Fire, Death & A Curse: The True Story Behind 'The Exorcist'

Aug. 8 2017, Updated 12:25 p.m. ET

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Terrifying and groundbreaking in equal measures, director William Friedkin's 1973 classic The Exorcist coupled what were extravagant special effects for its time with the feeling of a pared-down production to create a stunningly disturbing film that influenced dozens of horror hits in the years that followed.

Starring 13-year-old Linda Blair as the demonically possessed Regan MacNeil, the film became an instant box-office hit — despite outrage from religious groups who believed it glorified Satan. Televangelist Billy Graham even blasted, "There is a power of evil in the film, in the fabric of the film itself."

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Here, Radar reveals some of the long-hidden secrets behind one of the scariest movies ever made.

"The Exorcist," and the 1971 novel of the same name on which the film was based, was inspired by a true story: the 1949 exorcism of a young boy known by the pseudonym Ronald Doe. At the time, future novelist William Peter Blatty was a student at Georgetown University, which is why he set his story in Washington, D.C., near the college's campus.

Friedkin never thought he was making a frightening film. "I know that it is considered by a great many people as a horror film," he says. "I've never thought of it that way and I didn't approach it that way. It's a story about the mystery of faith."

Linda was chosen for the part of 12-year-old Regan from nearly 600 girls, but she wasn't sent by an agent to audition — she was brought to the Warner Bros. casting department by her mom!

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Also considered for the shocking role were Denise Nickerson — who played Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory — and Anissa Jones — who starred in TV's Family Affair as Buffy — but both girls were rejected for being too familiar to the public. The producers wanted an unknown actress.

Friedkin had first intended to use Linda's electronically altered voice for Pazuzu — the profanity-spewing demon who inhabits helpless Regan — but decided the evil spirit needed more dramatic power than that would offer.

Oscar-winning star Mercedes McCambridge was tapped to dub Pazuzu's dialogue. Mercedes, who won the Best Supporting Actress statue for her work in 1949's "All the King's Men," had once been called "the world's greatest living radio actress" by the legendary Orson Welles.

To roughen her voice for the role, Mercedes insisted on swallowing raw eggs, chain smoking and drinking whiskey — despite being a recovering alcoholic. Friedkin also arranged to have the actress bound to a chair during takes, so her voice would more accurately reflect that of the struggling demon.

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Linda received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Exorcist  before it became common knowledge that Mercedes had voiced Pazuzu — but when the news leaked, the controversy likely ruined Linda's chance of winning the coveted honor.

That wasn't the only drama surrounding Mercedes' involvement in the film. She wasn't initially acknowledged in the movie credits — which Friedkin insisted was her choice — and later threatened legal action to be included. The parties never went to court, as Warner Bros. relented and began acknowledging her for the voice performance.

During the exorcism scenes — in which a priest tries to expel the demon from Regan's body — the bedroom set was refrigerated to capture the foggy breath of the actors. Linda, who was clad in a thin nightgown during filming, says to this day she cannot stand being cold.

A series of strange occurrences during and after filming led some people to believe the set and movie were cursed.

At one point, shooting was delayed after the set for the MacNeil home caught fire. The blaze was blamed on a pigeon that found its way into a circuit box, but eerily, Regan's bedroom survived without any damage. Ellen Burstyn — who played Regan's struggling but devoted single mother, Chris — was injured during a scene in which the possessed child threw her to the floor — and the take was actually used in the film. Ellen's blood-curdling scream was real!

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While the movie was in production, the 5-year-old son of Jason Miller, who starred as Father Damien Karras, was nearly killed when he was struck by a motorcycle.

Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros portrayed characters who died in the film, and neither actor lived to see its release, perishing while the movie was in post-production. Jack succumbed to the flu and Vasiliki died of natural causes.

Linda's performance made an indelible mark on pop culture, but she insists Ellen was the film's true star.

"Ellen is the heart and soul of 'The Exorcist,' " says Linda, "and there would be no movie without her. She's just extraordinary."

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