Georgetown Possessed by Halloween and ‘The Exorcist’

Georgetown has always exhibited a spirit of Halloween with its stories of haunted houses and apparitions, but it really came into its own as a Halloween spooktacular in the last half century.

For me, as a Georgetown University student, I witnessed some of the filming of “The Exorcist” on campus and have lived in Halcyon House (supposedly haunted) — and been one of those costumed bar hoppers years ago. So, you can see how I might feel possessive about Halloween. 

One can point to the filming of “The Exorcist” exactly 50 years ago this month at Georgetown University and nearby streets. While the production work was only for a couple of weeks, its impact is still felt today. The timeless movie remains thrilling and horrifying, and the Exorcist Steps at 36th Street are an official tourist attraction.

Those 75 steps led movie character Father Damien Karras to his death as he saved young Regan MacNeil from her demon. There was a plaque placed in October 2015 at the base of the steps near M Street that recognizes the Exorcist Steps as a Washington, D.C., landmark and their importance to the city and film history. On hand for the unveiling were writer William Peter Blatty, director William Friedkin and Mayor Muriel Bowser. 

Starting in the 1970s, restaurant and club entrepreneur Michael O’Harro began throwing costume and Halloween-themed parties at his pioneering disco establishment Tramps and then at Champions Sports Bar. This was Halloween for grown-ups. One Halloween crowd in 1985 reportedly totaled 150,000 in and around the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW.

Add this to the already ongoing tradition of Halloween-costumed bar hoppers, the ever more elaborate home decorations and more children trick-or-treating, and one can see how Georgetown is possessed by Halloween. 

The crazy crowds in the street at Wisconsin & M may no longer be permitted, and the practice persists today, if in a somewhat more controlled and organized fashion, of costumed sidewalk strollers. The holiday has also been reclaimed by families — with more Instagramable decorations in front of homes and parties for young children in the late afternoon (not night). And people spend a lot of money on this holiday.

Halloween continues to play an outsized role in Georgetown’s culture. Photo by Chris Jones.

According to the National Retail Federation, participation in Halloween-related activities will resume to pre-pandemic levels, with 69 percent of consumers planning to celebrate the holiday this year, up from 65 percent  in 2021 and comparable to 68 percent  in 2019. Total Halloween spending is expected to reach a record $10.6 billion, exceeding last year’s record of $10.1 billion.

Muahaha! Photo by Chris Jones.

Halloween may seen calmer to those of us who can recall the crazy ways of the ’70s and ’80s, but its spooky remainders are all around. The spirit of the place is powerful, and that is the point. There are chilling stories to tell and re-tell — and many more yet to be written.

For more on The Exorcist Steps and various “haunts” around town, see our recent “Ghost Tours of Georgetown” story here.



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