Watch: Mass hysteria, faintings post The Exorcist screenings in 1973

  • Rohan Naahar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 02, 2015 16:02 IST

The Exorcist changed the game for horror movies when it opened to record-breaking numbers back in 1973.

In a pre-Spielberg and Star Wars era, director William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel became a true cultural phenomenon, earning $440 million in 1973 money (more than $2 billion in adjusted currency).

And now, YouTube users, historycomestolife and Behind The Exorcist have unearthed a treasure in the form of videos from the very first screenings of the film.

Prepare yourself for some pea-soup puking because the videos are a treat. They’re supremely edited with a brilliant newsreel vibe. They transport you to an era familiar to many only through the movies, an era that’s just witnessed massive change through the Vietnam War and the freewheeling hippie culture, an era on the cusp of the new Hollywood movement.

It feels like you’re in one of those classic 70’s flicks, many of which were directed by William Friedkin, as audiences wait in queues, braving the elements, only to find that yet another screening has been sold out.

We can sense the anticipation in the crowd as they wait to finally experience what everyone’s been talking about. Remember, this was a time before spoilers could be posted on Twitter. It almost makes you wish you’d experienced some of today’s biggest movies armed with only a trailer and an innocent sense of wonder at the magic that could potentially happen in the dark environs of a movie theatre.

Once the audiences have finally seen the movie, we get to actually witness what all the fuss was about. We, as a modern audience, have been almost completely desensitized to gore and violence. But not these folks. We see them emerge from the theatre visibly shaken, some having left mid-way. Some appear to be dizzy, some just rattled at what they’ve seen; a few actually fainted. An usher assures us he was prepared, giving us a detailed plan he’s come up with to deal with fainters. He had smelling salts and little pellets on hand for just an occasion. ‘I hold it under their nose and they come to’, he says, with great importance.

A priest appears, lamenting that he is extremely depressed by it all, as others complain about racing hearts breathlessly. We see a man dismiss the film with great bravado as his partner lies, catatonic, with her head buried in her hands on a couch. Another man refuses to admit he was scared, but for the life of him, can’t understand why he fainted. What makes this story all the more enjoyable is the knowledge that most of these people left before seeing the iconic head-rotation scene (the infamous spider-crawl, interestingly, was not a part of the original theatrical cut and was included later).

The short documentary ends with an interview of Friedkin and Blatty, conducted by a priest as they debate whether the film deserves to be called a masterpiece. The Exorcist is perhaps the most influential horror film in the history of cinema. It starred Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair. These videos are a welcome reminder of just how amazing the film was, even if it doesn’t really hold up on the scares department: it’s still The Exorcist. We wouldn’t be where we are today without it.

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