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Beelzebub’s Blockbuster: Why ‘The Exorcist’ Terrified Audiences in 1973

‘The Exorcist’ was the Christmas hit that rocked Hollywood. Here’s why audiences in 1973 found the film so scary.
The Exorcist Audience Reaction
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on November 17th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about why William Friedkin’s 1973 horror film The Exorcist was so scary to audiences in 1973.

There are certain films with a reputation that proceeds them; infamous offerings of pop culture of history that radiate a certain ominous energy. This is especially true of the films that caused mass hysteria: fainting spells, ravenous movie theater attendance, and a word of mouth typically reserved for urban legends and local folklore.

The 1992 mockumentary Ghostwatch fooled audiences in a near repeat of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. The cascading tragedies in the wake of The Poltergeist made audiences believe in curses. But few films riled up moviegoers quite like The Exorcist.

William Friedkin‘s 1973 film (which he doesn’t consider a horror film) is frequently cited as the scariest film ever made. The film tells of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), an all-American girl who suddenly adopts an explicit and violent new personality. As her mother (Ellen Burstyn) runs out of rational explanations, she turns to her last hope: an exorcism.

If you grew up in a world where The Exorcist was already a classic and a frequent subject of parody it can be difficult to understand just how scary the film was when it was unleashed on contemporary audiences. Theaters kept smelling salts on hand, audiences set record attendance records in the dead of winter, and new stations tripped over one another to broadcast the madness every step of the way.

The video essay below digs into the film’s wild cultural impact, assembling several clues as to why Friedkin’s film caused such a stir, from keeping Regan’s makeup under wraps to the uneasy cultural mindset of post-Watergate America.

Watch “Why Was ‘The Exorcist So Scary to Audiences of 1973? (No Spoilers)”:

Who made this?

This video essay on how contemporary audiences reacted to The Exorcist is by CinemaTyler. The Brooklyn-based creator has been providing some of the most in-depth analyses of auteur-driven cinema on YouTube for some time now. You can check out their YouTube channel here. CinemaTyler’s scholarship on Stanley Kubrick, particularly 2001: A Space Odyssey, is noteworthy, and absolutely worth seeking out.

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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).