The Exorcism (1973) is one of those classic horror films that is surrounded by Hollywood legend. So much time has passed, four decades and counting, that it has taken on that patina of mythology for younger generations to encounter and be spellbound by. But behind all the hype and marketing manipulation, there was a distinct air of evilness that shrouded the production and its young star, Linda Blair. Few but the devoted fanatics (myself included) know that Linda, a tender-hearted twelve year old when she made the film – would literally go through hell as a result of the film’s impact on popular culture. And she would experience typecasting of the magnitude of Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960).
Linda Blair is one of the most naturally-talented actresses there has ever been. She was a virtual unknown when cast for the role of Regan. And anybody who has seen the film could not possibly imagine anyone in the role but her. William Peter Blatty, the author of the 1971 novel of the same name who adapted his own work and won an adapted screenplay Oscar for his efforts – has said as much in numerous interviews over the years. The novel, once thought impossible to adapt for the screen because of its graphic nature, left everybody wondering whether the film would be an outright catastrophe. The fact that the production was slated for 82 days and ended up being 252 days left everyone at the studio freaking out. But as legend would have it, Director William Friedkin came up with an ingenious way out of poor word of mouth. His solution: start the Hollywood rumor that the production itself was cursed by the devil.
Friedkin was a total tyrant on the Exorcist set. He was not above trickery to get his actors to react in a natural, horrified way. For instance, he built Regan’s bedroom inside a freezer unit so that you could see the actor’s breath when they spoke during the exorcist scenes. This caused the young Linda, dressed on in a thin nightgown, to forever after hate being cold. Ellen Burstyn, playing her mother Chris, suffered a back injury when she was yanked across the room via harness by an overzealous stagehand to effect the devil slapping her. But to be fair, Linda has said that she never suffered any emotional distress as a result of the filming. No, that would come later.
The Exorcist premiered in December 1973 to an unsuspecting public. The film had a massive impact on popular culture, taking the audiences by surprise to such a degree that many fainted, became physically-ill and had to be taken out of the theater to recuperate. The film was graphic in its depiction of a 12-year old girl being possessed by the devil and director Friedkin had pulled no punches. But what pulled off the effect more than the make-up, or the pea-soup vomit, was Linda Blair’s natural talent and ability to portray a possessed child. And boy did she pull it off. So well, in fact, that people came away from watching the movie that she in fact had been possessed by the devil. The suspension of disbelief had been so successful and complete that people thought Linda Blair, 12 year old actress, was the devil incarnate.
The movie-industry reaction was immediate and positive. Linda was the brightest actress to come along in a very long time and she was nominated and won a the 1974 best actress Golden Globe. She was in heaven and sought after by every producer and director in tinseltown. But what she was about to realize (and has been documented in numerous interviews and productions since) was that the worldwide general public was completely freaked out by the movie (which was rumored to include demonic subliminal images) and that her young life would never, ever be the same. The fact that 9 people associated with the movie has lost their lives over the course of the production did not help matters.
In support of the film, Linda was obligated to embark on a worldwide marketing tour for the Exorcist. But what she didn’t realize was that very often people could not tell the difference between that of Regan, her character in the movie, and Linda the young actress. The reaction was immediate and dramatic, with people practically jumping out of their skin at the sight of her. From London to France, Australia to Japan she saw the same reactions from superstitious people who had seen the movie and in turn thought she was possessed by Satan in the flesh.
What followed for young Linda was a hard path back to normalcy. An avid horsewoman, she retreated to the family stables and spent her time away from the public eye. But at the same time she had been firmly bitten by the acting bug and soon secured other, ambitious roles that proved the acting chops she had exhibited in The Exorcist were not a fluke. And Hollywood was only too happy to take advantage of a young, beautiful actress who could handle situations well beyond her years. They exploited her beauty and talent over and over again, in such projects as Born Innocent (1974), a TV movie that dealt with Juvenile Delinquency in the harshest of portrayals ever seen on TV. Infamous for the first-ever lesbian rape scene to be depicted on television, Born Innocent would spark public outcry and cause the networks to backtrack from graphic content shown at a time when young children may still be viewing. The actress herself felt taken advantage of and it would be decades before the film would be shown again with the rape scene intact.
In the subsequent years, Linda would grow into a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing teen. She would taste all there was to savor of the limelight for a young actress exposed to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the heyday of the mid-to-late 1970’s. She dated everyone from Rick Springfield to Rick James, and would appear in the misdirected sequel, Exorcist II (1975). A dreadful remake by any definition, the film co-starred Richard Burton on a bender (or, at least he should have been making this drivel) and was a debacle from the first frame. The only thing Exorcist II did was prove just how classic it’s predecessor was in style, content and execution. Even the beautiful Miss Blair was unable to rise above the celluloid trainwreck. And in some ways, the would-be horror franchise misfire would foretell her own professional and personal misfortunes to come.
Toward the end of the 70’s, Linda would get caught up in an unfortunate drug bust involving cocaine. She would not only be charged with possession but intent to distribute. Linda would plea-bargain and get 5-years probation with a $5,000 fine. She would also have to tour the country and talk to kids about the evil of drugs. But the harshest sentence would come from Hollywood itself. The once bankable star now would be lucky to land B-movie horror vehicles. The extremely talented actress was considered damaged goods and never be able to attain the stature that she once enjoyed at the tender age of 12. It was nearly a death sentence for her career. But she would not let it get her down like so many other child stars. Linda was too talented and too smart. She would play the roles she could get, show a little (or a lot) of skin and survive in the wilds of tinseltown.
But there would always be her fans from The Exorcist, who knew better and could see beyond the roles that Linda had been reduced to playing. Hers is an ardent and loyal fan-base of followers, those who would watch anything she appeared in (guilty pleasures most of them) and root for her to continue her career. And Linda would be able to sustain her sanity, something young stars today should take notice of, working in her chosen profession and all the while giving her fans what they wanted – more Linda Blair. I must admit that I’ve seen my fair share of Linda’s work and there are moments of brilliance from the actress even in the trashiest of B-movie titles.
Linda is a survivor and is healthier than ever today. She’s embraced a completely vegan diet which is more a testament to her love of animals than anything. And she has a foundation to rescue and rehabilitate abused animals. For me, Linda has always been as beautiful inside as she is out. She readily admits to have made her fair share of mistakes but kept her head held high and persevered in an industry where so many have burned out and disappeared completely. And while she’s never been able to recapture the level of fame she enjoyed and then suffered because of The Exorcist, she enjoys the honor of being an integral part of one of the most influential films ever made. After all, The Exorcist was the first horror film ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (the golden statuette would eventually go to The Sting).
I think the film is ultimately a testament to the talent of a young actress to let herself be totally possessed by a role and a director with a pure, albeit often ghastly, vision one of the greatest storylines of all time – the battle between good and evil on earth. And she approached the role as she has a lot of trials and tribulations in her life – with integrity, talent and a lightness of heart that makes me wish she had more opportunities to show us just how amazing an actress she really is. Without her, I believe The Exorcist would not be the classic film experience it is hailed to this day. Beyond horror, it terrified audiences because they cared about Regan, the young protagonist fighting for her life. And as amazing as the make-up effects are (thanks to veteran make-up artist Dick Smith) if it wasn’t for one fearless little girl doing her best behind all the prosthetics to believed a demon could possess a human host, the audience would never have been bedeviled.
Here’s praying you enjoy The Exorcist for sheer entertainment value and marvel at young Linda’s tour de force performance this Hallow’s Eve.