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Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

20 Fascinating Facts About The Exorcist

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Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

From Krampus to Santa Claus, the holiday season is filled with all sorts of memorable characters. On December 26, 1973, the studio executives at Warner Bros. added a new kind of yuletide tot into the mix: Regan MacNeil, a demonic tween famous for her distaste for pea soup and unholy attitude toward religious relics. Here are 20 fascinating facts about William Friedkin's groundbreaking horror film.

1. THE EXORCIST IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

William Peter Blatty’s novel is based on the real-life 1949 exorcism of a young boy, known by the pseudonym Roland Doe. The story became national news, and caught the interest of Blatty, who was a student at Georgetown University at the time (hence the change in location).

2. WILLIAM PETER BLATTY WROTE THE NOVEL IN A CABIN IN CALIFORNIA.

In Beyond Comprehension: William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, one of the new featurettes on the 40th edition Blu-ray, Blatty returns to the scene of The Exorcist’s beginning: the cabin in the hills of Encino, California where he wrote the novel more than four decades ago.

3. THE NAME OF THE DEMON IS PAZUZU.

Though it’s never stated in the film, the demon that takes possession of Regan MacNeil has a name: Pazuzu, which is taken from the name of the king of the demons in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. 

4. MERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE PROVIDED THE VOICE OF THE DEMON.

The woman Orson Welles once dubbed “the world’s greatest living radio actress” was hired to provide the voice for Linda Blair’s most demonic moments, a decision that became the source of much controversy when McCambridge was not credited for her performance. Some say that this decision was solely McCambridge’s, who claimed that she didn’t want to take away from Blair’s performance, then later changed her mind. Under the threat of legal action, her name was quickly added to the credits.

5. MCCAMBRIDGE ADOPTED A VERY SPECIFIC DIET TO ACHIEVE THAT RASPINESS.

Sounding like a demon has its downsides. In the case of McCambridge, she believed that chain smoking and a diet of raw eggs and whiskey were the key to a great vocal performance.

6. PIG SQUEALS WERE A KEY PART OF THE SOUND DESIGN.

Much of Regan’s moaning and grunting were created by remixing pig squeals. When the demon is finally exorcised from her body, the sound you hear is a group of pigs being led to slaughter.

7. IT WAS THE FIRST HORROR FILM TO BE NOMINATED FOR A BEST PICTURE OSCAR.

The horror genre has never gotten much love from the Academy. Though there still seems to be a bias against scary movies during awards season, The Exorcist earned 10 Oscar nominations in 1974, including a Best Supporting Actress nod for Linda Blair, who was just 15 years old at the time. Unfortunately, the teenager’s nomination was met with much controversy as word about McCambridge’s contribution to the role spread. 

8. VIOLET BEAUREGARDE WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE ROLE OF REGAN.

Denise Nickerson, who most famously played Violet Beauregarde in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, was in contention for the role of Regan. But then her parents got a hold of the script and, troubled by what they read, pulled her from the production’s shortlist.

9. LINDA BLAIR’S MOTHER LOVED THE SCRIPT.

Ironically, Linda Blair’s agents never even considered her for the role, though they did send the producers more than two dozen other young actresses to consider. It was Blair’s mother who brought her to the attention of the studio’s casting department and Friedkin.

10. BLATTY INSISTED THAT WILLIAM FRIEDKIN DIRECT THE FILM.

Blatty made a smart decision when he sold the rights to his novel, but stayed on as one of The Exorcist’s producers. That way, his opinion would have to matter. And while the studio had its own short list of directors to approach for the gig—Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, and Stanley Kubrick among them—Blatty only had eyes for Friedkin, believing that the film would benefit from a grittier style, similar to what Friedkin had done on The French Connection. When the studio told Blatty that they had hired Mark Rydell for the film, Blatty stood his ground—and won! 

11. MARLON BRANDO WAS THE STUDIO’S FIRST CHOICE FOR FATHER MERRIN.

It was Friedkin who vetoed this decision, believing that any movie starring Marlon Brando would immediately become a “Brando movie,” which would detract from the story at hand. The role eventually went to Max von Sydow.

12. MAX VON SYDOW WAS ONLY 44 AT THE TIME OF SHOOTING.

It took many hours in the chair with makeup artist Dick Smith to age the actor the 30 or so years the role required. Some have even joked that there are scenes in which von Sydow is wearing more makeup than the demonic Regan. Von Sydow’s three-hour daily aging process was achieved with a mix of stipple and liquid latex.

13. JASON MILLER WAS A LAST-MINUTE—ALBEIT INTENTIONAL—SUBSTITION.

There were a few big names being bandied about for the role of Father Karras, with Jack Nicholson in the early mix before Blatty settled on Stacy Keach. But then Friedkin happened to see a performance of That Championship Season, which was written by and starred Jason Miller. Friedkin knew they had found their man and, as he recounts in his new memoir, The Friedkin Connection (part of which is excerpted in the new 40th edition Blu-ray from Warner Bros.), they purchased Keach out and in stepped Miller, in his feature acting debut.

14. THE MOVIE’S MOST FAMOUS IMAGE IS BASED ON A MAGRITTE PAINTING.

The Exorcist’s most iconic image—the one that would eventually serve as its poster and movie box art—is of the moment that Father Merrin arrives at the MacNeil residence and, illuminated by a street lamp, looks up at the home. This image was inspired by René Magritte’s 1954 painting, Empire of Light.

15. “THE EXORCIST STEPS” HAVE REMAINED A POPULAR TOURIST ATTRACTION.

At the end of M Street in Washington, D.C. is where you’ll find one of the film’s location landmarks: a set of stone stairs onto (and down) which Regan “throws” Father Karras from her window, which have come to be known as “The Exorcist Steps.” Rumor has it that on the day of filming the scene in which a stuntman rolled down the steps, Georgetown students who lived nearby rented out their rooftops to the tune of $5 per person so that interested onlookers could get a better view. 

16. THROWING ANYONE DOWN THOSE STAIRS FROM THE WINDOW WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE.

Yes, even for a kid with demonic strength, because, in reality, Regan’s window was located about 40 feet from the top of the stairs. It was a bit of Hollywood magic-making—a.k.a. the addition of a wing built by the production’s set decorators—that made the trajectory of Karras’ untimely tumble seem possible. 

17. MANY OF THE CAST AND CREW MEMBERS BELIEVED THE SET WAS CURSED.

Filming in the U.S. took place in both New York City and Washington, D.C. After a number of eerie incidents on the New York City set, including a studio fire that forced the team to rebuild the sets of the house interiors, Blatty and Friedkin regularly brought in a priest, Father King, to bless the cast, crew, and set when production moved to D.C. By the end of the film’s production, nine people associated with its making had passed away.

18. REGAN PREFERS ANDERSEN’S PEA SOUP.

By now it is well known that the substance Regan projectile vomits onto Father Karras in one of the film’s most famous—and disgusting—scenes is pea soup. But more specifically, it’s Andersen’s pea soup, mixed with a little oatmeal. Campbell’s soup was tried, but the crew apparently didn’t like the effect as much. 

19. JASON MILLER’S REACTION TO BEING COVERED IN SAID PEA SOUP IS AUTHENTIC.

Friedkin was known for sometimes using manipulative tactics in order to elicit the most authentic reactions possible from his actors. Miller was told that the substance would hit him in the chest only; whether that was a lie or the equipment misfired is debated. But Miller’s disgusted reaction is absolutely real. Unsurprisingly, the scene only required one take. 

20. THE EXORCIST MADE A FEW AUDIENCE MEMBERS NAUSEOUS, TOO. 

So many, in fact, that some theaters began handing out The Exorcist barf bags with every ticket. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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