While I love The Exorcist and watch it at least once a year—wherever Penderecki is booming from big speakers, I’ll be there—I’m unable to see it without thinking about hype, suggestibility and mass hysteria. Most promotional campaigns for horror movies are more or less artful variations on the tagline Dudley Moore’s ad man comes up with in Crazy People: “It will fuck you up for life!” Rumors of a cursed set, damned celluloid and occult frames were for The Exorcist what $1,000 life insurance policies were to William Castle’s Macabre. Since its release, the movie has benefited from the outsize expectations first-time viewers bring to it.
When I was growing up, I regularly heard The Exorcist cited not only as the scariest movie ever made, but as the legitimate exemplar of subliminal techniques in filmmaking. The first time I saw the movie (on VHS), I remember noticing that at least some of these subliminal images I had heard so much about, the ones that had supposedly been engineered to make you puke and cry from abject terror, were plainly visible to the naked eye when the tape played at normal speed; seemed pretty superliminal to me. If you’re aware that you just saw a flash cut of a ghoulish face, is it your unconscious mind that’s being manipulated, or your fear of subliminal editing?
The widespread belief that the movie used modern techniques of mind control probably had more to do with the reaction it provoked in audiences than anything William “Fuck them where they breathe” Friedkin did in the editing room. As with The Blair Witch Project, an inferior movie similarly hyped, audiences were primed for terror by hyperbolic news reports and hours standing in line, anticipating the most traumatizing experience modern media could deliver.
Below, in local news footage, audiences at the original theatrical run of The Exorcist wait for hours to buy tickets. There is much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth among those exiting the theaters. An usher describes the crackups he’s seen, and some moviegoers step into the lobby to get some air mid-screening. Smelling salts are requested.
In other words, it’s a pop sensation! What’s more reminiscent of The Exorcist than the shrieks, sobs and streams of urine that greeted matinee performances by Frank Sinatra and the Beatles?