the boy's distraught parents called in a Jesuit priest, who conducted a thirty-five-day-long exorcism with the help of numerous assistants. While the priests recited their holy incantations, the boy spit, cackled, urinated, writhed in his bed, and manifested bloody scratch marks on his body that spelled out words such as "Hell," "Christ," and the far more mysterious "Go to St. Louis." Fortunately for everyone involved, the alleged demon departed shortly after Easter. Novelist William Peter Blatty, inspired by this tale, made the possessee a girl (supposedly to protect the boy's anonymity, though his readiness to disclose information in later media interviews suggests this was unnecessary), sensationalized many of the details, added heavy doses of philosophical-theological speculation on the nature of evil, and came out with The Exorcist in 1971. An instant sensation, Blatty's novel would remain on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list for almost an entire year.
Even before its publication, Blatty signed a deal with Warner Brothers for the rights to make a film version of the novel. Warner agreed to Blatty's choice of director, William Friedkin, on the strength of his not-yet-released action movie, The French Connection, for which he won an Academy Award in 1971. After numerous and painstaking rewrites of the original script, Blatty finally came up with a screenplay of The Exorcist that managed to meet Friedkin's exacting demands for more mystery, more drama, and, above all, more direct confrontation between (good) priest and (evil) demon than were in the novel. For his own part—and with Warner's considerable financial backing—Friedkin employed a range of sophisticated cinematic techniques, along with state-of-the-art special-effects technology, to give the film's supernatural occurrences and gory physical details a degree of realism never before achieved.
The plot of The Exorcist is deceptively simple and has its roots in storytelling conventions well established in American cinema. After a lengthy prologue that is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who has not read the book, the first half of the film methodically develops the essential character relationships and establishes the crisis situation. Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is the adorable, almost-pubescent daughter of divorcee and well-known film star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). After Regan prophesies the death of her mother's acquaintance and urinates (standing up, no less) in front of a roomful of shocked dinner guests, Chris starts to wonder what has "gotten into" her daughter. More odd behavior, and a wildly shaking bed, lands Regan in the hospital, where she is subjected to a battery of extremely invasive procedures best described as "medical pornography." A brain lesion is suspected, but the tests turn up nothing. When Regan, supposedly under hypnosis, responds to the smug questions of a hospital psychologist by grabbing his scrotum and rendering him immobile, it is recommended that Chris seek the Church's help. She does, pleading with doubt-ridden Jesuit priest Damien Karras (Jason Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of That Championship Season) to perform an exorcism. The second half of the film culminates in an intense one-to-one fight to the finish between Karras and Regan's demonic possessor, after the more experienced exorcist on the scene, Father Merrin (Bergmanian actor Max von Sydow) dies in the struggle. Karras finally saves Regan by accepting the demon into his own body, only to throw himself (or at least allow himself to be thrown) out of a window to his death.
Although the Catholic Church originally supported Friedkin's efforts in the hopes that he would present Catholicism in a positive light, they ended up retracting that support after viewing the infamous scene in which Regan-demon violently masturbates with a crucifix in front of her powerless mother. For many audience members, the highly sexualized profanities spewing out of twelve-year-old Regan's mouth (the voice of the demon, Mercedes McCambridge, had to sue for credit) were as offensive as the green bile she vomited on Karras's face. In an era of student protest, experimental drug use, and general questioning of authority, The Exorcist allowed viewers to take pleasure in the terrible punishments inflicted on the rebellious ("possessed") Regan. But by making Regan-demon so fascinating to watch, so filled with nasty surprises, The Exorcist also allowed viewers to take pleasure in that rebelliousness.
The Exorcist did not merely give rise to a slew of imitations and variants on the possession theme, it made the child with special powers a dominant motif in modern horror cinema. Two mediocre sequels—The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and The Exorcist III (1990)—followed, the second one written and directed by Blatty; neither involved Friedkin at all. Richard Donner's highly polished The Omen (1976) added an apocalyptic edge to the demonic infiltration theme. Linda Blair, who attained cult-figure status with her role as Regan, reprised it in a Leslie Nielsen spoof entitled Repossessed (1990).
Blatty, William Peter. William Peter Blatty on "The Exorcist" from Novel to Film. New York, Bantam, 1974.
Bowles, Stephen. " The Exorcist and Jaws. " Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 4, No. 3, 1976, 196-214.
Kermode, Mark. The Exorcist. London, BFI, 1997.
Newman, Howard. The Exorcist: The Strange Story behind the Film. New York, Pinnacle, 1974.
Paul, William. "Possession, Regression, Rebellion." In Laughing, Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. New York, Columbia University Press, 1994, 287-318.
Travers, Peter, and Stephanie Reiff. The Story behind "The Exorcist." New York, Crown, 1974.