Torches are passed on the season finale of The Exorcist season 2, but the one who started it is still battling demons, inner and outer. Creator, writer and executive producer Jeremy Slater isn’t running from any scandals, and he’s not trying to stick Mole Man in a Fantastic Four movie. Under his watch, The Exorcist series on Fox veered past the original film it is based on, the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist.
Based on a book found in almost every home in the late sixties, William Friedkin adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel is iconic, and every offshoot it influences is bound by principle to invite comparisons. Projects like this should come under microscopic scrutiny, and the series largely covered its tracks. Some of them in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. They even threw in a slasher film entry episode.
Slater spoke with Den of Geek about why The Exorcist holds a special place in hell for him, and how he intends to continue expanding the narrative with the help of some personal nightmares.
Den of Geek: First of all, thank you for doing this and I have to say, this season broadened the scope of the exorcism genre itself. What possessed you do to that?
Jeremy Slater: The initial project started as an open writing assignment. Back in the day, like five years ago, they were developing The Exorcist as a remake of the novel and the feature movie, as a ten-hour miniseries. They came to me and I told them I wasn’t necessarily interested in that, because I didn’t think there was any way to tell that story better than it had already been told. But I came back and said if you were interested in doing it as an ongoing serial story with brand new characters, that I find interesting.
There is nothing fun for me in going back to the 1960s for an exorcism in Georgetown, because we all know what that looks like. But I was interested in showing what an exorcism would look like in 2017, and still tacking the same weighty issues of faith and morality, and good and evil. But doing it in a fresh concept. That was the original genesis.
Last year we were thrown into the deep end of the pool. It was my first experience in television. We hit the ground running incredibly quickly because we got a much later start than anyone else. So we were kind of making it up and learning as we went along. It was obviously a great experience and I’m incredibly proud of the first season but I feel like this season came into its own and stood on its own two feet. We learned some important lessons last year about how to make the show effective and I couldn’t be more proud of the result.
Exorcist movie characters always say it’s bad to do an unnecessary exorcism if someone is not actually possessed. What made you decide to start with a false exorcism, the possession by proxy?
It’s all about finding ways to keep demonic possession fresh and scary for the audience. We have a great advantage in that we have all this extra time to devote to taking these creative liberties. But we also have one big disadvantage, which is the more you show something the less scary it becomes. If you go back and look at the original film, there’s probably only about ten, maybe fifteen minutes of the actual exorcism taking place. We have ten hours to fill every season. It becomes very easy for the audience to become numb to what you’re doing and jaded to scenes of people levitating and speaking in tongues, and eyes rolling back.
So that’s our challenge in our writer’s room, to constantly figure out ways to keep it fresh and scary. One of the things I thought we did well in season 1 was dramatizing Casey’s (Hannah Kasulka) possession using the figure of the salesman trying to show that the way they initially approach you and get you to lower your defenses is very seductive and not the sort of brute force monster in the night attck you might have seen in an exorcism film. It’s a kind of slow seduction. That was something that everyone responded to and we were proud of what we did.
So the question for season two is, how can we push that even further? We knew we couldn’t duplicate what we did with the salesman. We couldn’t introduce another creepy figure who is lurking in the periphery so we made our decision early on that we would hide our salesman in plain sight. Instread of Robert Lunney from season 1, we would have an adorable six year old girl and we would hide her among all the other foster kids and see if we could pull off a slight of hand. That decision naturally grew into a larger story about how this girl initially approached Andy (John Cho), how she got her hooks into him, why he was grieving, why he was vulnerable in the first place. And we realized we had a great freedom in place to tell a big, ambitious episode entirely from Andy’s perspective.
How much research went into the rituals and psychology behind it?
We did a lot of research in season one. I read a ton of books. I met with some actual Catholic priests who performed exorcisms. Not as much in season 2, because I feel like season 1 was important to establish our mythology and get our bearings and ground things in as much reality as we could while still making it entertaining. I felt by the time we got to season 2, it was pretty well established. At that point it became much less about the ritual and much more about the psychology of the characters and why the characters were doing certain things and why they were vulnerable.
In a situation like that you just trust your writers’ room. We had an amazing room full of brilliant people. A lot of our writers were very eager to run off and do homework as far as researching the Seattle foster care system, and the way these children would actually be placed and moved from home to home, and Marcus’ backstory and the Fish and Wildlife character. We did a lot of research but it was a lot easier this year than it was last year.
How old were you when you first saw the film The Exorcist?
I wasn’t super-young. I was probably a senior in high school, but I saw it under the weirdest circumstances where I had parents who were pretty strict and didn’t want those sort of movies in the house. So I had to smuggle my horror movies and watch them late at night when no one else was round. I lived in the basement of our house and so I watched a VHS of The Exorcist at one in the morning by the time it was over. I was terrified and I looked at that, and I’m laying in my bed and I’m hearing claws scraping against my bedroom window. I would get up and look around and didn’t see anything so I went back to bed and I would hear claws at the window again. This went on for an hour to the point where I thought I was having a nervous breakdown and I jumped up and opened the window, and a rabid possum had fallen in the window well and was trapped. Every now and then the possum would throw itself at the window and it just happened to take place on the night I was watching The Exorcist for the first time.
It really did feel, in that susceptible state, that I had watched something transgressive or dangerous but it also kind of summoned something crazy. I had never been so traumatized by a movie.
Were you raised in a religious house?
My parents were very religious. I wasn’t as religious but the focus of the show, because the mythology of the shows deals so much in religion, in treating these forces of darkness, or forces of light, seriously and giving them the weight and respect they deserve that our writers have dived into a lot of different religions and different cultures and examined the ways that other cultures have different name for some of these same primal forces. Different ways to combat this evil. It’s something we really wanted to get into this season, but unfortunately we ran out of time and space and decided to keep that in our back pocket, instead of doing a poor job at representing another religion or culture.
I’m very hopeful that if the show is lucky enough to get a third or fourth season that that is something we can start introducing. I thick the show is at the point now, where the catholic church has been compromised to the point where it can no longer be trusted. They are now the antagonists who are now hunting down the remaining exorcists.
In order for the characters to survive and move forward they’re going to have to go to outside help and that will be members of other faiths and other religions. They will be organizing an underground resistance to this corruption. That’s one of the stories I’m most excited to tell if we’re lucky enough to move forward.
The original Exorcist movie has all kinds of supernatural mythology in the makings of it. Anything spooky ever happen on set?
Our set was, thankfully, pretty mundane. The worst that would happen was the camera heads on our cranes seemed to malfunction quite a bit, which I was fine with. It’s great when it’s not involving our actors which we tried to keep safe. We never had anything spooky or frightening happen but I know that some of the actors did manage to creep themselves out after they initially got the roles. They would go off and watch hours and hours of research footage of actual exorcisms being conducted, and case files. I know quite a few of them had some sleepless nights as a result.
Have you ever shot anything yourself that scared you later?
There’s definitely stuff in the show that has scared me. For the most part it’s stuff that’s filmed when I’m not on set. The first time I’m seeing it is at an editing bay in the dark with the sound cranked. When you’re on set, it doesn’t matter how creepy the end footage is, it still takes 14 hours to get it. So you still have an hour and a half of watching the crew set up lighting and things like that. We watch this creepy scene happen 40 times in a row. It kind of numbs you to it a bit, so for me the scariest moments are when I wasn’t on set and got to see the footage for the first time like an audience member.
The shadow monster in episode four of this year still scares me. The one where Rose wakes up in the middle of the night and sees a blurry form standing over her bed, just because I have sleep paralysis and night terrors in ny real life. That’s directly where that came from. I see the same shadow monster in my real life standing over my bed and crawling across my bed towards me. That’s a moment I pulled directly from my nightmares and put it up on screen. That still manages to creep me out because we came pretty damn close to what that actually looks like.
I am so tempted to turn this into a whole discussion on this. Have you had other supernatural experiences?
Not really. I’m one of those people who believe sleep paralysis is probably responsible for 90 percent of supernatural folklore in history. I think you can blame sleep paralysis on little green men and the witches of Salem and demons. You wake up in the middle of the night and there’s something standing over you, or there’s something that’s going to straddle you and suck your soul out of your mouth. It’s pretty traumatic for me as an educated adult male in 2017, I can’t imagine what that would do if you experience that same thing and you were a peasant farmer in the 1300s. Of course you’re going to believe you were attacked by something supernatural. Of course you’re going to believe it was a demon or a witch or some sort of monster.
I think the entire subject is fascinating because it’s a little twitch in our brains that affects a very smnall percentage of the population but is disproportionally responsible for so much of the things that scare us today in pop culture. I believe it all stems from this one same source. I think it’s a fascinating subject and I wish it didn’t exist because it sucks. I hate having sleep paralysis.
My personal favorite subgenre of film is the satanic detective story, like Angel Heart, Ninth Gate and Fallen. Marcus certainly projects that this season, did those films enter into your inner camera?
A little bit, yeah. We made a conscious creative effort this year to bring in more people who were experts,. Last year there were people on the writing staff and crew who were big horror fans. This year we really made an effort to bring in new writers who were horror experts. Jason Ensler, our executive producer, is a giant horror buff. It went great because we were able to draw from so many influences. It’s like you say, the more you can broaden your scope and catch the audience off guard, the scarier it becomes. If the scares in the show are all of the same nature, if it’s always someone levitating off a bed and speaking in a demonic voice, after a while, I think it loses any power to frighten you. So we’re constantly trying to bring in outside references.
I think The Shining was probably our biggest creative reference. Obviously, it’s a story about a father losing his sanity and turning on the ones he loves most in an isolated location. But we drew from some 80s Amblin Poltergeist style, movies like Angel Heart and Serpent and the Rainbow as well.
The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are the most influential devil flicks, and for me Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out from the book by Dennis Wheatley. What are your favorite devil movies?
I think you have to put The Exorcist at number one, obviously. Exorcist 3 I love as well. I have a soft spoit for John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. I love The Devil’s Advocate. It’s not a good movie but goddamn, it’s such an entertaining movie. I’ll probably think of 20 when I get off the phone.
You can call back.
I might do that.
By the way I would have loved to have seen your version of Death Note.
Me too. That’s the way it is working in TV instead of features, I get to be the deciding voice. As a writer you’re a very small, very disposable cog in a much larger machine. Thy both have advantages and disadvantages but at the end of the day the creative freedom you have on TV, to tell the story you want in the way you want, it just can’t be beat.
The Exorcist runs on Fox, which also runs The Simpsons, I’m the Simpsons geek at Den of Geek and my last question comes from Abe Simpson: Were you sent here by the devil?
Yeah, I think that one of the things I’m most proud of about the show is we created a mythology very seriously over the past two years. We’ve made a show that a lot of faith-based people watch and can appreciate how respectful we are to the catholic faith. How we do take the concept of the devil seriously and not treat it as schlocky entertainment but something that’s real and powerful. That was always one of our creative challenges and I’m proud of the end result.
The Exorcist airs on Fox.