By John Larkin
My first introduction to THE EXORCIST occurred when I was 10 years old. I was on vacation in Algonquin Maine, and our family stopped at a shopping mall before we left. My father and I split from my mother and two sisters and dipped into a now defunct franchise store, Suncoast video, to browse. Not long after entering, my father spotted a dark clamshell VHS and pulled it off the shelf. We walked to the checkout without him revealing to me what he was buying. Dad was strangely private about this movie purchase. It was unusual for him considering we would always go to the movies together and he would introduce me to different movies at home, all the time. My father was the original cinephile in my life and introduced me to all kinds of classics any movie lover would want to see. As he slid the VHS to the guy working the checkout counter, the employee took one look and said “Great film" as he rang up the VHS and slipped the mysterious item into a plastic bag to hand back to my Dad.
A few days later when we had returned back home, I cracked open the door to our family TV room on a warm summer night. My Dad was sitting there in the dark watching, what looked like, a making-of-documentary. The mysterious black VHS cover was opened, resting on a desk next to him. The light emanating from the TV was enough to illuminate the title on the VHS cover: THE EXORCIST. In just a few seconds I caught a glimpse of some of the film playing, and I was terrified of what I saw. It was snippets from the final exorcism scene, Regan’s scarred face and and yellow eyes burned onto the screen. It made me freeze with fear. My Dad told me to get out, that this wasn't appropriate for me. Most ten years olds might have been further motivated to watch the film after being told that, but not me. What I saw scared me unlike anything I had ever witnessed and I was too terrified to dare try and watch it.
I was never one to pursue watching films in the horror genre, probably because of being raised on Disney films and THE WIZARD OF OZ. The closest thing to horror I may have enjoyed was the trippy boat sequence from WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Still, when I did happen to cross paths with a glimpse of some shocking footage or a particularly stand out VHS cover, a part of me would be deeply intrigued, but a potent sense of fear held me back from further exploration.
Despite my fathers shielding of the film from me that night, he didn’t make too much of an effort to hide the actual tape from anyone else in the house. I would occasionally find the VHS left in the study near our collection of other VHS tapes and would be drawn to it. The VHS was the 25th anniversary Special Edition release (NOT the 2000 "Version You’ve Never Seen"). I would gaze at the artwork on the back and read the synopsis, tucked under the headline of THE TALE OF POSSESSION THAT SHOCKED MILLIONS. For a long time I was confused about what time period this film was made in, I thought it was an older black and white film because of the desaturated cover art on the back, showing Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Exorcism on a levitating Regan. In each corner was a color still, the first was of Ellen Burstyn’s character appearing exhausted, her head tilted back on a chair and the second still was of Linda Blair leaning against a staircase handle - a publicity photo taken for the film that isn’t actually from any scene in the film. When you opened the case there was a lobby card featuring a still of Father Merrin praying over young Regan.
It wasn’t until a couple years later that I got a firsthand account of what the Film THE EXORCIST was really all about. My younger cousin Catherine revealed that her father, my uncle Fred, had marched her into her bedroom and forced her to watch it on VHS after Catherine had told him that she was planning on playing with a ouija board that weekend with a group of her friends. My uncle protested, much to the frustration of my cousin. The argument ended with him ordering her into her bedroom, hitting play on the VHS and telling her “If you play with a Ouija board, this is what will happen to you”. To this day my cousin is scarred by the experience and will never watch the film again. My family and hers come from a devout Catholic background and for those in my family who had watched THE EXORCIST when it was released in theaters, it solidified their belief in evil and the power of God more than anything else they had personally experienced in their lives up until that point.
My cousin would vent about the traumatic experience to me. She described the masturbation with a crucifix scene and the infamous spider-walk down the stairs. This was right after the 2000 “Version You’ve Never Seen” was released on home video, as the spider-walk scene is not in the original version. Her shared details were enough to give me nightmares, not having seen even a frame of footage. At some point during this time, my father revealed to me and my sisters about seeing THE EXORCIST for the first time in theaters back in early 1974 and how much it frightened him. So much so, that as a lapsed Catholic he returned to the church where he remains a devoted parishioner to this day. Because of this I have always thought of my fear and deep connection to THE EXORCIST as being hardwired into my DNA. Me and my sisters wanted nothing to do with the film even though my Dad was willing to show it to us, not in an exploitative way but from a purely catholic and spiritual perspective.
I should mention that, at this point in time, I was getting “confirmed”. In the catholic religion this is a major rite of passage that one goes through around the age of 13 or 14. I was in a particularly more devout spiritual state than I had ever been in my life so far. There was even a week during this time that I actually seriously considered the idea of joining the priesthood. The concepts of "sin" and "hell" were more vivid now than ever and thoughts of THE EXORCIST only amplified my fears of any kind of dark entities or afterlife that awaited us from beyond the grave.
A few years later - in my sophomore year of High School - descriptions of THE EXORCIST would continue to haunt and fascinate me. My friend Zarif had sought out the film on his own on DVD and recounted the horror of it all. This was the first time I heard about the subliminal imagery in the film. Zarif described how he noticed a flash while watching a scene during the film. Out of curiosity he rewinded the DVD and then played it back in slow motion (such was the advantage of now having DVD instead of VHS) and discovered the infamous face of Pazuzu staring back at him. Zarif was scared by it, although I was probably more frightened than he was by just hearing his description! I ended up summoning enough courage to actually watch some scenes from the film for the first time at Zarif’s house. It was mostly dialogue scenes where nothing too frightening happened, but among the scenes was the dream sequence where pazuzu’s face flashes subliminally across the screen. It truly terrified me. I remember thinking even then, that the design of the face was a perfect representation of what pure evil would look like if embodied as a human face.
As I entered my teens, my love of film watching evolved into a love for filmmaking. I was extremely fortunate to have an amazing High School teacher named Michael Goldstein who entered my school district and helped develop a film program for students. A TV production studio was built in the back of our High School library and I was able to learn shooting, editing and live TV production. I started writing, directing, acting in and editing my own short films. The “studio” as the students lovingly called it, was Shangri-La. It was a safe haven where we could be creative and develop our storytelling skills. All my lunch periods and after school time was spent there and I knew very quickly that this is what I wanted to pursue in my life.
Around the beginning of the second year of the film program, Mr. Goldstein mentioned his desire to start a yearly student film festival. The festival would be comprised of short films and music videos produced by the students during their time enrolled in the film classes. A couple years into the program I had become close to Mr. Goldstein, I even got to call him by his first name “Mike” which was unheard of for a student. Mike asked me if I would help him create a short intro video to the festival. Something funny along the lines of what Billy Crystal used to produce and star in, when he was hosting the Oscars for that particular year. The concept involved Mike entering different famous movies while trying to make his way to the stage to host the film festival. Among the films Mike wanted to splice in were: THE GODFATHER, THE MATRIX, AUSTIN POWERS and….THE EXORCIST. For The Exorcist scene Mike was to walk into a room in the school where he would discover a possessed Regan shouting back at him. When Mike goes to ask her how to get to the stage Regan vomits all over him. For Mike’s coverage my task was to film him speaking to "Regan" and on a specific que, fling clam chowder on his shirt. I’m not sure why we didn’t just use pea soup so it would match better, but alas, we did the scene and I hit my target well enough so that we didn’t have to do another take.
Once all the filming was completed Mike tasked me with completing the final edit. The key labor entailed cutting in scenes from characters in each of the spoofed films so that they appeared to be in conversation with Mike. I knew this meant that I would have to sift through and watch the film in order to extract the appropriate scene for the edit. I really didn’t want to do it. I was still too terrified of the film to be comfortable enough having to watch any scene that involved a possessed Regan. The project forced me to semi-confront my fear as I was too embarrassed to tell Mike that I was too scared to watch and edit the scene. I somehow got through it and was able to finish the edit, but I worked especially quick on that sequence.
Check out 2:33 for The Exorcist bit.
In 2005 I graduated High School and entered college as a film major at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. I was immersed in all things film related. I probably watched more films in my four years there than the total amount I had seen in my entire life, prior to that point. One of my teachers at SVA was Chris Newman, a well revered Oscar winning sound recordist who had worked on THE GODFATHER, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, AND AMDEUS, just to name a few! He had also worked with William Friedkin, and had won his first of three oscars working on THE EXORCIST. His class was a lot of fun, mostly because he was a non-stop story machine. Every class we would hear a new tale about some legendary film he had worked on. Knowing he had worked on THE EXORCIST, I always dreaded the possibility that he would start talking about the film. By now, you can really gauge just how scared of I was by this film. I didn’t even want to hear anecdotes about the making of it. Somehow I got through all of college without THE EXORCIST ever being brought up out of the hundreds and hundreds of films talked about, screened and analyzed by me, fellow students and teachers.
During the fall of my third year at SVA I started experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. It started with the occasional panic attack out of the blue. The first one happened while I was at the cash register working my part time job at Borders Books. I had never experienced anything like this before and I didn’t know what was happening to me. The attacks subsided for awhile and then one day I had a complete nervous breakdown before leaving to meet up with some friends in New York City. I cried and cried and didn’t know where it was coming from. Eventually the crying stopped because my body couldn’t produce any more tears. What followed was a bout of heavy dark depression that neither me or my family knew how to deal with. I continued working my job and attending school but I had to stuff the deep despair I felt underneath me and conjure a fake smile to be able to face the world day and night. It took some time to realize that my depression was brought on by a bad cycle of caffeine use, alcohol, lack of sleep and lack of vitamin D. Despite identifying the scientific reasons, my battle with anxiety and depression continues to this day. Medication helps keep it at bay and I know a lot of my triggers which is helpful. Still, that experience redefined the rest of my entire life. From that moment forward the experience of living has been a completely different experience than the first twenty years of my life. At 35 I look back now at my twenties and wonder how I got through it all.
As time passed, my fear of facing THE EXORCIST weakened but I still had no desire to actually sit down and watch the film. So many other things in my life took priority. My 20’s were a deeply unsettled time where I continued to struggle with my anxiety in many different forms all the while attempting to solidify a full time job and career while still trying to pursue filmmaking as a writer/director. I had a particular struggle with finding a job that made me enough money to sustain myself independently, while still having enough energy to do my own film projects.
It wasn't until 2017 that I really settled into something, landing a full time job working in video production for NY state. It would give me enough money to kind of calm down and get my head straight and not feel the pressures of burgeoning into adulthood as much as I had over the last ten years. I now had the weekends free to pursue my creativity freely without the worry of the next payday.
One lazy hot Sunday afternoon while hibernating in my parents air conditioned basement, I started sifting through some old books of my Dad’s and stumbled upon THE EXORCIST: THE STRANGE STORY BEHIND THE FILM by Howard E. Newman. It was a making of story of the production, written by one of the publicists of the film. It had been published about a year after the initial release of the film and was designed to play up all of the strange occurrences that happened during filming. I gave it a read and ended up breezing through it in one sitting. I loved discovering the details of the production and pondering the possibility of a malevolent force that haunted the set. Although the book did not downplay a force of goodness at work also.
After finishing the book I felt a strong urge to finally watch the film. It was time to finally face my fear head on and actually watch the entirely of the film. The next day, I rented THE EXORCIST on Google Play. It was a Sunday afternoon and I lied down on the couch in my basement and hit play.
After the film ended I was shaken and exhilarated. In almost an instant it had become my all time favorite film. To me, it was a masterpiece of pacing, sound, acting, music and spiritual turmoil. As a filmmaker I had never watched something so inspirational and gut wrenching. Regan's mental and physical anguish hit me on a deep and disturbing level. William Friedkin directed the film in such a realistic and grounded way that It almost didn't feel supernatural until the very end of the film. I think this is what shook me to my core the most, that I could project my own bouts of torture onto her experience and sympathize with the situation.
In addition, Father Karras's final spur of the moment act of self-sacrifice stunned and moved me. In a way, I related to that act as I have found myself in situations where I've had to reject the dark path and follow the good and when faced with those crossroads it tends to play out in a dramatic fashion in my psyche and soul. I would later become privy to Friedkin's repetitive claim, that, you get out of The Exorcist what you bring to it, and I certainly brought a lot to that first viewing.
In the days after, I couldn't shake the experience. I wanted badly to do something to express my love and fascination with the film. Of course the first fantasy that came to mind was to somehow remake it! Suddenly The "New York connection" came to mind. My Dad always talked about how they filmed The Exorcist at Fordham University where he got his graduate degree. I also knew they filmed at the old Fox studios on the upper west side. The idea of doing a retrospective documentary hit me like a lightning bolt. I would seek out as many people involved with the film as I could find. Right off the bat I thought of my sound teacher from SVA, Chris Newman. I would also see if Father O’Malley was still around the New York area as I knew he taught at Fordham University for some time. Those two subjects were my first interviews and the beginning of a project that ended up taking all five years I had to complete it. My only goal to start was to explore and discover people’s thoughts and memories of the film. I wanted it to feel nostalgic and intriguing and create something special that would be finished in time for the film's 50th Anniversary. Which at the time, was five years away.
The pandemic acted as a big pause button on the project and so there were periods that were more dormant than others. I refused to give into the trend of remote interviews and wanted to keep the style cinematic and wholly satisfying and watchable. Still, my obsession with the film never waned and I used the time to continue to research and collect archival materials, articles, books and past interviews related to the film. It wouldn't be until May 2022 that I finally got the project going again and ended up securing about five major interviews that year that helped me complete the shooting for the doc. As of the publication of this article, the film is still being tweaked and added to, with no official release date set.
To me, THE EXORCIST transcends religiosity. Although my catholic upbringing has a lot to do with my dramatic relationship with the film, the story can be universally appreciated by anyone who has ever grappled with the concept of faith or experienced physical and emotional pain that they tried so hard to rid themselves of. I’m convinced that the torture of Regan’s recurring medical tests that yield no answer resonates deeply with those who have suffered themselves trying to get answers from doctors who misdiagnose or are left mystified by their patients ailments.
The fearless acts of both priests who are tasked with ridding the demon, are comparatively as brave and commendable as a soldier going into battle or on another end of the spectrum, a teacher having to face a difficult classroom day after day. Fear and difficulty are still fear and difficulty wether large or small in scope and one who faces their fear is someone who should be commended for it. I have seen a lot of discussion over the years how THE EXORCIST is a promoter of the Catholic Religion and how it portrays catholicism as the answer to the problem of evil. Although the story revolves around the reverence of the religion, the exorcism of the evil spirit and saving of Regan had nothing to do with the Catholic Rite of Exorcism. Father Merrin perishes mid exorcism, and Father Karras was only able to save Regan because he made a decision to sacrifice himself in order to save her. Self sacrifice is a universal phenomenon that falls outside the realm of purely catholic religious doctrine and has nothing to do with following the Rite of Exorcism.
My experience of finally watching THE EXORCIST will always be associated with the purest form of fear. It’s the kind of fear that one knows, if faced, can help them grow and become stronger. In this case, tackling that fear changed my life for the better and opened doorways of creativity and inspiration that had been dormant for a long time. The fear I once had in connection with the film has now been replaced with a sense of positive exhilaration, and a hope that there is a benevolent force out in the universe, and that, it's that same energy that resides within all human beings.
I know in my heart that I wasn’t meant to watch the film until I finally did, after having lived through that rough period in my 20’s and really faced my own demons of anxiety and depression and grappled with my own faith. The film’s theme of overcoming fear with courage and love would not have resonated as deeply as it did when I was fifteen and had barely experienced the struggles of life.
My whole life when people would ask me what my favorite film was, I would always say I couldn’t pick just one. STAR WARS, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, GLADIATOR, THE GODFATHER were all in the running but I really couldn’t settle on just one. Now I finally have that one. THE EXORCIST will always be my favorite film.