This year, The Exorcist celebrates its 45th anniversary. What’s to be said about one of the most iconic films of all-time that hasn’t already been said? Nothing really, except this: The Exorcist is the most successful supernatural horror film of all time—over one billion dollars in adjusted gross sales—edging out competitors The Sixth Sense, Stephen King’s IT, The Amityville Horror, and What Lies Beneath by a wide margin, respectively, according to Box Office Mojo.
The Exorcist was the second devil movie to become a fiery success, the first being Rosemary’s Baby, which was released in 1968, and also inspired the genre. Being a child when The Exorcist was released in 1973, everyone was either reading the bestselling novel (by William Peter Blatty who also served as screenwriter and producer of the film) or talking about the movie. People were terrified and it seemed to be on the lips of everyone. It was an immediate cultural (and controversial) phenomenon.
Not only did The Exorcist inspire successful devil-themed films like The Omen, released three years later in 1976, it also spawned two sequels—Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), The Exorcist III (1990), as well as two prequels Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), and Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist (2005), which are technically the same film interpreted by two different film directors. However, none of the films in The Exorcist franchise matched the quality and resonance of the original. The Exorcist also inspired a television series which aired for two seasons in 2016 and 2017 before cancellation.
The Exorcist‘s inspiration still lives on. In the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., where it was filmed, people from all over the world still visit “The Exorcist Steps” that are located at the corner of Prospect St. NW and 36th St. NW descending down to M Street NW. The location is a registered historic landmark and is iconic forever in film history.
This beat sheet covers the original theatrical version that was released on December 26, 1973, and not the Extended Director’s Cut, which included several extra scenes, released on September 22, 2000.
Written by: William Peter Blatty, based on his novel
Directed by: William Friedkin
MITH Type: Supra-Natural Monster
MITH Cousins: Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Exorcist III, Exorcist: The Beginning, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist, The Conjuring, Requiem, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Conjuring 2, The Last Exorcism, Constantine, The Possession, Deliver Us From Evil, The Amityville Horror, Stigmata, The Rite, The Vatican Tapes, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Last Exorcism Part II, The Unborn, The Order, Lost Souls, The Devil Inside
Opening Image: Under the relentless sun of Northern Iraq, Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) works at an archeological dig. In some ancient ruins, Merrin finds an amulet of Pazuzu, a demon (an entity he faced previously). He also finds a St. Joseph’s medal, an odd thing to find in an ancient ruin, suggesting an omen of things to come.
Set-Up: Strange phenomena begin to occur immediately after: Merrin nearly suffers a heart attack (his nitroglycerin pills save him), a clock stops when the demon is referenced, and Merrin is nearly trampled by a rushing horse-drawn carriage. As he looks upon an ancient statue of the demon, Merrin foresees himself facing Pazuzu again in the future.
In the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., Christine “Chris” MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is in bed, making notations on her script for the next day’s film shoot. She’s a superstar actress from Hollywood who’s renting a large house while she does some location work.
Catalyst: During her script study, Chris hears some clanking and scraping coming from the attic. Rising, she checks on her 12-year-old daughter, the sleeping Regan (Linda Blair), as the disturbing noise in the otherwise calm household continues.
Debate: The next morning, Chris instructs Karl (Rudolf Schündler), one of the rental house servants, to put some rat traps in the attic. Karl, in classic Debate form, disagrees that the house has vermin (he’s right; it’s something far more sinister and supernatural). As Chris is shooting her big scene on the Georgetown University campus, we meet Burke Dennings, the film’s director (Jack MacGowran) and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who’s among the crowd of onlookers.
Theme Stated: This is a perfect theme-stated moment with Father Karras attending, as he is the B Story who will help Chris MacNeil learn the lesson. Chris is playing a character who’s fighting for civil rights in a movie scene. The theme of The Exorcist film is giving oneself over to a greater cause. Chris is playing a film role on set that seems to echo the theme of The Exorcist. She will have to learn this lesson in life if her daughter is to survive—and it will go against everything she believes in to do so. Later, we continue to cross-cut between the daily lives of Chris MacNeil and Father Karras. They don’t know it yet, but their worlds will soon collide.
B Story: Karras visits his mother in a neglected part of town. She’s ill and lives alone. He wants to send his mother to a nursing home where she can be looked after properly, but the stubborn Greek woman refuses.
Later, Karras has a beer with his superior in the Jesuit order, Tom (Thomas Bermingham), and confides in him that he’s unfit for his job as a counselor and psychiatrist as he’s lost his faith. Karras is kind of an unknowing and reluctant mentor of the theme, giving oneself over to a greater cause, as he actually doubts the cause. However, his eventual change and devotion will affect that of Chris too.
Debate (cont’d): Down in the rec room, Chris finds a Ouija board that Regan has been toying with. Regan says she’s been talking to “Captain Howdy” by herself. (One of the rules of the Ouija board is to never use it alone.) When Regan tries to show her mom how the board works, the entity the girl was talking to clams up. This nefarious conversation is the transgression that brings the monster to the house.
Chris, an atheist, doesn’t believe in anything but that which can be touched and seen, so she doesn’t mind allowing Regan to mess around with a spirit board, which can in fact conjure the supernatural. To Chris, it’s just a silly Parker-Brothers board game. That will prove not to be the case. This is a game that will have high stakes for all the players involved.
Break into Two: Chris has an early morning phone call to be on set. She finds Regan in bed with her, complaining that her “bed is shaking” and she can’t get to sleep. The disturbing noises continue in the attic. This time Chris checks it out—not rats stuck in traps. No rodents at all. You have a demon problem, girlfriend, you just don’t know it yet.
Karras visits his mother in the hospital, which is filled with insane and sad people. Though his uncle (Titos Vandis) made the difficult decision to place her here due to lack of funds for private accomodations, his mother holds the priest responsible and chastises her grief-stricken son for putting her in such a horrible place against her wishes. It is a decision that will haunt him. A former boxer, the priest takes his frustrations out on a heavy bag, not knowing that he’s going to be fighting the bout of his life—in the ring with a deadly demon.
Fun and Games: Chris has a party with the town’s socialites (appropriate for Fun and Games, right?). The private soiree includes the loudmouthed film director Burke Dennings, who drunkenly accuses Karl, who’s Swiss, of being a Nazi. Karl loses it and tries to strangle his accuser. (Karl will become a prime suspect later when Dennings is murdered.) Chris also learns that Damien Karras’ mother has passed away, alone, found two days after the fact. (All of these seemingly random events will coalesce later.)
The dinner party comes to a climax when the insomniacal Regan wanders down stairs, tells one of the guests, an astronaut, “you’re going to die up there,” and then urinates on the oriental rug. After Chris tucks Regan in, the girl’s bed starts violently shaking—Regan was right.
In the Jesuit priest dormitory, Karras, having had a little too much to drink, dreams of his mother, whose death he’s still deeply regretful over as he blames himself for leaving her alone to die. A terrifying image of a demon flashes. Earlier, a marble statue of the Virgin Mary was obscenely desecrated in the Catholic church. Are these connected? Has the demon Pazuzu that Father Merrin feared somehow manifested itself in Georgetown?
Chris has some tests done on Regan, who spits on a doctor and calls him by a vulgar epithet. The doctor tells Chris that Regan has a lesion on her brain, which can cause all the symptoms she’s suffering—violent shaking and aberrant behavior. However, after a brain scan, the results come up as negative. Strike one for science.
In the house call from hell, Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman) and Dr. Taney (Robert Symonds) show up at Chris’ rental home. Regan has gotten worse. They had prescribed Ritalin and Thorazine, psychotropic drugs to curb her behavior which obviously haven’t done any good. Now we see the full effect that the demon infestation has on a 12-year-old girl. Regan thrashes on the bed uncontrollably and hurls violent insults and sexual invitations at the men, even striking Dr. Klein. The physicians hold Regan/Demon down and slap them with a dose of heavy sedative.
After the incident, Dr. Klein and Dr. Taney don’t have any satisfactory answers for Chris. They still think it’s the temporal lobe of the brain and they rule out the possibility of Regan having developed a split personality. Later, more brain scans prove negative and Dr. Klein, who’s out of answers, suggests a psychiatrist.
Driving home from meeting with the doctor, Chris fails to notice the throng of onlookers and police near her house. As she goes into Regan’s room, she finds it freezing, the covers off the sleeping girl, and the window wide open. She closes the window and covers her daughter, then chastises her assistant Sharon (Kitty Winn), who comes into the house, for leaving a sick girl alone. Sharon says that she had left Burke Dennings to watch Regan when she went to the pharmacist for the thorazine.
Midpoint: Chris answers the ringing door. Chuck (Ron Faber), Burke’s assistant director, shows up and tells Chris the bad news—Burke is dead. He says that the director had gotten drunk and fallen down the steep flight of stairs that pass next to Regan’s open window. We know better, of course. Burke’s death raises the stakes and starts the clock ticking. Now there’s a death and things have gone public.
Bad Guys Close In: Later, the psychiatrist (Arthur Storch) and Dr. Klein are with Regan. The psychiatrist uses hypnosis to talk to the “person” that’s in Regan. The shrink then demands to talk to the other entity. All he receives instead is a painful punch to the groin and the demon-possessed Regan springing on him.
Karras runs laps around a track. Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) shows up to question the holy man about the death of Burke. This ties A and B stories together and raises the stakes. The detective asks Karras about witchcraft (Karras wrote a paper on the psychological aspects of it).
Burke had his head turned completely around, facing backwards, which didn’t happen in the fall. “A witchcraft kind of killing” as the detective says. With the black mass-style desecration in the church, which was to mock the Virgin Mary, the detective believes that perhaps a psychotic priest could be responsible. Karras quickly dismisses this.
Chris meets with a room full of doctors and they have no answers. Regan is growing gravely worse. Dr. Klein does come up with one suggestion: what about an exorcism? Klein says that if the patient believes themselves to be possessed by an outside entity, then an exorcism, from a “force of suggestion” stance, could perhaps help cure Regan. Chris, a devout atheist, asks if these men of science are now prescribing a witch doctor.
As Chris is putting Regan back to bed after another visit to the hospital, she finds a shiny silver crucifix under Regan’s pillow. This upsets Chris and she confronts Willie (Gina Petrushka), Sharon, and Karl, who all deny any knowledge of the cross.
Lieutenant Kinderman comes knocking. None of Burke Dennings’ death makes any sense. The late movie director was alone with the 12-year-old girl for 20 minutes and then had his head twisted around before being shoved out of Regan’s bedroom window.
The detective finds some clay sculptures that Regan made, similar to the one found at the bottom of the stairs that Dennings tumbled down, which just adds to his confusion. An avid movie fan, the suddenly bashful Kinderman asks for Chris MacNeil’s autograph.
All Is Lost: After the detective leaves, a ruckus causes Chris to run up to Regan’s room. The demon is forcing Regan to stab herself in the genitals with the crucifix. Horrified, Chris tries to stop her but is slapped across the room. Karl and Sharon try to intervene but using telekinesis, the demon shoves a wingback chair in front of the bedroom door, locking it. Then the demon tries to crush the mother with a heavy oak highboy dresser that scoots across the floor.
The demon twists Regan’s head around, just like what happened to her friend, Burke Dennings, and in the director’s antagonizing voice says, “You know what she did, your cunting daughter?” End of the mystery—Burke died at the hands of Regan/Demon. According to Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat! Strikes Back, the Catalyst and All is Lost mirror each other, with the latter raising the stakes. This is a perfect example, adding a whiff of death element as the demon attempts to murder Chris.
Dark Night of the Soul: Hiding her facial bruises and celebrity identity with a scarf, sunglasses, and a heavy overcoat, Chris MacNeil meets Father Damien Karras on a pedestrian bridge—symbolic of them bridging the gap between their worlds, and tying A and B stories together. They have lots of get-to-know-you talk but what stops the conversation cold is when Chris asks the priest, “How do you go about getting an exorcism?”
Karras says that he can’t do an exorcism and he doesn’t know any priest that does. Most exorcisms haven’t been done since the Middle Ages with the advent of mental illness studies. Chris admits it’s for her daughter and breaks down, asking the priest to see Regan.
Karras meets Regan/Demon, now strapped to the bed, saying that he’s the devil, which doesn’t convince the priest. When the demon mentions Karras’ mother, he tries to trick the demon by giving him her maiden name. Instead, a gallon of split pea soup is projectile vomited onto him.
Karras says he has to have proof that Regan is possessed, such as speaking in a language she doesn’t know. When she said she’s the devil, that makes proving the possession so much harder, as when a psychotic says they’re Napoleon Bonaparte. He’s unconvinced but Chris is desperate. As Karras is leaving the house, we see Detective Kinderman watching closely from his car.
Karras returns to speak with Regan/Demon, this time armed with a tape recorder. He pulls out a bottle of water, saying it’s holy water, and, making the sign of the cross, releases it on the creature, who writhes and speaks gibberish. Karras records it all.
Later, down in the study, Karras and Chris talk. Karras says that the “holy water” he sprinkled on the demon and caused such a violent reaction was ordinary tap water, which doesn’t help support an exorcism case. Chris “drops her mask” and confesses to the priest that Regan/Demon killed Burke Dennings by pushing him out the window. All of the scenes in the Dark Night of the Soul reflect the earlier Debate, but now new decisions are being made with the stakes raised even more and the clock ticking “louder” as Regan’s frail life is on the line.
Karras has a sound specialist listen to the recording. The demon was screaming words backwards. He listens to the tape in reverse and hears the demon say, “Let her die! Fear the priest! Merrin! Merrin! Merrin!”—a reference to Father Lankester Merrin from the beginning of the film. Karras drops his own mask; he must help this girl, even if his faith is wavering. The ex-boxer must strap on his gloves once again and get back into the ring to knock out this insidious evil.
The phone rings. It’s Sharon, Chris’ assistant. Karras rushes over. Sharon doesn’t want Chris to see this phenomenon. The room is so cold it vaporizes their breath. She unbuttons Regan/Demon’s pajamas and on the gaunt stomach, the words HELP ME form in blisters.
Karras goes to see the high priest to get the permission for an exorcism. It’s decided later that Karras doesn’t have experience with exorcism, but Father Merrin, who has returned home from Iraq, does. Merrin’s reaction is grave. The previous exorcism in Africa took months and nearly killed him. He was a younger and stronger man then.
Break into Three: At 93 minutes, Chris receives help from the eponymous exorcist, Father Merrin, as he arrives in the moonless night on her fog-shrouded doorstep. (The iconic image was inspired by the 1954 painting Empire of Light by René Magritte.) This echoes the Break into Two when Regan had said her bed shook, now the stakes are raised higher—it’s do or die tonight. Father Karras is already there waiting for the famous exorcist, tying A and B stories together as each man prepares to give himself over to a greater cause, as the theme suggests.
1. Gathering of the Team – Like two soldiers readying themselves for a desperate battle, Karras and Merrin arm themselves with smocks, stoles, bibles, and all the other weapons an exorcist needs. Karras wants to tell Merrin more about the facts of the case but Merrin refuses to listen. Instead, he says that the demon will mix truth with lies and rely on a powerful psychological attack, so don’t listen. Karras looks worried; Merrin looks weary.
2. Executing the Plan – The two priests climb the stairs to go on the attack. They’re storming the castle (in this case, the castle is Regan’s body and soul). They cannot fail—a little girl’s life hangs in the balance. They begin, reading from the bibles, as the demon hurls vicious insults… and phlegm. The bed shakes and the demon frees itself from its bonds, rising above, floating to the ceiling. They chant, “The power of Christ compels you” in an attempt to shake loose the demon’s hold of Regan.
Once the body of Regan descends, Karras binds its hands and feet—getting knocked across the room with a stout, supernatural blow for his troubles. Merrin keeps demanding the evil spirit leave in the name of God and he too is knocked down via telekinesis.
This is not a fun way to spend a Friday night. The priests take a much-needed break.
3. High Tower Surprise – As Father Merrin excuses himself to take another nitroglycerin tablet with a shaking hand for his frail, overexerted heart, Father Karras returns to the bedroom to check on Regan/Demon. He sees his mother in the bed. He checks on Regan/Demon, wiping the sweaty brow with a cloth and checking the body’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. This is a callback to Act One with Karras and his mother back at her apartment.
The demon begins talking to him in his mother’s voice, asking him why he left her alone to die. This rattles Karras, who ignores Merrin’s earlier instruction that the demon would use a psychological attack.
4. Dig Deep Down – Father Merrin, weary and weak, sends Father Karras away so he can attend to the exorcism alone. (It’s a cardinal sin to separate as a group in a horror movie, as that’s when the monster can prey on one individually and that’s precisely what happens here.) Downstairs, Karras gathers his thoughts. Chris MacNeil asks him if it’s over and he says no. She asks the priest if her daughter is going to die.
With a new-found strength, Karras rises, says a determined no, and ascends the stairs to check on Father Merrin. In Regan’s room, he finds Merrin face down on the bed, dead; apparently his frail heart has given out and the legendary exorcist has performed his last exorcism. This great white shark, so to speak, is too much for the captain. Now it’s up to the man who knows little about exorcisms to finish the task. What’s he going to do?
5. Executing the New Plan – The Regan/Demon laughs at Karras as he unsuccessfully tries to re-start Father Merrin’s heart. Angry and frustrated, Karras grabs the Regan/Demon, throws it on the ground, and starts punching it like he’s working over the heavy bag back at the boxing gym. Then, in the ultimate act of martyrdom due to his restored faith, Karras invites the demon Pazuzu to come into him, embodying the theme of giving oneself over to a greater cause.
The demon accepts, first ripping the St. Joseph medal from around the priest’s neck (which suggests that the unholy must remove the holy before entering the living vessel). Internally fighting with this invasive evil spirit, Karras throws himself out of the window (the same one Burke Dennings was pushed from) and tumbles headfirst down the long flight of concrete steps outside. Regan is crying, confused, and in pain, as she and Chris are reunited.
Lieutenant Kinderman, who has returned to the house, looks on at the spectacle—the mother and daughter reunited, the pale corpse of Father Merrin sprawled on the floor, and the twisted, bloody body of Father Karras at the bottom of the stairs as a crowd begins to gather and gape. Father Dyer (Reverend William O’Malley S.J.), emerging from the throng of onlookers, holds Karras’ hand and gives him his last rites.
Final Image: Several days later, Regan’s bedroom window is boarded up, sheets are draped over the furniture, and Chris and Regan prepare to leave the house. Sharon, who resigns as Chris’ assistant, hands her Karras’ St. Joseph’s medal, which she found on Regan’s bedroom floor. Chris has transformed and seems sadder but wiser about the experience that almost took the life of her daughter. She’s a much different person than she was in her Opening Image.
As Chris and Regan leave the house, Father Dyer walks up. Chris tells the priest that Regan remembers nothing. The girl gives the father a hug and a kiss and then the mother and daughter enter the car. The car begins to move, then stops and Chris rolls down the window. She gives Father Dyer Karras’ St. Joseph medal. He accepts it, forlorn at the loss of his good friend. He watches them drive off, takes one last look at the stairs that Karras plummeted down, and walks on in the chilly afternoon.
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