Fifty Years Later, ‘Exorcist’ Parodies Still Possess Us
When William Friedkin, fresh off the triumph of The French Connection, signed on to make The Exorcist, he remembered that fellow Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols had turned the project down for one reason: “You’ll never find a 12-year-old girl to carry the picture.” But after auditioning many young women for the part of Regan MacNeil, a random mother stopped by his office: Maybe he’d like to meet with her daughter?
“She was smart but not precocious,” Friedkin wrote in his memoir. “Cute but not beautiful. A normal, happy 12-year-old girl. Her name was Linda Blair. Her mother was quiet, pleasant, not a ‘stage mother.’ Linda was represented by an agency that suggested 10 other girls to us. Not her. She had done some modeling, no acting. Her main interest was training and showing horses, for which she won a lot of blue ribbons. She was a straight-A student in Westport, Connecticut. I found her adorable. Irresistible. I asked her if she knew what The Exorcist was about. ‘Well…,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘it’s about a little girl who gets possessed by the Devil and does a whole bunch of bad things.’”
One of those bad things was masturbating with a crucifix. Friedkin asked Blair if she knew what masturbating was. She did. He asked if she’d ever done that. “‘Sure, haven’t you?’ she shot back. I’d found Regan.”
Forty years later, Blair was still at a loss to explain the impact of what she’d gotten herself into. “Nothing like it was being made at that time so I just really had no idea of what this story would become, what these characters would become to fans throughout the years,” she said in 2013 of The Exorcist. “I didn’t understand it. And when the movie came out, the amount of pressure that came down on me wasn’t anything I was prepared for.”
Child actors who star in blockbusters or critically-acclaimed classics often have a difficult time adjusting to what comes next. But Blair is in a unique position among such performers. She has terrified moviegoers for decades. She will always be the little girl who swore a lot and barfed on people.
On Friday, The Exorcist: Believer hits theaters. It’s directed by David Gordon Green, who a few years ago revived the Halloween franchise, and he’s hoping to do the same with the series that started with Friedkin’s 1973 Best Picture-winner. Believer is a direct sequel to The Exorcist, focusing on other young women who become possessed in the same way that Regan was, so it seems likely we’ll get more head-spinning, gross-out spectacle. Which makes sense: For all its exploration of evil and its commentary on the societal upheaval going on in America, the original Exorcist has been simplified in the culture to “that movie where the little girl freaks everyone out.” Something so horrifying has become among the most parodied moments in all of cinema. Who knew Regan’s terrible transformation could end up being so funny?
The making of The Exorcist is legendary. Friedkin went over schedule and way over budget, actors (including Blair) were injured during filming, and multiple people involved with the movie died or lost people close to them. People thought the shoot was cursed. “I’m not a convert to the occult, but after all I’ve seen on this film, I definitely believe in demonic possession,” Friedkin said, later adding, “We were plagued by strange and sinister things from the beginning, it is simply the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”
Part of the challenge was making Regan’s possession believable, with legendary makeup artist Dick Smith tasked with turning Blair into something thoroughly wretched-looking. Pioneering special effects artist Marcel Vercoutere was also instrumental, building the life-sized replica of Blair that was incorporated — and don’t forget Mercedes McCambridge, an Oscar-winning actress who provided Regan’s unnerving demon voice. And, of course, there was Blair, whose physical performance was demanding, even painful. Recalling one particularly grueling scene in which the rigging she was attached to malfunctioned, she said, “I’m crying, I’m screaming, they think I’m acting up a storm. It fractured my lower spine. No, they didn’t send me to the doctor, it is the footage that’s in the movie.”
As Max von Sydow and Jason Miller’s priests battle to save Regan’s soul — and her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) watches on helplessly — The Exorcist created a personal, intimate horror that was treated with realism. No matter how preposterous things got, it always seemed like it could actually happen, resulting in a blockbuster that captured the public’s imagination and snagged 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Blair.
Funny enough, Blair lost to an even younger actress, Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon. But she quickly became the face — the frightening, twisted face — of The Exorcist. Blair was just a girl when the film came out, besieged by the media, which expected someone so young to have cogent opinions on the phenomenon and her character’s startling behavior. Discussing the litany of vulgarity Regan unloads while possessed, Blair said in 2000, “(T)hose words were not said around my house, nor were they said in public back then. (Friedkin) got a kick out of shocking the world. I’m unfortunately the one who had to say it, and so there for many many years, I’m the one who has had to answer to it.” She would attend press conferences in which journalists would ask her what she thought of the existence of the Devil. “There was a lot of fear. They really thought that I could answer all these questions,” Blair recalled. “And I would honestly answer, ‘Well, if there’s good, there’s evil. If there’s God, there’s the Devil, I guess. But for me it was just a fictitious creature.’ I’m like, ‘I’m 15 years old. Are you serious?’”
Anything that seizes the zeitgeist and is also as scary as The Exorcist, naturally, will provoke a comedic backlash. Almost exactly two years after the film’s release, Saturday Night Live did a send-up of the film on its seventh episode, which featured a sketch with Thalmus Rasulala and Richard Pryor as the priests and Laraine Newman as Regan. They try to help the girl, but she just insults their moms, leading to a comically violent response. It’s that rare early SNL sketch that still holds up really well.
The underlying joke was obvious but funny — what if this foul-mouthed white girl squared off against some Black dudes? — and over the years when people would parody The Exorcist, they would emphasize the upsetting juxtaposition of a seemingly sweet kid going through a metamorphosis into pure evil. Friedkin’s film, which was written by William Peter Blatty (based on his own novel), capitalized on some of fiction’s most potent dramatic devices — the corruption of innocence, the imperiling of a child — and made Regan the story’s unlikely fearsome villain. Over the years, it’s been argued that The Exorcist’s horror spoke to a societal terror of female sexuality or an echo (or critique) of the counterculture’s rebellious nature. Clearly, the movie wasn’t just about some priests battling a demon — it was about a growing fissure in America between young and old, progressive and conservative, secular and religious. The Exorcist scared viewers, shook something loose.
Perhaps not surprisingly, within that catharsis there was also room for laughter. Friedkin understood that reaction. “When I set out to create the illusion of all this stuff happening, I had no idea if it would ever work or whether an audience would laugh,” he once said. “And on many occasions, an audience would laugh at some of the most extreme effects because laughter is a reaction to something that you can’t really let in or tolerate. Very often an audience reaction is ‘Ha ha ha, that doesn’t really bother me, I could laugh that off.’”
But initially, The Exorcist’s impact was felt more in the movies it spawned than in the comedic riffs it inspired. Horror was big business in the 1970s, with films like The Omen and The Amityville Horror tapping into the same domestic, supernatural frights while everything from Jaws to Halloween to Alien cemented new horror subgenres that still flourish today. Warner Bros., which had released The Exorcist, tried to benefit from the craze as well, releasing Exorcist II: The Heretic with Blair (but without Friedkin) in 1977, garnering terrible reviews and only a fraction of the original’s box office.
In fast fashion, the genre that The Exorcist helped turn into a massive moneymaker moved beyond Regan — soon, slasher films became all the rage — and, likewise, Blair struggled to live up to her Oscar-nominated portrayal. A few months after Exorcist II: The Heretic hits theaters, she was arrested in a cocaine bust, although she insisted the whole incident was blown out of proportion. (In a 2013 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Blair said that she hadn’t been buying drugs but, in fact, buying a dog on the same property — and that a vindictive judge tried to make an example out of her because of her fame. “If I was who they said I was in the press, would I be who I am today? You can’t be,” she said in the piece. “You either have an addiction to something or you don’t.”)
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only incident that suggested to the public that Blair was the stereotypical little girl lost — just another promising ingénue ruined by fame. She was in Playboy in the early 1980s and dated the notorious Rick James, whose addiction issues ultimately became too much for her. (It wasn’t the first musician she had been involved with: When she was 15, she was in a relationship with Rick Springfield, who was 25.) But putting aside tabloid scandals for a moment, Blair’s acting career also plateaued as she pivoted in the 1980s to forgettable low-budget B-movies like the horror flick Hell Night. “You have to make a living,” Blair suggested at the time. “I thought, ‘I hadn’t done one for nine years. Why not do it again?’”
Before too long, Blair accepted that she would always be associated with The Exorcist, embracing the connection and, eventually, even playing into the joke. Regan parodies occasionally popped up, some of them with Blair lending a hand. In the late 1980s, filmmaker Bryan Michael Stoller directed a spoof short called The Heckling, the premise being that a priest and a rabbi come together to perform an exorcism — but this is no ordinary exorcism, because the little girl has been possessed by a really shticky comedian. The Heckling saw Blair (who played both the mother and the girl) doing a lot of groan-worthy bits as the possessed child, cycling between Pee-wee Herman, Rodney Dangerfield, George Burns and knock-knock jokes. (At one point, the priest and the rabbi are assaulted not by vomit but by rubber chickens.)
Blair leaned into the joke even more aggressively with 1990’s Repossessed, a witless feature-length parody of The Exorcist starring Leslie Nielsen, who was making the most of his Naked Gun stardom. In the film, written and directed by Bob Logan, Blair played the possessed woman and Nielsen was the priest trying to save her. The movie essentially gave The Exorcist the Airplane! treatment, except without the hilarity. (Weirdly enough, the film, like The Heckling, makes fun of Pee-wee Herman.) Repossessed bombed at the box office, but for Blair, the movie allowed her to work through something. “(Logan) asked about doing it and I said, ‘Oh, Bob, you know I just, I just want to get away,’” she recalled. “But he said, ‘Kid, you have nowhere to laugh.’ I had no way to have a sense of humor about The Exorcist. I didn’t know how. And this enabled me.”
By this point, Exorcist references were nothing new: The Simpsons did one in the very first “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episode. And that same year, around the same time as Repossessed opened, an official new Exorcist film — The Exorcist III (written and directed by Blatty and starring George C. Scott) — came out, doing about as well as The Exorcist II, although the reviews were slightly better. (Honestly, there was little chance they could have been as bad.)
The Exorcist might have been a landmark horror film, but two decades later it seemed unfashionable. But in a sense, so was the genre as a whole: If the 1970s had been horror’s first blockbuster period, and the 1980s saw the rise of horror franchises with iconic boogeyman (your Freddy, your Jason), then the 1990s were a point in which audiences had grown tired of gimmicks. It was time for a good ribbing and a reset. Right on cue came 1996’s Scream, a horror movie that knowingly critiqued the clichés while showing love to the individuals who popularized fright-night films. Blair had a small cameo as a reporter, her character wearing crucifix earrings in a callback to her most scandalous Exorcist scene.
As horror experienced a renaissance in the late 1990s, The Exorcist was officially one of the go-to references if you wanted to lampoon musty old horror tropes. MadTV did a sketch in which Penny Marshall (Mo Collins) does a remake of the Friedkin film, with Penny’s good buddy Rosie O’Donnell (Alex Borstein) as Regan. More memorably, 2001’s Scary Movie 2 devoted its opening to two priests (James Woods and Andy Richter) trying to save a possessed woman (Natasha Lyonne). What results is a lot of vomit and Woods’ horny man of the cloth being turned on by Lyonne. Watch this scene and remember: Initially, it was Marlon Brando in the Woods role, but the Oscar-winner had to leave during filming because of health reasons.
Blair remained part of the horror-spoof game, although she had moved on from sending up The Exorcist. In the wake of the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which made found-footage the cool new horror subgenre, she appeared in a parody called, yes, The Blair Bitch Project, where she played the hyperventilating Heather character.
Meanwhile, the Exorcist franchise kept trucking along. In 2000, a new cut of the original film was released, doing pretty good business. (However, I remember anecdotal observations that some audiences laughed at the movie, its most famous scare scenes now so well known through parodies that it made the original moments funny by association.) But attempts to expand the brand went nowhere. A few years later, director Renny Harlin’s prequel Exorcist: The Beginning failed at the box office, while Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist experienced a fraught production before barely being released. (Long story short: Schrader got kicked off the project, Harlin was hired to redo the whole movie, the studio ended up going with Schrader’s version at the last minute.)
Horror films are prime targets for parody — shock and laughter are similar reactions, and the genre’s super-serious intensity leaves it ripe for mocking — but the Exorcist franchise made the job even easier by all the embarrassing sequels and prequels that followed. By the time This Is the End paid joking homage to The Exorcist, it was funny but also kinda quaint: Oh right, that old horror movie with the girl with the spooky voice. I remember that.
In day-to-day life, The Exorcist still rears its head. Any story involving a friend vomiting might elicit a Regan callback. And don’t even think about suggesting pea soup at dinner — you’re liable to have someone invoke that poor possessed girl. (Friedkin, who died earlier this year, spent much of his life clarifying something: “Everyone refers to the vomit … as pea soup, but it was really porridge with pea soup coloring — it had a much better texture than pure pea soup.”) Regan climbing the wall, Regan twisting her head around, Regan swearing up a storm: The idea that a harmless little girl could cause so much horror and death remains a terrifying primal thought, especially for parents. (At a time when divorce was still somewhat taboo, the fact that Chris is a single mother made the premise even more awful: She’s all alone, without a man to help her!) Naturally, that’s what made it so funny as well — The Exorcist was dialed up to 11, determined to scare the bejesus out of you, but if you weren’t somebody who believed in God and heaven and hell and the Devil, well, it all was kinda silly, wasn’t it?
Nonetheless, the word “exorcist” and its variations are used a lot in the title of horror movies even today — The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, The Pope’s Exorcist. Movies like The Rite and The Conjuring don’t, but everybody knows, “Bro, they do an exorcism in that movie.” Even for people who find The Exorcist hokey 50 years after its release, there’s still an audience who can’t get enough of seeing good square off against evil in such a visceral way — who can’t get enough of seeing priests yell a bunch of stuff at someone who’s possessed and writhing around.
Even so, that’s not gonna stop other folks from finding the whole thing ridiculous. It felt weirdly appropriate that, decades after Richard Pryor did the first (and still one of the best) Exorcist parodies on SNL, Jenna Ortega gave it a go on the same show — once again, oddly, bringing a racial component to the humor.
At the center of the original film’s horror — as well as the many jokes since — is Linda Blair. She turns 65 in January. She still acts — and she appeared on The Masked Singer last year — but she mostly devotes her time to promoting veganism and the protection of animals. She won’t be in The Exorcist: Believer. Instead, she served as a technical advisor. “She was very helpful in trying to navigate the psychology of our young talent,” David Gordon Green said recently. “Lidya (Jewett) and Olivia (Marcum) were amazing young actresses to work with — and we’re asking them to go to very dangerous, very provocative, very spiritual places. From a psychological standpoint, we wanted to do that as safely as we could ... The fact that Linda had blazed this trail before was really valuable to all of us in trying to set a really healthy path to go to a pretty bizarre place.”
In Pauline Kael’s scathing review of The Exorcist, she closed by noting that so many young girls had auditioned to play Regan. Kael wondered about all those mothers whose daughters didn’t get the part. “When they see The Exorcist and watch Linda Blair urinating on the fancy carpet and screaming and jabbing at herself with the crucifix, are they envious?” Kael wrote. “Do they feel, ‘That might have been my little Susie — famous forever’?”
Blair is famous forever, and we remain spooked and amused by the Regan she gave the world. It must be odd to be responsible for so many people’s nightmares, as well as the target of so many jokes. It’s the character she played, not her, that we’re reacting to. But either way, Blair made it possible.
In 2000, she was asked what her life would have been like without The Exorcist. “I think that if I’d not made the movie, I might be a veterinarian in Connecticut,” she replied. “I would probably be married with some children. That’s probably the way it would be. But because of the film, I don’t have a normal life by somebody else’s standards. But my standards, I know no different.”
Then she thought about it some more, and added this: “One of the reasons I don’t have kids is because I think that people would have been very unfair to them. Think of it. This is 28 years later. You’re still asking me questions about my life and how I dealt with it. What would the world have done to my children? And I think that’s kind of a shame.”
When people do parodies of The Exorcist, they’re not making fun of Blair, but they’re definitely helping to keep alive the memory of an indelible role, one she played when she was just a kid. The character haunted lots of moviegoers, but you have to wonder if it’s haunted her, too. That’s why she did something like Repossessed, as a way to exorcize herself from that experience. Even she had to find what’s funny about the film to be released from its dark power.