At only 13, Linda Blair terrified viewers with her believable portrayal of the demon-possessed Regan MacNeil in the nightmare-inducing film, The Exorcist. Chock full of controversies, Blair disappeared from the spotlight after her award-winning performance left her head spinning.

Along with its religious theme that rattled the church, the horrifying storyline of The Exorcist–emphasized by bone-chilling demonic imagery–also shook cast and crew members who despite a blessing from a Jesuit priest, were plagued by injury and death.

Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist is the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel of the same name, a story that was inspired by a real-life exorcism in 1949.

Released in 1973, The Exorcist is a horror movie that tells the story of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil whose unusually erratic and violent behavior raises a concern.

Her mother, played by Ellen Burnstyn, seeks medical attention and when that fails, she looks to Father Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller, a Jesuit priest who confirms that Regan is being possessed by an evil spirit. To free Regan from the demons’ grasp, Karras pleads with the Catholic Church to perform an exorcism.

Despite the controversial content of the film, The Exorcist was a box office hit, and receiving multiple awards–including Oscars for Best Sound and Best Screenplay, along with four Golden Globe Awards–the supernatural horror still holds the spot for the second highest-earning R-rated horror film of all time.

It was the first major film role for Blair, whose chilling performance launched her into superstardom. Starting her career as a child model, Blair appeared in print ads and TV commercials, with credits like Ivory Soap, Welch’s Grape Jelly and Carefree Gum by the time she was only five.

As a young teen, Blair considered giving up acting to pursue a career that involved animals.

But the temptation of the starring role in The Exorcist was too much to resist.

When auditioning for the role, Friedkin instantly identified the newcomer as the perfect fit and selected her over thousands of others to play Regan.

Though it was her first major role, Blair was never coddled and expected to perform physically demanding tasks that were uncomfortable and oftentimes dangerous.

Filmed in the 1970’s, when special effects weren’t powered by technology, people were required to act out demanding parts, leaving them vulnerable to injury and illness.

In the exorcism scene–when a possessed Father Karras tumbles down the infamous steep steps to his death–a stunt man actually hurled himself down 97-steps that are featured at the end of the film.

Blair didn’t have to toss herself down any steps but the straps that held her to the bed, where she was thrashed around, dug into her back, and her bedroom, built on wheels allowing the room to actually shake, was kept at a temperature of 30 below zero so the cameras could pick up the cloud of ice when an actor breathed.

While the rest of the crew was dressed appropriately, Blair was wearing only a nightgown.

The challenges were felt by everyone on the set.

The set of The Exorcist seemed cursed and had an extensive list of tragedies and deaths related to production.

In the book, “The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist,” special effects innovator Marcel Vercoutere–the man who made Blair’s head spin–said, “There was definitely a feeling it (something bad) could happen. I felt I was playing around with something I shouldn’t be playing around with.”

One of the most bizarre incidents was when a bird flew into a lightbox, sparking a massive fire, which burned down the entire set where Regan’s exorcism was to take place. Production was stalled six weeks while the set was rebuilt.

The day before the fire, Friedkin asked technical advisor Thomas Bermingham–a Jesuit priest who guided Blatty on his book–to exorcise the set. Stating there was not enough evidence to perform a real exorcism, he instead blessed the entire cast and crew.

Still tragedy continued to strike production. Jack MacGowran, who played Regan’s first victim Burke Dennings in the film, died after getting influenza. Vasiliki Maliaros, the actress playing Father Karras’ mother, also died before the movie was released. What’s really disturbing is that both of their characters die in The Exorcist.


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