The Scariest Film of All Time?: Revisiting the Hysteria in 1973 Around The Exorcist by William Friedkin (RIP)

William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exor­cist might feel wrapped in the his­tor­i­cal glow of “ele­vat­ed hor­ror” now–serious film­mak­ing for dis­cern­ing fans and critics–but that was very much *not* the case back in the year of its birth. Back in the grimy, Water­gate years of the ear­ly ‘70s, The Exor­cist was as much a side-show freak­out as any­thing William Cas­tle pro­duced back in the day. It was an endurance test.

The above film from that time proves it, show­ing the long, around-the-block lines, the sold-out screen­ings, the repeat view­ers, and the record-break­ing open­ing week­end gross­es ($2 mil­lion in just 24 the­aters in Decem­ber, before open­ing wide across the nation in 1974.) This event had more in com­mon with your cur­rent com­ic book movie or Star Wars sequel, and all the while being an R‑rated film based on Catholic dog­ma and fea­tur­ing some of the most col­or­ful pro­fan­i­ty ever hurled at a man of the cloth (on screen at least).

Of course, it is the reac­tions of the view­ers that make this footage worth it. The cin­e­ma work­ers talk about how even the biggest guys can’t hack the film and exit white as a sheet. Two young women say this is their sec­ond attempt to watch the film all the way through. Anoth­er guy say he wasn’t scared by the film but “I dun­no, I just faint­ed.”

And we do in fact see some peo­ple faint in the lob­by, just going down like a sack of bricks, and an ush­er tells the cam­era he has two kinds of smelling salts to choose from. One woman in line even tells the cam­era crew, “I wan­na see if it’s gonna make me throw up.” In fact, at one point some the­aters start­ed hand­ing out “barf bags” for ner­vous view­ers (which prob­a­bly increased their chances of vom­it­ing). MAD Mag­a­zine even got in on the hype with an appro­pri­ate cov­er (“If the Dev­il Makes You Do It” reads the bag.)

All this was incred­i­bly good for busi­ness, and incred­i­bly good for the news media, who sent crews like this one down, along with a reporter to inter­view peo­ple bail­ing on the film halfway through. The demon­ic voice is what did it for peo­ple, pro­vid­ed by actress Mer­cedes McCam­bridge, who report­ed­ly downed raw eggs, smoked cig­a­rettes and drank whiskey to give her voice that raspy edge.

From this year’s van­tage point it all looks quaint and fun–all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple from var­i­ous walks of life hav­ing a shared expe­ri­ence in a the­ater, every­body whipped up into a delight­ful and ulti­mate­ly harm­less fren­zy.

Most of the doc­u­men­tary was shot at the Nation­al The­ater in West­wood, Los Ange­les. Only three years old at the time, the cin­e­ma was the last sin­gle-screen the­ater built in the Unit­ed States. It was torn down in 2008, replaced by some tony apart­ments and a street-lev­el sushi bar.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen King’s 22 Favorite Movies: Full of Hor­ror & Sus­pense

Mar­tin Scors­ese Cre­ates a List of the 11 Scari­est Hor­ror Films

How Famous Paint­ings Inspired Cin­e­mat­ic Shots in the Films of Taran­ti­no, Gilliam, Hitch­cock & More: A Big Super­cut

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.