40 Years & Still Terrifying
Most film buffs will tell you, if asked, that The Exorcist first hit screens in 1974, scaring the wits out of Americans nationwide. Not true, though. The film was actually released—in a bit of risky marketing at the time—on December 26, 1973. The day after Christmas.for a movie about demonic possession.
Still, the film didn’t really hit it’s stride until early January, 1974, when word of mouth began to spread, the reviewers had weighed in, and jittery theatergoers started talking about it around the water cooler, or after dropping their kids off for school, or on line returning ugly sweaters they’d gotten for Christmas.
The film is full of well-known actors. Ellen Burstyn stars, along with Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, a lesser-known Jason Miller in his defining role, and introduced child actress Linda Blair. It took the country by surprise and by storm, racking up over $400 million worldwide.
Here’s how much of an impact this film had on me. In ’73, I was four-going-on-five, so the original theatrical release passed me by without even knowing about it. But for years afterward, when my parents had friends over, or were playing cards with my Aunt Betty and Uncle Matt, I would hear about this movie. How it left my parents like many of their fellow filmgoers: standing around in the lobby. Smoking outside on the sidewalk. Wondering what had just happened because they still had the shakes.
Huh? A movie? My Dad and Mom decided to stay out later than planned, in the days before cell phones, because they needed to go to a diner and get something to eat to calm down? This had to be the greatest movie ever!, thought the impressionable me. I had to see it. Only, that wasn’t going to happen. No cable TV, remember? Forget DVD, the VCR (as we came to know it) hadn’t even been widely produced yet. The movie would eventually air on TV, but no way were my parents going to let me watch that at my age.
And so, The Exorcist looked like it would be unattainable.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I once got in trouble for using my library card. Well, here’s the story. When I was growing up, the Alden Manor Branch library was divided into two halves. The right side was the children’s section, the left half (you had to pass through a swinging gate to enter) was the adult’s section. Library cards weren’t scannable. The librarians took your card, put it into something akin to a sliding credit card impression taker, and ka-chunk! Imprinted your card number onto the card, which they took out of the back pocket and sorted into trays. Yep, it was all manual. Adults had a white card, kids had an orange one.
Here’s the thing. If you were too young, you could get permission to take books out of the adult’s section, if your parents came in, signed a paper approving this, and the librarian affixed a red dot to your card. That was it. The whole system. A red dot, and you were in.
Unfortunately,, office supply stores were uncommon. Few and far between, in fact. You didn’t have a Staples or OfficeMax or OfficeDepot right around the corner. Meaning, the red dot system worked for the library because it wasn’t all that easy to get one.
Not for yours truly, however. I’m in class one day, and a teacher asked me to hole punch a bunch of labels. So I’m there, punching away in this cubbyhole closet, and suddenly one of the hole punched stickers unpeels. I’m sitting there with a white dot stuck to my thumb, and it hits me. Take one of these pages of sticky paper home, use a red magic marker, and make my own red dot. Voila! The keys to the library castle, for a reader like me who was there twice a week.
So, I do it. I create my red dot, let it dry, stick it to my library card, and the very next day, I go in to try and pull this off. I walk into the adult’s section like I own the place, ignore the card catalog because I know where my quarry is, and bring it up to the librarian, handing over my counterfeit card.
“Have a nice day,” she says, and sends me on my way.
This would have been the greatest scam I could’ve pulled off, if my parents hadn’t caught on the following week, when Mom found the book on my desk and I was nailed. She was bugged. Dad? Not so much. His feeling about the whole thing was, at 13 they’d have signed me up for the red dot anyway, and if the worst thing I was doing was taking more mature books out of the library? Heck, they were well ahead of the game as parents. It wasn’t like I’d tried to smuggle a Playboy out of the local candy store.
The book, as you’ve probably guessed, was William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Which was what bugged my Mom more than the fact I’d modified my library card. By the time I was caught, though, I was already two thirds of the way through. Mom and Dad agreed it was little late to try and stop me now.
So, in 1980, seven years after first hearing about it, I got to read The Exorcist. About two years later, maybe three, when the VCR was ready for home use, I lied to a clerk at the video store across from Elmont Memorial High School, paid for a yearly membership ($19.95 at the time, which was a lot for a 15-year-old who was still delivering the New York Post for pocket money), and, you got it—rented The Exorcist. Which, I still had to hide, because my Mom and Dad would’ve flipped. I had to sneak down to the basement to watch it. In the middle of the night. By myself. In the dark, so as not to tip anyone off that I was still awake.
Can you say, not the brightest of ideas, but perfect in terms of creating the right atmosphere? There’s a reason The Exorcist still shows up on top ten lists whenever they’re talking horror movies, or most frightening this, or most terrifying that. The Exorcist is the real deal. It delivers the goods, as they say. Even now, 40 years later, if you’ve never seen it, it packs a punch. A lot of films—particularly horror films—don’t fare well over time. Not The Exorcist. Four decades, and still goin’ strong. I still recommend it whenever I’m talking to someone who’s either just starting to enjoy horror films, or is looking for something classic that can spook without just being disgusting.
This film scared a generation. And it didn’t rely on blood and guts to do it. If you’re one of the few who haven’t seen it yet and want to be chilled? It’s still a heck of a ride. I knew when I saw it why my parents had been so creeped out by it, and the long delay in my being able to catch it didn’t lessen it’s impact at all.
Did you see The Exorcist when it first came out? Before pea soup became a gag on Saturday Night Live? Back when the Catholic church was talking about why they wanted a priest on the set while the film was being shot? If you’ve got a spooky Exorcist memory, we want to hear it!