MVPs of Horror: Ellen Burstyn and William Friedkin reveal the most painful scene in 'The Exorcist'

Ellen Burstyn literally wrestles with her devil-possessed daughter in the horror classic <em>The Exorcist.</em> (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Ellen Burstyn literally wrestles with her devil-possessed daughter in the horror classic The Exorcist. (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

The horror genre is possessed by countless exorcism-themed titles, but to this day there’s only one The Exorcist. William Friedkin’s 1973 classic celebrates its 45th anniversary this December, and it continues to stand tall among its many imitators and inferior sequels. Part of the reason that the film endures is the methodical approach the director took to subject matter he knew at the time was entirely invented. “Blatty made it all up,” Friedkin told Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year, referring to William Peter Blatty, the author of the blockbuster book on which the film is based. “He could not get information from the [Catholic] Church about it. And I had never seen an exorcism before I did that movie.”

That lack of firsthand knowledge proved to be a benefit, as it emboldened Friedkin to stage heightened scares that were grounded in realistic settings and relationships, specifically the intense mother-daughter bond dramatized by Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn. It’s hard to overstate just how completely The Exorcist came to define what an exorcism looked like in the public imagination. In fact, last spring Friedkin released the documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, which purported to contain footage of an actual possession (and exorcism) that bore very little resemblance to the green vomit-spitting, spider-walking, head-spinning version that Blair’s Regan MacNeil so memorably endured at the demonic hands of Pazuzu.

Burstyn as Chris MacNeil in <em>The Exorcist.</em> (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Burstyn as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist. (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Audiences have reaped the benefits of Friedkin’s exacting methods for nearly five decades, but behind the scenes, The Exorcist‘s cast and crew sometimes struggled with what became a famously strenuous shoot. Over the years, some of those war stories have been shared in books such as Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which included tales of Friedkin firing guns on set to provoke reactions from actors, and slapping an actual priest (Father William O’Malley, who appears in the film as Father Dyer) across the face before a take. Burstyn has a physical reminder of her hardest day on the set, when she hurt her back in the middle of a take while being pulled backward onto the floor — a moment that can be glimpsed in the finished film. When we spoke with her in April, Burstyn told us that her memory is “preserved in my back. I’m very well aware of exactly where I landed on the floor — I can feel it. A massage therapist was just working on it today, and I was telling him about it. It’s a permanent companion.”

The scene in question occurs a little over an hour into the film, when Regan is in the full throes of possession and her mother, Chris (Burstyn), enters the girl’s room to find her stabbing herself with a crucifix. After a struggle, Regan punches Chris and she goes flying back across the room. In the 1998 making-of documentary, The Fear of God, Burstyn described having a rig placed around her midriff with a wire that a crew member would pull to give the impression that she was being knocked back with great force.

This is the moment in <em>The Exorcist</em> that wrenched Burstyn’s back, an injury she still feels to this day. (Credit: YouTube)
This is the moment in The Exorcist that wrenched Burstyn’s back, an injury she still feels to this day. (Credit: YouTube)

After one take, she alerted Friedkin that she was being pulled too forcefully. “Billy said, ‘Well, it has to look real,'” Burstyn remarks in the documentary. “I said, ‘I understand, but I’m telling you I could get hurt. And the stuntman was standing there listening to this and Billy said to him, ‘OK, don’t pull her so hard.’ But as I turned away, I felt them exchange a look.”

On the next take, the crew member (identified in the documentary as special-effects artist Marcel Vercoutere, who died in 2013) pulled harder, and Burstyn landed badly on her lower back while the cameras rolled, giving an all-too-real cry of pain. Rather than call “cut” immediately, Friedkin directed his cinematographer, Owen Roizman, to focus in on the actress. “I was so furious and said, ‘Turn the effin’ camera off!’ Because I couldn’t stand that he was willing to just get a quick shot of it before they called the ambulance.”

In our interviews with Burstyn and Friedkin — which were conducted separately and weeks apart — both the director and star of The Exorcist made it clear that there’s no ill will on either side about that incident. “I was very impressed with Billy’s work,” Burstyn says now. “He does sometimes go a little further than is safe for the actors, and I would caution him to hold back on that, but he was a great director, and I loved working with him.”

For his part, Friedkin acknowledges that Burstyn was hurt during the scene but declines to characterize it as an injury — emphasizing that the actress didn’t require any time off from shooting and that no insurance claims were ever filed. “If I hadn’t let the stuntman do that with the force that he did it, she would have had to do it over and over and over again,” he says. “I would rather have had one [take] that risked hurting her a little, not injuring her. Yeah, she was hurt. There’s certain things you cannot act, like that sort of hurt.”

William Friedkin directing Max von Sydow on the set of <em>The Exorcist.</em> (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy of Everett Collection)
William Friedkin directing Max von Sydow on the set of The Exorcist. (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy of Everett Collection)

It takes nothing away from The Exorcist as a whole to say that that particular scene plays very differently knowing that the pain crossing Burstyn’s face is genuine. That’s particularly true at a time when stories like Uma Thurman’s experience on Kill Bill or Jennifer Lawrence dislocating a rib during a scene from Mother! have made people both within and outside of the industry hyperattentive to on-set safety. “In those days, we did what we had to do to get the performance,” Friedkin says, going on to add, “I used that moment. I obviously did not think it was wrong. What she did was she achieved the desired effect.”

Reflecting on the scene 45 years later, Burstyn confirms that she was furious in the moment, especially when Friedkin kept filming while she was clearly in pain. “I got so angry at him for that; I shouted foul words and told him to turn the camera off.” At the same time, she doesn’t feel the director was out of line to include that take in the film. “I don’t think he asked me, and I don’t know that he had to. It’s not like they’re causing it to happen, but as long as it happened and the camera’s on…”

The Exorcist is available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Vudu.

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