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What The Banned Trailer for ‘The Exorcist’ Can Teach Us About Our Tolerance for Terror

Nightmare fuel or experimental masterpiece? You decide.
The Exorcist Banned Trailer
By  · Published on April 9th, 2020

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Sitting pretty in 2020, it can be difficult to imagine the cultural phenomenon that was the premiere of The Exorcist. Upon its release, the hype surrounding the film was unprecedented: reports of fainting, headaches, and whispers (from the film’s marketing team) of a curse.  In addition to its ten Oscar nominations (and two wins — unprecedented for a horror film), The Exorcist was a runaway hit. And the film’s taboo qualities certainly played a large part in its becoming a part of the national conversation. Today, we all know that much of the “hysteria” surrounding The Exorcist was, in reality, egged on and weaponized by the studio to sell the movie. Who doesn’t want to check out a film that requires a barf bag?

News spots showcasing wide-eyed audience reactions can certainly give us a sense of what it was like during that electric opening weekend. But nothing hits the spot quite like the film’s banned trailer, which offers evocative evidence of the lengths the studio was willing to go to endow the film with a lucratively forbidden flavor. The trailer, which features black and white dissolving flashes of the faces of Linda Blair‘s Regan and the demonic Pazuzu (Eileen Dietz), was ultimately withheld by Warner Brothers for being, get this, too scary. Allegedly, the trailer caused some members of the test audience to vomit. Color us intrigued.

It’s worth remembering that horror in the 1970s had a different landscape than the modern standard of jumpscares, quick cuts, and shaky cams. So before you scoff, remember that “popular horror” at the time — Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby — was a lot more measured and slow-burning. In that context, it’s totally plausible that the jittery staccato of the banned trailer would have been received as an offputting shock, and that it’s removal from circulation was a wise choice.

At your own risk, watch the banned trailer for The Exorcist here (TW: epilepsy):


Who made this?

“It’s the best trailer ever made about The Exorcist,” director William Friedkin tweeted. In the thread, the director confirms the trailer was created by The Exorcist‘s editor, Bud Smith, with music by renowned composer Lalo Schifrin, who created the film’s unused score (which, rumor has it,  Friedkin literally threw out the window). Speaking to Score Magacine, Schifrin explains: “The truth is that it was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life…the trailer was terrific, but the mix of those frightening scenes and my music…scared the audiences away.” You’ve got to ease ’em in slow, it seems. Then you break out the angiography.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).