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Cursed Movies: The Exorcist

Another all-time favorite produced by the horror movie industry is The Exorcist (1973). The Exorcist is a film based on a novel written by William Peter Blatty – a text that is based on actual events involving the reported possession of a young boy. The book version of The Exorcist was incredibly successful, reigning on top of the bestseller’s list for a full 55 weeks (“The Exorcist – The Film”). The Exorcist was directed by William Friedkin, had an original budget set at just over four million dollars but ended up costing 12 million dollars, and was released on December 26, 1973 (“The Exorcist (1973)”). The increased budget of the film was a direct result of all the special effects added to the film during production.

There were a number of deaths that occurred during the making of and shortly after the completion of The Exorcist, and the reports vary between four and nine deaths. Actress Ellen Burstyn asserts that there were nine deaths in all, and is quoted as saying “there was an enormous amount of deaths connected with the film” (“Curse of The Exorcist”). Jack MacGowran, the actor that played the role of Burke Dennings, died shortly before the film release. On January 30, 1973, MacGowran died as a result of complications from the flu at the age of 55: just over a month before the film’s official release (“Jack MacGowran”). MacGowran was cremated after his death and his ashes scattered in the sea (“Jack MacGowran”). Strangely, MacGowran’s character also dies in the film; Burke is killed by the possessed child when he is left alone with her.

Valsiliki Maliaros also died before the release of The Exorcist, the woman that played the role of Father Karras’s mother; died and was 90 years old when she passed away on February 9, 1973 of natural causes (“The Exorcist”). In addition, Lee J. Cobb, the actor that played the role of Lieutenant Kinderman, died three years after the film’s release in 1976 at the age of 64 from a heart attack (“Lee J. Cobb”). He was buried in Los Angeles County in the Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in the Garden of Shemot 1, Lot 421 (“Lee. J. Cobb”). Still other deaths occurred during the production of the film; there is a rumor that Max von Sydow, who played the role of Father Merrin, had a brother that passed away in Sweden while The Exorcist film was in production (“The Exorcist – The Film”). Some accounts argue that the latter incident is not true and that the actor had no siblings whatsoever. However, Evelyn Burstyn reveals in an interview that Max von Sydow did indeed have a brother that died during the time that the film was in production (“Curse of The Exorcist”). Burstyn further asserts that one of the cameramen had a wife that had given birth and the child died while the film was in production, and she further confirms that the man responsible for refrigerating the set died (“The Curse of the Exorcist”). Meanwhile, it is reported that Linda Blair’s grandfather died during filming, that an African American night watchman on the set also died, another incident confirmed by Burstyn; and that a man pointed out by Blair in the film died (“The Curse of the Exorcist”). Strange events continued to plague the cast and crew of the film throughout production.

Eerie events continued: Jason Miller, the actor that played Father Karras, had a son named Jordan that was seriously injured during the filming of The Exorcist; Jordan was hit by a speeding motorbike and ended up in intensive care (“The Exorcist – The Film”). In addition, Jason himself reported having a strange occurrence while working on the set of The Exorcist. Miller would often study his lines in a restaurant within the Jesuit Quarters; on one occasion he was approached by a priest and handed a medallion of the Blessed Virgin (“Curse of the Exorcist”). The old priest told Miller that he was giving him the medallion as a form of intervention; he warned Miller that if anyone does anything to “reveal the devil for the trickster that he is, he will seek retribution against you or he will even try to stop what you are trying to do to unmask him.” The priest then advised Miller that the medallion would protect him and warned him to be very careful (“Curse of the Exorcist”). According to Jason Miller’s obituary printed in the New York Times (Jason passed away from a heart attack on May 13, 2001 and lived long enough to appear in The Exorcist III, he was survived by three sons, Jason, Jordan, and Joshua, as well as a daughter Jennifer (Pogrebin). After his death, Jason Miller was cremated (“Jason Miller”). Thus, as evidenced by Jason Miller’s obituary, his son Jordan Miller clearly survived the ordeal he endured while the film was in production.

Ellen Burstyn, who played the role of Chris MacNeil, Regan’s mother, was injured on the set during filming. In the scene where she is checking on her daughter and later thrown away from the bed, she received a permanent injury to her spine: the harness that was used to shoot the scene pulled her away quickly and when she landed, Burstyn landed on her coccyx (“Exorcist Trivia”). The scream seen immediately following the moment when Regan’s mother is tossed away from the bed is a very real scream, produced by the agonizing pain the actress experienced (“Exorcist Trivia”). In addition, an interesting point of trivia related to The Exorcist film is the fact that the cold bedroom scenes were produced through the use of several air conditioners: temperatures on the set were incredibly cold, as cold as -30 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. At one point, it actually began to snow on the set as a result of the amount of moisture in the air in conjunction with the cold temperatures (“Exorcist Trivia”). Finally, there are reports of a carpenter being seriously injured while building the sets for the movie and some reports claim that a carpenter lost some of his fingers while working on the set (“Hauntings on the Set").

The Assistant Director of the film, Terrance Donnelly, has also made claims pertaining to strange events surrounding The Exorcist film. Donnelly reports that in his 32 years of film making, he never once experienced a set catching on fire; actress Ellen Burstyn concurs with Donnelly, explaining that the set caught on fire when no one was at the location at the time (“The Curse of the Exorcist”). The first set of the MacNeil home actually burned down in an unexplained accident and had to be rebuilt. The film’s director then requested that Reverend Thomas Bermingham conduct an exorcism to relieve the anxiety of the cast and crew: the exorcism was refused; instead the Reverend performed a blessing for the cast and crew, and the blessing had to be repeated again when the location where the movie was being shot changed (“The Exorcist – The Film”). Joe Hyams, a publicist asserts that the fire set the production back a period of six weeks (“Curse of The Exorcist”). Donnelly further explained that there was no logical explanation determined for the fire and that the cause remains till this day, unknown (“Curse of the Exorcist”). This sounds eerily similar to events that occurred on the set of Poltergeist III: where a scene involving an explosion caused the set to catch on fire. It also bears similarities to events surrounding the creation of Poltergeist II: The Other Side, where the Native American shaman Will Sampson was requested to perform an exorcism.

Marcel Vercoutere, responsible for some of the movie’s special effects, reports feeling very eerie when working on the set: “There was definitely a feeling that it could happen, we were playing around with something that we shouldn’t have been playing around with” (“The Curse of the Exorcist”). Writer of the novel The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty reported having unexplained experiences as well: on one occasion, Blatty’s now former wife reported seeing the telephone rise up off the hook into the air unaided (“Haunting on the Set”). At first Blatty didn’t quite believe something like that could happen; a few days passed when he was sitting next to the same telephone when it rang: he went to reach for a pack of cigarettes before answering and watched as the telephone receiver rose up off the cradle unaided and landed near the phone (“Hauntings on the Set”). Even the writer of the film could not escape the unexplained forces surrounding the film production.

When the movie hit the theaters, some of the reactions to the film were not too promising; Billy Graham, an evangelist, spoke out about the film and suggested that “the forces of darkness” were aligned with the film and that “there is a power of evil in the film, in the fabric of the film itself” (“The Exorcist: Aftermath”). Reports of movie theaters offering vomit bags to viewers, people continuously fainting after watching the film and even getting injured ironically fueled the success of the film further. Some reports suggest that one man fainted in the movie theater, fell forward, and subsequently hit the movie seat in front of him and broke his jaw (“The Exorcist – The Film”). Some movie theaters even kept a supply of smelling salts on hand for those that fainted after watching the film. To view the audience reaction to The Film when it was released in 1973 visit: The Exorcist - Audience Reactions on Youtube at:


The viewing public had different reactions to the film: some people would faint during the film, some would become physically ill, and others enjoyed the movie immensely. The Exorcist ended up being a huge success grossing 160 million dollars in 1973 and falling second in terms of sales to The Godfather (“The Exorcist: The Film”). Ironically enough, after filming, the director Friedkin took the production to 666 Fifth Avenue in New York for editing and post production (“Exorcist Trivia”). When the film was first shown in Rome, Italy, it was played at the Metropolitan Theatre, just a short distance from two churches that were built in the sixteenth century; both churches had crosses on the top of them (“The Exorcist: Aftermath”). According to Joe Hyams, as people were entering the theatre to watch the film, it was raining and lightening was flashing (“The Exorcist Aftermath”). Soon following, a sudden loud noise erupted; one of the crosses on the nearby church had been struck by lightning; the cross was estimated to be approximately eight feet long and 400 years old – it fell to the ground landing in the center of the piazza after being struck (“The Exorcist – Aftermath”). What are the chances?

Works Cited

“The Exorcist - Cast reunion on Good Morning America.” Youtube. 5 Jan. 2008. Youtube. 22 July 2009

“The Exorcist 1973.” The Internet Movie Database. 2009. 22 July 2009

“The Exorcist 1973 Trivia.” The Internet Movie Database. 2009. 22 July 2009

“’The Exorcist’ - The Film.” BBC Home. 2006. BBC. 22 July 2009

“Jack MacGowran.” All Movie. 2009. Macrovision Corporation. 22 July 2009

“Jack MacGowran.” Find A Grave. 2009. 22 July 2009

“Jason Miller.” Find A Grave. 2009. 22 July 2009

“Lee J. Cobb.” Find A Grave. 2009. 22 July 2009

Pogrebin, Robin. “Jason Miller, Playwright and Actor, Dies at 62.” The New York Times. 15 May 2001. The New York Times Company. 22 July 2009

“William Peter Blatty on ‘Exorcists: The True Story.’” Youtube. Dec. 2007. Youtube. 22 July 2009

Article written by: Dayna Winters

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