“The Exorcist” Steps

My second favourite movie is “The Exorcist”. One of the must-sees during my trip to Washington, DC was the staircase featured so prominently in the movie. I descended its 75 steps–three sets stacked on top of each other in groups of 25, separated by a small landing–and read the commemorative plaque at the lower level. I then climbed the staircase. Mark and I sat on the concrete clearing at the top of the stairs on Prospect Street and spotted two groups of people also making the same pilgrimage.

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  1. I have a very clear and detailed memory of seeing The Exorcist for the first time. It was during the Christmas holidays in 1973. It was my first of a four-year Film Production program at York University in Toronto. Being serious film students, we were encouraged to see every movie that was out (which were not that many in those days before multiplex theatres). Currently released films were discussed during the lectures, so it was advisable to see them. I was not a fan of horror films, and was reluctant to see The Exorcist, given its already rampant reputation of moviegoers fainting and vomiting in theatres where it already had been shown.

    Toronto was still a very conservative city in those days, and there was much discussion in the papers about whether this film was appropriate for any age, and the idea was also floated that should it become a problem for the city, certain scenes might be cut from future viewings. So, for serious film students and enthusiasts, it became imperative to see it as soon as possible – in case anything was cut in the coming days.

    The Exorcist was playing at Toronto’s University Theatre which was one of the first movie theaters in North America to not only feature 70mm projection, but also a THX Dolby Surround Sound system. It had roughly 1,300 seats (compared to an average of about 200 seats in theatres today), and its wide screen was one of the largest ever installed in the city.

    Not knowing anything about the film, other than that it was about a young girl and an exorcism that practically scared people to death, I was scared to go and see this thing by myself, so I went with a friend who liked horror films.

    On a cold afternoon in late December, we joined the massive line that went all the way to Avenue Road, and north a block from there – several blocks away from the theatre. Most people in line were nervous about going, and joked about the fainting and vomiting stories. Remember, this was within a week of its release, so other than newspaper articles proclaiming that this was the most frightening film to every be released, it was too early to get first-hand accounts from anyone about just how bad the experience was.

    I can’t remember how long we waited in line, at least an hour, maybe two, but because the theatre held 1,300 people it wasn’t a problem getting tickets to the next show when we got to the box office.

    I don’t have to tell you what the film entails. It’s common knowledge now. The religious aspects of the story had no effect on me, not being religious, other than my being amazed that people used to actually do this (exorcisms). The head spinning, projectile vomiting, and levitating bed scenes were frightening, but also, as a film student, fascinating, because, without the use of CGI, there were many discussions (including in class later) about how those scenes were actually filmed.

    However, there was one aspect of that film that absolutely scared the crap out of me, and that I will never forget. And that was the use of sound. On several occasions, a dark, gloomy scene, with dialogue spoken in hushed whispers, suddenly cut to an ear-splitting blood curdling scream, or something similar. Now, think about that happening in THX Dolby Sound coming through massive speakers at very high volume, in a 1,300 seat theatre. That was heart stopping. It became so daunting, that whenever there was another scene of hushed dialogue, I thought, “Oh shit, here it comes!”

    When it was all over my friend and I agreed that scary as it was, we couldn’t understand why anyone would faint or throw up watching it. And as we left the theatre and walked past the long line waiting to go into the next show, we yelled, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” Some people laughed, some looked very worried.

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