The Exorcist: how pea soup became a recipe for The Scariest Movie Of All Time

William Friedkin’s supernatural chiller made history, but it was an unconventional and soup-stained road to get there...

Linda Blair looking creepy in The Exorcist
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

How do you make the scariest film ever? Slap a priest in the chops, injure your leading lady and unexpectedly spray pea soup right in the kisser of your leading man, according to the notorious production history of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. And boy did it pay off.

William Peter Blatty’s screenplay, adapted from his novel about about the possession of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil was hot property in Hollywood right from the off, with a range of top tier directors courted for the gig. It was Blatty who insisted on Friedkin though, because of Friedkin’s uncensored honesty on a previous script of Blatty’s. The story goes that Friedkin turned down a directing gig on TV show Peter Gunn because it had, according to Friedkin, “the worst script I ever read.” It was Blatty’s script. Blatty thanked him for his honesty and went to bat for him. When Friedkin’s The French Connection hit big, the studio acquiesced.

To say the shoot was challenging was an understatement. Renegade Friedkin used all manner of unorthodox techniques to eke iconic performances from his cast. Including, yep, slapping real life priest William O’Malley across the face before a key scene, blind-siding star Jason Miller by unexpectedly directing Regan’s pea-soup puke into his face, and including the real life-screams of Ellen Burstyn after a stunt gone wrong caused her an injury.

Unconventional? Um, yes. Not to be encouraged? No sir. “I got fired about five times from The Exorcist!” Friedkin even told The Guardian back in 2013… No kidding…

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But you can’t argue with the results. The movie smashed it at the box office becoming one of the two highest grossing films that year, was critically adored (and still tops ‘scariest ever’ lists) and even attracted the attention of the Academy.

Here are some more extra-nerdy facts…

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So why so damn scary? Is it the semi-subliminal image of demon Pazuzu that pops up when you least expect it? It it Regan’s foul mouth, green vom, spinning head and terrifying visage? Is it the unshakable feeling of creeping dread throughout? Yes to all those things. But for us at Den of Geek it could be the indelible images of a priest punching a 12-year-old and the hesitation of a mother, afraid to comfort her weeping child.

“You take from The Exorcist what you bring to it. If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place, then The Exorcist will re-affirm that,” Friedkin says. Is it about a crisis of faith? Catholic guilt? Fear of teenage girls going through puberty? Or is it literally about a little girl who gets possessed by a demon? You don’t have to just pick one! Whatever you bring to the film, you’re sure to leave with the bejesus scared out of you…