The Death of the Exorcist

With the death of author William Peter Blatty on January 13 at 88, I could not help but be reminded that, exactly 43 years ago on that date, at age 15 I first saw The Exorcist, for which he had written the screenplay based on his earlier book. He also exerted strong control over the production.

It was a time when I was able to see many films due to a decent allowance from a generous father. The previous year, my mother had taken me to see The Godfather at the Loew's Orpheum theater on 86th street just off Third Ave in Manhattan.

It was a big deal because at age 14, and at that time in 1972, there was a lot in The Godfather most kids my age had never seen (we still had only seven TV channels; no cable, no internet). To top it off, a friend of mine was an usher at what I hazily remember as a Trans-Lux Cinema on Third Avenue just off 57th street, and he offered to sneak me into a showing of Last Tango in Paris. I was a big Brando fan, and I definitely saw a lot in that film I had not seen before. (On the other hand, you've probably never seen an usher in a movie theater.)

I'd also watched about 10 zillion horror movies on WPIX's Chiller Theater during the preceding decade, and was extremely curious about why people were so freaked out about The Exorcist. Instead of going on opening day, my usual habit, I decided to wait until the lines abated. The film had opened on December 26, but the usual one-hour lines were stretching to three hours. I could resist only a few weeks and on Sunday morning January 13, 1974, I took an early train into the city from Queens to see the 10:30 am show and arrived at 9 am, hoping to beat the crowd. To my dismay there were seemingly hundreds of people ahead of me.

Growing up in New York, for many years it was commonplace to wait in line an hour or more when a film opened. There were no reserved seats and for most films no way to purchase advance tickets—it was dog eat dog in the scrum outside the theater, regardless of the weather. Not sure what it's like now. It was a shock when I moved to Washington, DC, in 1991 and could arrive at the movie theater five minutes before the film began.

Anyway, on that particular day it was damn bitter cold with a piercing wind. I just looked it up online to reconfirm my memory and the high was 27 degrees, with a low of 12 degrees. Damn freeze-your-ass-and-make-you-wish-you-were-dead cold. Hundreds of people shivering in what felt like sub-zero temperature, standing on a concrete sidewalk in Manhattan (the cold comes up through the bottoms of your shoes), with the wind slicing right though our coats, waiting to see a horror movie. Yeah, I know … crazy.

Because it was the first showing that day, we didn't have the usual pleasure of watching the audience for the showing before ours leave the theater. In Manhattan this was always a huge part of the spectator sport of waiting in line for a film. Five years later, when we were in line for the first Alien film, the people leaving the showing before ours had pale white faces and open mouths. They looked seriously disturbed. Perhaps if I had seen the faces of those leaving The Exorcist on that cold day in 1974 I might not have gone inside and seen this.

Now you might be wondering what was I doing at age 15 going to see an R-rated film, particularly one as foul-mouthed, intensely disturbing, violent, and gory as The Exorcist. Well, I never saw a movie theater in Manhattan check an ID. If you waited on line and paid for your ticket, in you went (unless you were obviously 10 or 11).  

It was freezing outside, and pretty chilly in the theater as well (Manhattan theater owners were always trying to save money by scrimping on the heating and air-conditioning). This made the scenes in the possessed Regan's bedroom where everyone is cold and you can see their breath seem even more true to life. (The set was built on a refrigerated set just for that purpose—it seems the devil doesn't like it hot.) Here's director Bill Friedkin wearing a winter coat and hat on the set.

Last year I wrote about John Carpenter's film The Thing, and the reactions it elicited from a crowd at an unannounced preview: people running from the theater, the smell of cookies tossed wafting through the air, and screaming. The reactions to The Exorcist were entirely different. No one vomited except on the screen. I didn't hear any screams. Stunned silence is all. That, and people leaving. The first large batch fled during the scenes of the medical tests where a needle is inserted into Regan's neck and blood spurts out. Health care as horror.

Most people stayed in their seats after that, though some more folks hot-footed it out of the theater while Regan was doing you-know-what with the cross … yeah, and your mother knits socks that smell.

In case you think that I'm exaggerating about the crowds and people leaving the theater, watch this.

Most people don't realize how many actresses were involved in portraying Regan. Linda Blair, nominated for an Academy Award, is the one we readily see. For some scenes, however, the possessed Regan was performed by actress and stunt woman Ellen Dietz. Once you've seen the film a few times and get past your emotional reactions, it's easy to see that Dietz looks quite different than Blair in the demon makeup. Dietz also portrays "Captain Howdy," the flash frame image demon who pops up every now and then and makes you jump in your seat.

Dietz was interviewed on media mike's website:

I did a play in New York and an agent saw me in it. He signed me and a casting notice came out looking for somebody who was 5'2", strong and could act. They asked to see me. I read the book and did a few improvisations for the casting director. I then met Billy Friedkin (the director of the film) Dick Smith (the makeup genius behind the look of the film), Linda Blair and her mother. Then I went up to Dick Smith's studio, which was amazing. They had to make me look like the demon. I didn't have to look like Linda. I wasn't her stand in, I wasn't her stunt double. I wasn't many of the things people think I was. I was an actress signed to play the part of the demon that possessed Regan. And once they found out I could handle the role physically I did a screen test. I was originally supposed to work on the film only during the masturbation scene but I ended up working on it for six months. The good news is that, as a principal actor in the film, I still get residuals. There were a total of six people who played Regan when she was possessed. There was a stunt double, a lighting double. There was Mercedes McCambridge, who did the voice. There was Linda Blair, there was me and there was another girl who did the spider walk. It was something they didn't want known at the time. They wanted everybody to think that this 12 year old girl had done all the work. That's why my name isn't in the credits … they wanted to keep the illusion that it was all one performance. In retrospect I should have asked them to put my name in the credits as a different character … that would confuse everybody.

Here's Dietz with makeup artist Dick Smith setting up a method for the green-pea vomiting that ultimately was not used.

The rumors in Hollywood of how much or how little Linda Blair did were said to have sabotaged her shot at an Oscar for Best Actress, an honor she might otherwise have deservedly won.

Below is a snippet of Linda Blair's performance recorded on set, followed by the same scenes dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge. From the Associated Press:

McCambridge was hired to portray The Demon in William Friedkin's 1973 smash hit The Exorcist. After weeks of what she called the hardest work she had done for a film, she had been promised prominent mention in the credits. But when she attended the preview, her name was missing. As she left the theater in tears, Friedkin tried to explain that there had been no time to insert her credit. The Screen Actors Guild intervened and forced her inclusion in the credits.

One could write books about The Exorcist (several have), but instead I'll leave you with a few personal reminiscences.

I went to a sleepaway camp, Chipinaw, in the Catskills for over a decade. I was often in the camp show, and one year the drama counselor was Bill Forsythe. Since he had been in a touring version it was decided that we would do Grease. Bill was a great guy and we had a lot of fun putting on a bowdlerized version of the show. On Saturdays we would go into Monticello and do our laundry and hangout. At that time, when he was young, Bill had a round face and a slightly piggy nose. He told me that he would go to showings of The Exorcist and, during the scene where the possessed Regan's head spins, he would puff his cheeks up and slowly turn his head around, spewing air in a scary way, much to the horror of the people who were sitting directly behind him. They screamed! Years later I was sitting in yet another movie theater watching Raising Arizona and there was Bill, now "William," portraying a dumb-as-rocks kidnapper along with John Goodman.

My second story is about my friend, poor Mario Gonzalez, who worked at Lou Tannen's Magic Shop on Broadway and later ran his own magic shop on Long Island. Lovely guy, he'd been raised in a very strict, devout Catholic household. After he saw The Exorcist he had nightmares for 20 years. He broke out in a sweat just talking about the film. After a while, he stopped talking about it … but he still carried the fear.

I carried no fear, but also had no idea that Max von Sydow, who played Father Lancaster Merrin, was not 75. This is perhaps the ultimate illusion created by makeup artist Dick Smith for the film: von Sydow was merely 40 at the time.