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6 Creepy Things That Happened on the Movie Set of “The Exorcist”

Photo: Washington Business Journal

When William Peter Blatty (1928 – 2017) the writer of “The Exorcist” and subsequent writer and director of the sequel “The Exorcist III” began to visualize the screenplay for the original movie, he wanted to create a paranormal experience that would surpass anything that anyone had seen in the theaters before.  

The book was published in 1971, and it spent fifty-seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was because of the explosive success of “The Exorcist” book (which sold over 13 million copies in the United States alone after publishing) that the movie was shot in 9 short months, and released in 1973.  The movie “The Exorcist” received 10 Academy Award nominations, and won 15 other film awards internationally.  

After the movie was released on December 26, 1973, audiences flocked to see it.   The imagery in the movie proved to be so shocking for 70’s audiences (who had never seen anything like it on the big screen before) that several individuals filed civil personal injury suits against Warner Bros.  From instances of fainting and vomiting in the theater, to heart attacks and miscarriages, the reports of emotional damage after watching the film were so prolific that one psychiatric journal published a research paper discussing the ‘cinematic neurosis’ triggered specifically by the film.  

To this day, few films have managed to capture the raw sense of evil that “The Exorcist” did.  In fact, both William Peter Blatty (writer/producer) and DirectoWilliam Friedkin went to great lengths to capture the realism of a true historical exorcism (on which the book was based) that many people suspect something ominous and evil was attracted to the set of the movie.  

Check out these 6 paranormal events that happened on the set of “The Exorcist” and you decide whether evil entities may have been ‘hanging out’.  Do you think that occult movies attract dark presences and influences?  

1. The Original Home for the McNeil Home Was Destroyed by Fire 

The interior sets for filming were built in New York City, however the exterior shots (and the McNeil home) was to be filmed on location in Washington, D.C.  The entire set for the MacNeil home caught fire and burned to the ground, which delayed filming for six additional weeks.  There was one room completely untouched however in the catastrophic blaze; the bedroom of Regan McNeil.  

The source of the fire and the strange and eerie fact that the bedroom had remained intact, was enough to make the writer and director seek out a Jesuit Priest (Thomas M. King) to bless the set, however unsettling and unexplainable mishaps continued to occur during the production of the movie.  

Nothing says “relax, it’s not dangerous here” better than having a Priest stop by to splash Holy Water over the set.  Yikes.  

2. Ellen Burstyn (Chris McNeil) Sustains Permanent Spinal Injury  

In that famous scene where Regan McNeil is mutilating herself with a Crucifix, actress Ellen Burstyn (Chris McNeil) rushes to the bed to stop her daughter.  The demon then shoves Chris McNeil across the room in one violent motion, and her scream is blood curdling and painful.  

That chilling scream that many of us will never forget, was actually authentic.  The stuntmen had a wire rigged to the actress to pull her backwards and abruptly for the filming of the scene. Unfortunately, the mechanics were rigged with full force, and her painful scream was the result of a permanent and painful spinal injury that she sustained during filming.  

Linda Blair (the actress who portrayed Regan McNeil) also sustained a serious back injury, when the set rigging that helped her levitate above her bed broke, sending her crashing to the floor.   

Photo: Warner Bros.

3. Abusive Directing Methods Used by William Friedkin  

When you watch “The Exorcist” you can literally feel the fear that the actors are portraying in the movie.  That is one of the rare qualities of the film that still makes it stand out among horror and paranormal movies and the original and most terrifying film of all time. Directors are often known to use unusual methods to elicit realistic responses from actors, but on the set of “The Exorcist” William Friedkin went over the top to create that realism.  

The Director would slap people, scream at them and make them cry, and also fire guns beside their faces to create ‘shock’ or trauma, before filming critical scenes.  If every actor in the film seems traumatized it’s because they actually were; and that led actors like Ellen Burstyn to call Friedkin a maniac.  And not in a fun, joking way.  

People who are traumatized are also more vulnerable to demonic suggestion while they are tired, and emotionally fatigued.  Something that was also linked to some of the more bizarre happenings on the set during filming.  

4. Inanimate Objects Moved on the Set  

The character Father Karras was played by actor Jason Miller, who reported many strange paranormal experiences while he was filming the movie. That Jesuit Priest that was called to bless the set hung around off and on during the filming (because of unexplained events) and Miller reported that the Priest gave him an eerie warning: 

“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”.  And then, Miller was handed an amulet for protection; a medallion of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Later, in character Father Karras’ dream, a medallion falls in slow motion to the ground, incorporated by the Director and Producer after the exchange with the Jesuit Priest.  

Several members of the crew witnessed seeing inanimate objects move on the set, before their eyes.  Writer and Producer William Blatty reported that the telephone that was used to communicate between the set and the production office would rise off the hook and then crash to the floor. 

William Blatty also claimed that he felt a dark presence around him when he was writing the book.  He also reported instances where he woke to find himself levitating in his home.  

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Director William Friedkin used trauma inducing methods such as gunfire and ‘slapping’ actors to achieve emotional effects. Photo: Warner Bros.

5. Nine Deaths from Crew and Actors Associated with the Film 

During the production of “The Exorcist” Jack MacGowren (an Irish actor) portrayed the role of Burke Dennings, Chris McNeil’s manager / possible romantic interest.  It was Burke Dennings that connected Chris McNeil to Father Karras, as they both worked at Georgetown University.  Burke Dennings is the first victim of possessed child Regan McNeil; his neck is snapped as his head is turned 360° and his body tumbles down the steep flight of stairs after being thrown out the window by a mysterious force.  

Actor Jack MacGowren contracted pneumonia on the set.  When the movie was shot, the bedroom of character Regan McNeil was refrigerated to freezer proportions.  In fact, the crew was required to wear parkas!  This helped create the paranormal cold effects and vapor clouds when actors were talking (before CGI).  MacGowren died just after his scenes wrapped up, but before the full production was complete.  Eight other members of the production and their close family members died during, or shortly after the release of the film.  

6. Lightning Strikes Ancient Crucifix in Rome Screening  

When “The Exorcist” was released, it was screened in one particular theatre in Rome (near the Vatican).   The theater was located between two historic churches. One the day the movie was released in Rome, there were unseasonal torrential rains and a thunderstorm (which added we’re sure to the scary effect for Italian movie goers).  

During the storm, a 400-year-old cross was struck by lightning and fell to the ground, in the middle of the piazza (or square) just outside the move theater.  How is that for a clear message from the superpowers that be?  Maybe they didn’t like the fact that “The Exorcist” was released the day after Christmas; intentionally, to spark international religious furor.  

Billy Graham (televangelist) spoke frequently about the film publicly and claimed that ‘the very celluloid of the film itself was cursed’ with powerful subliminal and demonic imagery.  He went on to further explain to his followers that he believed a demon lived within the movie reel, captured during the filmmaking process, and that its power could influence anyone who watched the movie.  

What do you think?  Is it possible for occult films to attract malevolent forces that can do harm?  Do films of this genre open a door to the paranormal, and has anything eerie happened to you when you’ve watched “The Exorcist” or another movie about a demonic possession?  Share your comments with us.  

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Horror Mystery and Lore Scary Movies and Series

History of Demons, Possessions, Exorcisms, and the Films They Inspire

History of Possession and the Church

On the topic of possessions, it is widely believed that a person’s mind and soul can be possessed by spirits, whether by man, demon, or god. Prior to the biblical explanation of possession, in ancient Greece, the pagans put an emphasis on the belief that the gods would interfere with their daily lives. Their idea of possession was when a God would cause them to act in a certain manner, or simply inhabit their body to achieve an end of their own. Buddhist and Hindu beliefs considered possessive interference by gods and demons to be everyday occurrences; African tribal religions and their respective offshoots consider possession the way that their gods and secondary deities show favor and proof of their power. Christianity over the centuries has been very vocal in regards to possession, declaring that true possession was only ever the work of, “unclean spirits,” either a minion of hell or the Devil himself. There are rare references to possessions by the divine spirit, just as Jesus Christ’s disciples were reportedly overcome with the Holy Spirit after his crucifixion. Alternative theories of this suggest, however, that possession by the divine spirit is actually just the Devil in disguise, in an attempt to fool the vulnerable. Early theologians denied there was ever an instance of possession being anything but the Devil’s handiwork.

St. Francis of Borgia Exorcising a Demon
St. Francis of Borgia – Exorcism by Goya

The Christian culture continues to dominate when it comes to popular theories of demons—any average person is going to associate demons with the Devil and his origin in Christianity—this can be troublesome to those deeply immersed in the religion, as it is still an incredibly popular topic in possession movies. Popular demon culture is the driving force for how we continue to see them in books and films and is what is most concerning to people with respect to horror culture. After all, there’s nothing more terrifying than the thought that a malicious spirit or demon has complete control of your body and mind—that you are what goes bump in the night—and showing signs of unusual behavior or expressing radically different ideals that what was common for the day would essentially damn an individual to being accused of possession. Luckily in the modern era, individuals are given more leeway to change up their perspectives, and essentially change the way their lives are going without being considered to be under demonic possession. Surprisingly, an aspect of possession theory that is not fully explored is exactly how the Devil or his minions claim their victims in the first place. There are two popular explanations within possession lore, that the spirit can pass directly into a person’s mind and soul or by using a witch to curse the victim. Of course, the Church’s position on the method of possession was that the Devil preferred to enlist the help of the evil individuals to do his dirty work—so witches would transmit the demons to the vulnerable through charm, potion, amulet, and most frequently food. The food of choice is the infamous apple—not just the symbol of the fall of man, when Eve took a bite of the apple of Eden, but also a popular symbol elsewhere in folklore, such as the original Germanic tale of Snow White. The only formal rite of exorcism is practiced by the Catholic church, which to this day recognizes clairvoyance, abnormal physical strength, blasphemy, and levitation as proof of demonic possession—the only salvation from possession is a formal exorcism.

The Spiritualist Movement

Many practices began gaining momentum with the spiritualist movements, including the act of psychic mediums inviting possession in order to speak to the dead—the belief is that the possession is temporary and controlled by the medium and their spirit guides. These possessions typically would take place within a séance, in conjunction with other practices such as the use of Ouija boards, or automatic writing.

The Exorcism of Roland Doe

Horror culture classic The Exorcist (1973) was actually inspired by a true story; a thirteen-year-old grief-stricken boy, under the pseudonym of Roland Doe, had recently lost his spiritualist Aunt Harriet a woman who had taught Roland how to use Ouija Boards, as well as many other taboo practices.  Directly following his Aunt’s death, in January of 1949, Roland began to experience troubling things—scratching and other inexplicable sounds echoed from the floors and walls of his room, and his bed would jerk around suddenly. Psychiatrists and their local church were of no help to Roland’s family, but they still sought the help of a local Catholic priest who received permission to perform an exorcism which ended in the priest being slashed by the boy. Roland was still in trouble, scratches appeared on his skin, at night after going to sleep for the night, the boy would scream out, trash about his bed wildly, and speak in tongues. After many failed exorcism attempts, he was finally moved to a hospital where the boy underwent one final attempt, during which he screamed that Satan was with him until the priests called upon St. Michael to rid the boy of his demons. From that day forward, Roland no longer experienced any strange happenings and went on to live a normal life.

Exorcism Movies and TV Shows that you need to see!

Do you have any movies or tv shows about demonic possession and exorcisms you’d like to see on our list? Let us know about them in the comments!

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Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

History of the Ouija Board: From the Civil War to The Exorcist

Ouija board
Photo by Josh Olalde

Horror Culture

Terrifying hands coming over a hill
Photo by Daniel Jensen

Most of popular horror culture will convince the easily misled that talking boards, specifically Ouija boards, are tools of evil. Movies like The Exorcist (1973) and Witchboard (1986) have painted a fairly devious portrait of talking boards, which previously held a sociable reputation. Prior to its debut in such classic horror movies, it was regarded as a game that could be played whilst on a date with a lady companion as an excuse to touch hands, in an era where it was otherwise forbidden for courting couples to touch. With much of the history of the Ouija board still unknown, due to a he-said-she-said origin of who the creator of the official board really was, what is known is quite a bit more vanilla that what might be expected.

Horrifying History of the Ouija Board

There are so many different theories of when they came to be such a popular object, one of the most well-regarded of which is that the Ouija board made a huge splash in the market directly following the Civil War. There was a large movement of spiritualism, with so many lives having been lost there were a lot of unmarked graves and soldiers who merely never returned home. Their loved ones wanted a way to get the answers they so desperately desired, even if it was just to know once and for all that their soldier was not coming home to them.

There really is no tangible proof of when the first talking board was created or for what purpose it was ultimately created, so it continues to be a tool that is shrouded in mystery. Still, with all of the information that is available today about the innocent origins of the Ouija board, there are more convinced of its sordid nature than those who believe it to be a neutral tool. Those involved in occult practices, who either consider themselves mediums or spiritual readers enjoy using talking boards to either communicate with spirits of passed loved ones or to channel their own, often regarded as supernatural, gifts. When things are misunderstood, there is typically a sense of mistrust that follows along, skepticism is a normal reaction to things that defy logic and avoidance is an understandable reaction to things that create a sense of dread.

So—with all of that in mind, what is it about Ouija boards that continues to scare the uninformed into rebuking those who use them? Likely it’s the images that are conjured from the horror movies we enjoy so much; the idea of demonic possession and evil spirits can scare even the most skeptical mind into uncertainty when all of the lights are out.

Horror movies that have inspired our fear of Ouija boards: