Shudder’s new documentary series Cursed Films explores the odd happenings surrounding Hollywood horror flicks, and the purported supernatural reasons behind such bizarre occurrences.
However, in the premiere episode on the streaming service dedicated to horror, executive producer Jay Cheel tackles the William Friedkin-directed classic, 1973’s The Exorcist. The film—adapted from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel based on a purportedly true exorcism case—is about a young girl possessed by the demon Pazuzu. Incidents such as actress Linda Blair’s on-set injury, as well as a fire, and off-set deaths of family members all added an heir of curse to the film.
For believers in the curse, engaging in activity like playing with a Ouija board onscreen, or simply acknowledging a demon, is to invite it in. To convey the power of this faithful thinking, Cheel interviews an alleged exorcist, and even films a series of exorcisms. The resulting footage is disturbing—regardless of whether you believe a dark entity is legitimately being expelled from people or that the “victims” are actually being duped by a charlatan.
Cheel’s storytelling invites the viewer to decide for themselves about the topic of curses and the supernatural, although he says he approaches the tales with an open mind. But the series also points out that coincidence does not equal a curse.
During the course of interviews with academics, as well as those involved directly in the supposed hexed movies, the series points out that tragedy and death occur every day. And feeling cursed is somewhat subjective. Once you think you’re cursed, you are; every unfortunate event that occurs in your life begins to fit a pattern, from the unexpected death of a loved one, to the speeding ticket you got when you were already running late for a flight. Plus, behind many unlucky accidents, one can discover negligence.
Jay Cheel joined me to discuss the first episode Cursed Films, which is streaming now on Shudder. In the following interview, he discusses The Exorcist’s lasting legacy on Linda Blair, as well as how his own belief the recent loss of his father figures into the making of the show. You can read part one of our interview with Cheel here.
Through the course of this episode, it would appear Linda Blair has been impacted by this role as Regan, but that due to a curse, or lack of appropriate safety (which led to her being injured)—and then death threats following the movie.
Personally, I think it was a lack of appropriate safety on certain levels. We’ve all heard the story of the lacing coming loose during the scene in which she’s flopping on the bed. But also maybe, a lack of protections for a kid who’s being put into the public eye, having portrayed a demon on screen. The Exorcist was a very popular film, and it became just such a phenomenon. Everyone knows what happened after Jaws came out; there was this fear of going into the water. Imagine that, but all of that fear being projected onto a teenage girl. It just is unimaginable to think that at that time in her life, she actually had to have bodyguards following her because there were people who thought she had been psychologically damaged during the making of that film, or even to the extent of people thinking that maybe she was evil.
Do you think individuals suggesting simply watching movie would conjure evil exacerbated that?
We talk about Billy Graham suggesting that the film itself was evil; that projecting the film in the cinema would unleash some sort of evil spirit into the theater. At the core of all of that is a pre-teen, young actress dealing with all of the fallout of that… It’s hard enough for child actors to deal with fame, just in general, let alone fame that comes from having portrayed the devil on screen
And you point out that this doesn’t happen to every child actor, even in horror movies.
Phil Nobile Jr. makes it an interesting point that the kid from The Omen didn’t really go through this, which is interesting. In The Exorcist, Regan is the victim. She’s overtaken by this demon, and by the end of the film is back to herself. But when the film ends, people still see Linda Blair as a devil child on the verge of spewing peas soup in your face. I feel like that must have had some long-lasting effects on her. I don’t think that it was anything supernatural, but I certainly think there’s got to be some trauma that would come from that sort of experience as a child, like any child actor goes through.
How does belief enter into the idea of a curse, in your opinion? Belief is a powerful thing. If you believe you’re cursed, essentially you are. If you go into that thinking that this is evil, or this is going to cause bad things, essentially, it will. Everything reinforces that belief.
We talked about that, but it didn’t really make it into the show. Are curses real? Just the simple question of asking that, while even the skeptics would obviously suggest that curses aren’t real, they would acknowledge the fact that if someone believes curses are real, it could turn into sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We do get into the idea of portraying these things on screen almost connecting it to the idea of the voodoo doll, “like attracts like,” where you’re penetrating doll that has the likeness of a person. That act is having an effect on that person. If you’re recreating a ritual on screen that is very much rooted in reality, and whoever did the research on that film really did a good job, then that could very well have real effects if you’re a believer in such a thing.
What’s your belief system?
I would probably fall on the side of Michael Shermer; I’m very skeptical and I am agnostic in terms of my religious beliefs or lack thereof. Hanging out with some of the people like Mitch Horowitz— who’s an occult historian and he does believe in some of the certain things, and he’s a very well-articulated intelligent person—I left the interview thinking, “OK, well I don’t want to suggest that I think that every single thing in this world or this universe is answerable.” There’s always some conclusion we can draw from these unusual circumstances. There are definitely unexplained things that happen in the world.
I think my perspective is just that it’s even more interesting thinking of a series of crazy coincidences that might occur. It’s almost more interesting to me that we can witness that kind of patterning and crazy circumstances, and apply some sort of logic to it, and connect it to this horror film, and have the horror genre open us up to thinking about that. Whenever something like that comes up, I just think wow, the world is an amazing place.
It sounds like you’re viewing the beauty in the coincidence.
Those unexplainable coincidences just make me stand back in awe even more so, rather than making me just think, “OK, there must be something supernatural behind this.” April Wolfe, who is one of the best interviews, very clearly lays out this idea that some of these cursed stories we use as an explanation of how someone can be gone. Here one second, gone the next. I lost my dad in January to lung cancer after a very fast two-month battle with it. When he was gone, I’m still obviously processing the fact that he is nowhere.
As I’m sitting here, it’s hard to understand that because I’ve always been in my house knowing that he is at his place with my mom. When you are provided this opportunity to apply some sort of supernatural explanation to this, it at least gives you something to grasp onto—even if it is an answer that’s not based in any sort of evidence or science. It is comforting in a weird way. But I think that’s where it ends. My dad’s ashes are sitting in my mom’s house right now, and I don’t think that if we desecrated them, he would haunt us from beyond the grave.
Do you think there is an element with cursed films that, if you allow for the possibility of evil forces plaguing us for whatever reason, there this must be the flip side—the light, and the good, and miracles?
We get into that. Hector Avalos is a professor of religious studies who’s currently writing a book about horror films as a missionary tool, and that the church actually can at times embrace horror films because it suggests exactly what you said. It suggests that if there’s evil out there, if there’s a devil, then there must be a God. It gives you that comfort.
As someone who’s a self-proclaimed agnostic, I watched The Exorcist and it still affects me and it scares the shit out of me. While I don’t necessarily believe that exorcisms are a real thing, I do believe that there are people who think that they’re a real thing, and they offer them some sort of relief in some way. I witnessed that firsthand when we filmed our real exorcisms for The Exorcist episode.
Speaking of that, why did you include “real” exorcisms, and what was going through your mind as these people appeared to convulse and violent expel “evil.”
I’d always been interested in filming exorcisms. I thought that would be a very powerful thing to witness and to film. For this episode, one of the big challenges with doing a show about cursed films is this idea of being believers. The majority of people who share these stories, and the majority of the people who were involved in these stories, don’t really think these films were cursed. I think at the very least, they will acknowledge that there are a lot of strange things that happened during the making of these films that were unexplainable.
In trying to offer a little bit of a balance and push things towards the side of belief, and exploring ideas of belief, the exorcisms were a way in which to engage the lasting effect that the film had, not necessarily in terms of the curse that the people who made the film experience, but just the phenomenon of The Exorcist and how that potentially formed people’s beliefs.
Having a curse can be good PR for a film, and having a successful film about exorcisms can be good advertising for the ritual?
Mitch Horowitz mentions in the episode that without The Exorcist, and all of the exorcism films that followed, there are probably a lot of people that would never have heard of exorcisms. The people who do hire someone to perform an exorcism on themselves, the way in which they engage in that process is very in line with what you see, and is portrayed in these films. The film did its job. It proved for some people that the devil is real, and that whatever issues that they might be facing in the personal life might be the result of them having been influenced by the devil or a demon.
What do you think you witnessed with these exorcisms?
In terms of what we witnessed, we filmed five exorcisms in one day, and we show three of them in the episode. They were definitely some of the most unusual experiences I’ve had filming something. I certainly believe that every person that Vincent, the exorcist, engaged with truly thought they had a demon inside of them. I’m not sure if Vincent truly believes that.
It is disturbing to watch because, for me, these people looked like they were being duped.
It was very clear to me that there were deeper issues that these people were grappling with, that they were distilling down to this simple concept of a devil or a demon being inside of them. It was an interesting way for them to… There’s some stuff that we didn’t include in the show. I feel like there could have been a whole documentary just on that day.
The reasoning that a lot of these people were meeting with Vincent… It was very clear to me that the reasons were very personal and very traumatic, and were probably best dealt with by a trained therapist or psychologist, and not an exorcist. This is what they felt that they needed in the moment, and this is the service that Vincent provides. We witnessed it as observers and it was intense. It was some yelling, some shirt ripping. There was some vomiting. It was a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be, in many ways.
So you weren’t convinced by the exorcism?
It was an unusual experience. I did not leave that shoot feeling convinced of anything. In fact, I left the shoot feeling very strongly in the opposite opinion, to a degree that I felt uncomfortable about some of the ways in which Vincent was interacting with these people.
Finally, I mentioned before that curses or hauntings on set can be great PR for a project. So did anything out of the ordinary happen while filming?
During one of the exorcisms, we had a light above one of the doors. This is a light we use throughout the entire shoot. At one point, Vincent walked out from behind the camera and put his hand on this person’s head, and was saying some sort of prayer and the light started blinking. I looked at Jared, my cinematographer, and he just shrugged his shoulders like he didn’t know what was going on. It’s in the show; you can see it blinking. As soon as it ended, the light went back to normal. We were like, what was that about? We didn’t necessarily think that there was a demon screwing with the circuits or anything, but it was… They do reveal the draw of that scenario, that we were so in it, that it weirded us out a little bit. It was definitely strange, the timing of that. But the whole day was strange. It was a weird day.