When ‘The Exorcist’ Came to Town

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On 36th Street, 1972: Actress Ellen Burstyn, playing Chris McNeil, and director William Friedkin of "The Exorcist.

During October 1972, “The Exorcist” filmed on location at Georgetown University for a week, part of a stay of about 20 days in and around Washington, D.C. William Peter Blatty, author of the 1971 novel on which he based the screenplay, and a 1950 graduate of the college, who heard of a possessed boy from Mt. Rainier, Md., and of attempts at exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital and in St. Louis, Mo., that occurred in the late 1940s.

For the film, Georgetown students were recruited for various crowd scenes. Nuns in traditional habit were seen walking along 37th Street (not a common sight then as well as now) and Jesuit priests and professors were used as extras. Neighbors also got some bit parts. One 35th Street resident, Emerson Duncan, who routinely walked his two Scottish terriers nearby, was asked if his dogs could be used as extras. He himself was ruled out; he looked too much like an actor.

Along with director William Friedkin, actors and crew worked inside and in front of Healy Building, where a student protest was part of the film within a film.

Other campus locations included Healy Circle, the Quadrangle, the facade of Dahlgren Chapel, Kehoe Field and the Lauinger Library steps, which one of the priest walked down in the fog during a spooky scene.

Elsewhere, the Mule Bridge over the C&O Canal was used, as was the courtyard of Christ Church on O Street. Other shots showed actress Ellen Burstyn walking along 36th Street to her home across from 1789 Restaurant. That famous house at 3600 Prospect St. NW was given a fake addition extending east towards the now-famed Exorcist Steps so that the window from which the priest jumped would be close enough for his fatal fall.

When the shoot was being set up for the fatal tumble down the steps, between the possessed girl’s house and the Car Barn, enterprising students monitored the gate to the Car Barn rooftop and charged admission for anyone who wanted to enter and watch from above.

“The Exorcist” premiered the day after Christmas, Dec. 26, 1973 — and, yes, all hell broke out. Some moviegoers fainted, vomited or ran from the theater. Some religious leaders proclaimed that the novel and film conjured up demonic forces.

A few years later, Rev. Robert Henle, S.J., president of Georgetown University during the 1972 filming, told editors of the student newspaper, the Georgetown Voice, that he regretted allowing the production on campus.

While Henle may have disliked any negative image the film might have given of the university, the steps are now a Georgetown must-see attraction — and a favorite of walkers and runners. For those so inclined, they are also the perfect spot to meditate upon the deeper meaning of “The Exorcist.”

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