Even before The Exorcist began filming, strange problems would arise on the set. A catastrophic and costly fire ignited. One of the actors died shortly after filming. And while many were quick to write these events off as mere coincidence, others began to think something more sinister was afoot.
“I’m not a convert to the occult, but after all I’ve seen on this film, I definitely believe in demonic possession. There are things that cannot be treated by medical or psychiatric means,” director William Friedkin told the horror magazine Castle of Frankenstein in 1974. “It seems strange, foreign and impossible, but it exists.”
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He continued, “We were plagued by strange and sinister things from the beginning, it is simply the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”
With The Exorcist: Believer opening October 6 and expanding the story of the original, let’s look back at the supposed haunting of The Exorcist…
The Exorcist‘s Multiple Setbacks
Just as the cast and crew began to prep for production, a fire broke out on the set of the MacNeil home. It’s claimed that the only room that survived the disaster was Regan’s bedroom, as told in the documentary Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist. All told, it took six weeks to rebuild the set.
With the set rebuilt, the project was back on track — momentarily. In his first week of filming, Max von Sydow, who portrayed Father Lankester Merrin, learned that his brother had died and promptly returned to Sweden for the funeral, according to Castle of Frankenstein. Similarly, Linda Blair — the then-child star behind Regan MacNeil — lost her grandfather, causing yet another delay.
Then, a 10-foot demon statue set to be used in the film was lost in Hong Kong while en route to a filming location in Iraq, the horror magazine reported.
Injuries and Death
In the documentary The Fear of God: 25 Years of the Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan’s mother and stars in the upcoming Believer, said nine people died during the production, including an assistant cameraman’s newborn baby and a night watchman.
Another of the deceased was actor Jack MacGowan, who died shortly after appearing in the movie as film director Burke Dennings, one of the characters killed by a demon-possessed Regan. Only 54 years old, MacGowan died of complications from the flu at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, the New York Times reported in January 1973.
Others on the set suffered lifelong injuries. A crew member lost his toe, while a carpenter chopped off his thumb, according to the Castle of Frankenstein.
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Blair shared that she fractured her lower back while convulsing in a harness, leading to a lifelong struggle with scoliosis. In the documentary Fear of God, Blair remembered screaming, “Please, make it stop. It hurts. It burns!”
And it truly was hurting her but her pleas mirrored the script, so no one knew to stop the scene. “That’s the footage they used in the movie, where I’m crying my eyes out because they are brutally damaging my back,” Blair said.
Burstyn also hurt her back while filming, though it was more human error than supernatural interference. They had been filming a scene in which Burstyn was roughly pushed to the floor by Regan’s demonic powers, a feat made possible by having a crew member pull back on Burstyn’s harness. But during one of the takes, the crew member pulled too hard and Burstyn’s back was injured. “That was a bad experience,” she told The Guardian in 2018.
What the Cast Really Thought of the Haunting Rumors
Though much has been said about the so-called haunting, many of those who worked on the film, including Blair, have dismissed the claims as mere speculation.
“If you shoot something for a year, people are going to get hurt, people are going to die,” actor Max Von Sydow said in Fear of God, adding, “It’s very good for publicity but if you don’t believe in the devil, you don’t believe in curses.”
Of course, some crewmembers thought the set was indeed haunted, so Friedkin invited Father Thomas Bermingham, a consultant on the film, to perform an exorcism. “I said, ‘No, Billy. I don’t want to increase anxiety or anything like that and we’re probably not dealing with anything more than accident of one kind or another,” Bermingham shared in the documentary, so instead he blessed everyone.
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As for Blair, she said the subject matter wasn’t scary to her even as a 13-year-old because she was raised Protestant and didn’t entirely understand the concept of possession. As she explained in a 2000 interview with IGN, “I always say, it’s probably a good thing they didn’t hire a Catholic child, who may have heard about the devil, the things that were in the closet.”
The Exorcist saga continues with The Exorcist: Believer, in theaters October 6. Get tickets at Fandango.
Check out more films in the saga with The Exorcist III and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, now streaming on Peacock.