The Exorcist | 1973
Massively hyped on release, with audiences fainting and vomiting, medics on standby at cinema exits, fundamentalist Christians picketing – the kind of publicity money can’t buy. Only the most cynical would suggest any of this was staged by the studio.
Whatever, The Exorcist set new standards for gross-out horror films. It was praised by the Catholic church and though director William Friedkin touted the film as “a deeply spiritual experience”, he dumped author William Peter Blatty’s flaky ‘Thousand Points of Light’ ending, with souls twinkling in Heaven. Good move.
The opening scene, of Father Merrin (Ingmar Bergman regular Max Von Sydow) confronting the demon Pazuzu, is pre-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The location states ‘Northern Iraq’, and indeed it is. The ruins being excavated are the temple complex at Hatra (Al-Hadr), a fortified city located in Upper Mesopotamia, about 50 miles southwest of Mosul.
The town where Father Merrin gets taken ill is Hatra itself. The ruins are Iraq’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and, despite looting of treasures from museums, has seemingly remained undamaged by the conflict of the past few years and retains the potential to be Iraq’s premier tourist attraction some day in the future.
Film actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, playing a character supposedly based on multi-reincarnated Shirley MacLaine) is making a student-protest movie on the campus of Georgetown University, Washington DC – author Blatty’s alma mater. It’s on this campus that the Dahlgren Chapel is obscenely desecrated.
Father Karras (Jason Miller) visits his sick mother in New York’s Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island in the East River (for a long time the site of madhouses and prisons – it was here Mae West served her eight day sentence in the 1930s for appearing in her play Sex). The hospital, also a major setting for John Boorman's very different Exorcist II: The Heretic, closed in 2013 and is being demolished to make way for Cornell University’s new graduate school of technology.
The aerial tramway that takes you to Roosevelt Island is featured in City Slickers and hijacked by the Green Goblin in Spider-Man.
The bar is just across the road from Regan’s house: it’s The Tombs, 1226 36th Street NW – which is revisited in William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III. The restaurant/bar was also the inspiration for the bar in Joel Schumacher’s 80s bratpack classic St Elmo’s Fire (though that film was shot elsewhere in Georgetown).
The possessed house itself stands at 3600 Prospect Street at 36th Street NW, close to the Potomac River in Georgetown, southwest Washington DC, but it’s not quite as seen in the movie. You won’t be able to spot the window of Regan’s room, from which the ominous shaft of light floods in the poster image. This wing of the house was no more than a false front built for the movie.
You can, though, find the flight of steps down which Father Karras finally hurtles, alongside the house, leading down from Prospect Street to M Street.
The complex interior set, with moving walls and refrigeration, was built at the Ceco Studios (now called Cameramart), 450 West 54th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues in New York.
• Many thanks to Peter Paulsen for help with this section.