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The shocking reactions to 'The Exorcist' premiere, 1973


When it comes to popular media, the 1970s was a far more innocent time. In America, despite the horrors of the Vietnam war overseas, nudity was still considered taboo and shocking on public television screens and the slasher-movie phenomenon of the 1980s was yet to let true gore and depravity spill onto cinema screens worldwide. As a result, in a similar way to which audiences ran from The Arrival of a Train in 1896, in 1973 people fainted, experienced anxiety and even reportedly suffered heart attacks from The Exorcist

“It’s something I never saw in my whole entire life. It’s something different, and I went to a lot of movies but I’ve never seen anything like this myself.” A police officer reports his review of the film in an interview conducted in 1973, echoing the thoughts of general audiences across the world. In a contemporary landscape where the images and ideas depicted in the film are now commonplace in popular culture, it’s easy to forget quite how radical they were in the 1970s. It was so popular in fact that it’s one of the few films to leak into the cultural zeitgeist, elevated from a simple piece of blasphemous horror to a cultural monolith, marking a turning point in desensitised media and industry marketing.  

Even as recently as 2018, upon the release of Hereditary, The Exorcist’s long-lasting brand on the industry is felt, as Ari Aster’s film was donned ‘Possibly The Most Terrifying Film Since The Exorcist’. Upon the film’s release, it created a touchstone for the grisly standard of all other horror films, especially for a generation scarred by its existence. Suddenly the boundaries of what would be accepted and deemed ‘horrifying’, ‘shocking’ and ‘depraved’ were blown wide open, making way for Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 and the slasher period which would soon follow.

The Exorcist became more than just a film, engulfing popular culture to become an event people would be curiously, almost reluctantly drawn too. Fear and repulsion began to be packaged as a fun commodity, with “Exorcist barf bags” being handed out in particular cinemas, joining countless other myths and legends about the film. Ultimately, it’s one of the finest examples of viral marketing, preceding The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity many decades later. 

Thriving off particular audience reactions in this groundbreaking trailer, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity owes its existence to The Exorcist. Film historian William Paul noted that Friedkin’s film “had become a spectacle equal to the film”, citing a cartoon in which a cinema sells tickets to the people who wish to watch the audience. This concept would no longer seem so farcical…