The Exorcist: Obsession with Possession

By Anthony Record

Very few things in this world scare me. Oh, there are certain things that make me feel uncomfortable. Snakes creep me out a little bit, and I would cross the street to avoid crossing paths with a clown, but whenever someone asks me about the most frightening thing I have ever experienced, one thing immediately pops in my mind: The Exorcist.

Now, in the interest of clarity, let me state for the record, that (at least to my knowledge) I have never been possessed by a demon, nor have I been sprinkled with holy water by a zealous priest. No, I’m talking about the film. And if I said that few things scare me, that goes double for scary movies. From a young age, I fully realized the dramatic nature of film: it was all staged, or fake, if you will. The only exception is if a movie proclaimed to be “Based on a true story.”  I guess then, even though I realized the movie wasn’t real, in the back of my mind I knew that the events I was watching actually happened to real people. So war movies, Titanic, The Elephant Man…these things really happened. Knowing that, I am automatically more emotionally involved from the get go. As you probably know, The Exorcist was purported to be based on actual events…uh-oh.

Released around Christmas 1973, I first saw The Exorcist a few weeks later at the soon-to-be-discovered-impressionable age of fourteen. In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school for 12 years, making me, I suppose, all that more impressionable. News stories told of moviegoers throwing up, screaming, and leaving theaters in tears. Hell, I was a little scared before the coming attractions were over. I closed my eyes a few times, and the film frightened me like no other film before or since. I am no longer embarrassed to say that I slept with the lights on for about three months after I first saw the movie. Despite all that, I made it through and came to respect it as one of my top favorite films, along with The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Silence of the Lambs. How’s that for a variety?

The Exorcist earned two Academy Awards, one for Best Sound and one for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for the novel’s author, William Peter Blatty. It also earned Oscar nominations for the late Jason Miller (Father Karras), Ellen Burstyn (Chris McNeil), Linda Blair (the possessed girl, Regan McNeil), William Friedkin (director), and five others, including Best Picture. The movie spawned two sequels,  Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and The Exorcist III (1990), as well as a prequel, Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). The film’s enduring popularity and mystique even 37 years later presents many opportunities for autograph collectors, some of which I am happy to share with you here.

Author William Peter Blatty

Without the novel, the movie would have never existed. Since it was rejected by dozens of publishers, horror fans should forevermore be grateful for the persistence of its author, William Peter Blatty. He once appeared and won $10,000 on the Groucho Marx show You Bet Your Life. When Marx asked him what he planned to do with his winnings, Blatty said he planned “…to take some time off and work on a novel.”

The Jesuit-educated author of many other novels, including the real sequel to The ExorcistLegion – has always responded to my through-the-mail autograph requests positively and promptly. The first couple of requests yielded standard 8×10 black and white publicity stills, but later on I was pleasantly and belatedly surprised by a handwritten note. Shortly after the release of the film on which it was based, I sent Blatty the hardcover novel, Legion, to sign. Not only did he boldly sign the dust jacket, but a few years later when I was thumbing through it, I discovered a note he had written in response to my letter. In brief he thanked me for my kind comments about his writing in general, also agreeing with me that Legion was the work of which he “liked best.” He recently released a new religious suspense thriller entitled Dimiter, which is residing safely on my Kindle — the next in line to be read after Sarah Silverman’s Bedwetter. But alas, I digress.

Max Von Sydow

Though he played the elderly priest, Father Lancaster Merrin, Swedish-born actor, Max Von Sydow was only 44 years old in 1973. I never realized he was so young, and through the years thought it amazing how he seemed not to age much. Oh the wonders of Hollywood and makeup! The interesting thing about Max Von Sydow is that, at least to my knowledge, he is the only actor to play both God (The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965) and the Devil (Needful Things, 1993) in separate movies. This is interesting in that in arguably his most famous role – as Father Merrin – he plays an agent of God doing battle with the Devil.

Much like Blatty, Von Sydow has always sent me a photo (all the way from Sweden), but never a still from the movie, and he has never answered any of my questions regarding the film either. Luckily for me and other fans of the movie, authentic autographed items surrounding The Exorcist abound, and photos of Von Sydow from this film are among the few autographs I am willing to purchase. Still going strong at the age of 82, he was most recently seen in Shutter Island and Robin Hood.

Ellen Burstyn

One of the most talented and gifted actresses of our time, Ellen Burstyn was born in 1932 in Detroit, Michigan. Well respected among her peers, Burstyn was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work as Chris McNeil in The Exorcist. Although she lost out to Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class¸ Burstyn won for Best Actress the next year for her work in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and was nominated for best actress at least four more times.

Burstyn will surely never forget her work on The Exorcist considering she suffered a permanent spinal injury while filming. In the scene where the demon throws her away from her possessed daughter, the harness jerked her away too quickly and with such force that she landed on her coccyx. The injury was so painful that the scream it elicited was actually used in the film! Ms. Burstyn has always been a gracious signer, and if you make a request through the mail you will not be disappointed.

Jason Miller, Lee Cobb, and Director William Friedkin

Two of the main characters in the film are no longer with us. Jason Miller passed away in 2001, and Lee J. Cobb died in 1976, just a few years after appearing in The Exorcist. Miller, whose son Jason Patric is also an actor, was a talented character actor and gifted playwright. In fact, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, That Championship Season. Although I sent him several Exorcist movie stills to sign, he never responded with anything other than simply a signature on a 3×5 index card. Jason Miller was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Father Karras, a priest struggling not only to help the possessed girl, but also struggling with his own faith. Unfortunately for my Exorcist collection, Cobb (who performed brilliantly in the role of Lt. Kinderman) passed away before I even began collecting. He was probably best known for his role in 12 Angry Men, and won two Oscar nominations in the 1950s for his work in On the Waterfront and The Brothers Karamazov.

I was privileged to obtain a signed 3×5 index card of Mercedes McCambridge, who provided the guttural voice of the demon possessing the little girl. McCambridge, who started her career on radio, passed away in LaJolla, California in 2004.

A few other “minor” autograph opportunities from the film exist with William Friedkin (director), Kitty Winn (Sharon), and William O’Malley, an actual Catholic priest who played the role of Father Karras’s friend, Father Dyer. O’Malley teaches at Fordham University and to this day claims that 80% of what is depicted in the film actually happened.

Linda Blair

Without question, the one actor whose name almost immediately conjures up images of The Exorcist is the possessed girl herself, Linda Blair. Barely 13 when she began filming her role as Regan McNeil, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and actually won a Golden Globe. It is believed she did not win the Oscar because days before the awards show it was revealed that the voice work was done by McCambridge, and that a dummy was used in many scenes. Like many child performers, Blair struggled with relationships and substance abuse. She never enjoyed the same level of fame as she did with The Exorcist. Her film credits include such forgettable works as Repossessed, Fatal Bond, and Bedroom Eyes II.

Considering her early childhood and having an untold number of experiences where fans would approach her on the street and ask her to spin her head around, it’s a wonder she survived at all. Having met her in person several times I can tell you that Linda now seems truly happy and extremely well adjusted. Either that or she is indeed a very talented actress. Maybe both! She routinely appears at film and collector conventions and is also a very willing signer through the mail. She has also done admirable work as an advocate for pets and pet adoption. Her hardcore fans are truly that – hardcore.

One such example is Blair fan and Autograph subscriber, Kenton Berry, of Largo, Florida. I wrote about spending some time with Linda at Spooky Fest in Orlando, and Berry wrote to me about his extensive Linda Blair collection. I was intrigued. So I called him up to find out what he meant. I would say that Kenton truly is possessed…or obsessed with Linda Blair. Not really. He seems like a nice guy who is simply impressed with Blair as a person and as an actress. He says he was first hooked when he saw her work in Airport ’75, in which she played Janice Abbott.

Kenton explained that he had 400-500 pictures in his collection. When I asked him what his collection consisted of, he quickly clarified for me that his collection was not your run-of-the-mill autograph collections. Oh no, it is a Linda Blair collection. He has over 400 different 8×10 photographs of Ms. Blair, 50 of which are autographed. He also has newspaper clippings, posters, magazines, and other collectibles that feature her. Perhaps one of his most interesting possessions (pun intended) is a bronze-painted, plaster face mask of Blair that was made during the filming of The Exorcist. He also has a personal goal related to Blair: He hopes to raise the funds ($25,000) and interest necessary for adding a Linda Blair star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If his earnestness for his collection is any indication, I’m sure we will see a Blair star in the not-too-distant future. Good luck, Kenton.

Few films or books stand the test of time. Many works that are read and viewed years after their release seem to simply lose their effect; they seem dated and irrelevant. The Exorcist does not belong on that category. It still holds up today as well as it did nearly 40 years ago. Its legend endures. That fact was reinforced the last time I attended an event where Linda Blair was signing autographs for her fans. I struck up a conversation with a woman who was ahead of me in line, patiently waiting her turn to meet Blair. I discovered she had driven nearly 200 miles to attend the convention. It had been over 30 minutes, so I said, “You must be a really big fan, to have driven all that way and be waiting in line this long.” She explained to me that indeed she was a fan of the film and of Blair, but that she was standing in line for the true fan of the film. She pointed to her daughter, sitting a few feet away. She was twelve years old! That to me is a true indication of how the popularity of The Exorcist will long endure. In fact, it’s been a few years…now that I’m done with this article…I think I’ll pop it in the DVD player myself…

The Ultimate Horror Weekend

By ANTHONY D. RECORD
Autograph June 2010 [Read more…]