Revisiting 'The Exorcist': Where Were You When You First Watched the Horror Classic?

The Exorcist
"The Exorcist" first terrified movie audiences in 1973. Four decades on, its enduring legacy still gives viewers chills. Warner Bros.

It was in 1973 that The Exorcist, director William Friedkin's film about the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl, first shocked movie fans worldwide. Based on a 1971 novel—itself inspired by the real-life 1940s exorcism of a young boy identified only as "Roland Doe"—by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist is often cited as the most successful horror film of all time. Grossing over $400 million worldwide, it earned 10 Academy Award nominations in 1974, including Best Picture, and won the Oscars for Adapted Screenplay and Sound Mixing.

A troubled production has become part of The Exorcist's legacy. Friedkin wanted to capture real emotion in his film, as if the unsightly disfigurement of young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) wasn't scary enough, and slapped actors, unprovoked, right before rolling the camera for an authentic reaction. Ellen Burstyn, who played Regan's mother Chris MacNeil, famously injured her back filming a scene where she's pushed from stairs to the floor below; her very real blood-curdling scream was used in the final edit. Filming was also linked to ominous tragedies, including actor Jason Miller's toddler son, future star Jason Patric, being hit by a motorbike and Max von Sydow's brother dying early into filming.

On its release in December 1973, The Exorcist was an immediate phenomenon, with reports at the time of audience members fainting and vomiting. Over 40 years later, The Exorcist returns to screens, albeit this time on television. Fox will launch its modern-day adaptation, starring Oscar winner Geena Davis, this fall. In an age where we are overtly exposed to the intricacies of the production process and harder to convince, it remains to be seen whether this TV revival can recreate the impact the movie had in 1973.

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The Exorcist's re-emergence in pop culture got the Newsweek team pondering about our own first encounters with the film. The settings, timings and contexts were very different. However, a common thread emerged in the vividness with which each staffer recalled seeing little Regan's head spin for the first time—proof, perhaps, of the film's continued cultural resonance.

Graham Smith, Deputy Online News Editor

Warner Bros. released The Exorcist on VHS in the U.K. in 1981 at a time when there was no requirement for films to be classified specifically for home viewing. It remained in stores for seven years until, in 1988, it was withdrawn after failing to gain a certificate from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) following the introduction of 1984's Video Recordings Act (VRA).

The film would remain unavailable in the U.K. until 1999. It was during this time, circa 1991, that I first watched The Exorcist after renting it on VHS from a shop in Reading, England. This was only achieved after myself and a friend phoned every video store in the Yellow Pages until we found a shop that had a copy—under the counter, presumably.

So it was with the added allure of a forbidden fruit that I first sat down to watch The Exorcist, aged 14 or 15, on VHS. A friend at school had warned me of its brutal content, but my main memory is neither of spinning heads nor green vomit. Rather, I was taken aback by how well crafted a film it was and the (relative) constraint and respect afforded religion amid what could easily have been a lurid shocker.

I've since rewatched the movie about six or seven times—first, a couple of times via the tape-to-tape copy I'd made during that rental, then on DVD when it was finally released back into U.K. homes in 1999, then the longer "The Version You've Never Seen" director's cut, and then again on blu-ray. It gets better with age and is a film I find more psychologically harrowing as the years go by.

Siobhan Morrin, Sub-Editor

As a fully grown adult I thought I'd be able to handle The Exorcist. It's from the 1970s, it's about things that don't exist, the special effects border on comical—how scary could it be? To me, still pretty darn frightening. The music is what got me—Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells is eerie enough on its own but with the bizarre scenes of the possessed child it was too much. I made it up to the first priest's death, then had to switch off. Yes, that probably does make me a massive wimp.

Anthony Cuthbertson, Technology Reporter

When I was around 15, a rundown of the 100 scariest films of all time was aired on Channel 4. Topping the list—as it tends to do with these sorts of things—was The Exorcist. I love scary movies and after tracking down a copy of it I dimmed the lights, pressed play and prepared to be scared. Maybe it was the fact it was already 30 years old, or maybe it was because there was so much hype surrounding it, but I remember being completely underwhelmed.

Tufayel Ahmed, Entertainment Reporter

My first—and to this day, only—viewing of The Exorcist was in the late 1990s. I must have been eight or nine; my family and I were staying with cousins in Leicester. Each night we'd watch a film. One night that movie was The Exorcist. Probably not the most appropriate film at that age. As the first scene, set in Iraq, began, one of my cousins began goading me that something scary was about to happen—it didn't (yet), but the continuous teasing kept me perpetually frightened throughout the entire movie.

I've still yet to rewatch it, nearly 20 years later, but I can appreciate it. I often say one day I will revisit it, but I never have. Perhaps it's the subject matter, the idea of religion and possession, that freaks me out the most. I'm no horror-phobe by any means, but films that are rooted in very real religious beliefs—Christianity or otherwise—would just keep me awake at night.