How making The Exorcist was scarier than the movie itself

The iconic filmmaker passed away from heart failure and pneumonia

L'EXORCISTE THE EXORCIST 1973 de William Friedkin Linda Blair William Friedkin sur le tournage d'apres le roman de William Peter Blatty based on the n
William Friedkin with Linda Blair on set of The Exorcist, the director has died aged 87 (Alamy)

In 1973, William Friedkin shocked audiences around the globe with The Exorcist, a horror film that remains iconic to this day thanks to its terrifying storyline and gory nature.

The filmmaker died aged 87 at his Los Angeles home on Monday 7 August, but he leaves behind a lasting legacy as one of the most influential horror auteurs the world has seen.

Read more: Prosthetic makeup that put actors through hell

It follows Regan (Linda Blair), a teenage girl who becomes possessed by a demon after playing with a ouija board and whose mother enlists the helps of priests to exorcise her of said creature, only for things to take on increasingly horrific turns as they attempt to do so.

From spinning heads to profanity-laden demonic rants, The Exorcist has paved the way for the genre for years to come, with sequel Exorcist: The Believer out now in cinemas. While the original film was scary for viewers to watch, the making of the film was not devoid of its own share of horrors.

How the making of The Exorcist was scarier than the film itself

THE EXORCIST 1973 Warner film with Ellen Burstyn
Linda Blair as Regan in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (Alamy)

Friedkin was said at times to be a terrifying presence on set in his own right, sometimes he would slap actors before takes so they would look angry, in others he would shoot a live gun in order to make their shocked expressions seem genuine.

He also insisted the set was refrigerated for the film's exorcism scenes so that the cast's breath was visible on camera, adding to the horrifying nature of the movie.

All of this led to the director being called a "maniac" by actor Ellen Burstyn, per The Independent, who played Regan's mother Chris MacNeil in the horror flick.

The Exorcist  Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow & Jason Miller
Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow & Jason Miller in The Exorcist (Alamy)

The director's unusual tactics aside, when The Exorcist was being filmed there were a number of strange occurrences that happened on set -as well as some that happened afterwards- that has led to the popular belief that the movie was cursed.

One such instance saw the set of the MacNeil home catch fire and burn down with the exception of Regan's bedroom, which was untouched by the flames. It was an uncanny event and led to production being shut down for six weeks.

In the end Jesuit priest Father Thomas Bermingham, who was a technical advisor on the film and also appears in it, agreed to perform a blessing on set as a means of settling apparent malignant spirits after a request from Friedkin.

Max Von Sydow & Linda Blair Film: The Exorcist (USA 1973) Characters: Father Merrin & Regan  Director: William Friedkin 26 December 1973   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of WARNER BROS. and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To WARNER BROS. is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Max Von Sydow and Linda Blair in The Exorcist (Warner Bros.)

In addition, there were a number of crew members who suffered injuries during filming, but the most famous of them happened to Burstyn.

Read more: Actors who were injured on Oscar-winning movies

Burstyn suffered a permanent spinal injury whilst filming a scene where her character was thrown from her daughter's bed, the rigging that she was attached to had pulled on her harder than expected which meant that when she fell on the ground the actor hurt her back severely.

The horrifying scream that Burstyn elicits in this scene was a real reaction to the pain of her injury, and Friedkin kept it in the movie.

In an interview with The Huffington Post in 2014, Burstyn said of the scene: "Billy is one of those directors that is so dedicated to getting the shot right that I think some other considerations sort of fall by the wayside sometimes. He's a brilliant director and I don't want to knock him, however, I did injure my lower back and had to work with it ever since. But it's okay."

The Exorcist  Year: 1973  USA Ellen Burstyn  Director: William Friedkin
Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (Alamy)

Elsewhere there were a total of nine people involved in the film who died either during production or after the film was released, including Blair's grandfather and actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros.

The Exorcist became the first horror film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1973, and though it lost out to The Sting it will continue to be seen as one of the most influential films ever made.

A sequel titled The Exorcist: Believer, directed by David Gordon Green, is out now in cinemas across the UK, but critics have said it pales in comparison to the original.

Watch the trailer for The Exorcist: Believer