They are known as the “Exorcist Steps” — a steep, narrow and dark flight of some 75 stone steps that were built in 1895 just off Prospect and 36th Streets NW near Georgetown University, next to an old brick trolley-car storage building called the Car Barn. They descend to M Street across from the entrance to Key Bridge.
On Nov. 15, the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board will consider an application to make the Exorcist Steps a historic landmark, similar to but not on par with the presidential and war memorials.
Over the years, the steps have taken on a scary, even evil persona. That’s because they were the site of a staged death of a priest trying to save a little girl (played by Linda Blair) from demonic possession in the 1973 horror movie “The Exorcist.” In 2015, they were designated an official D.C. tourist attraction — perhaps the District’s scariest — by Mayor Muriel Bowser. A plaque at the site notes its key role in the Halloween favorite.
If the Exorcist Steps are approved for historic landmark status, then any proposed demolition of or alteration to the steps or the retaining wall next to them would require mayoral approval.
The timing is significant. The demolition of the long-existing Exxon station and construction of a new high-end condo building offering river and bridge views have begun on the lot just adjacent to the steps on M Street. The 21-unit, five-story building from D.C.-based developer Altus Realty Partners is set to open in late 2019.
The retaining wall and the Exorcist Steps appear to remain intact on the condo renderings and plans. But “Exorcist” fans and neighbors worry.
“Of the utmost importance is what could happen to the iconic Exorcist steps and the historic retaining wall next to them. So far, we have not felt that the various entities involved in reviewing any development have given a thorough and prudent review to these outstanding issues,” wrote Prospect Street Citizens Association board member Catherine Emmerson in an emailed statement.
“Our group has long been concerned with any ongoing development activity at 3601 M St., NW. It is our hope that raising awareness about these issues will preserve the Exorcist steps and the retaining wall for all to enjoy for decades to come. It’s too important a fixture in Georgetown to be rubber stamped by another development-friendly bureaucracy without weighing all the facts.”
Another potential conflict is in sight. The Car Barn next to the stairs was named in a 2016 study as a potential site of the landing of a gondola line between Georgetown and Rosslyn, Virginia.
“I just hope there aren’t any improvements made to the steps,” commented Andrew Huff, one of the film’s superfans, who organized the commemoration of the steps in 2015. “[The steps] are this marriage of sorts between two things I love — my city and horror movies,” he said. “I wouldn’t do anything to them. They’re very foreboding.”
After a plaque officially designating the spooky staircase as the Exorcist Steps was unveiled by Bowser, there was a screening of the movie with director William Friedkin in attendance.
“It is important that all the tourists know exactly what these steps mean to D.C. history and they are indeed an icon in our town,” said Bowser at the time. “It is also a marker for us to put in the ground to say that we are going to double and redouble our efforts to make D.C. a film town.”
Many in the community now find the staircase is useful for workouts, with runners often sprinting up and down to strengthen their legs. Some compete for how many times they can run up and down the staircase in an hour.