As original star returns for 50th anniversary trilogy… How The Exorcist provoked a storm


When it was released in the UK in 1974, The Exorcist shocked viewers who were unaccustomed to such intense horror on screen.

Some moviegoers fainted or vomited, while others said they had wanted to leave the cinema but were physically too scared to move.

Throughout Britain, local councils banned showings, whilst priests called for it to be wiped from screens entirely – before it had even been shown in the UK. The conservative campaigner Mary Whitehouse also wanted it banned. 

Now, Universal Pictures has announced that it is to launch a new $400million follow-up trilogy from 2023 to mark the 50th anniversary of the horror classic’s US release.

Actress Ellen Burstyn is set to reprise her role as Chris MacNeil, the mother of the original possessed girl Regan, who was portrayed by Linda Blair.

In the 1973 film, Burstyn’s character enlisted the help of two priests – played by Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller – to exorcise a demon, named Pazuzu, from her daughter.

Directed by William Friedkin, the film is still considered to be one of the scariest of all time.

It featured scenes including the moment possessed Regan did a ‘spider-walk’ down the stairs, while another showed her head spin 180 degrees.

Its controversy prompted one UK priest to claim that unless the film was ‘stopped’, there was a ‘real danger’ that there would be a ‘whole new crop of’ of people suffering from schizophrenia, along with cases of ‘genuine possession’. 

Iconic: The Exorcist premiered in 1973 and was based on a book of the same name. It starred Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn and a young Linda Blair as Regan (above), a child possessed by the demon Pazuzu

The Exorcist was released in the UK in March 1974, three months after it hit the screens in the US. Above: A poster advertising the film at the Rendezvous Cinema in London. Crowds of people are seen waiting to get in

The Exorcist was released in the UK in March 1974, three months after it hit the screens in the US. Above: A poster advertising the film at the Rendezvous Cinema in London. Crowds of people are seen waiting to get in

The strapline on the film's poster read: 'Something almost beyond comprehension is happening to a girl on this street, in this house... and a man has been sent for as a last resort. This man is The Exorcist'

The strapline on the film’s poster read: ‘Something almost beyond comprehension is happening to a girl on this street, in this house… and a man has been sent for as a last resort. This man is The Exorcist’

Based on a book of the same name by William Peter Blatty – who adapted it for screen himself – the film was beset by problems during production.

A fire destroyed most of the set of the MacNeil home, whilst both Blair and Burstyn suffered painful back injuries during filming. Their real screams of pain can be heard in the film.

The Exorcist’s makers were also hit by claims that the film contained subliminal messages.

A white face which briefly flashed on screen during a dream sequence in the film is one example, but Friedkin later said it was not meant to be fully detected by the audience.

He said: ‘You couldn’t catch it before VHS. And now you can stop the DVD and stare at it.’ 

Friedkin did also add ‘disturbing industrial sounds’, along with the buzzing of bees, to heighten fear among those watching.

The scenes of Regan in bed were also filmed inside a large freezer so that the her breath and that of the other actors could be seen on camera.

Shortly after the film was released, Friedkin said: ‘We were plagued by strange and sinister things from the beginning.’

The film's popularity was fuelled by the controversy surrounding it, including reports of people fainting and vomiting during showings. Above: Crowds queue to get in to the Rendezvous Cinema in London

The film’s popularity was fuelled by the controversy surrounding it, including reports of people fainting and vomiting during showings. Above: Crowds queue to get in to the Rendezvous Cinema in London

In the week it was officially released, two Church of England priests – Canon John Pearce-Higgins and Henry Cooper - called for the film to be banned

In the week it was officially released, two Church of England priests – Canon John Pearce-Higgins and Henry Cooper – called for the film to be banned

When the film was shown for the first time in Britain, in February 1974, several people fainted and others were sick

When the film was shown for the first time in Britain, in February 1974, several people fainted and others were sick

Director William Friedkin explaining the next scene to Blair during the making of the Exorcist. She was aged just 12 when she was selected to star in the film

Director William Friedkin explaining the next scene to Blair during the making of the Exorcist. She was aged just 12 when she was selected to star in the film 

Fans line up in the cold to see the The Exorcist. The film was released in the US in December 1973 and in the UK three months later, despite calls for it to be banned

Fans line up in the cold to see the The Exorcist. The film was released in the US in December 1973 and in the UK three months later, despite calls for it to be banned

Moviegoers also lined up in record numbers in Canada to watch the film, which remains one of the highest-grossing horrors of all time

Moviegoers also lined up in record numbers in Canada to watch the film, which remains one of the highest-grossing horrors of all time

There were queues outside cinemas in the UK, including at the Rendezvous cinema in London's West End (above)

There were queues outside cinemas in the UK, including at the Rendezvous cinema in London’s West End (above) 

When it was released in the UK in 1974, The Exorcist shocked viewers who were unaccustomed to such intense horror on screen. Some moviegoers fainted or vomited, while others said they had wanted to leave but were physically too scared to move

When it was released in the UK in 1974, The Exorcist shocked viewers who were unaccustomed to such intense horror on screen. Some moviegoers fainted or vomited, while others said they had wanted to leave but were physically too scared to move

Directed by William Friedkin, the film is still considered to be one of the scariest of all time. In the production, Ellen Burstyn's character (above) enlisted the help of two priests – played by Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller– to exorcise a demon from her daughter

Directed by William Friedkin, the film is still considered to be one of the scariest of all time. In the production, Ellen Burstyn’s character (above) enlisted the help of two priests – played by Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller– to exorcise a demon from her daughter

The scenes of Regan in bed were filmed inside a large freezer so that the her breath and that of the other actors could be seen on camera. Above: Miller in his role as Father Karras, whose breath is visible

The scenes of Regan in bed were filmed inside a large freezer so that the her breath and that of the other actors could be seen on camera. Above: Miller in his role as Father Karras, whose breath is visible 

The Exorcist's makers were also hit by claims that the film contained subliminal messages. A white face which briefly flashed on screen during a dream sequence in the film is one example, but Friedkin later said it was not meant to be fully detected by the audience

The Exorcist’s makers were also hit by claims that the film contained subliminal messages. A white face which briefly flashed on screen during a dream sequence in the film is one example, but Friedkin later said it was not meant to be fully detected by the audience

Swedish actor Max von Sydow and American actress Linda Blair on the set of The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin

Swedish actor Max von Sydow and American actress Linda Blair on the set of The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin

Nightmare: A small film with relatively unknown actors at the time, The Exorcist went on to become one of the most iconic horror films of all time and was the first of its genre to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award

Nightmare: A small film with relatively unknown actors at the time, The Exorcist went on to become one of the most iconic horror films of all time and was the first of its genre to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award

Ms Blair is seen above in a terrifying scene from the film. She was only 14 when the production was released. She was

Ms Blair is seen above in a terrifying scene from the film. She was only 14 when the production was released

William Friedkin's movie is regularly ranked as the most frightening film of all time. Above: Von Sydow and Miller's characters watch in horror as possessed Regan levitates

William Friedkin’s movie is regularly ranked as the most frightening film of all time. Above: Von Sydow and Miller’s characters watch in horror as possessed Regan levitates

Historic: It spurned a five film franchise and a television adaptation, and Morgan Creek produced both the last three films and the TV series

Historic: It spurned a five film franchise and a television adaptation, and Morgan Creek produced both the last three films and the TV series

He said that when he looked at the uncut footage during production, ‘strange images and visions that were never planned showed up on the film’.

‘There are double exposures in the little girl’s face at the end of one reel that are unbelievable. I had to do a tremendous amount of re-shooting.

The strange happenings on set  

Shortly after the film was released, director William Friedkin told of strange happenings on set.

He said: ‘We were plagued by strange and sinister things from the beginning.’

He said that when he looked at the uncut footage during production, ‘strange images and visions that were never planned showed up on the film’.

‘There are double exposures in the little girl’s face at the end of one reel that are unbelievable. I had to do a tremendous amount of re-shooting.

‘The special effects caused any number of injuries to the actors… the whole thing was a nightmare,’ he added.

A fire also destroyed most of the set of the MacNeil home, whilst both Blair and Burstyn suffered painful back injuries during filming. Their real screams of pain can be heard in the film.

‘The special effects caused any number of injuries to the actors… the whole thing was a nightmare,’ he added. 

US televangelist Billy Graham denounced the film, claiming there was ‘evil in every frame’.  

Ms Blair’s grandfather also died during the first week of filming, whilst Irish actor Jack Macgowran – who played the film director murdered by the demon which possessed Regan – died a week after completing his death scene.

Lee J. Kobb, who played assertive policeman Lieutenant William Kinderman, died of a heart attack in February 1976 aged 64, two years after the film was released in the UK.  

His character tried to solve the murder of Macgowran’s character Burke Dennings. 

Vasiliki Maliaros, who played Father Karras’s mother, died in February 1973, before the film had been released anywhere. An inquest found that her death was due to ‘natural causes’.   

Miller’s son was also nearly killed in a motorcycle accident during filming.   

Eileen Dietz, who played the demon Pazuzu, said in a 2020 interview that Friedkin hid rotten food on the set in an attempt to re-create the bad smell of the demon and make the actors feel uncomfortable.

She told the New Statesman: ‘The problem was the crew and the cast all got sick so we had to stop shooting.’  

The actress also revealed that Friedkin made sure a priest came to the set every day to carry out a blessing. 

She added that she didn’t receive any direction from Friedkin on how to play Pazuzu. Instead, she stared at a book containing pictures of wild animals while doing growling faces in the mirror. 

‘Everything you see comes from within and I guess because of my research, it’s very animalistic,’ she said.’   

Friedkin did also add 'disturbing industrial sounds', along with the buzzing of bees, to heighten fear among those watching

Friedkin did also add ‘disturbing industrial sounds’, along with the buzzing of bees, to heighten fear among those watching

Conservative campaigner Mary Whitehouse was among those in the UK who called for it to be banned

Conservative campaigner Mary Whitehouse was among those in the UK who called for it to be banned

When the film was shown for the first time in Britain, in February 1974, several people fainted and others were sick.

Some who found the film too terrifying walked out part-way through. It led to the stationing of paramedics outside some cinemas in further showings that year.

Tragedies which hit the cast 

 The Exorcist’s cast was beset by problems during filming. 

Linda Blair’s grandfather died during the first week of production, whilst Irish actor Jack Macgowran – who played the film director murdered by the demon which possessed Regan – died a week after completing his death scene.

Lee J. Kobb, who played assertive policeman Lieutenant William Kinderman, died of a heart attack in February 1976 aged 64, two years after the film was released in the UK.

His character tried to solve the murder of Macgowran’s character Burke Dennings.

Friedkin did also add ‘disturbing industrial sounds’, along with the buzzing of bees, to heighten fear among those watching

Vasiliki Maliaros, who played Father Karras’s mother, died in February 1973, before the film had been released anywhere. An inquest found that her death was due to ‘natural causes’.

Miller’s son was also nearly killed in a motorcycle accident during filming.

In the week it was officially released in Britain, two Church of England priests – Canon John Pearce-Higgins and Henry Cooper – called for the film to be banned.

And the conservative activist Mary Whitehouse also demanded that it be pulled from screens outside London.

Canon Pearce-Higgins said at the time: ‘In recent months there has been a tremendous surge towards the supernatural by the public and unless this film is stopped there will be a real danger that we will have a whole new crop of schizophrenics – and a small number of cases of genuine possession’.

Before the film came to UK shores, it had already caused multiple instances of people fainting, vomiting and even having heart attacks in cinemas in the US.

Although they had been available from 1981, video copies were withdrawn from sale in the UK from 1988 after the British Board of Film Classification refused to grant a certificate for it when the law changed.

Amid fears that young people would continue to seek it out even if it had an 18 certificate, the film was not available to purchase again until 1999.

However, the hype around the film helped to fuel incredible box office returns. It has earned more than $441 million (around £320million) in sales and became the first horror film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  

When adjusted for today’s prices, the film has grossed more than $1billion (£720million).  

Whilst The Exorcist was the first in a five-film series, Ms Blair only featured in the first two, whilst Ms Burstyn did not appear in any of the follow-up productions. 

The first film in the new trilogy will reportedly be a direct sequel to the original. It will center on a character played by Leslie Odom Jr., who tracks down Chris MacNeil after his child becomes possessed.

Halloween reboot director David Gordon Green is set to write and direct the new films.

However, Ms Blair said this week that there had ‘not been any discussions’ about her reprising her role in the new trilogy.  

The first film in the new trilogy will center on a character played by Leslie Odom Jr., who tracks down Chris MacNeil after his child becomes possessed. Above: Ellen Bursten in 2019

The first film in the new trilogy will center on a character played by Leslie Odom Jr., who tracks down Chris MacNeil after his child becomes possessed. Above: Ellen Bursten in 2019 

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