Written By: Gina McIntyre
The following is from LIFE’s new special issue on The Exorcist, available here online and at newsstands:
“They wait hours to be shocked,” read the headline in the January 27, 1974, edition of the New York Times. “People stood like sheep in the rain, cold and sleet for up to four hours to see the chilling film about a 12-year-old girl going to the Devil,” Judy Klemesrud wrote of the crowds outside Manhattan’s Cinema 1, where The Exorcist had been showing since its release a month earlier. “It’s been reported that once inside the theater, a number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings-on on the screen. Others fainted, or left the theater, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me. One woman even had a miscarriage, he said.”
Surely some of those rumored reactions were apocryphal, but there’s no doubt that The Exorcist struck a powerful chord in audiences who had never before witnessed anything like it—quite simply because there had never been anything like it.
Rosemary’s Baby had frightened moviegoers in 1968 with the story of a woman who unwittingly gives birth to the son of the Devil, but that film was relatively restrained in its depiction of the horrors unfolding around Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse. The Exorcist, by contrast, held nothing back. Employing expert craftsmanship and groundbreaking special effects, director William Friedkin chronicled young Regan MacNeil’s terrifying transformation from an angel-faced tween into a projectile-vomiting, foul-mouthed monster in unflinching, explicit detail.
“If that film hadn’t been put out by a major studio, there’s no way it would have gotten [only] an R rating—that was, I think, a lot of what made it an immediate sensation,” says Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips. “People knew they were seeing something they probably shouldn’t have been seeing under that rating. It was crafty in the way that it wrapped itself in the dogma of the Catholic church, and giving you a happy-enough ending but also giving you pure hell along the way.”
Notably, Friedkin, as he set out to adapt William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel for the big screen, never intended to make a horror film. The director, who died in 2023 at age 87, said many times that for him, The Exorcist was not simply the story of a little girl who becomes possessed by a demon but rather a compelling character piece that offered a profound exploration of the mysteries of faith. Yes, Regan endures unimaginable suffering, but ultimately she is a means for the evil entity to torment Father Karras, a priest grappling with his relationship to God in the wake of his mother’s death.
Blatty’s intentions, too, had nothing to do with monster-movie influences. “When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense, with theological overtones,” the author—who was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother—told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “To this day, I have zero recollection of even a moment when I was writing that I was trying to frighten anyone.”
Initially, Blatty’s novel, which was inspired by a supposed real-life case of demonic possession, appeared on track to be a flop. Despite a serious publicity push from publisher Harper & Row, the book debuted to sluggish sales, which didn’t entirely surprise the author. “I never got the impression that he was convinced this was going to be a big hit, a big novel,” says Blatty’s son, Michael. “In fact, I think he was a little worried he could pull it off.” It was only after the elder Blatty’s fortuitous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show that interest in The Exorcist spiked. And then it took off. Before long, millions of people had picked up the compulsively readable thriller.
The first time Friedkin read Blatty’s story was in an early draft of a screenplay the author had penned after selling his film rights to Warner Bros. The director was hooked, seizing on The Exorcist as his ideal follow-up to The French Connection, a crime thriller that had netted five Academy Awards, including best director and best picture. “You don’t just do any picture next,” Friedkin said in 1973. “You try to make a film as good or better than the last one, to uphold the tradition of the Academy Award.”
Friedkin and his artistic collaborators sought to make The Exorcist hew as closely to Blatty’s source material as possible. And acclaimed though he was, Friedkin also had a well-deserved reputation for exacting perfectionism. He was an uncompromising taskmaster who wanted every aspect of a film to rise to a certain level of excellence, and conditions on his set would often be punishing, especially for Linda Blair, who famously won the role of Regan after a meeting with Friedkin in the Warner Bros. offices at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
“What everybody went through is their own path and journey with Billy,” Blair said in 2013. “He is difficult because he wants to deliver . . . the best of everything in the art form. That’s why the audience can still believe and relate to it. I know we’re all very proud to have been part of it. Yes, it was hard. There’s no doubt. It was no walk in the park.”
After The Exorcist opened on December 26, 1973, it didn’t take long for the film to dominate the cultural conversation. Some critics praised it as a work of genius; others decried it as a well-appointed exercise in child exploitation. But any poor notices did little to sway public opinion. The Exorcist raked in more than $10 million in its first five weeks as moviegoers, like the ones the New York Times had found, lined up outside theaters across the country, eager to see what had so many people talking—or fainting in the aisles.
Friedkin’s straightforward, documentary-inspired style grounded the outré events unfolding on-screen, and the movie’s superb acting further sold the illusion that Regan really was in the Devil’s grasp. “It was the first horror film I remember that had all the trappings of an A picture,” says veteran Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. “Horror had been around for a while, but it had mostly been the domain of the [B-movies]. The Exorcist was really well cast. Also: Friedkin at the top of his game as an audience manipulator. He was really skilled at knowing how to make people jump.”
Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan’s distraught-actress mother, Chris, echoed those sentiments in 2016. “It’s very real—the story, the people,” she said. “The level of reality in the performances, I think, draws the audience in so that they’re hooked into the characters before it starts getting what could be hard to believe if you weren’t already engaged. I think that the audience gets taken on a trip, and then that combination of religion and sex and evil is a very potent combination.”
The Exorcist unquestionably tapped into deeply rooted anxieties about female adolescence, notes Julia Elliott, a professor of English and of women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina. “Regan, as a monster, is definitely embedded into fears of femininity, sexuality, and puberty,” Elliott says. “Her skin is oozing. She’s using foul language. She’s talking back to her mom. She’s explicitly sexual. The priests are just struggling to expel this demon of female sexuality from this adolescent body. At this time, society is particularly freaked out about female sexual freedom, because it’s 1973 and second-wave feminism, revolutionary energies, all that stuff is happening.”
Whatever the explanation, there’s no question that the film profoundly affected some viewers. Burstyn herself has said that she witnessed one woman lose consciousness during a screening in Tucson. “During the film, the part where Linda undergoes this test where they put the needle in her neck and all this blood squirts out—which is where people always fainted in the movie—I saw a lady going up the aisle and kind of wobbling,” Burstyn said in 1984 on Good Morning America. “She got to the top of the ramp of the aisle, and she fainted. I went over to help her. I loosened her collar, and I was talking to her. Her eyes were fluttering, and they started to open. I thought: My God, if she wakes up and sees me, she’ll think she’s in The Twilight Zone or something. So I jumped up and said, ‘Quick, somebody else come help her.’”
There was also a reported increase in the number of people who—many after viewing The Exorcist—came to believe that they, too, were host to some evil force. In 1974, Rev. Richard Woods, a Dominican at Loyola University in Chicago who authored a book about the Devil, told the New York Times: “I’ve received dozens of calls from people who are horribly frightened or so confused that they have begun to lose their grip on reality. . . . I also know of two kids who came out of the movie thinking that they were possessed, and they have now been hospitalized.”
Predictably, larger cultural voices weighed in, too. Televangelist Billy Graham famously noted of The Exorcist that “the Devil is in every frame of this film,” and both Time and Newsweek ran stories about the surrounding frenzy. The satirists at Mad magazine even got in on the act with a spoof 1974 cover featuring the grinning mascot Alfred E. Neuman depicted on an “Exorcist barf bag” alongside the slogan “If the Devil makes you do it.” The following year, Saturday Night Live did its own riff, with Richard Pryor playing a reluctant priest ministering to Laraine Newman’s Regan-inspired character.
By that point, The Exorcist had already earned a place in the annals of cinema with 10 Academy Award nominations, including for best director and best picture, though it won only in the adapted screenplay and sound categories. That fact rankled Blatty, who, despite having won a statuette himself, for writing, said the other snubs were a “disgrace” and that The Exorcist was “head and shoulders the finest film made this year and in many other years.”
Ultimately, other films might be more highly decorated, but few can boast the same widespread cultural and artistic reach as this harrowing tale of demonic possession. Five decades on, The Exorcist has lost none of its potency—if anything, the passage of time has more deeply etched the movie’s most terrifying scenes into the collective consciousness of cinephiles around the globe. It ranks No. 3 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most thrilling films of all time, behind only Psycho and Jaws, and Regan, indelibly portrayed by Blair in her feature- film debut, ranks No. 9 on the AFI’s list of the 50 best movie villains.
“The Exorcist—both the book and the film—retain their hold on the public because they scare the hell into people,” says Nat Segaloff, author of the new book Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear. “The Exorcist is so skillfully made on every level that it has neither dated nor diminished in power. William Friedkin’s use of documentary style keeps it in time-present, the acting is consummate and takes every scene seriously, and [the movie] exploits centuries of religious indoctrination. There are people who, even today, are afraid to watch it, so great is its cumulative reputation.”
The Exorcist’s success spawned a wave of imitators around the world, unleashing an entire subgenre of horror in which young women come to host demons, transforming into monstrous and abhorrent creatures. “There’s an almost shot-for-shot remake made in Turkey called Satan; it’s not about Catholic priests . . . it’s just, like, a wise old man and a psychiatrist, but otherwise it’s almost identical,” explains David Wilt, a lecturer in film studies at the George Washington University who for the last several years has lectured on The Exorcist as part of a Profs and Pints series in Washington, D.C.
The 21st century, too, has seen yet more fictional stories about victims plagued by demons or by the Devil himself: The Exorcism of Emily Rose in 2005; The Last Exorcism in 2010 (ironically, a sequel followed three years later); The Rite in 2011; Deliver Us from Evil in 2014; The Possession of Hannah Grace in 2018; and, in April 2023, the Russell Crowe–led The Pope’s Exorcist.
And then there are the many sequels and prequels—and TV series and stage productions—spun off from Friedkin’s original film, which itself was re-released in theaters in 2000 with 11 minutes of additional footage, with the subtitle The Version You’ve Never Seen. The latest: Filmmaker David Gordon Green will unveil another follow-up, The Exorcist: Believer, in 2023, with Burstyn reprising her role as Chris MacNeil for the first time.
Yet no project to date has attained the same level of cultural cachet as did Friedkin’s standard-bearer. A true classic, The Exorcist retains its raw power. “Friedkin’s and Blatty’s original has stood the test of time because of its originality, its integrity, its skill, its lack of cynicism, and its morality,” says Segaloff. “It’s not a horror film—it’s a detective story about the mystery of faith. In a world where faith is exploited by televangelists and politicians, a movie that takes it seriously deserves its apotheosis.”
Here are a selection of photos from LIFE’s new special issue on The Exorcist, available here online and at newsstands.