Epitomizes 1970’s Horror Films Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The horror film The Exorcist, with its graphic, realistic depiction of a little girl’s demonic possession, terrified audiences in a way no horror film ever had, and the film’s success spawned many imitations.

Summary of Event

William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist Exorcist, The (Blatty) was one of the most widely read novels of 1971. Basing his story on a reported actual series of events, Blatty told in excruciating detail the sufferings of a young girl, Regan MacNeil, who is possessed by the devil and the frantic attempts of her mother and two priests to save the child. Anticipation of a film version—and speculation about who would direct and star in it—began as soon as the book appeared on the best-seller lists. Shirley MacLaine, a well-known actor on whom Blatty had based the character of Chris, Regan’s mother, was an early favorite to play the role, but instead, director William Friedkin cast Ellen Burstyn. Respected actor and playwright Jason Miller was cast as the younger of the two priests, and the highly respected Swedish actor Max von Sydow was given the title role of the veteran exorcist, Father Merrin. Young Linda Blair was cast as Regan. Horror films Horror films Friedkin, William Blatty, William Peter Blair, Linda Burstyn, Ellen MacLaine, Shirley Miller, Jason Sydow, Max von

As soon as the film opened in New York City on December 26, 1973, it became a media sensation, with crowds lining up by the hundreds and even thousands for hours before show times. Newspapers printed numerous stories about incidents in which audience members screamed, fainted, cried, or had to leave the theater during each showing. Religious leaders debated the film and the reasons for audiences’ extreme reactions to it. Famed evangelist Billy Graham Graham, Billy denounced the film as evil, and Kathryn Kuhlman, Kuhlman, Kathryn a Christian minister with a large television following, held group counseling sessions for people who were traumatized by the film.

As anticipated as the film adaptation of The Exorcist had been, audience members were not prepared for the sheer horrific realism that Friedkin and his cast and crew brought to the production. Until the early 1970’s, horror films tended to be cheap independent films with laughable special effects and wooden acting, or else they were products of major film companies and producers who tended to employ a degree of subtlety and to downplay graphic violence, such as the classic Universal horror films of the 1930’s and 1940’s and Roman Polanski’s Polanski, Roman masterful adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel about diabolism, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Rosemary’s Baby (film) Emboldened by the public’s widespread acceptance of the grim, often disgusting details of the novel, Friedkin took full advantage of the major advancements in the development of ultrarealistic special effects that had begun with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968; he replicated faithfully many of the most horrific and repellent scenes from the book, both physical (spinal taps, masturbation with a crucifix, projectile vomiting) and metaphysical (a human head swiveling 180 degrees, levitation of humans and inanimate objects, eerie demonic voices). Audiences, including even people who had read the novel, were simply not prepared psychologically or culturally to view such scenes on the big screen, certainly not when the scenes were presented with thorough realism.

Adding to the film’s intense realism was the level of acting, especially that of Burstyn and Blair. Burstyn’s portrayal of a besieged mother fighting for her daughter was every bit as harrowing as Sophia Loren’s performance in a similar role in La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960), for which Loren won an Oscar. Blair, a twelve-year-old novice when she was cast in the film, was equally good as the possessed Regan. Although her performance was definitely enhanced by special effects, makeup, and sound effects, Blair’s facial expressions were obviously her own; they included a creepy assortment of sneers, leers, and glares that all too clearly suggested the devil within.

Another factor that contributed to the hubbub that surrounded The Exorcist during its initial run was the story’s purported basis in truth. Even Americans who had never read the novel had likely read or seen interviews with William Peter Blatty in which he stated that his novel was based on a series of events involving a child—a boy rather than a girl—who lived in a small town in Virginia near Washington, D.C., in 1949. Allegedly, the episodes began with poltergeist-like rappings in the boy’s bedroom, followed by seizures during which the boy and his bed would shake violently and a second, sinister personality seemed to speak from the boy’s lips. Eventually, after local clergymen could give the family no relief, he was taken to a Jesuit-run hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, where priests conducted an official, church-sanctioned series of exorcisms that ended with the boy’s delivery from demonic possession on Easter. Despite scant evidence and conflicting opinions about the true nature of these events (the family involved never spoke publicly), almost everyone who went to see The Exorcist in 1973 knew that what was depicted on the screen was alleged to be “real.” This double dose of realism—a “real” story told with extremely realistic special effects—was simply too much for many viewers to handle.

A crowd waits in line outside New York City’s Paramount Theater for a showing of The Exorcist in February, 1974.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

An additional factor contributed to the controversy surrounding The Exorcist and kept alive the furor that had erupted on the day of the film’s release. As more crowds thronged theaters across the United States and more audience members passed out or ran away screaming, a hodgepodge of studio gossip and urban legend began to circulate throughout the country by means of thousands of newspaper and magazine feature stories, gossip columns, and entertainment news items. For example, Friedkin and Blatty were said to be feuding over the way the film had been edited. A body double who had stood in for Blair during some of the more graphic scenes and Mercedes McCambridge, McCambridge, Mercedes the character actress who had supplied the voice of the demon, were reportedly unhappy that their contributions were being overlooked and were demanding onscreen credits.

Because Shirley MacLaine was associated with the character of Chris MacNeil and had been discussed as possibly playing her, a rumor started that The Exorcist was somehow the story of the possession of MacLaine’s real-life daughter. Most flamboyant of all was the rumor that the sets and studio where The Exorcist was filmed had been haunted during production, with many sinister, unexplained phenomena plaguing the cast and crew. All this gossip served to provide more publicity for an already highly publicized film.


The controversy and the media circus inaugurated by the premiere of The Exorcist in 1973 are culturally and historically important for a number of reasons. First, The Exorcist had a huge impact on the substance of horror fiction and film for decades to come. Before 1973, works of horror in the United States tended to focus on one of three kinds of folkloric creatures: ghosts, vampires, or werewolves. Demonic possession, about which much lore and many tales abounded in medieval times, had all but disappeared from folklore-derived fiction and film by the twentieth century. The Exorcist changed that, adding demonic figures to the stock company of players in American horror novels and films, in fact establishing them as a staple of the genre.

The success of The Exorcist also inspired many imitations, most of which focused on the figure of the demonic child, as in, most obviously, 1976’s The Omen, 1974’s It’s Alive, and the numerous sequels of these films. Furthermore, The Exorcist ensured that never again would Hollywood or the general viewing public associate horror films with cheap, tawdry production values and bad acting. On December 26, 1973, the American horror film came of age. Horror films

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Thomas B. Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism. Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2000. Provides a summary of the events that inspired the novel and film. Helpful for an understanding of the film’s effects, given that much of the fear created by the film derived from the supposed truth of the story that inspired it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. The novel on which the film is based shows the film to be an extremely faithful adaptation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cull, Nick. “The Exorcist.” History Today 50 (May, 2000): 46-51. Examines how the film exploited the various issues that Americans were worried about in the early 1970’s to create unease in audiences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hantke, Steffen, ed. Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Collection of scholarly essays focuses primarily on how filmmakers create the aesthetics of horror films and how film studios market such films. Includes discussion of The Exorcist.

Jaws Prompts a Wave of Special-Effects Films

Forman Adapts One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Film

Star Wars Trilogy Redefines Special Effects

Release of Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Opens to Great Success

Categories: History