Why There Will Never Be a Possession Movie as Scary as The Exorcist

The Exorcist moves slowly, and makes us care deeply for Linda Blair’s Regan McNeil, even if the devil made her do it.

Regan levitates in The Exorcist
Photo: Warner Bros.

No possession film will ever be as frightening as The Exorcist (1973) because it is a movie no one wants to make anymore. Filmmakers repeatedly try to copy it, but that’s not the same as producing a bold and groundbreaking original work, and when they do, they try to speed up the action to get to the thrills. The devil likes it slow and has never been more intimate, and real as in director William Friedkin’s multi-Oscar-nominated film. It is scary because it is studiously subdued, and daringly sloppy.

The Exorcist terrified moviegoers when it came out a day after Christmas in ‘73. William Peter Blatty’s novel was a bestseller before that, threatening to infest every bookshelf in every home in America. It was a demon just waiting for some studio to unleash it into theaters, and Warner Bros. heralded its unholy unveiling.

Word on the street warned that viewers ran out of auditoriums and passed out in the lobbies at the phantasmagorical extravaganza. Nearsighted audience members removed contact lenses to be spared the promised splatter spectacle of projectile pea soup vomiting, ghastly head-spinning, and unimaginably excruciating crucifix insertions. Reverend Billy Graham denounced the motion picture, saying, “The Devil is in every frame of this film,” as if that would make it any less appealingly frightening.

The mythology preceded the film before its initial release, and its reputation has only made that legend grow. A millisecond of one image from the film has appeared in countless viral memes, and to this day it can scare a modern audience if they gather in a dark theater and turn off their phones. The reason the expectations of the mind-numbing terror are still met has little to do with the appalling and all-too-real appearing imagery, however. It is in the slow-motion delivery of characters we care about, deeply, who are faced with an existential crisis. Is it satanic? It doesn’t matter, but it is.

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A Recognizably Demonic World

The cast matters mainly because of 12-year-old Regan McNeil, who is played by a 13-year-old Linda Blair. She gives a masterful performance. It is utterly natural to watch since the actor inside the role is not that far removed from the source or the memory of the most imaginative age. Every kid play-acts as part of natural play, and Blair surrenders to the character to a degree only challenged by the possessed pre-teen on the page.

Blair brings Regan to the screen as a fully formed, completely relatable, scared child the audience cares for long before the devil makes her do a thing. “Is something wrong with her brain?,” we worry. All those doctors and scientists, poking and probing, dinner guests gaping, policemen questioning; we just want them to leave the kid alone. By the time the priest is called in, we’re almost relieved. But that’s when it gets worse, and that’s why the film is the scariest.

Viewers connect to very natural horrors, mundanely terrifying, before unnatural ones make their dissonance cognitive. We are as infuriated as Regan’s mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) that she can’t get help for her daughter, and are shattered along with her when science doesn’t have any answers. We feel the anguished decision Jason Miller’s Father Damien Karras has to make in order to take on Regan’s possession. Lee J. Cobb is known for bombastic, brash, and impulsive characters, like his Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront. He cowered Humphrey Bogart onscreen in Sirocco (1951), and would have hung a whole jury in 12 Angry Men (1957).

Cobb puts in his most restrained performance as Lt. William Kinderman in The Exorcist, and telegraphs every pain, frustration, and curiosity he feels for his undertaking and those he encounters.

Regan ties the whole movie together. There have been imitators, special effects are more advanced, and film stock and footage grade are a thing of the past, replaced by pristine images that are enhanced further by CGI. All these things work against remakes, and retries. The 1973 film capitalizes on the grainy, gritty, almost-documentary-like lack of sheen to project a more unsettling cinematic experience. The Exorcist looks more real, because they had to keep it real.

Real Events in Real Time

As advertised, seemingly endlessly, the story was inspired by actual events. Blatty’s initial intent was to write a nonfiction account of an exorcism performed at a St. Louis psychiatric clinic in 1949. He heard stories about telekinetic activity, which set it apart from other reported incidents. The doctors did not believe in possession, but they believed in the healing power of suggestion. The Catholic Church agreed, sending a priest named Father William Bowdern to perform the ceremony, with a younger priest named William Halloran assisting.

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Blatty dramatized the story because specifics were vague, and family members wanted to protect the original subject’s identity. For the novel The Exorcist, Blatty changed the main character from the traumatized 13-year-old boy to a fictional girl.

Neither Blatty nor Friedkin worked in the horror genre before The Exorcist. Blatty usually wrote comedies like his script for Blake Edwards’ 1964 Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark. He put no jokes in The Exorcist, intentionally dropping even the hint of humor in order to give viewers relentless suspense and anguish with no outlet or release.

Friedkin won an Oscar in 1971 for directing The French Connection. Earlier, he’d made documentaries, and The Exorcist carries a similar cinema verté realism. Set pieces feel authentic, pacing is leisurely, the focus is intimate. The paranormal jumps work because they feel organic, like they are part of some raw captured footage the audience has come to believe and identify with. What happens to Regan could happen to anyone, and in any home.

The more egregious shocks are not gratuitous, each incremental transgression progresses the story. If Regan didn’t pee on the floor during a very important dinner, her mother would never have called the doctors. The crucifix incident is what pushes Regan’s mother to call in a priest. Whatever is happening to her daughter is beyond psychiatry and medicine, and it is happening to her now.

Blair was unknown at the time, cast because of her understanding and ability to discuss the crucifix scene with the director. Of all the applicants, Blair was the only one Friedkin felt wouldn’t be damaged by the twisted realism of the role, and the language on the page. The masturbatory crucifix scene itself featured a stand-in, Eileen Dietz, and was shot from behind.

Special Effects That Do Not Age

The now legendary makeup man Dick Smith was crucial to making The Exorcist so powerful, unrepeatable, and realistic. With effects masters Ron Nagle, Doc Siegel, Gonzalo Gavira, and Bob Fine assisting, Smith turned a completely believable, innocent preteen into a loathsome vessel for the demon Pazuzu. For the scarred look of the possessed child, he researched gangrenous wounds and burn victims, matching exact shading to real photos.

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To create the aged face of Father Lancaster Merrin, Smith turned Swedish actor Max von Sydow, who was 43 during shooting, into the spitting image of Father Bowdern, the priest who performed the 1949 exorcism, as he looked in his 80s.  

Even the makeup tests were used. The subliminal image which Billy Graham claimed to be a real demonic image may have been a smiling unused shot of Blair in test makeup. But the preacher missed another occult clue, hidden in plain sight. Friedkin inserted subliminal imagery and audio under frames to unsettle viewers, though not as much as believed. He used the sound of bees to trigger an innate fear response, and added foreboding industrial noise to make the audience want to back away for safety.

The most infamous subliminal intrusion is the white face that flashes during Father Karras’ dream about his mother, now dead, but still a cause of grief and guilt. The image, which flashes for only one or two frames, was Smith’s first proposal for demonic makeup, and it was applied to Blair’s stand-in, Dietz. It lasts about an eighth of a second at the film’s 45-minute mark, but lingers. For the rest of the movie, theatrical audiences in 1973 wondered if they saw it.

Pazuzu’s unearthly demonic voice was created by Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge. She didn’t need flangers or echoes, fuzz boxes or multitracking. McCambridge swallowed raw eggs, went back to smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. She was in AA at the time, and there was hell to pay to produce the realistic wheezing croak she made to sound like Pazuzu coming out of a little girl. McCambridge kept a clergy member on set, her sponsor. Not that the set couldn’t use a shot of holy water.

A Cursed Set

While not on the screen, some of the subliminal sedition emanates from the atmosphere in which the movie was created. Part of the mythology which gives The Exorcist more power than successive possession films comes from stories of a cursed set. On von Sydow’s first day of shooting, his brother died; Burstyn was yanked so hard by a harness pulled by the director that she suffered a spinal injury; she had to use crutches for most of the filming; during production, the son of Jason Miller was hit by a man on a motorcycle and nearly killed; Miller’s mother died the year the movie came out.

Similarly in the realm of movie legends, Jack MacGowran finished shooting his part as the alcoholic filmmaker Burke Dennings but died from the flu before the film was released. Meanwhile Paul Bateson, who played the radiology technician in the cerebral angiography scene, was convicted of murdering entertainment journalist Addison Verril in 1979.

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The interior set of the MacNeil home, located on an old New York soundstage, burned down overnight during production. No cause for the fire was found, but it shut production down for two months. Myths persist about broken cemetery stones near location shootings, and how the Washington D.C. stairs the priest is thrown down in one of the film’s many climaxes are haunted and cursed.

Exorcism Sequels That Failed to Conjure the Same Horror

Arguably the spell of the ‘73 film began to wear off on audiences four years later, when The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) was released. Much like the film’s now teenaged and traumatized Linda Blair, here sporting strobe-lit headgear, the movie dropped audiences into a deep sleep. Still, the picture is enjoyable to this writer, but it does not reach the heights of the original. Further entries did better against the curse.

The Exorcist III (1990), directed by Blatty himself and starring George C. Scott and Brad Douriff, is one of the best possession films made after the 1973 original. Even though it is an Exorcist sequel, it is also a progression. It is as frightening as the first film in many ways, but not as easily relatable. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) directed by Renny Harlin (after the studio abandoned another version of the same story that was helmed by Paul Schrader) would have made an adequate standalone film on shattered faith, Nazi occultism, and failed exorcisms, but was meant to fill seats and sell popcorn.

The studio at least released Schrader’s Exorcist prequel, Dominion, in 2005, and it’s a worthy possession film, filled with dread and spirituality in equal measure. The film accepts the devil, and acknowledges goodness as a pretty weak weapon. All the sequels are frightening and theologically stimulating. The devil is in the ideas and the audience’s imagination. None became classics though.

In 2017, Friedkin returned to the source, directing the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, which followed an Italian woman about to undergo her ninth exorcism after eight other priests failed. He leaves his camera in the car for the final, most dramatic, and successful rite, which he describes on audio, shattering whatever promise the journey was leading to. It is an adequate paranormal documentary, capturing interesting minutiae of exorcisms, but shines no real light into the darkness.

Exorcism Films which Reach Possessed Levels

While none reach as far into the soul as the original “devil-made-me-do-it” movie, some filmmakers have come close to darkening its spirit. Most have done it by breaking the formula.

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Based very loosely on the reported case of Anneliese Michel, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) rushes a little too fast through the backstory of the 21-year-old German woman who was de-possessed to death to evoke the same empathy the audience feels for Regan. This is its most glaring flaw in an otherwise original spin on possession. Director Scott Derrickson uniquely lays it out as a courtroom drama, with Laura Linney’s lawyer defending the priest (Tom Wilkinson) who performed rites which went horribly wrong.

The film maintains a very unsettling mood and leaves the question open about whether Emily’s (Jennifer Carpenter) incidents were the result of the undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy it turned out to be. From 1975 to 1976, Anneliese Michel, called Emily in the film, underwent 67 exorcisms. German bishops later retracted the possession designation, finding the woman died of malnourishment and dehydration due to the exorcism sessions. The two Roman Catholic priests who performed the rites were found guilty of negligent homicide, as was the mother. A little more reality and a lot less rush would have made this a far more frightening and memorable film, possibly on par with The Exorcist.

Two of the most unnerving and suspenseful possession films do not center on a traumatized child, but hardened adult detectives, one from a city homicide squad, the other in private practice. In Fallen (1998) the featured demon is Azazel. Weary from being the scapegoat to bearing the sins of atonement, this demon can possess people by mere touch, jumping from body to body. That’s how it escapes a death sentence to continue an unholy unfinished murder spree. The film stars Denzel Washington as John Hobbes, who almost beats the Old Testament entity by letting it possess him.

In Angel Heart (1987), Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a private detective on the outside but he’s actually the consciousness of Johnny Favorite, a jazz-age singer who sold his soul to the devil for fame, fortune, and powers so dark that the local voodoo priestess surmises,  “Favorite was as close to true evil as she ever wanted to come.”

When it is revealed that Angel has been committing crimes to cover up his past identity, Louis Cyphre, the devil himself played by none other than Robert De Niro, teases the probability of possession. Cyphre says Angel’s spree was “guided by my own hand, of course.” Did Angel commit the coverup murders as an emerging Favorite, giving his memories to the soul who truly possesses his identity, or was he possessed by Lucifer to commit the coverup crimes and incriminate himself? The threat of possession is probably never more pronounced.

Science and Religion, Who’s the Devil Here?

Prince of Darkness (1987), which was directed by John Carpenter, examines possession from a scientific perspective. A group of scientists and students, led by a professor (Victor Wong) and a priest (Donald Pleasence), study a jar found in a church basement which contains a substance that could be the physical manifestation of the Devil, as per an ancient text, but not by test studies. Moody and atmospheric, it all goes down the drain before doomsday comes. The film wouldn’t stand against peer review.

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Demonic possession stories go back a long time, even before the official Roman Ritual of 1614. The Bible teaches that demons are real beings. Jesus cast demons out and commanded his disciples to do the same. Even today, the faithful believe Satan “prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” because it says so in 1 Peter 5:8. As recently as 2018, Pope Francis declared, “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea, [but as] a personal being who assails us.”

In reality, there have been very few documented cases of real possession. Virtually every suspected possession has turned out to be a case of mental illness. Even the original case The Exorcist was based on was ultimately classified as a psychological one as far as the Holy Roman Church is concerned.

This makes the films based on the antics of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren particularly problematic, from The Amityville Horror in 1979 on through the works of James Wan, who reclaimed the possession genre with such films as Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013).

The Warrens saw the devil in everything, except themselves. It got them on TV, and probably preferred seating at restaurants. Imagine them hovering over a family’s dinner, recounting the tortures plotted by an at-large currently-possessed serial killer while using this exact placemat. It’s time to give up your seat. The Exorcist always sits at the head of his table.

Get Behind Me Jesus

The Possession (2012), directed by Ole Bornedal and starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is mainly interesting because the premise comes from Jewish mythology. The dybbuk, a malicious possessing spirit, does not originate in accepted Hebrew texts, but fairy stories which were told in the 1600s and turned into a play by Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport in 1914.

Non-demonic possession works like The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s film, the Stephen King novel it was based on, and the segment, “The Shinning,” which was part of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror V,” are possibly the most devious of all. The Overlook caretaker Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, is certainly under some kind of diabolical influence, whether it is the hotel, ghosts, or a larger malevolence.

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Director Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012), stars Ethan Hawke as a true crime writer who finds an 8mm snuff film which appears to have caught a possessed child murdering a family. It develops into a family threat, and breathes long enough to let the audiences get acquainted with the little devils before they get dispossessed.

The Exorcist benefits from its lesser-known cast, intimate focus, lower-budget, and the leisurely pace it sets in the most frantic of chases. Popular contemporary possession films skip straight to the FX they spent so much money on, and how many jump scares they can throw in.

The Exorcist works because of its handmade feel. Only the Ouija board knows whether the devil found work for those hands. If it did, Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin has an exorcism travel kit in a suitcase he always keeps on him. Its image is as indelibly carved into the minds of horror fans as Regan’s demonic smile, whether flashed for a moment just out of view or setting its sights on us from her impossibly twisting head. That’s why there will never be a possession movie as scary as The Exorcist. We can never get those images out of our minds.