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The Exorcist's deadly 'curse' explored, 45 years on

The i logo The i 11/10/2018 Joel Draba-Mann
a man standing in front of a building © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

The Exorcist was a cultural phenomenon upon its release in 1973.

Based on William Peter Blatty's novel, William Friedkin's horror classic about a young girl possessed by a demonic force famously shocked audiences across the globe.

What you might not know is that part of the media frenzy surrounding the film derived from rumours that the movie itself was troubled.

A series of tragic incidents befell the cast, crew, and people connected with them, leading many to believe the film itself was cursed.

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A series of unfortunate events

a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd
Production on The Exorcist was riddled with problems from the start. As shooting began in 1972, the set used as the home of Regan MacNiel burned down when a bird flew into a circuit box.

Eerily, the only part to remain untouched by flames was the room used for filming the actual exorcism scenes.

"This set production back significantly, and led to a draining shooting period of over a year," explains film historian and horror expert Sarah Crowther.

The shoot was hit by further tragedy when a series of deaths rocked the cast and crew.

Actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, whose characters also die in the movie, both passed away shortly after shooting wrapped.

Elsewhere, stars Linda Blair and Max von Sydow lost members of their family during the shoot.

But that wasn't all. The son of Jason Miller, who plays Father Damien Karras, was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident.

Meanwhile, Blair and on-screen mother Ellen Burstyn both suffered serious injuries during production due to falls on set.

Courting controversy

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This so-called curse was also said to have followed the movie on its release into cinemas, on Boxing Day 1973.

"A release date over the period of a major religious festival gives you some indication of the studio’s intent to spark controversy and debate," says Crowther.

As the film began, lightning crashed out of the sky and struck the church opposite the cinema.

"The Warner Brothers press office spread speculation of the curse prior to release. It was an extremely hot topic in global media when it hit cinemas."

Warner Bros drew on sinister rumours surrounding the film's production to pique audience interest.

"Column inches and television news screens were filled with stories of audience members fainting and vomiting, and walking out in large numbers at early screenings," notes Crowther.

'One woman passed out'

a person standing in a dark room © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd
In Rome, fans were forced to travel to the cinema in a torrential downpour. As the film began, lightning reportedly struck the church opposite the cinema.

Reactions to the disturbing film only served to bolster The Exorcist's burgeoning reputation as shock cinema.

"One woman passed out and broke her jaw, for which she sued the studio. In the UK, St John's Ambulance staff attended screenings," adds Crowther.

"US televangelist Billy Graham went so far as to claim that the very celluloid of the film itself was cursed. [That] it contained subliminal messages."

The hype around the movie helped fuel record-breaking box office figures. It would go on to earn more than $441 million (around $1.862 billion in today's money) and became the first horror to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

The Exorcist remained the highest grossing horror film of all time, until it was knocked from its perch earlier this year by Stephen King adaptation, It.

'Marketed on its extremity'

Crowther believes that stories of a 'curse' were a useful tool for those promoting the film.

"In the 50s and 60s filmmakers such as William Castle were employing fake nurses to attend screenings of their films, providing sick bags, and offering life insurance in the event that an audience member died at one of their screenings.

"Horror has notoriously always been marketed on its extremity, and continues to be so to this day."

"As recently as last year, early press reports claimed that an audience member had died in an early screening of The Conjuring 2," she adds.

As for the curse of The Exorcist itself, Crowther thinks there is a much more banal explanation to all the havoc on set.

"Friedkin is a notoriously difficult director who pushed his cast and crew to extremes," she says.

"Any shoot of such intensity over such a long period of time must have felt like a curse in itself for the cast and crew."

Gallery: The best horror films in cinema history [StarsInsider]

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