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How The Exorcist Changed The Horror Genre

The Exorcist remains as one of the most influential horror films of all time, and this is why

When musing about 1970s horror films, William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist often comes to mind. The film revolves around a thirteen-year-old girl, Regan, who becomes possessed by a demon. Starring Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, the special effects were of utmost importance in relaying a story revolving around the possession of demons: Regan’s head rotating 360 degrees, levitating off the bed, and thrashing around furniture with kinetic powers.

The production, distribution, and marketing of The Exorcist, along with other specific techniques, helped the film reach a larger audience. The special effects team utilized the tried and accurate low-tech methods of the day. Along with innovative ideas to create unforgettable images, these effects would sell one of the greatest horror films. Due to its special effects, marketing, and distribution, The Exorcist completely changed the horror genre into what it is today.
The importance of The Exorcist seeming as realistic as possible began before the movie came to fruition. The film is adapted from the 1971 William Blatty novel, based on a true story revolving around a fourteen-year-old boy named Ronald Hunkeler living in Silver Springs, Maryland. When Blatty began his research, he contacted Reverend Thomas Bermingham, a professor at Georgetown University. Friedkin later hired Father Bermingham and two other priests as technical advisors: Father John Nicola and Father William O’Malley. Friedkin realized that many Catholics, let alone most people, never heard of an exorcism; he needed the priests’ image as trusted men to add faith and belief to the religious subject matter.

The innovative special effects played a significant role in instilling fear: “HELP ME” engraved on Regan’s stomach, an on-set physical special effect. The famous head-turning completely around was done by creating a fiberglass mold of the actress’s head. These pioneering methods have been the norm since first applied to this film.

The special effects team set up several restaurant-style air conditioners to run all night so the set would be forty degrees in the morning, cold enough so that the appearance of breath coming from the character’s mouths would be organic. Friedkin slapped Father O’Malley hard across the face just before he called “action,” which was a simple way of achieving the facial response that he wanted from the actor.

Jason Miller, who portrayed the priest, was told Regan would throw up the pea soup on his chest, but the secret plan was to project the barf on his face. The reaction of disgust from Miller was of genuine surprise and precisely what Friedkin intended, again an elementary physical special effect borne out of inspiration on the set.

It wasn’t only the effects or aesthetics of the film that would be a trailblazer, but also in its distribution and marketing. The distributors were quite skillful in reversing the inevitable negative response to the subject matter from its ticket buyers. To publicize a “religious” film, The Exorcist was released on December 26th, to capture the religious faith of the Christmas holiday.

The posters of The Exorcist which were plastered everywhere contained conventional semiotic elements of marketing. The big red title The Exorcist, signifying danger and death, the distributor’s logos and release date are bold; an extreme contrast between light and dark elements in the design. The infamous picture of the priest takes up the entire poster, but the priest is in the middle, catching the spectator’s eye. The man is holding a knife, showing that the genre of the film will be horror.

To up the scare factor when marketing, Ellen Burstyn’s (Chris MacNeil) minor back injury was blown out of proportion, and supposedly nine people died during production. Friedkin even had Reverend Bermingham bless the set to prevent any unnatural disturbances: the set burned down to the ground the next day. This bit of news was eagerly leaked to the publicity outlets. The marketing department also used a clever tactic by embracing the enemy: protesting religious groups brought what could’ve been unwanted attention. Instead, the marketing team gave religious outlets such as Billy Graham a platform to decry the movie, thus creating substantial pre-release controversy and free advertising. In addition, Friedkin had an ace up his sleeve with the three priests he hired. The staff was utilizing yet innovating marketing methods used by the industry for a long time.

When the film was released, most were shocked, disgusted, or both. After walking out of the film, a police officer stated, “It’s something I never saw in my whole life. It’s something different, and I went to a lot of movies but I’ve never seen anything like this myself.” Most agreed, which is why The Exorcist is so influential to this day; it was the first.

Does this historic film stand the test of time? Well, it’s been five decades since the public first witnessed the events of The Exorcist. Audiences have witnessed accelerated and sophisticated special effects in films. It becomes quite a task to elicit any new amazement or astonishment from the spectator who has “seen it all.”

Today, the audience has been bombarded with CGI and AI (which there is nothing wrong with), but much of today’s audience doesn’t know anything but these special effects. Such rapidly developing techniques have given the spectator of today’s films a need to be shocked and surprised constantly. It seems every couple of years, a new particular effects-driven film is released. Continued advanced visual effects may add another dimension to the horror film genre, but it takes away from the ability to horrify viscerally.

One of many reasons that The Exorcist maintains its stature is because it was a first. If someone were to watch The Exorcist today, they may find the special effects rather elementary and maybe a little laughable. Still, if that viewer were around back then, with the novelty of something new and a certain collective innocence of the audience, they too would be barfing as they exit the film. Obviously, The Exorcist remains extremely significant in horror fans’ eyes, as a sequel to the original film is set to be released in 2022.

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