Why The Exorcist (1973) Is Still One of The Scariest Films Ever Made

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As we approach the month of October, studios are beginning to roll out their latest horror offerings to coincide with the spooky season. One of the first of these is The Exorcist: Believer, a legacy sequel to the 1973 film that ignores every other entry in the franchise; following the same pattern as 2018’s Halloween. Both films are even directed by the same person, David Gordon Green.

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As we approach the latest attempt to turn The Exorcist into a franchise, my mind of course wanders back to that original movie. The Exorcist was a massively shocking and controversial film upon initial release, with many audiences reportedly suffering violent physical reactions to the film’s content and some cities even attempting to have the film banned entirely.

Despite this, The Exorcist was a critical and commercial success across the board. Showings were frequently sold out with long lines amidst cold weather; and it was the first horror film to receive a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. While the fifty years between the original release and now have caused some of the shock to wear off, the film still manages to remain one of the scariest horror movies ever made. But what makes The Exorcist so truly terrifying? Well, let’s find out.

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The Plot

the exorcist
Linda Blair as Regan in The Exorcist (1973).

For the uninitiated, The Exorcist centers on a young girl named Regan, played by Linda Blair, who is staying in Washington D.C. with her mother Chris, played by Ellen Burstyn, who’s filming a movie there. The pair have just moved to the city at the start of the film and both begin to notice strange things going on in their otherwise seemingly nice new house.

Soon, this strangeness begins to manifest in Regan herself, as she starts to exhibit bizarre and eventually violent behavior. Countless medical and psychological tests prove ineffective, so Chris turns to religion and the work of priest turned psychiatrist Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller, whom she asks to perform an exorcism on Regan.

Damien doesn’t fully believe in the idea of exorcism, but agrees to help after Chris confesses that “Regan” has hurt several people and even killed the director of her film, Burke Dennings. Damien enlists the aid of exorcism expert Lankester Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, and soon discover that Regan is indeed possessed.

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After several attempts to drive the demon out of Regan’s body, Damien eventually forces it to leave her body and enter his; throwing himself out the window to end this madness once and for all. Regan wakes up the next morning with a clean bill of health and no memory of the ordeal as she and her mother drive away to hopefully never have to deal with anything like this ever again. Except they did in multiple sequels.

What Makes The Exorcist Scary

A terrifying still from The Exorcist
A terrifying still from The Exorcist

Also Read: The Exorcist: William Friedkin Made One Major Change to the Ultimate Horror Movie That Was Actually Based on a Scarier Real Life Story 

It’s often been said that the scariest things are the things we can’t see. That true fear relies on not understanding what we’re facing and therefore not knowing how to deal with it. The Exorcist and its director, the late great William Friedkin, understood this concept incredibly well and made sure to leave much of how everything works a mystery.

The demon, though sometimes speculated to be the Devil and identified in later entries as Pazuzu, is never outright named and the film frequently sheds doubt on whether or not true demonic possession is even at play here through moments such as when Damien uses tap water instead of holy water and the effect remains the same. Which then leads you to ask: if it’s not possession, then what is it?

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So much of the film’s tension is built by showing how Regan is clearly in pain but no one knows how to fix it and many don’t seem to care. It creates a sense of frustration, confusion, and anxiety that coupled with the young Linda Blair’s powerhouse performance truly suck the audience into the terror and unease felt by the characters.  Yes, the film does have its more over-the-top and in-your-face scares like the iconic backwards head spin; but the scariest moments in The Exorcist are the more subtly chilling ones, at least for me.

Moments like the Captain Howdy scene at the beginning or when the demon starts speaking as Damien’s mother help illustrate that there isn’t just a monster jumping out at you, but something deeply and insidiously wrong with the world around you. That lack of control is at the heart of what makes possession stories scary and these moments show that The Exorcist is no exception.

What The Exorcist: Believer Can Learn From The Exorcist 

The Exorcist: Believer
The Exorcist: Believer (2023)

The Exorcist: Believer has a lot to live up to and a lot working against it. Even without the bad reputation of the other Exorcist sequels, living up to the legacy of that original film is no easy task. And that’s before factoring in the bad omen of William Friedkin’s recent passing and public disapproval of the project. Oh, and the studio had to push it up a week because the Taylor Swift movie decided to open in its original release slot and you do not mess with Taylor Swift fans.

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With all that said, could The Exorcist: Believer still be good? Possibly. The trailers have made it seem interesting at the very least. But if it wants to properly honor the legacy of the original Exorcist, it should try to remember that the best horror, like that original film, doesn’t shove how scary it is in your face.

I hope Believer remembers to have more subtle moments that really allow the audience to soak in the atmosphere and tension. Create a foreboding sense of dread not through endless jump scares, but through slower, quieter moments that make the bigger scares that much more effective. if The Exorcist found a way to strike that balance fifty years ago, I see no reason why The Exorcist: Believer can’t do it today.

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Written by Callie Hanna

Articles Published: 70

Callie Hanna is an up-and-coming writer, aspiring actor, and full-time nerd. She grew up in a small town in Delaware and was instilled with a love for superheroes, science fiction, and all things geeky from an early age. When she's not catching up with her comically large backlog of movies, games, shows, and comics, Callie can be found working, writing, chatting with friends, or browsing the dying husk of Twitter.