How ‘The Exorcist’ Took the Sacred Seriously

Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow in a scene from 'The Exorcist.' (Photo by Screen Archives/Getty Images)

“It’s mostly guys who faint.”

Released 50 years ago in late 1973, The Exorcist had been out for less than a week when theater employees began stockpiling smelling salts for the fainters. A law student at Northeastern told The Boston Globe that four people passed out during a single showing, including a policeman. On the other side of the country, a California theater manager complained: “My janitors are going crazy wiping up the vomit.” 

The Exorcist immediately struck a chord in the culture. The line outside Sack 57 Theater in Boston stretched along Park Square. Critics called it “elegant occultist claptrap” and “spectacular nonsense,” while acknowledging its performances and affirming its deep aftereffects. And it wasn’t just audiences and critics who had thoughts: A well-known psychiatrist called the movie “a menace to the mental health of our community,” and a Jesuit psychologist from Georgetown remarked, “You can’t bring people to God by scaring them to death.”

Three months after director William Friedkin began shooting the film, Pope Paul VI affirmed that “one of the Church’s greatest needs is to be defended against the evil we call the Devil.” The pontiff cautioned that the faithful avoid treating the “malign, clever seducer” as merely “a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes.”

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