Episode 5: The exorcist


The Exorcist came out on December 26th, 1973 directed by William Friedkin. It was based off the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty. The movie was incredibly shocking to its viewers, allegedly causing heart attacks and miscarriages. A scientific journal published an article on the "cinematic neurosis" caused by the film. Like most movies we've covered, many people attempted to ban the film but were unsuccessful. It was nominatde for 10 oscars and won Academy Award for Best Picture. As of 2019, the film has grossed $441 million and is widely regarded as one of the best horror movies ever made.



The film follows the story of a possessed 12-year-old named Regan who undergoes an exorcism to remove the demon. The Exorcist was a terrifying movie for its time, but little did we know that things going on behind the scenes were just as unnerving. The film has been deemed cursed based on the amount of tragedies that occurred during its making. The amount of setbacks doubled the budget of the film to $10 million.


The first of these tragedies was a fire that burned down the set at 2:30 am on a Sunday in 1972 just as filming began. A bird had flown into a circuit box and the only part of the set untouched by flames was the room used to film the exorcism scenes. It took them 6 weeks to rebuild the set only to have the new sprinkler system break immediately and cause another 2 week delay.


Pazazu Statue

Other tragedies included deaths and injuries to people apart of or close to the crew. Max Von Sydow who played Father Merrin landed in New York for his first scenes only to learn his brother had died unexpectedly in Sweden. Von Sydow then became incredibly ill during filming. Jack MacGowran who played Burke Dennings died only one week after his death was filmed in the movie. The son of Jason Miller who played Father Karras was struck by a motorcyclist on an empty beach during filming and nearly died. Ellen Burstyn who plays Chris McNeill threw out her back after being slapped by Regan and was bed-ridden for several weeks. One carpenter cut off his thumb on set and another lighting technician lost a toe. When the Iraq scenes were filmed, 9 out of the 18 man crew at some point were out of service either due to sunstroke or dysentery. They had shipped the bronze statue of demon Pazazu from LA which somehow ended up in Hong Kong, causing another 2 week delay.


Ellen Burstyn

A quote from Ellen Burstyn said: "I don't know if it was a jinx, really, But there were some really strange goings-on during the making of the film. We were dealing with some really heavy material and you don't fool around with that kind of material without it manifesting in some way. There were many deaths on the film. Linda's grandfather died, the assistant cameraman's wife had a baby that died, the man who refrigerated the set died, the janitor who took care of the building was shot and killed … I think overall there were nine deaths during the course of the film, which is an incredible amount… it was scary."


Friedkin also stated, "There were strange images and visions that showed up on film that were never planned," Friedkin later claimed. "There are double exposures in the little girl's face at the end of one reel that are unbelievable."


Things eventually got so bad that Friedkin had asked Father Thomas Bermingham, who was an advisor on the film, to exorcise the set. He was unable to do an exorcism but he was able to give a solemn blessing that was attended by everyone on set. Nothing else happened on set following the blessing.


Following the film's release, there was many reports of fainting, vomiting, and even hallucinations. One wom en fainted and broke her jaw. In some countries, ambulance staff attended screenings. Many people arrived at churches claiming to be possessed. Similarly, many renegade priests dubbed themselves exorcists and demonologists in hopes to cash in on the popularity. There has ever since been a strong interest in possession and exorcisms and obviously many movies, shows, and books have taken inspiration from The Exorcist. One of which was the tv series, The Exorcist, which I personally loved but it was cut. Sad. The Exorcist is also one of many cursed movies including Poltergeist and The Omen. The Exorcist came out on December 26th, 1973 directed by William Friedkin. It was based off the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty. The movie was incredibly shocking to its viewers, allegedly causing heart attacks and miscarriages. A scientific journal published an article on the "cinematic neurosis" caused by the film. Like most movies we've covered, many people attempted to ban the film but were unsuccessful. It was nominated for 10 oscars and won Academy Award for Best Picture. As of 2019, the film has grossed $441 million and is widely regarded as one of the best horror movies ever made.


So let’s get into the history behind exorcisms. There are both oppressions and possessions of the devil. Oppressions are when the demon acts externally against the person and possessions are when the demon acts internally. Exorcisms are performed against possessions. So, exorcisms are performed against those that experience drastic changes in vocal pitch, facial structure, sudden injuries like scratches and bite marks, superhuman strength, odd odors, and self-mutilation.


The oldest references of demonic possessions are from the Sumerians who believed all diseases of both the body and mind were caused by, "sickness demon" called Gidim. They had priests called Ashipus who performed the exorcisms, which means sorcerer.


Christianity believes that Satan is the cause of possession. In the new testament there are several times that Jesus drove out demons from people. This is known as the miracle of the Gadarene Swine or the Exorcism of Legion. The story is that Jesus exorcised a demon out of a man and into a herd of swine, which caused the swine to run down a hill into a lake where they drowned. An article in 2018 stated that Benigno Palilla, the Sicilian priest, reported that there are half a million cases reported in Italy yearly and claimed this is due to people who visit fortune tellers and tarot readers. This led to the Vatican setting up a new exorcism training course.


Despite all of this, demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-5 or the ICD-10. It is now believed that demonic possession is anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which is a type of brain inflammation due to antibodies that leads to psychosis, delusions, hallucination, seizures, and decreased breathing.


The Exorcism of Roland Doe is the exorcism that was said to inspire The Exorcist. In the 1940s, priests from the Roman Catholic Church performed exorcisms on a 14 year old boy referred to by his pseudonym Roland Doe or Robbie Mannheim. He was an only child born into a German Lutheran family in 1935 and people at his school described him as quiet, withdrawn and unpopular. Since he was an only child, he often played with his Aunt Harriet who was extremely spiritualistic. When she died, the family said that whenever Roland was nearby, furniture would move on its own, loud noises occurred such as stomping feet and scratching on the walls, religious pictures on the wall vibrated, and objects started to float and fly. Rolland was said to speak in a guttural voice and showed a strong hatred for anything sacred. His mom and dad asked their Lutheran pastor, Luther Miles Schulze, for help. Luther had an extensive knowledge on parapsychology and decided to have Roland sleep at his house for the night so that he could observe him. After supposedly observing this possession for himself, he told the family to go see a catholic priest.


They went to see Edward Hughes, a Roman Catholic priest who performed the exorcisms on Roland. Some reports said that during the exorcism, Rolland got his hands out of the restraints, broke off a bedspring from the mattress and slashed the priest’s arm. This made Father Edward Hughes choose to stop the exorcisms and the family went to see William S. Bowdern, who was the associate of church at St. Louis University. Two more priests, Walter Halloran and William Van Roo assisted him with the exorcism. They reported that words like "evil" and "hell" started showing up on Roland’s body, his mattress shook, and he broke Halloran's nose.


Many people witnessed these exorcisms, including the family's former pastor Luther Miles Schulze, a Roman Catholic priest Edward Hughes, Jesuit priest Father Walter H. Halloran, and attending priest Father Raymond J. Bishop. Reporters asked Father Halloran if he thought the boy had been possessed and he said, "no, I can’t go on record. I never made an absolute statement about the things because I didn't feel I was qualified."


Another famous exorcism was the Aix-en-provence possessions. There was a series of cases of demonic possession among the Ursuline nuns in 1611. Madeleine de Demandolx de la Palud was 17 years old when she went to the Ursuline convent at Marseille where she confessed that she had sexual relations with Father Louis Gaufridi. The mother superior sent her to Aix in order to distance her from Gaufridi. This is when Madeleine started to have convulsions and other symptoms of demonic possessions and other nuns started to exhibit it as well. It came out that father Gaufridi had relationships with many of the nuns and was sentenced to execution. He was dragged through the streets of Aix for five hours before he was executed by strangulation and burning. He was accused, convicted and executed for causing the possession by making a pact with the devil. Immediately after the execution Madaleine was free of possession.

Another well-known exorcism was that of Anna Ecklund. Her possession began when she was 14 years old, when she started speaking in tongues and guttural voices, hissing like a cat, floating and clinging to bedroom walls, and showed an aversion to sacred spaces and objects. It was reported that her possession was the result of a curse from her aunt Mina and father Jacob. Mina was said to be a witch who had a romantic relationship with Anna's father. Jacob had made many incestuous sexual advances on Anna throughout her childhood but anna had denied them, so Mina and Jacob decided to put a curse on her. Mina put a spell on some herbs, which she put in Ecklund’s food to put her under this demon’s spell.


Father Theophilus Riesinger

The first exorcism performed by Father Theophilus Riesinger on Anna was successful until 1928, when she became possessed by even more demons. She underwent her last exorcism at the age of 46 by the same priest at a convent in Earling, Iowa which took 3 sessions over the course of 4 months. It was said to be violent and she supposedly levitated, howled and hung from the frame of a doorway. She would collapse on the bed and scream, "Beelzebub, Judas, Jacob, Mina" "Hell! hell! hell!" which gave reason to believe that Anna was possessed by Judas Iscariot who was one of the Twelve Disciples of Jesus Christ as well as Jacob her own father and aunt Mina. Several nuns asked to be relocated to a different convent because the exorcisms were so violent. Despite the violence, they were said to have worked, and she went on to live her life with only a few mild possessions after.


This was the most documented case of demonic possession in history and was so well known that the priest, Father Theophilus Riesinger who performed the exorcisms, had a TIME profile written about him in 1936.



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