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The Exorcist Was So Scary in 1973 It Made Moviegoers Faint, Vomit, and Cry
"All my friends told me not to go, but I just had to see what it was like," a student said after leaving the movie early.
With The Exorcist: Believer about ready to scare audiences all over again, it seems like a good time to look back at the original. And if there was ever a movie worth seeing in theaters, it was The Exorcist.
When the film debuted in December 1973, it inspired some of the most shocking reactions in history, gaining a reputation as a salacious horror flick. It was so scary that even renowned Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert noted, "I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won't be one ... Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all?"
It would seem that was the case as people lined up outside theaters in the weeks following the December 26 premiere. Eager moviegoers withstood snow, rain, and sleet as they waited their turn to see Linda Blair portray the demon-possessed Regan torture her mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn). Whether it was worth the the wait or not depended on the person. Some individuals returned to see the movie a second time, but if you believe the news reports, a majority of people regretted going at all.
Audience Reactions to The Exorcist
"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," the New York Times reported.
It seems the security guard at that theater exaggerated slightly, as a separate New York Times report noted that the director of operations never heard of anyone suffering a heart attack.
But other theater managers did confirm that vomiting was a common occurrence, causing issues for custodians and more. University Theater Manager Henry Marshall told the Toronto Star, "The smell in the bathrooms is awful. People are rushing in and they're missing the toilet seat by inches.”
Usher Tony Mezza, also employed at Toronto's University Theater, said that a majority of the attendees were students seeking a thrill after hearing the shocking reviews. As one student told The Toronto Star, "Everyone is talking about it at school. Everyone is saying, 'Don’t go.'"
Afraid to miss out on the buzz, student Leslie Gillon braved the crowds, only to find herself missing half the movie as she got sick in the bathrooms. She told the newspaper, "All my friends told me not to go, but I just had to see what it was like."
The Catholic Church's Stance on The Exorcist
Though the film caused such an uproar in the media, the Catholic Church purportedly viewed the film positively. A historian who reviewed official correspondence between the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Film and Broadcasting (USCCB-OFB) found that the Vatican actually thought the film reinforced the power of the Church and faith, according to Amy Chambers' 1973 study, Somewhere between science and superstition’: Religious outrage, horrific science, and The Exorcist.
In one letter cited in the study, Rev. Monsignor E. Robert Arthur of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. wrote that the Church would not allow a scene of "desecration in the church itself," but "appreciates [that] the total impact of the film would seem to be commendable."
In fact, some religious figures said that the film encouraged people to attend church. A reverend from a Woodbury, New Jersey church told the New York Times that a 19-year-old girl sought counseling after seeing the movie. According to the reverend, the teen "spent the entire night saying the Rosary with her parents and needed special assurances from a priest before she calmed down."
If anyone was stoking the flames of controversy, it was the studio publicists and director William Friedkin himself, who said in a memo, "One of the best things that could happen is if the Pope denounces it," according to Chambers' study.
The Exorcist's Impact
Despite the extreme reactions to the film, it was clearly a box-office success. As a result, four sequels were released, including The Exorcist III and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, both of which are now streaming on Peacock.
The film was also a critical success, having been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. William Peter Blatty took home the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, while sound engineers Robert Knudson and Chris Newman won for Best Sound.
At the Golden Globes, The Exorcist won Best Drama, while Linda Blair was presented with Best Supporting Actress. Additionally, Friedkin won Best Director, and Blatty took Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Exorcist saga continues with The Exorcist: Believer, in theaters October 6. Get tickets at Fandango.