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The Haunting Story That Inspired The Exorcist

Vanity Fair / July 2023

And more tidbits from Nat Segaloff’s The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear, which charts the afterlife of the scariest movie ever made.

On Christmas Day in 1973, some twenty Boston journalists ditched their families for a top-secret, ultra-exclusive 12:30pm screening of the most hotly anticipated film of the year: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Then an employee of the theater, Nat Segaloff’s job was to guard the door.

Audiences’ visceral reactions to the film—vomiting, fainting, storming out of sold-out theaters in protest—are now the stuff of cinematic legend. It’s these images that usually define what’s often called “the scariest film ever made.” But no one puked at that screening of The Exorcist, recalls the Los Angeles-based Segaloff—who grew up to become a journalist and author, most recently of The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear, out July 25.

Then and now, even for experts like Segaloff, the film defies easy classification. Though it’s most commonly called a horror movie, The Exorcist has only a single jump scare (a not-so-scary flaring candle). It’s a prestige project—the only horror film ever nominated for best picture nomination—and a supernatural whodunnit, according to Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty. (Or as Segaloff calls them, “the two Bills.”) Segaloff himself classifies it as a psychological drama, although with this big caveat: “Like all great art, people take from it what they bring to it. And people brought a lot to The Exorcist.”

Half a century after its monumental release, Vanity Fair talks to Segaloff about The Exorcist’s little-known roots in comedy, whether it’s really based on a true story, why the Catholic Church became a surprise fan of the film, and the many reasons why the zeitgeist selected The Exorcist for a permanent place in our collective psyche.

Vanity Fair: Can you take me back to that scary Christmas Day? Were you aware of the importance of what you were seeing?

Nat Segaloff: Most of us had read the book, as I had. [The film is based on Blatty’s novel of the same name.] But nobody really knew what to expect from the film. Nobody knew we were supposed to throw up, because there was no lore surrounding it yet. I was a publicist with the theater in Boston, and we had convinced William Friedkin to do a pre-screening, so it was literally delivered wet from the lab. As you probably know, critics are very stoic. We have what we call “the two-block rule,” which means you don’t speak about the movie for two blocks after leaving the theater. This isn’t for discretion, it’s for keeping your colleagues from stealing your wisecracks. Clearly we were impressed though, as I’ve been possessed with it—if you’ll pardon the obvious pun—since the day before it opened on December 26, 1973. All these years later, this book is kind of my exorcism from The Exorcist.

Certainly not every film’s anniversary still matters fifty years later. What is it about The Exorcist that has us still caring half a century later?

It’s still as effective now as it was then, because there are still people who are too afraid to see it. Horror movies are a very strange genre…if you see Frankenstein’s monster or the Wolfman or Dracula, you can leave them at the movie theater. That’s not true of the devil, who may be waiting for you in the closet when you get home. It’s a different kind of monster. But the truth is, I don’t know. I did movie publicity for five years, and if I could bottle whatever made The Exorcist a hit, I would do it and make a fortune. I’d be running a studio instead of writing about people who run studios. Some films are just of the zeitgeist, though certainly you can theorize about the particular moment in time to try to explain.

There are so many ways to interpret this film: social, religious, feminist. But what’s yours?

The Exorcist came right at the end of Watergate and Vietnam, at a time when America was politically unsettled. People really wanted to know the good guys from the bad guys, because it wasn’t clear, so perhaps The Exorcist touched that nerve of a universe gone crazy. There was also a generational rift happening after the Vietnam War. “Kids these days,” you know, a generation out of control. Now in this case, Regan is possessed by a demon. But who’s to say those hippies at Haight-Ashbury weren’t possessed too?

I like those ideas, but think there are two main ways to interpret The Exorcist. The first is as a straightforward murder mystery, because you’re trying to figure out who killed Burke Dennings. The second, and this is the one that Ellen Burstyn talks about, is about a mother protecting her child and going to any lengths to do so. That, to me, is the most compelling, and I’ll tell you why: When people were running out of the theater, either terrified or vomiting, those were mostly men. The women remained, because they had a mothering instinct and needed to know what happened to the child.

Most people don’t know The Exorcist was based on a true story, kind of.

The original supposed possessee was a boy in Cottage City, Maryland. His name was never given in the original coverage of the story, which was a Washington Post article about a boy “Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” The events happened over a few months in 1949, and they weren’t anything like the movie. Definitely no projectile vomiting, levitation or head-spinning, but there may have been tipping chairs, shaking beds and words appearing etched on the boy’s body—possibly self-inflicted. Some people think he was faking it to get out of school and mimicking Latin prayers to make fun of the priest. They did a successful exorcism, apparently, because the boy grew up to have a prominent career at NASA. His name—Ronald Edwin Hunkeler—was only revealed after his death in 2020.

William Peter Blatty originally had the possessed child be a boy named “Jamie.” Why did he change the child’s gender, and what difference do you think it makes?

Blatty was very religious, raised by Jesuits and given a Catholic education, so very serious about his belief in God. But he was also a storyteller, so he used the supposed possession story of 1949 very, very loosely. Part of it surely was to not identify Hunkeler and preserve his anonymity. I think making Regan a girl relates to iconography of victimhood in America, as horror movies have a rich history of putting women in jeopardy. A possessed woman, meanwhile, and even more so a possessed girl, is especially in danger—and especially terrifying. It makes for a better story, and Linda Blair did an absolutely fabulous job. But no, she wasn’t actually possessed or cursed. Linda Blair was and is a very bright, extremely sane, well-centered woman who came into a casting session with her mother.

William Peter Blatty was usually a comedy writer. Why and how did he switch genres?

Blatty was a top-tier comedy writer who all of a sudden had his style go out of style. He had written a number of successful comedies, like A Shot in the Dark and The Man from the Diners’ Club, but for reasons I don’t understand either, nobody was buying his brand of comedy anymore. He made an informal pitch to an editor at a cocktail party, which was promising, so he took some money—allegedly the $10,000 he’d won on You Bet Your Life—and hid away in a rental guest house to write the book he’d been thinking about for years about the exorcism in the paper. Turns out he was about to write his most successful work by a long shot. He was a very funny writer, but he’ll always be remembered by The Exorcist.

What about those sequels, prequels and re-released director’s cut? The latter has that terrifying scene of Regan climbing backwards down the stairs.

That would be Regan’s “spider walk,” with her long tongue poking out. It’s a frightening moment in the book, when you can just imagine it. But on film in 1973, it didn’t work for two reasons: As soon as [the mother] Chris saw that, she’d have gone right for the exorcist. There’d be no mystery about a demon. Then there were technical reasons: There was no CGI in 1973, so they couldn’t erase the wires. Once modern technology was available to restore the film, they decided to put it back in. Among those of us who are purists, however, that created a bit of controversy. You could argue that what makes the film so terrifying is the distinct lack of CGI: Everything you see on screen, they had to actually make happen for the camera, which makes it believable to the eye. The furniture moving, the door cracking, Regan floating was done physically with a technician. It’s all actually happening.

When Rosemary’s Baby came out a few years earlier, the Catholic Church condemned the film. How did the church react to The Exorcist?

Interestingly, they had no real problem with The Exorcist because it actually reinforced their dogma. For believers, it recalled and reinforced the images and iconography they’d been taught all of their lives. Those who were more freethinkers, meanwhile, regarded it a statement on faith—or the lack thereof. Both of these would have been just fine by the church. I’m not a religious person, so I mostly regard it as an extremely well-made film, though it was never intended as a horror film. If that’s your only takeaway from The Exorcist, it’s time for a re-watch.