6 Things You Didn’t Know About “The Exorcist”

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Many demons have possessed all manner of unwary dabblers in movie occultism since The Exorcist first scared the bejesus out of moviegoers, but it remains in a class by itself. The movie defied expectations at every turn, casting world-class actors like Oscar-nominee (and later–winner) Ellen Burstyn and Ingmar Berman collaborator Max von Sydow; taking the idea of the Devil dead seriously; and having a sweet, chubby-cheeked child actor say things about a priest’s mother that would make a sailor in a Shanghai whorehouse blush (hint: It’s not “Your mother cuts socks in Hell”). And no matter how much you think you know about this classic movie, here are still some things you don’t.

1. The Exorcist takes place around Halloween.
Although set around the holiday, Halloween is never mentioned or featured in the set decoration. But in one scene actress Chris MacNeill (Ellen Burstyn) is walking near her Georgetown home as pack of costumed children, including one in a classic black witch’s hat, runs by. There’s a subtle suggestion being made about the difference between make-believe scariness—kids playing dress up—and the real horror that will soon possess Chris’ 12-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair).

2. Captain Howdy is only seen once—very briefly.
The chalky-faced, jagged-toothed, red-rimmed eyed face of “Captain Howdy”—the demonic spirit Regan accidentally raises by playing with a Ouija board—is only seen fleetingly, once during Father Karras’s (Jason Miller) nightmare about his mother and again near the end… it’s not a subliminal image, but blink or check your phone at the wrong moment, you’ll miss this haunting vision of evil.

3. The bedroom set was freezing.
The puffs of breath condensing in the air during Regan’s exorcism aren’t a CGI effect (in fact, they didn’t even have CGI back then!): The bedroom set was chilled to below freezing before each take, and as soon as the lights warmed it up, shooting stopped so it could be cooled down again. Those actors were freezing their backsides off for art.

4. Regan desecrated the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Georgetown Church.
There’s no subsequent discussion of the scene in which a priest discovers the white statue smeared with paint and given vulgar clay breasts and male sex organs, but the clay bird she proudly shows her mom is painted same garish (and very ’70s) colors as the sacrilegious embellishments.

5. The holy medal is inscribed “pray for us.”
The holy medal found at during the excavation of an ancient Iraqi city that Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is supervising—a place where it has no historical business being, and in close proximity to a small clay head depicting an “ancient evil” creature—reads “ora pro nobis,” Latin for “pray for us.” It foreshadows the bruising prayer ritual Fathers Merrin and Karras will later endure to free Regan.

6. One of the themes of the movie is given away in the first sentence.
The first words you hear in the movie are “Allahu akbar”—”God is great” in Arabic—part of a call to prayer at the excavation site. Like the holy medal, it underscores the story’s underlying message that good and evil, whatever names people give them, are locked in an eternal war.