The Exorcist (film)

The Exorcist is a 1973 American supernatural horror film directed by William Friedkin and produced and written for the screen by William Peter Blatty, based on the 1971 novel of the same name by Blatty. The film stars Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran (in his final film role), Jason Miller, and Linda Blair. It is the first installment in The Exorcist film series, and follows the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and her mother's attempt to rescue her through an exorcism conducted by two priests.

The Exorcist
Theatrical release poster by Bill Gold
Directed byWilliam Friedkin
Produced byWilliam Peter Blatty
Written byWilliam Peter Blatty
Based onThe Exorcist
by William Peter Blatty
Music byJack Nitzsche
CinematographyOwen Roizman
Billy Williams (Iraq sequence)
Edited byEvan Lottman
Norman Gay
Bud Smith (Iraq sequence)
Hoya Productions[1]
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures[1]
Release date
  • December 26, 1973 (1973-12-26) (United States)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$12 million[2]
Box office
$441.3 million[2][3]

Although the book had been a bestseller, Blatty, who produced, and Friedkin, his choice for director, had difficulty casting the film. After turning down, or being turned down, by major stars of the era, they cast in the lead roles the relatively little-known Burstyn, the unknown Blair, and Miller, the author of a hit play who had never acted in movies before, casting choices that were vigorously opposed by studio executives at Warner Bros. Pictures. Principal photography was also difficult. Most of the set burned down, and Blair and Burstyn suffered long-term injuries in accidents. Ultimately the film took twice as long to shoot as scheduled and cost more than twice its initial budget.

On December 26, 1973, The Exorcist was released in 24 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. Audiences flocked to it, waiting in long lines during winter weather, many doing so more than once, despite mixed critical reviews. Some viewers had adverse physical reactions, often fainting or vomiting, to scenes such as its protagonist undergoing a realistic cerebral angiography and masturbating with a crucifix. There were reports of heart attacks and miscarriages; a psychiatric journal carried a paper on "cinematic neurosis" triggered by the film. Many children were taken to see the film, leading to charges that the MPAA ratings board had accommodated Warner Bros. by giving the film an R-rating instead of the X they thought it deserved in order to ensure its commercial success; a few cities tried to ban it outright or prevent children from seeing it, and obscenity concerns kept the film from a home video release in the United Kingdom until 1999.

The cultural conversation around the film, which also encompassed its treatment of Roman Catholicism, helped it become the first horror film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture,[4][5] one of ten Academy Awards it was nominated for, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing. It has remained high in critical esteem and commercial success ever since, for many years after its release remaining the top grosser in the supernatural horror and R-rated horror subcategories. It became the highest-grossing R-rated film upon release and held that record for 18 years until it was surpassed by 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The film has had a significant influence on popular culture,[6][7] and several publications have regarded it as one of the greatest horror films of all time.[5] The English film critic Mark Kermode named it as his "favorite film of all time".[8] In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved as part of its National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[9][10]


Lankester Merrin, a veteran Catholic priest who performed an exorcism in the 1950s, is on an archaeological dig in the ancient city of Hatra in Iraq. There he finds an amulet that resembles a statue of Pazuzu, a demon of ancient origins with whose history Merrin is familiar.

In Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil is living on location with her 12-year-old daughter Regan; she is starring in a film about student activism directed by her friend and associate Burke Dennings. After playing with a Ouija board and contacting a supposedly imaginary friend whom she calls Captain Howdy, Regan begins acting strangely, including making mysterious noises, stealing, constantly using obscene language, and exhibiting abnormal strength. Chris hosts a party, during which Regan comes downstairs unannounced, tells one of the guests—an astronaut—that he will die ”up there” and then urinates on the floor. Later, Regan's bed begins to shake violently, further adding to her mother's horror. Chris consults a number of physicians, but Dr. Klein and his associates find nothing physiologically wrong with her daughter, despite Regan undergoing a battery of diagnostic tests.

One night when Chris is out, Burke Dennings is babysitting a heavily sedated Regan. Chris returns to hear that he has died falling out of the window. Although this is assumed to have been an accident given Burke's history of heavy drinking, his death is investigated by Lieutenant William Kinderman. Kinderman interviews Chris. He also consults psychiatrist Father Damien Karras, recently shaken after the death of his frail mother.

The doctors, thinking that Regan's aberrations are mostly psychological in origin, recommend an exorcism be performed, reasoning that believing oneself to be possessed can sometimes be cured by believing that exorcism works as well. Chris arranges a meeting with Karras. After Regan speaks backward, in different voices, and exhibits scars in the form of the words "Help Me" on her stomach, Karras is convinced that Regan is possessed. Believing her soul is in danger, he decides to perform an exorcism. The experienced Merrin is selected for performing the actual exorcism with Karras assisting.

Both priests witness Regan perform a series of bizarre, vulgar acts. They attempt to exorcise the demon, but the stubborn entity toys with them, especially Karras. Karras shows weakness and is dismissed by Merrin, who attempts the exorcism alone. Karras enters the room later and discovers Merrin has died of a heart attack. After failing to revive Merrin, the enraged Karras confronts the mocking, laughing spirit, and wrestles Regan's body to the ground. At Karras' invitation, it leaves Regan's body and possesses Karras. In a moment of self-sacrifice, Karras throws himself out of the window before he can be compelled to harm Regan, thus killing himself. Father Dyer, an old friend of Karras, happens upon the scene and administers the last rites to his friend.

A few days later, Regan, now back to her normal self, prepares to leave for Los Angeles with her mother. Although Regan has no apparent recollection of her possession, she is moved by the sight of Dyer's clerical collar to kiss him on the cheek. Kinderman, who narrowly misses their departure, befriends Father Dyer as he investigates Karras' death.




Aspects of Blatty's fictional novel were inspired by the 1949 exorcism performed on an anonymous young boy known as "Roland Doe" or "Robbie Mannheim" (pseudonyms) by the Jesuit priest Fr. William S. Bowdern, who formerly taught at both St. Louis University and St. Louis University High School. Doe's family became convinced the boy's aggressive behavior was attributable to demonic possession, and called upon the services of several Catholic priests, including Bowdern, to perform the rite of exorcism. It was one of three exorcisms to have been sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the United States at that time. Later analysis by paranormal skeptics has concluded that Doe was likely a mentally ill teenager acting out, as the actual events likely to have occurred (such as words being carved on skin) were such that they could have been faked by Doe himself.[5] The novel changed several details of the case, such as changing the gender of the allegedly possessed victim from a boy to a girl and changing the alleged victim's age.[4][5]

Although Friedkin has admitted he is very reluctant to speak about the factual aspects of the film, he made the film with the intention of immortalizing the events involving Doe that took place in St. Louis in 1949, and despite the relatively minor changes that were made, the film depicts everything that could be verified by those involved. In order to make the film, Friedkin was allowed access to the diaries of the priests involved, as well as the doctors and nurses; he also discussed the events with Doe's aunt in great detail. Friedkin has said that he does not believe that the "head-spinning" actually occurred, but this has been disputed. Friedkin is secular, despite coming from a Jewish family.[11]


The film's lead roles, particularly Regan, were not easily cast. Although many name stars of the era were considered for the role, with Stacy Keach actually having signed to play Father Karras at one point, Blatty and Friedkin ultimately went with less well-known actors, to the consternation of the studio.

Chris and Father Karras

The studio wanted Marlon Brando for the role of Lankester Merrin.[12] Friedkin immediately vetoed this by stating it would become a "Brando movie". Jack Nicholson was up for the part of Karras before Stacy Keach was hired by Blatty. According to Friedkin, Paul Newman also wanted to portray Karras.[13]

Friedkin then spotted Jason Miller following a performance of Miller's play That Championship Season in New York, and asked to talk to him. He originally went to talk to Miller solely about the lapsed Catholicism in the play as a background for the film. Since Miller had not read the novel, Friedkin left him a copy.[14]

Three A-list actresses of the time were considered for Chris. Friedkin first approached Audrey Hepburn, who said she was willing to take the role but only if the movie could be shot in Rome, since she had moved to Italy with her husband. Since that would have raised the costs of the movie considerably, as well as creating language barriers and making it impossible to work with crew members Friedkin was comfortable with like cinematographer Owen Roizman, he looked next to Anne Bancroft. She, too, was willing but asked if production could be delayed nine months as she had just gotten pregnant. Again, Friedkin declined her request as he could not wait that long; he also did not think the material was something she would want to be working on while tending to a newborn, which might also make it harder for her to work. Jane Fonda, next on the list, turned down the film as a "piece of capitalist rip-off bullshit".[14][15]

Blatty also suggested his friend, Shirley MacLaine, for the part, but Friedkin was hesitant to cast her, given her lead role in another possession film, The Possession of Joel Delaney (1971) two years before.[14] Ellen Burstyn received the part after she phoned Friedkin and emphatically stated that she was "destined" to play Chris. Studio head Ted Ashley vigorously opposed casting her, not only telling Friedkin that he would do so over his dead body, but dramatizing that opposition by making Friedkin walk over him as he lay on the floor, then grabbing the director's leg and telling him he would come back from the dead if necessary to keep Friedkin from doing so. However, no other alternatives emerged, and Ashley relented.[14][16]

With Burstyn now set in the part, Friedkin was surprised when Miller called him back. He had read the novel, and told the director "that guy is me", referring to Father Karras. Miller had had a Catholic education, and had studied to be a Jesuit priest himself for three years at Catholic University of America until experiencing a crisis of faith, just as Karras is at the beginning of the story. Friedkin thanked him for his interest but told him Keach had already been signed.[14]

Miller, who had done some stage acting but had never been in a film, asked to at least be given a screen test. After taking the train to Los Angeles since he disliked flying, Friedkin had the playwright and Burstyn do the scene where Chris tells Karras she thinks Regan might be possessed. Afterwards, he had Burstyn interview Miller about his life with the camera focusing on him from over her shoulder, and finally asked Miller to say Mass as if for the first time.[14]

Burstyn felt that Miller was too short for the part, unlike her boyfriend at the time, whom Friedkin had auditioned but passed on. The director felt the test was promising but, after viewing the footage the next morning, realized Miller's "dark good looks, haunted eyes, quiet intensity, and low, compassionate voice", qualities which to him evoked John Garfield, were exactly what the part needed. The studio bought out Keach's contract.[14]

Supporting roles

The film's supporting roles were more quickly cast. After Blatty showed Friedkin a photograph of Gerald Lankester Harding, his inspiration for Father Merrin, Friedkin immediately thought of Max von Sydow for the part; he accepted it as soon as he finished reading the script. While out seeing a play starring an actor who had been recommended to them for the film, Blatty and Friedkin ran into Lee J. Cobb, which led to his casting as Lt. Kinderman. Father William O'Malley, another Jesuit priest who taught English and theology at McQuaid Jesuit High School outside Rochester, New York, had become acquainted with Blatty through his criticism of the novel. After Blatty introduced him to Friedkin, they decided to cast him as Father Dyer, a character O'Malley had considered clichéd in the novel.[14]

Greek actor Titos Vandis was cast in the role of Father Karras's uncle. He wore a hat in one shot that obscured his face, as Friedkin felt that Vandis's face would be connected with his previous role in the Woody Allen film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).[17]


The question of whether or not such a young actress, even a talented one, could carry the film on her shoulders was an issue from the beginning. Film directors considered for the project were skeptical.[4] Mike Nichols had turned down the project specifically because he did not believe a 12-year-old girl capable of playing the part as well as handling the likely psychological stress it would cause, could be found.[14]

The first actresses considered for the part were names known to the public. Pamelyn Ferdin, a veteran of science fiction and supernatural drama, was a candidate for the role of Regan, but was ultimately turned down because her career thus far had made her too familiar to the public.[18] April Winchell was considered, until she developed pyelonephritis and could not work. Denise Nickerson, who had played Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, was considered, but the material troubled her parents too much.[18] Anissa Jones, known for her role as Buffy in Family Affair, auditioned for the role, but she too was rejected, for much the same reason as Ferdin.

Friedkin had started to interview young women as old as 16 who looked young enough to play Regan, but was not finding any who he thought could.[14] Then Elinore Blair came in unannounced to the director's New York office with her daughter Linda; the agency representing Linda had not sent her for the part, but she had previously met with Warner Bros. Pictures' casting department and then with Friedkin.[19]

Both mother and daughter impressed the director. Elinore was not a typical stage mother, and Linda's credits were primarily in modeling; she was mainly interested in showing and riding horses around her Westport, Connecticut, home. "[S]mart but not precocious. Cute but not beautiful. A normal, happy twelve-year-old girl", Friedkin later recalled.[14]

With Linda having demonstrated the personal qualities Friedkin was looking for, he then went on to see whether she could handle the material. He asked if she knew what The Exorcist was about; she told him she had read the book. "[I]t's about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil and does a whole bunch of bad things." Friedkin then asked her what sort of bad things she meant. "[S]he pushes a man out of her bedroom window and she hits her mother across the face and she masturbates with a crucifix."[14]

Friedkin then asked Linda if she knew what masturbation meant. "It's like jerking off, isn't it?", and she giggled a little bit. "Have you ever done that?" he asked. "Sure; haven't you?" Linda responded. She was quickly cast as Regan after tests with Burstyn; Friedkin realized he needed to keep that level of spontaneity on set.[14]

Friedkin originally intended to use Blair's voice, electronically deepened and roughened, for the demon's dialogue. Although Friedkin felt this worked fine in some places, he felt scenes with the demon confronting the two priests lacked the dramatic power required and selected legendary radio actress Mercedes McCambridge, an experienced voice actress, to provide the demon's voice.[19] After filming, Warner Bros. did not include a credit for McCambridge during early screenings of the film, which led to Screen Actors Guild arbitration before she was credited for her performance.[20] Ken Nordine was also considered for the demon's voice, but Friedkin thought it would be best not to use a man's voice.[21]

For the crucifix scene, Linda Blair's own voice was recorded as she yelled out all the demon dialog in a rage. The result was then rerecorded in a slowed-down mode to achieve a very low bass. The very-low-bass result was then rerecorded at such a speed as to achieve a raging alto male voice.


Warners had approached Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, and Mike Nichols, to direct, all of whom turned the project down.[22] Originally Mark Rydell was hired to direct, but William Peter Blatty insisted on Friedkin instead, because he wanted his film to have the same energy as Friedkin's previous film, The French Connection.[22] After a standoff with the studio, which initially refused to budge over Rydell, Blatty eventually got his way. Principal photography for The Exorcist began on August 21, 1972.[23] The shooting schedule was estimated to run 105 days, but ultimately ran well over 200.[23]

Friedkin went to extraordinary lengths manipulating the actors, reminiscent of the old Hollywood directing style, to get the genuine reactions he wanted. Yanked violently around in harnesses, both Blair and Burstyn suffered back injuries and their painful screams were included in the film.[19] Burstyn injured her back after landing on her coccyx when a stuntman jerked her around using a special effects cable during the scene when Regan slaps her mother.[19] According to the documentary Fear of God: The Making of the Exorcist, the injury did not cause permanent damage, although Burstyn was upset the shot of her screaming in pain was used in the film. After O'Malley confirmed to Friedkin that he trusted the director, Friedkin slapped him hard across the face to generate a deeply solemn reaction for the last rites scene; this offended the many Catholic crew members on the set. He also fired blanks[13] without warning on the set to elicit shock from Jason Miller for a take, and told Miller that the pea soup would hit him in the chest rather than the face in the projectile vomiting scene, resulting in his disgusted reaction. Lastly, he had Regan's bedroom set built inside a freezer so that the actors' breath could be visible on camera, which required the crew to wear cold-weather gear.[19]


The film's opening sequences were filmed in and near the city of Mosul, Iraq. The archaeological dig site seen at the film's beginning is the actual site of ancient Hatra, south of Mosul.[24] Temperatures during the days filming took place there reached 54 °C (130 °F), limiting shooting to the early mornings and late evening.[25]

The "Exorcist stairs" are concrete stairs located in Georgetown at the corner of Prospect St NW and 36th St NW, leading down to M Street NW. The stairs were padded with half-inch-thick (13 mm) rubber to film the death of the character Father Karras. Because the house from which Karras falls is set back slightly from the stairs, the film crew constructed an extension with a false front to the house in order to film the scene.[26] The stuntman tumbled down the stairs twice. Georgetown University students charged people around $5 each to watch the stunt from the rooftops.[27]

Although the film is set in Washington, D.C., many interior scenes were shot in various parts of New York City. The MacNeil residence interiors were filmed at CECO Studios in Manhattan.[28] The bedroom set was refrigerated to capture the authentic icy breath of the actors in the exorcism scenes. It was chilled so much that a thin layer of snow fell onto the set one humid morning.[29] Since the set lighting warmed the air, it could only remain cold enough for three minutes of filming at a time.[30] Nevertheless, Blair, who was only in a thin nightgown while the crew wore cold-weather clothing, says to this day she cannot stand being cold.[29] Exteriors of the MacNeil house were filmed at 36th and Prospect in Washington, using a family home and a false wall to convey the home's thrust toward the steps.

The scenes involving Regan's medical tests were filmed at New York University Medical Center and were performed by actual medical staff that normally carried out the procedures.[25] Paul Bateson, convicted of murdering a journalist several years after the film, is the radiographer talking Regan through the cerebral angiography.[31] In the film Regan first undergoes an electroencephalography (EEG), then the angiography, and finally a pneumoencephalography.

The scene in which Father Karras listens to the tapes of Regan's dialogue were filmed in the basement of Keating Hall at Fordham University in the Bronx.[32] William O'Malley, who plays Father Joseph Dyer in the film, is a real-life Jesuit and was assistant professor of theology at Fordham at the time.[33]

The interior of Karras' room at Georgetown was a meticulous reconstruction of Theology professor Father Thomas M. King, S.J.'s "corridor Jesuit" room in New North Hall. King's room was photographed by production staff after a visit by Blatty, a Georgetown graduate, and Friedkin. Upon returning to New York, every element of King's room, including posters and books, was recreated for the set, including a poster of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., a theologian on whom the character of Fr. Merrin was loosely based. Georgetown was paid $1,000 per day of filming, which included both exteriors, such as Burstyn's first scene, shot on the steps of the Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall, and interiors, such as the defilement of the statue of the Virgin Mary in Dahlgren Chapel, or the Archbishop's office, which is actually the office of the president of the university. One scene was filmed in The Tombs, a student hangout across from the steps that was founded by a Blatty classmate.[34]

Father Merrin's arrival scene

Father Merrin's arrival scene was filmed on Max von Sydow's first day of work. The scene where the elderly priest steps out of a cab and stands in front of the MacNeil residence,  silhouetted in a misty streetlamp's glow and staring up at a beam of light from a bedroom window,  is one of the most famous scenes in the movie. The shot was used for film posters and home DVD/VHS release covers. The scene and photo was inspired by the 1954 painting "Empire of Light" ("L'Empire des lumières") by René Magritte.[35]

The spider-walk scene

Stuntwoman Ann Miles performed the spider-walk scene in November 1973. Friedkin deleted this scene against Blatty's objection just prior to the premiere, as he judged the scene as appearing too early in the film's plot. In the book, the spider-walk is more muted, consisting of Regan following Sharon around near the floor and flicking a snake-like tongue at her ankles. A take of this version of the scene was filmed but went unused. However, a different take showing Regan with blood flowing from her mouth was inserted into the 2000 Director's Cut of the film.


Special effects

The Exorcist contained a number of special effects, engineered by makeup artist Dick Smith. In one scene from the film, Max von Sydow is actually wearing more makeup than the possessed girl (Linda Blair). This was because director Friedkin wanted some very detailed facial close-ups. When this film was made, von Sydow was 44, though he was made up to look 74.[36] Alan McKenzie stated in his book Hollywood Tricks of the Trade that the fact "that audiences didn't realize von Sydow was wearing makeup at all is a tribute to the skills of veteran makeup artist Dick Smith."

Alleged subliminal imagery

The Exorcist was also at the center of controversy due to its alleged use of subliminal imagery introduced as special effects during the production of the film. Wilson Bryan Key wrote a whole chapter on the film in his book Media Sexploitation alleging repeated use of subliminal and semi-subliminal imagery and sound effects. Key observed the use of the Pazuzu face (which Key mistakenly assumed was Jason Miller in death mask makeup, instead of actress Eileen Dietz) and claimed that the safety padding on the bedposts were shaped to cast phallic shadows on the wall and that a skull face is superimposed into one of Father Merrin's breath clouds. Key also wrote much about the sound design, identifying the use of pig squeals, for instance, and elaborating on his opinion of the subliminal intent of it all. A detailed article in the July/August 1991 issue of Video Watchdog examined the phenomenon, providing still frames identifying several uses of subliminal "flashing" throughout the film.[37]

In an interview from the same issue, Friedkin explained, "I saw subliminal cuts in a number of films before I ever put them in The Exorcist, and I thought it was a very effective storytelling device ... The subliminal editing in The Exorcist was done for dramatic effect—to create, achieve, and sustain a kind of dreamlike state."[38] However, these quick, scary flashes have been labeled "[not] truly subliminal"[39] and "quasi-" or "semi-subliminal".[40] In an interview in a 1999 book about the film, The Exorcist author Blatty addressed the controversy by explaining that, "There are no subliminal images. If you can see it, it's not subliminal."[41]


The editing of the title sequence was the first major project for the film title designer Dan Perri. As a result of the success of The Exorcist, Perri went on to design opening titles for a number of major films including Taxi Driver (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Gangs of New York (2002).[42]


Lalo Schifrin's working score was rejected by Friedkin. Schifrin had written six minutes of music for the initial film trailer but audiences were reportedly too scared by its combination of sights and sounds. Warner Bros. executives told Friedkin to instruct Schifrin to tone it down with softer music, but Friedkin did not relay the message. It has been claimed Schifrin later used the music written for The Exorcist for The Amityville Horror,[43] but he has denied this in interviews. According to The Fear of God: The Making of the Exorcist on the 25th Anniversary DVD release of the film, Friedkin took the tapes that Schifrin had recorded and threw them away in the studio parking lot.

In the soundtrack liner notes for his 1977 film, Sorcerer, Friedkin said that if he had heard the music of Tangerine Dream earlier, then he would have had them score The Exorcist. Instead, he used modern classical compositions, including portions of the 1972 Cello Concerto No. 1, of Polymorphia, and other pieces by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, Five Pieces for Orchestra by Austrian composer Anton Webern as well as some original music by Jack Nitzsche. The music was heard only during scene transitions. The 2000 "Version You've Never Seen" features new original music by Steve Boeddeker, as well as brief source music by Les Baxter.

What is now considered the "Theme from The Exorcist", i.e. the piano-based melody which opens the first part of Tubular Bells, the 1973 debut album by English progressive rock musician Mike Oldfield, became very popular after the film's release, although Oldfield himself was not impressed with the way his work was used.

In 1998 a restored and remastered soundtrack was released by Warner Bros. (without Tubular Bells) that included three pieces from Lalo Schifrin's rejected score. The pieces are "Music from the unused Trailer", an 11-minute "Suite from the Unused Score", and "Rock Ballad (Unused Theme)".

That same year, the Japanese version of the original soundtrack LP did not include the Schifrin pieces but did include the main theme from Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, and the movement titled Night of the Electric Insects from George Crumb's string quartet Black Angels.

The Greek song playing on the radio when Father Karras leaves his mother's house is called "Paramythaki mou" (My Tale) and is sung by Giannis Kalatzis. Lyric writer Lefteris Papadopoulos has admitted that a few years later when he was in financial difficulties he asked for some compensation for the intellectual rights of the song. Part of Hans Werner Henze's 1966 composition Fantasia for Strings is played over the closing credits.[44][45]


Upon its December 26, 1973, release, the film received mixed reviews from critics, "ranging from 'classic' to 'claptrap'".[46] Audience reaction was strong, however, with many viewers waiting in long lines in cold temperatures to see it again and again.[47] It opened in 24 theaters grossing $1.9 million in its first week, setting house records in each theater[48] and within its first month the film had grossed $7.4 million nationwide, by which time Warners' executives expected the film to easily surpass My Fair Lady's $34 million take to become the studio's most financially successful film.[49]

Home media

Special edition 25th anniversary VHS and DVD release

A limited special edition box set was released in 1998 for the film's 25th anniversary; it was limited to 50,000 copies, with available copies circulating around the Internet. There are two versions: a special edition VHS released on November 10, 1998,[50] and a special edition DVD released on December 1, 1998.[51] The only difference between the two copies is the recording format.

DVD features
  • The original film with restored film and digitally remastered audio, with a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio.
  • An introduction by director Friedkin.
  • The 1998 BBC documentary The Fear of God: The Making of "The Exorcist".
  • Two audio commentaries.
  • Interviews with the director and writer.
  • Theatrical trailers and TV spots.
Box features
  • A commemorative 52-page tribute book, covering highlights of the film's preparation, production, and release; features previously unreleased historical data and archival photographs.
  • Limited edition soundtrack CD of the film's score, including the original (unused) soundtrack ("Tubular Bells" and "Night of the Electric Insects" omitted).
  • Eight lobby card reprints.
  • Exclusive senitype film frame (magnification included).

Extended edition DVD releases

The extended edition labeled "The Version You've Never Seen" (which was released theatrically in 2000) was released on DVD on February 3, 2004.[52]

The extended edition was later re-released on DVD (and released on Blu-ray) with slight alterations under the new label "Extended Director's Cut" on October 5, 2010.[53]


In an interview with DVD Review, Friedkin mentioned that he was scheduled to begin work on The Exorcist Blu-ray on December 2, 2008.[54] This edition features a new restoration, including both the 1973 theatrical version and the 2000 "Version You've Never Seen" (re-labeled as "Extended Director's Cut").[55] It was released on October 5, 2010.[56][57][58] A 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray was released on October 8, 2013, containing both cuts of the film and many of the previously released bonus features in addition to two featurettes that revolve around author William Peter Blatty.[59]

The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology

The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology (box set) was released on DVD on October 10, 2006,[60] and on Blu-ray on September 23, 2014.[61] This collection includes the original theatrical release version of The Exorcist, the extended version (labelled The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen on the DVD release and The Exorcist: Extended Director's Cut on the Blu-ray release), the sequels Exorcist II: The Heretic and The Exorcist III, and the prequels Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist.


Box office

Since it was a horror film that had gone well over budget and did not have any major stars in the lead roles, Warner did not have high expectations for The Exorcist. It did not preview the film for critics and booked its initial release for only 30 screens in 24 theaters,[48] mostly in large cities.[62] It grossed $1.9 million in its first week, setting house records in each theater.[48] The huge crowds attracted to the film forced the studio to expand it into wide release very quickly; at the time that releasing strategy was rarely used for anything but exploitation films (two years later, Universal would learn from The Exorcist and open Jaws on 500 screens across the country).[63]

None of the theaters were in African American neighborhoods such as South Central Los Angeles since the studio did not expect black people to take much interest in the film; after the theater in predominantly white Westwood showing the film was overwhelmed with moviegoers from South Central it was quickly booked into theaters in that neighborhood.[62] African American enthusiasm for The Exorcist has been credited with ending mainstream studio support for blaxploitation movies, since Hollywood realized that black audiences would flock to films that did not have content specifically geared to them.[64]

The film earned $66.3 million in distributors' rentals during its theatrical release in 1974 in the United States and Canada, becoming the second most popular film of that year (trailing The Sting which earned $68.5 million)[65] and Warners' highest-grossing film of all time.[66]

After several reissues, the film has grossed $232.6 million in the United States and Canada,[67] which when adjusted for inflation, makes it the ninth highest-grossing film of all time in the U.S. and Canada and the top-grossing R-rated film of all time.[68] As of 2019, it has grossed $441 million worldwide.[67] Adjusted to 2014 prices, The Exorcist has grossed $1.8 billion.[69]

Critical response

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 85% based on 75 reviews, with a rating average of 8.07/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Exorcist rides its supernatural theme to magical effect, with remarkable special effects and an eerie atmosphere, resulting in one of the scariest films of all time."[70] On Metacritic, the film has an average weighted score of 81 out of 100, based on 21 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[71] Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic, wrote, "This is the scariest film I've seen in years—the only scary film I've seen in years ... If you want to be shaken—and I found out, while the picture was going, that that's what I wanted—then The Exorcist will scare the… (shit) out of you."[72][73] Variety noted that it was "an expert telling of a supernatural horror story ... The climactic sequences assault the senses and the intellect with pure cinematic terror."[74] In Castle of Frankenstein, Joe Dante called it "an amazing film, and one destined to become at the very least a horror classic. Director Friedkin's film will be profoundly disturbing to all audiences, especially the more sensitive and those who tend to 'live' the movies they see ... Suffice it to say, there has never been anything like this on the screen before."[75] Roger Ebert gave the film a 4-out-of-4 star review, praising the actors (particularly Burstyn) and the convincing special effects but at the end of the review wrote, "I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won’t be one, because what we get here aren’t the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but raw and painful experience. Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?"[76] Ebert, while praising the film, believed the special effects to be unusually graphic. He wrote, "That it received an R rating and not the X is stupefying."[76]

Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, dismissed The Exorcist as "a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap ... a practically impossible film to sit through ... It establishes a new low for grotesque special effects ..."[77] Andrew Sarris complained that "Friedkin's biggest weakness is his inability to provide enough visual information about his characters ... whole passages of the movie's exposition were one long buzz of small talk and name droppings ... The Exorcist succeeds on one level as an effectively excruciating entertainment, but on another, deeper level it is a thoroughly evil film."[78] Writing in Rolling Stone, Jon Landau felt the film was "nothing more than a religious porn film, the gaudiest piece of shlock this side of Cecil B. DeMille (minus that gentleman's wit and ability to tell a story)  ... "[79]

Angiography scene

The angiography scene, in which a needle is inserted into Regan's neck and spurts blood, a procedure Friedkin suggests was actually performed on camera,[80] has come in for some criticism. In his 1986 Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Peary called it the film's "most needless scene".[81] While British comedian Graeme Garden, trained as a physician, agreed the scene was "genuinely disturbing" in his review for the New Scientist, he called it "the really irresponsible feature of this film".[82]

By contrast, medical professionals have praised the scene for its accuracy in depicting the procedure. It is also of historical interest in the field, as around the time of the film's release radiologists had begun to stop using the carotid artery for the puncture as they do in the film, in favor of a more distant artery.[83][84] It has also been described as the most realistic depiction of a medical procedure in a popular film.[31] Friedkin said in his 2012 commentary on the DVD release of the 2000 cut that the scene was used as a training film for radiologists for years afterwards.[80]

Rating controversy

The Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) ratings board had been established several years before to replace the Motion Picture Production Code after it expired in 1968. It had already been criticized for its indirect censorship: as many as a third of the films submitted to it had had to be recut after being rated X, meaning no minors could be admitted. Since many theaters would not show such films, and newspapers would not run ads for them, the X rating greatly limited a non-pornographic film's commercial prospects.[62]

While Friedkin wanted more blood and gore in The Exorcist than had been in any Hollywood film previously, he also needed the film to have an R rating (children admitted only with an adult) to reach a large audience. Before release, Aaron Stern, the head of the MPAA ratings board, decided to watch the film himself before the rest of the board. He then called Friedkin and said that since The Exorcist was "an important film", he would allow it to receive an R rating without any cuts.[62]

Some critics, both anticipating and reacting to reports of the film's effect on children who might be or had been taken to see it, questioned the R rating. While he had praised the film, Roy Meacham, a critic for Metromedia television stations based in Washington, D.C., wrote in The New York Times in February 1974, he had strongly cautioned that children should not be allowed to see it at all, a warning his station repeated for several days. Nevertheless, some had, and he had heard of one girl being taken from the theater in an ambulance.[85]

In Washington, the film drew strong interest as well since it was a rare film set in the area that did not involve government activity.[86] Children Meacham saw leaving showings, he recalled, "were drained and drawn afterward; their eyes had a look I had never seen before". He suggested that the ratings board had somehow yielded to pressure from Warners not to give the film an X rating, which would have likely limited its economic prospects, and was skeptical of MPAA head Jack Valenti's claims that since the film had no sex or nudity, it could receive an R. After a week in Washington's theaters, Meacham recalled, authorities cited the crucifix scene to invoke a local ordinance that forbid minors from seeing any scenes with sexual content even where the actors were fully clothed; police warned theaters that staff would be arrested if any minors were admitted to The Exorcist.[85]

"The review board [has] surrendered all right to the claim that it provides moral and ethical leadership to the movie industry", Meacham wrote. He feared that, as a result, communities across the country would feel it necessary to pass their own, perhaps more restrictive, laws regarding the content of movies that could be shown in their jurisdictions. "For if the movie industry cannot provide safeguards for minors, authorities will have to."[85]

Two communities, Boston and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, attempted to prevent the film from being shown outright in their jurisdictions. A court in the former city blocked the ban, saying the film did not meet the U.S. Supreme Court's standard of obscenity.[87] Nonetheless, in Boston the authorities told theaters they could not admit any minors despite the R rating.[62] In Mississippi, the theater chain showing the movie was convicted at trial, but the state's Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1976, finding that the state's obscenity statute was too vague to be enforceable in the wake of the Supreme Court's 1972 Miller v. California decision which laid down a new standard for obscenity.[88]

New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael echoed Meacham's insinuations that the board had yielded to studio pressure in rating the film R. "If The Exorcist had cost under a million or been made abroad," she wrote. "it would almost certainly be an X film. But when a movie is as expensive as this one, the [board] doesn't dare give it an X."[62]

There was also concern that theaters were not strictly enforcing, or even enforcing at all, the R rating, allowing unaccompanied minors to view the film. Times critic Lawrence Van Gelder reported that a 16-year-old girl in California said that not only was she sold a ticket to see the film despite no adult being with her, others who seemed even younger were able to do so as well.[49] On the other hand, another Times writer, Judy Lee Klemesrud, said she saw no unaccompanied minors, and indeed very few minors, when she went to see the film in Manhattan. Nevertheless, "I think that if a movie ever deserved an X rating simply because it would keep the kids out of the theater, it is 'The Exorcist.'"[47]

In 1974, Stern's tenure as chairman of the MPAA ratings board ended. His eventual replacement, Richard Heffner, asked during the interview process if he could see films with controversial ratings, including The Exorcist. "How could anything be worse than this?" he recalled thinking later. "And it got an R?" After he took over as head, he would spearhead efforts to be more aggressive with the X rating, especially over violence in films.[62]

Viewing restrictions in UK

The Exorcist was released in London on March 14, 1974.[89] The film was protested against around the UK by the Nationwide Festival of Light, a Christian public action group concerned with the influence of media on society, and especially on the young. These protests involved members of local clergy and concerned citizens handing out leaflets to those queuing to see the film, offering spiritual support afterwards for those who asked for it.[90] A letter-writing campaign to local councils by the Nationwide Festival of Light resulted in many councils screening The Exorcist before permitting it to be screened in their council district.[91] This led to the film being banned from exhibition in a number of counties, such as in Dinefwr and Ceredigion in Wales.[92][93]

The Exorcist was available on home video from the early 1980s in the UK. After the passage of the Video Recordings Act 1984, the film was submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for a home video certificate. James Ferman, Director of the Board, vetoed the decision to grant a certificate to the film, despite the majority of the group willing to pass it. It was out of Ferman's concerns that, even with a proposed 18 certificate, the film's notoriety would entice underage viewers to seek it out. As a result, all video copies of The Exorcist were withdrawn in the UK in 1986 and remained unavailable for purchase until 1999.[94]

Following a successful re-release in cinemas in 1998, the film was submitted for home video release again in February 1999,[95] and was passed uncut with an 18 certificate, signifying a relaxation of the censorship rules with relation to home video in the UK, in part due to James Ferman's departure. The film was shown on terrestrial television in the UK for the first time in 2001, on Channel 4.[96]

Since release

The Exorcist set box office records that stood for many years. For almost half a century, until the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King's It, it was the top-grossing R-rated horror film.[97] In 1999, The Sixth Sense finally bested The Exorcist as the highest-grossing supernatural horror film; it remains in third place after It claimed that title as well.[98] On both charts The Exorcist, along with The Blair Witch Project, are the only 20th-century releases in the top 10.[97][98]

Since its release, The Exorcist's critical reputation has grown considerably. According to the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 85% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 75 reviews, with an average rating of 8.07/10. The site's critics consensus states, "The Exorcist rides its supernatural theme to magical effect, with remarkable special effects and an eerie atmosphere, resulting in one of the scariest films of all time."[99] At Metacritic, which assigns and normalizes scores of critic reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 82 out of 100 based on 20 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[100] Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel placed it in the top five films released that year.[101] BBC film critic Mark Kermode believes the film to be the best film ever made, saying: "There's a theory that great films give back to you whatever it is you bring to them. It's absolutely true with The Exorcist—it reflects the anxieties of the audience. Some people think it's an outright horror-fest, but I don't. It was written by a devout Catholic who hoped it would make people think positively about the existence of God. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the book, thought that if there are demons then there are also angels and life after death. He couldn't see why people thought it was scary. I've seen it about 200 times and every time I see something I haven't seen before."[102]

Director Martin Scorsese placed The Exorcist on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.[103] In 2008, the film was selected by Empire as one of The 500 Greatest Movies Ever Made.[104] It was also placed on a similar list of 1000 films by The New York Times.[105]

Audience reaction

Despite its mixed reviews and the controversies over its content and viewer reaction, The Exorcist was a runaway hit. In New York City, where its initial run was limited to a few theaters, patrons endured cold as severe as 6 °F (−14 °C), sometimes with rain and sleet,[49] waiting for hours in long lines during what is normally a slow time of year for the movies to buy tickets, many not for the first time. The crowds gathered outside theaters sometimes rioted, and police were called in to quell disturbances in not only New York but Kansas City.[62]

The New York Times asked some of those on line what drew them there. Those who had read the novel accounted for about a third; they wanted to see if the film could realistically depict some of the scenes in the book. "We're here because we're nuts and because we wanted to be part of the madness," said others. A repeat viewer told the newspaper that it was the best horror film he had seen in decades, "much better than Psycho. You feel contaminated when you leave the theater. There's something that is impossible to erase." Many made a point of saying that they had either never waited in line that long for a movie before, or not in a long time. "It makes the movie better", William Hurt, then a drama student at Juilliard, said of the experience.[47]

Reports of strong audience reactions were widespread; many including accounts of nausea and fainting. A woman in New York was said to have miscarried during a showing.[47] Some theaters have been said to have provided "Exorcist barf bags";[106] while there are no contemporary reports of theaters even providing regular sickness bags, Mad magazine depicted one on the cover of its October 1974 issue, which contained a parody of the film.[86] A reviewer for Cinefantastique said that there was so much vomit in the bathroom at the showing he attended that it was impossible to reach the sinks.[63]

Other theaters arranged for ambulances to be on call. Some patrons had to be helped to leave the places they had hidden in theaters. Despite its lack of any supernatural content, many audience members found the angiography, where real blood briefly spurts from the tube inserted into Blair's neck, to be the film's most unsettling scene (Blatty says he has only watched it once, while the film was being edited, and avoids it on every other viewing[107]). Friedkin speculates that it is easier to empathize with Regan in that scene, as compared to what she suffers while possessed later in the film.[81][82][108][109]

In 1975, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published a paper by a psychiatrist documenting four cases of what he called "cinematic neurosis" triggered by viewing the film. In all he believed the neurosis was already present and merely triggered by viewing scenes in the film, particularly those depicting Regan's possession. He recommended that treating physicians view the movie with their patient to help him or her identify the sources of their trauma.[110]

"The Exorcist ... was one of the rare horror movies that became part of the national conversation", wrote Jason Zinoman almost 40 years later. "It was a movie you needed to have an opinion about." Three separate production histories were published. Journalists complained that coverage of the film and its controversies was distracting the public from the ongoing Watergate scandal.[62]

Much of the coverage, in fact, focused on the audience which, in the later words of film historian William Paul, "had become a spectacle equal to the film". He cites an Associated Press cartoon in which a couple trying to purchase tickets to the film was told that while the film itself is sold out, "we're selling tickets to the lobby to watch the audience." Paul does not think any other film's audience has received as much coverage as The Exorcist's.[63]

Within a year of The Exorcist's release, two films were quickly made that appeared to appropriate elements of its plot or production design. Warner took legal action against the producers of both, accusing them of copyright infringement. The lawsuits resulted in one film being pulled from distribution and the other one having to change its advertisements.[111]

Abby, released almost a year after The Exorcist, put a blaxploitation spin on the material. In it a Yoruba demon released during an archeological dig in Africa crosses the Atlantic Ocean and possesses the archaeologist's daughter at home in Kentucky. Director William Girdler acknowledged the movie was intended to cash in on the success of The Exorcist. Warner's lawsuit early in 1975 resulted in most prints of the film being confiscated; the film has rarely been screened since and is not available on any home media.[112]

Later in 1975 Warner brought suit against Film Ventures International (FVI) over Beyond the Door, which had also been released near the end of 1974, alleging that its main character, also a possessed woman whose head spins around completely, projectile vomits and speaks with a deep voice when possessed, infringed the studio's copyright on Regan. Judge David W. Williams of the United States District Court for the Central District of California held first that since Blatty had based the character on what he was told was a true story, Regan was not original to either film and thus Warner could not hold a copyright on Regan. Even if she had been a creation, she could not be copyrighted since she was subordinate to the story. The writers of the FVI film had also further distanced themselves from an infringement claim by having their possessed female, Jessica, be a pregnant adult woman.[111]

However, he found that some of Beyond the Door's advertising graphics, such as an image of light coming from behind a door into a darkened room, and the letter "T" drawn as a Christian cross, were similar enough to those used to promote The Exorcist that the public could reasonably have been confused into thinking the two films were the same, or made by the same people, and enjoined FVI from further use of those graphics.[111]


"The Exorcist has done for the horror film what 2001 did for science fiction", wrote the Cinefantastique reviewer who had described the vomit-covered bathroom, "legitimizing it in the eyes of thousands who previously considered horror movies nothing more than a giggle".[63] In the years following, studios alloted large budgets to films like The Omen, The Sentinel, Burnt Offerings, Audrey Rose and The Amityville Horror, all of which had similar themes or plot elements and cast established stars,[113] who until then often avoided the genre until their later years.[62]

The film's success led Warner to initiate a sequel, one of the first times a studio had done that with a major film, launching a franchise. While many of the classic horror films of the 1930s, like Frankenstein and King Kong had spawned series of films over the decades, they had always been secondary properties for the studios. The other big-budget horror films made in the wake of The Exorcist also led to sequels and franchises of their own.[62]

Awards and honors

Academy Awards

The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1974, winning two. It is the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.[114] At the 46th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, the film won two statuettes (highlighted in bold).[77]

The film was nominated for:

Golden Globe Awards

The Exorcist was nominated for seven total Golden Globes in 1974. At the 31st Golden Globes ceremony that year, the film won four awards.

The film was nominated for

Library of Congress

American Film Institute Lists

Alternative and uncut versions

Several versions of The Exorcist have been released:

  • The 1979 theatrical reissue was converted to 70mm, with its 1.75:1 ratio[115] expanded to 2.20:1 to use all the available screen width that 70mm offers. This was also the first time the sound was remixed to six-channel Dolby Stereo sound. Almost all video versions feature this soundtrack.
  • The network TV version originally broadcast on CBS in 1980 was edited by William Friedkin, who also shot a replacement insert of the Virgin Mary statue crying blood, replacing the shot of a more obscenely desecrated statue. Friedkin himself spoke the Demon's new, censored lines; he was unwilling to work with Mercedes McCambridge again. The lines "Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras, you faithless slime!" and "Shove it up your ass, you faggot" were re-dubbed by Friedkin as "Your mother still rots in hell" and "Shut your face, you faggot." Several of Ellen Burstyn's lines were also redubbed by the actress, replacing "Jesus Christ" with "Judas Priest" and omitting the word fuck. Most of the profanity spoken by Regan is also cut out, as are the shots of her being abused with a crucifix and forcing Chris' face into her crotch. There is also a slightly alternative shot of Regan's face morphed into the white face of the demon just after Merrin arrives at the MacNeil house (the theatrical versions only show the beginning of the transformation).
  • In the television airings, the image of the obscenely defiled statue of the Virgin Mary stays intact. It stays on longer for the TV-14 version.
  • In some network versions Regan is not masturbating but having another fit.
  • The Special Edition released on DVD for the 25th Anniversary includes the original ending as a special feature, not used in the theatrical release: after Father Dyer is seen on top of the steps behind the MacNeil's residence, he walks away and is approached by Lt. Kinderman. They talk briefly about Regan and the events that just took place there; Kinderman then invites Dyer to the movies to see Wuthering Heights and quotes Casablanca, telling Dyer "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship".
  • The Special Edition DVD also includes a 75-minute documentary titled The Fear of God on the making of The Exorcist. The documentary includes screen tests and additional deleted scenes.
  • The scene where the demonic entity leaves Father Karras was originally done by filming Jason Miller in possession makeup, then stopping the camera and shooting him again with the makeup removed. This creates a noticeable jump in Father Karras' position as he is unpossessed. The 25th anniversary video releases of The Exorcist smooth over the jumpy transition with a subtle computer morphing effect. This updated effect was not featured in the prints used for the Warner Bros. 75th anniversary film festivals.
  • A new edition labeled "The Version You've Never Seen" (later re-labelled "Extended Director's Cut") was released in theaters on September 22, 2000 and included new additions and changes.
  • In both the TV-PG and TV-14 rated network versions, the image of the obscenely defiled statue of the Virgin Mary stays intact. It stays on screen several seconds longer for the TV-14 version. In original TV airings, the shot was replaced with one where the statue's face is smashed in, but without other defilement. Edits may vary between networks and non-premium cable networks usually show only edited/censored versions of the film.
  • The DVD released for the 25th Anniversary retains the original theatrical ending and includes the extended ending with Dyer and Kinderman as a special feature (as opposed the "Version You've Never Seen" ending, which features Dyer and Kinderman but omits the Casablanca reference).
  • The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology (box set) was released on DVD in October 2006 and on Blu-ray in September 2014. This collection includes the original theatrical release version The Exorcist; the extended version, The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen; Exorcist II: The Heretic; The Exorcist III; and two different prequels: Exorcist: The Beginning, and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Morgan Creek, the current owner of the franchise, has now produced a television series of Blatty's novel, which is the basis for the original film.

In 1998, Warner re-released the digitally remastered DVD of The Exorcist: 25th Anniversary Special Edition. The DVD includes the BBC documentary, The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist,[116] highlighting the never-before-seen original non-bloody variant of the spider-walk scene.

To appease the screenwriter and some fans of The Exorcist, Friedkin reinstated the bloody variant of the spider-walk scene for the 2000 theatrically re-released version of The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen. In October 2010, Warner released The Exorcist (Extended Director's Cut & Original Theatrical Edition) on Blu-ray, including the behind-the-scenes filming of the spider-walk scene. Linda R. Hager, the lighting double for Linda Blair, was incorrectly credited for performing the stunt. In 2015, Warner Bros. finally acknowledged that stuntwoman Ann Miles was the only person who performed the stunt.


See also


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