31 days of horror movies: The Exorcist was my Mount Everest of horror movies

The Exorcist. Image Courtesy Shudder
The Exorcist. Image Courtesy Shudder /

When The Exorcist premiered in 1973, I wasn’t even a blip on the radar.  My mom read the book by William Peter Blatty in 1971, so when she saw the movie in theaters with my dad when they were dating in 1973, she laughed at him quaking in his boots.  He told me that he kept expecting her to turn to him and say “I am not Louise”.  The movie was a phenomenon.  Originally released in just a few theaters in the largest cities, there were lines around the block when it expanded into a wide release.  The Exorcist 1973 is credited along with Jaws and Star Wars as the start of the blockbuster movie era.  The history of people’s terrified reactions in theaters includes more ambulance calls, vomit, and fainting than any other movie in history.  The Exorcist was the most successful horror movie of all time until 2017 with the release of It: Chapter One.  But Is The Exorcist  1973 still one of the scariest movies of all time?

The fear elicited by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist comes from the realism – there is no camp, the story plays out straightforward and serious. For the uninitiated or those that need a refresher, famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) moves her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) to D.C. while she makes a film.  After hearing some strange noises in the attic, she finds a strange figurine – one that was found in the opening scene and is inhabited by the demon Pzuzu.  Regan befriends an imaginary Captain Howdy who she communicates with via Ouija board, tells a group of astronauts they’re going to die in space before peeing on the floor at a dinner party, and soon becomes ill, furniture in her room moves on its own, and starts convulsing inhumanly before speaking in tongues in a voice that isn’t hers.  Ms. MacNeil calls upon the church to exorcise her daughter and they send Father Merrick (Max von Sydow), an exorcist who is already a nemesis of this particular demon, and Father Karras of the local Jesuit school.  Hilarity ensues.

The Exorcist 1973, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn)
The Exorcist 1973. Image Courtesy Shudder /

The Exorcist 1973: Me and Pzuzu, Pzuzu and Me

As a child, I was a voracious reader. I soon realized I liked to be scared graduating from Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase to R.L. Stine, to the master himself, Stephen King. My dad bought me the album and movie of Pink Floyd’s The Wall when I was 11, introducing me to the psychological mind-bleep and starting my desensitization early.  I am not sure when I first became aware of The Exorcist 1973, but my dad encouraged me to try and watch it, mostly because he knew I wouldn’t make it through.

On my first attempt I made it to the Ouija board scene, but as soon as the planchette jumped, the TV went off.  My second attempt I made it all the way to the convulsions on the bed, but as soon as Reagan started flopping around like a puppet, I was out of there.  In that time I started watching the Nightmare on Elm Street movies (Freddy’s Dead was my first horror movie in the theater), Friday the 13th, and other classics (even Poltergeist). I also watched Tales From the Crypt during my weekly Saturday night babysitting job since they had HBO. Subconsciously, I was working my way back up to The Exorcist, I tried to make it farther into the movie every time it was on TV (yes, even the edited version is terrifying).  I knew once I conquered that Exorcist mountain, no horror would be too scary from that point on because NOTHING scared me as much as what happened to Regan when she was possessed.

Father Merrin The Exorcist 1973
The Exorcist. Image Courtesy Shudder /

During those years, we had weekly BBQs at a friend’s house down the street, and on THIS night, my buddy had HIS friend over and we settled in to watch The Exorcist.  I knew I couldn’t chicken out this time because the two of them would make fun of me mercilessly, and I also felt safety in numbers.  We ended up attracting almost everyone else in the house to that little bedroom because they couldn’t resist the allure of the iconic horror masterpiece.  At long last, and with a few sleepless nights as consequence, I made it through the movie!

Of course I then had to read the book, which resulted in many more sleepless nights – YOU try reading that alone in bed at night and not sleeping with the lights on.  Next I read Blatty’s sequel Legion, which became Exorcist III and has possibly the most effective jump scare of all time.  The first time I saw that one in a friend’s finished basement on summer vacation in upstate New York with a group of peers while their older siblings hung out upstairs.  When they heard us scream, they came running down the stairs to rewind and make us watch the scary parts over again.  Brad Dourif’s performance in Exorcist III holds up to this day as one of the best demonic possession acts ever.  I won’t get into the travesty that is Exorcist II, that movie is best forgotten.

Can The Exorcist 2023 hold up?

Since then I have seen many a horror movie and series; clearly I am a fan if I’m writing for a horror fanzine.  Nothing scares me as much as a good demonic possession tale, and still, The Exorcist is the scariest of them (season one of the series on Hulu is SO good, highly recommend).  The Exorcist due for release in 2023 is not a remake, but intended to be a direct sequel to Friedkin’s film adaptation (and also reportedly a trilogy).  A Blumhouse film directed by David Gordon Green who has given us both the recent Halloween and Hellraiser requels, The Exorcist 2023 comes from a good pedigree, but that’s no guarantee of anything.  I can only hope it’s scary, although to me, nothing will ever be scarier than the original.

The 1973 Exorcist is streaming on HBO MAX and the director’s cut is $0.99 to rent on Amazon Prime.

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Do you think The Exorcist 1973 is the scariest movie of all time?  Sound off in the comments!