Halloween Reigns in Our Town
By October 27, 2015 0 1890•
It’s official, or it will be Oct. 30.
That’s when a coven, you might say, of notables will assemble to honor the “Exorcist Steps” at 36th Street and Prospect Street with speeches and a commemorative plaque.
The plaque marks the site where a horrific, violent scene from one of the most horrific, violent, scary and controversial films ever made was filmed in 1972. It was a scene from “The Exorcist,” adapted from the hugely successful novel of the same name by Georgetown University graduate William Peter Blatty and directed by Hollywood hotshot William Friedkin.
In the scene, a disturbed young priest, participating in a particularly gruesome exorcism of a young girl in a Georgetown house, throws himself out a Prospect Street window and down the steps — a sacrificial act to save the girl from demonic possession.
Ever since, of course, the steps have been known as the Exorcist Steps, and G.U. students, tourists and visitors from around the world flock to them. Built around 1896 as part of the massive and iconic Car Barn building and next to a retaining wall, the steps connect Prospect and M Streets. The ritual — and it is a ritual, if not quite as potent as an actual exorcism — is a year-round phenomenon, even more popular in this age of selfies, no doubt.
The commemoration is being coordinated by Andrew Huff, together with the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Dupont Festival, as well as the office of Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, where Huff once worked as an aide. He will be joined by Friedkin at the top of the steps at 4 p.m.
The plaque dedication — with William Peter Blatty on hand — will be held at 6 p.m. at the bottom of the steps, followed by an invitation-only screening of “The Exorcist” at the AMC Loews Georgetown. Presumably, there will be no reenactment of Father Damien Karras’s demise.
The event, it should be noted, is being held one day before Oct. 31, also known as Halloween.
Which is just about the biggest thing in the whole world, especially in Georgetown, where dark hordes and hosts of young adults — and people of all ages who like to dress up — will descend into the streets, funneling through Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in full regalia.
Georgetown is not the only place where Halloween celebrations — costume walks, partying and daytime and evening trick-or-treating with kids — is a big deal in the city, what with an annual High Heels Drag Queen Race in Dupont Circle, events at cemeteries and festivities in many neighborhoods (see calendar).
Halloween is an inexplicably huge boost to the economy nationwide, in good times and bad. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend $7 billion on Halloween gizmos and goods of all kinds: $2.5 billion on costumes — including $900 million on costumes for pets — and nearly $4 billion on candy and decorations.
Be that as it may, you can trace the origins of Georgetown’s spooktacular in the streets to the 1970s, both to “The Exorcist” and its attendant steps and to restaurant and club entrepreneur Michael O’Harro, who began throwing costume and Halloween-themed parties at his pioneering disco establishment Tramps and then at Champions Sports Bar. This is Halloween for grown-ups, something singles bar king O’Harro said he learned going to parties at the Playboy Mansion. One Halloween crowd in 1985 reportedly totaled 150,000 in and around Wisconsin & M.
It’s equally fair to say that the residual fame from the “Exorcist” film shoot in Georgetown, complete with movie stars, movie folks and scenes shot around the university, may have spurred a trend toward the embrace of Halloween as an occasion to socialize and party — big time — as opposed to trick-or-treating. Certainly, the huge success of the film made Georgetown a cool place to be on Oct. 31. Whatever the reason, there came a time when young adults in costume started streaming in en masse, dressed up in line with popular movies, shows and music, from “Thriller” to “Star Wars” to “Gremlins.”
People took notice. Georgetown at Halloween had become, in today’s parlance, a thing, much to the consternation of older local residents who viewed the development with disdain. The practice persists today, if in a somewhat more controlled and organized fashion.
What also persists is the local impact of “The Exorcist.” Many Georgetowners — including the editor-in-chief of The Georgetowner — remember the October 1972 filming (see sidebar).
The movie itself was a high-end, Hollywood production for which Blatty — until then known more as a screenwriter of comedies (“The Pink Panther”) — penned the screenplay. With “The Exorcist,” Friedkin became one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, having preceded it with “The French Connection,” which had won him an Oscar.
The cast was an eclectic crew. Ellen Burstyn, as the actress whose daughter (Linda Blair) undergoes an exorcism, was rising as a serious actress, culminating in an Oscar for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Blair would do a sequel (“The Heretic” with Richard Burton), but never became a big star. Max von Sydow, an alumnus of high-minded Ingmar Bergman movies, played Father Merrin, the frail priest who first encounters the demon in Iraq. Jason Miller, also a gifted playwright (“That Championship Season”) was the troubled Father Karras. The great and aging actor Lee J. Cobb (“Death of a Salesman,” “On The Waterfront”) took on the role of a classic, gruff police detective. Oh, and there was Mercedes McCambridge (“All the King’s Men,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Giant”), supplying the voice of the demon.
On its most serious level, “The Exorcist” was about a crisis in faith, believing in God and the devil (or not). But, in the end, it was its more thrilling and scary — if unappetizing — aspects like spinning heads, green bile, a sexual act with a crucifix and an unrelenting intensity that made it a blockbuster. We don’t even want to mention which sex act your mother was supposed to be doing in hell.
For Blatty, now in his eighties, there were other books, but none as financially or critically rewarding. “Legion” was the basis for “The Exorcist III,” starring George C. Scott, also partially filmed in Georgetown. Friedkin’s career from that point was a mixed bag (“Cruising” and “To Live and Die in L.A.,” for example). He did marry well: Jeanne Moreau and former 20th Century Fox studio head Sherry Lansing, among others.
On Oct. 30, the 75 steps will become an official Georgetown icon. The next night, there will be the usual thousands of suspects, a goblin here, a Trump there, the Kardashians and maybe all the Avengers and their nemeses. But the ghosts of the book and the movie are clearly in Georgetown for keeps.
No need to say boo.