The Film or the Set, Which Was Scarier?!

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

Who doesn't love a classic tale of demonic possession? The simple premise of an evil-being taking over your body is a terrifying nightmare that filmmakers have been exploiting for years.

However, it seems like things often go wrong during the making of many possession movies. Weird, unexplained events have the tendency to occur throughout production. Are these sets haunted? Could the stories evoke the presence of a demonic soul? You decide.

The iconic possession film that sparked a long living concept, which has taken the horror genre by storm- The Exorcist.

And of course, spoilers ahead!

The set was destroyed in a fire! Except one room...

Filming was delayed by 6 weeks because the set for the MacNeil's house caught on fire one night. The flames engulfed the entire location, except Regan's bedroom... Which if you didn't know, is where the actual exorcism scenes took place.

William Friedkin, the director, blamed the fire on a pigeon who found it's way into a circuit box. While obviously we all would like to believe that to be true, it's been long thought the idea of that fire leaving Regan's room unscathed was too good to be a coincidence. Many people (Including myself) believe it could have been something darker... Something much more sinister.

An incident with the special effects caused permanent spinal damage to one of the actresses.

In one scene, the possessed Regan (played by Linda Blair) mutilates herself, and her mother (played by Ellen Burstyn) runs to her to try to stop it, but is thrown backwards by the demon.

Burstyn was rigged with a harness and wires to pull her backwards for this shot. At one point she told the director that the stuntman was pulling her to the floor too hard, and while she knew it needed to look realistic, she was afraid she would get hurt.

Initially Friedkin told the man not to pull so hard, but Burstyn believes he may have told the man differently later on, because she was pulled so violently that she slammed onto the floor and permanently injured her spine. Ouch.

The back injury did cause a very real reaction from Burstyn when she screamed in pain, and that take was used in the final cut of the film. It also delayed production even more because she had to recover for a bit before she could continue.

Burstyn wasn't the only cast member to get a spinal injury during filming.

Linda Blair also suffered a spine injury from the same kind of system that caused Burstyn's permanent damage. Blair's injury was caused by being thrown from the bed due to a broken piece of rigging. The incident resulted in a small fracture that later developed into scoliosis.

The Vomit Misfire

The special effects in this movie went wrong a few times. While this one didn't result in any injuries, it was... vile!

When Regan projectile vomits on Father Karras, played by Jason Miller, it was supposed to hit him in the chest. Unfortunately for Miller, the plastic tube rigged up to Linda Blair's chest misfired, and the vomit ended up spewing into the face instead. This ended up being another scene where they got a genuine reaction from the actor!

Luckily the vomit was made from a mixture of pea soup and porridge, but it probably still wasn't pleasant!

Death seemed to follow those involved.

Ellen Burstyn claimed that nine people passed away during the making of the film.

Linda Blair's grandfather and Max Von Sydow's (Father Merrin) brother both past away during the filming of the movie. As if that was not heavy enough, the assistant camera man's baby died at birth.

There are also mentions of the death of a special effects specialist, a nightwatchman, and the janitor who cleaned the building where the set was, though there don't seem to be many details about these three deaths.

Two of the actors, Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings) and Vasiliki Maliaros (Father Karras' mother), died while the film was in post-production. Oddly enough, both of their characters died in the film, as well.

Jason Miller's son was nearly killed around the time of filming, when he was hit by a motorcycle.

One of the extras, Paul Bateson, was a murderer. Though he didn't kill anyone connected to the film, the X-ray technician was convicted of one murder in 1977 - 5 years after The Exorcist was released - and spent 24 years in prison. He was also suspected of 6 other killings, but was never convicted.

The director asked a real priest to exorcise the set.

A priest did come to the set, and while he did not perform an actual exorcism, he did bless the set. And according to reports, it worked! Nothing seemed to go wrong after that, and all the strange occurrences stopped.

Based on a True Story...

Perhaps the scariest part of the story, is that it was based on real events that took place in Maryland in 1949.

A 14-year-old boy known as Roland Doe or Robbie Mannheim - now believed to be Ronald Hunkeler by many - was living in Maryland with his family. As an only child, Roland/Robbie/Ronald relied on the adults of the house for playmates, especially his aunt Harriet. It was his aunt who introduced him to the Ouija board...

Things started to get weird for the family following Harriet's death. Furniture moving by itself, strange noises, objects levitating around Roland, you know, typical teenager stuff. Eventually Roland's parents decided to bring their son to see their pastor who had an interest in "parapsychology." This pastor urged the parents to seek a Catholic priest after having Roland stay with him overnight for observation.

Roland apparently began going through a series of exorcisms after that. During one he is said to have slipped his wrists out of restraints and broken a bed spring to use as a weapon, slashing the priest preforming the exorcism on the wrist.

There have been many books written about this story, including the 1971 novel The Exorcist that the movie is based on. Some accounts are certainly more, um, thrilling than others.

Whether or not the boy was actually possessed - and not just suffering from some kind of mental illness - is a topic that I'm sure will be debated for a long time to come.

This is just some of the crazy stuff that went on during the making of The Exorcist. I didn't even get into the carpenter who cut off his thumb (accidentally), the lighting technician who lost a toe, or any of the unlucky things that happened while they were filming in Iraq.

If you haven't seen The Exorcist, go rent it!

So what do you think? Which was scarier, the film or the set?

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