Possessed girl, furniture flying, heads literally spinning, priests exorcising a devil, blood spewing, and a mother worried for her daughter’s safety. 

Almost everyone’s heard of The Exorcist. Widely considered the scariest horror film of all time, The Exorcist came out in December 1973, and was directed by William Friedkin and adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name. 

Vomiting and Record-Breaking 

When it came out, audiences who saw the film had some extreme reactions. A 1974 article from the New York Times stated that “a number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings‐on” and that others “fainted, or left the theater, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me. One woman even had a miscarriage, he said.” While some of these statements may be exaggerated, people did vomit. A lot.  

Hearing about the extreme reactions caused by the movie encouraged others to watch the movie as well, particularly young people. 

It was chaos: vomiting, hours-long waits, bribes being paid to jump ahead of lines, and box office records broken. 

The combination of obscenities, blasphemous material, and the level of gore was shocking at the time when such things weren’t so common. It was an entirely new concept and incredibly contrasting to films of its time, which were far less graphic with minimal, if any gore. 

The Exorcist, on the other hand, follows the journey of a young girl, Regan, who starts exhibiting unusual behaviors, which are blamed on medical reasons. However, they soon find out that there’s nothing wrong with her… except that a devil has possessed her, resulting in religious interference and attempts to exorcise her.

It was the first of its kind, and it’s influenced many other horror movies with the now widely used concept of child possession as well as encouraged the use of makeup to completely alter the appearance of people—either with making Regan look possessed and demonic or by making actor Max von Sydow look significantly older for his role of an elderly priest. 

But what about today? Horror movies are a lot more graphic than they used to be, especially with the violence. Watching The Exorcist after having seen the more recent horror movies makes the reactions of the people in the ’70s seem exaggerated even—it’s not that bad, there’s no detailed violence, no jumpscares. 

Comparison to Modern Horror Films 

John Kraisinski’s A Quiet Place (2018), Andrés Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017)— these are some well-known recent horror movies. So how do they compare?

One major difference is the kind of effects used. The Exorcist relied heavily on practical effects, which are special effects made without the use of any digital technology—they’re physically there. Practical effects aren’t as common in modern movies; they’re still used, but now people make many of their effects using digital technology (such as CGI). In The Exorcist, almost everything was done using analog techniques.

The famous head-spinning scene? They used a dummy and added various physical mechanics to the doll to make it seem lifelike.

In a 2008 interview, the director, Friedkin, talks about various effects in the movie. He says about the levitation scene: “Linda (the girl’s actress) was in a bodysuit underneath her nightgown, and there were lots of monofilaments attached to the gown holding her up. She only weighed around 80 pounds at the time. The monofilaments were all attached to a gigantic plate situated above the set and it allowed her to be pulled up by a group of stagehands as if she was levitating… The shadows helped take your eye away from the wires, and even when I went back to the film for a DVD release in 2000, I didn’t have to digitally erase any wires.”

Well, what about modern horror films? 

In A Quiet Place, the filmmakers do make use of some practical effects (such as for a scene where there’s children trying to get out of a corn silo), but the sound-sensitive monsters were made entirely using CGI. A special effects supervisor who worked in the movie states that “as the monster’s attacking the pickup truck, we’re actually making the truck move around, we’re breaking the windows, doing all the stuff the creature would actually be doing to the environment. So the truck is bouncing and getting hit around.”

What they did was create the impact of the creature’s attack physically, but then they digitally inserted the creature into the scene afterward. 

In another well-known horror movie, It, they rely heavily on makeup to give the clown, Pennywise, his appearance. However, there are some grotesque transformations the character undergoes, which are also created digitally. An article from VFX Voice magazine wrote, “Pennywise transforms into an even more grotesque alien form with horrifying tendrils and tentacles.”

Not only do modern horror movies have more advanced digital effects that can aid in making things look more horrifying and lifelike, but they’re also significantly more graphic in multiple aspects, such as violence and language.

At this point, we’re used to seeing gore in movies, especially horror movies, and a LOT of detail in both the violence and the ‘monster’ the film has. It’s an expectation that there’s going to be graphically violent scenes. 

While The Exorcist has blood, it’s nowhere near the sort of extremely graphic and detailed violence that modern films have, whether they create it with makeup, technology, or both. Maybe The Exorcist is the movie that started the tropes of possession, gore, and strong language, but it’s undeniable that horror movies have come a long way and have become far more graphic and realistic. 

So Why Doesn’t it Seem Scary?

When compared to the type of horror films we have now, The Exorcist seems tame rather than frightening. In the ‘70s it was a new concept and it terrified people. 

When compared to the type of horror films we have now, The Exorcist seems tame rather than frightening. In the ‘70s it was a new concept and it terrified people. There were also the realistic aspects of it, such as the medical scenes in the beginning of the film when the girl’s actions were blamed on a medical condition, as well as the mother being scared for her child’s wellbeing, especially when she realizes that her daughter is possessed.

A well-known movie critic, Roger Ebert, wrote in 1973: “The performances are in every way appropriate to this movie made this way. Ellen Burstyn, as the possessed girl’s mother, rings especially true; we feel her frustration when doctors and psychiatrists talk about lesions on the brain and she knows there’s something deeper, more terrible, going on. Linda Blair, as the little girl, has obviously been put through an ordeal in this role, and puts us through one”

Ebert also talks about how, at the time, things such as devils were replaced with medical reasons, so in The Exorcist, the fact that everyone in the film initially believes that there is a medical reason for the girl, Regan’s behaviors, only for her to be possessed and require an exorcism, adds to the audience’s terror.

One scene in particular that had people running out of theaters is when, during a medical examination, they perform an arteriography on Regan (to check her brain), and there’s well… blood. Looking at it now? That’s not bad, right? Well, in the ‘70s when gore wasn’t as common in movies as it is now, this scene in particular had people literally running.

Screenwriter William Peter Blatty, in a NY Post interview, said that “everybody got ill… It’s when they’re giving Regan the arteriogram and the needle goes in the neck and the blood comes out. THAT’S the moment it’s always been.”

The arteriogram scene in The Exorcist would not be out of place in a medical drama today, but this scene gave people the vomits in the ’70s.

In modern times, however, The Exorcist isn’t nearly as explicit as movies now. Graphic gore isn’t limited to horror films either, it goes to all kinds of genres, particularly action and thriller movies. We have some really, REALLY detailed gore now that it’s a norm and an expectation.

There are also some very long scenes of dialogue in The Exorcist. There are medical dialogue scenes, dialogue scenes about the exorcism, and so on.

All this dialogue can seem long considering how some people can’t even watch a few seconds of a TikTok without getting bored, it makes it easy to get distracted so the film seems a bit boring and the psychological horror aspect gets ignored.

Our expectations towards movies, especially horror films, have changed drastically. We expect there to be a lot of violence, curse words, and jumpscares so the older films aren’t as shocking. With high expectations towards seeing graphic material, in the modern age, we wouldn’t react as strongly to The Exorcist as those in the ‘70s, who had far less exposure to explicit imagery and dialogue.

In an article from UNCA’s The Blue Banner, new media major student Emily Parks says “I feel recent movies are starting to rely too heavily on jumpscares and pointless gore to get a reaction out of audiences. Not that using jumpscares and excessive gore means a movie is bad, it really just depends on how it’s used.”

And she’s right, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a lot of shocking details, but it’s one of the things that really sets apart The Exorcist from modern films and even The Exorcist’s sequels, which have evolved to become more graphic, normalizing on-screen violence, explicit language, and jumpscares.

It can help to strengthen a movie’s plot or the seriousness of the issues present, even. But with how we’ve grown so used to such films, the Exorcist doesn’t seem as scary, while in the ‘70s, films were drastically different, so they had to witness something completely new and it garnered completely different reactions then.

Still reading? If you’re a fan of horror, you might want to keep an eye out for these upcoming sequels, some with trailers linked: