Ask 10 people what their favorite horror movie is, and chances are over half will say "The Exorcist." Yes, that's a completely non-scientific statement based on absolutely no solid evidence, but it's totally understandable that horror fans revere the 1973 classic.
"The Exorcist" has it all, and is genuinely scary. It has the creepy religious element, the frightening possessed child, a variety of deaths, and it features just the right amount of blood, vomit, flies, and vulgarity. Forty years later, horror filmmakers are hard-pressed to match "The Exorcist," and many see it as the gold standard.
Here are my top five reasons why "The Exorcist" is the best horror film ever made -- though I could definitely come up with more.
The Alleged "Exorcist Curse"
Nothing makes a horror movie scarier than when some of the legend/story seeps into real life. When you find out that the young actress who played Carol Anne in "Poltergeist" (Heather O'Rourke) died in real life shortly after the movie was completed, it sends a chill down your spine, right? Well, "The Exorcist" has its own alleged "curse." There are numerous tales of ominous happenings in and around the set, including multiple cast injuries (Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair among them) and randomly broken props. A mysterious fire destroyed the entire set -- except for Regan's bedroom. And lastly, nine people associated with production died during the year-long shoot, and actors Vasiliki Maliaros (Father Karras' mother) and Jack MacGowran (Burke Dennings) passed away before the film was even released.
The Spider Walk
Since Regan (Blair) did her famous "spider walk" down the stairs, numerous horror movies have tried to use it, to varying degrees of success (see: "The Grudge," "The Devil Inside," and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"). There's something inherently creepy about a contorted body moving in a way it's not supposed to, and this movie was the first to utilize it. Unfortunately, the effect is partially lost after so many movies have tried to emulate it, but we can always return to this original to know where it came from.
A Child as a Horror Instrument
Is there a more effective tool in horror movies than a child possessed by an evil demon? Even if the child isn't possessed by a demon; as long as it's possessed, taken over, kidnapped or otherwise used by something. A child is innocent and untouched, so to have that sullied is the most scary thing of all, and is what makes it so powerful. I couldn't even begin to list the number of movies featuring a child as the conduit for evil or the paranormal, but off the top of my head: "The Sixth Sense," "Poltergeist," "The Omen," "Child's Play," ad infinitum. I'm not going to claim that "The Exorcist" started this whole thing, but it certainly was one of the earlier American horror films to so brazenly use a young child (a girl, no less!) in a horrific fashion.
The Actors Often Didn't Need to "Act"
"The Exorcist" features method acting, to the extreme. Conditions on-set were cold. Very, very cold. In order to see the actors' breath when Regan is possessed and exorcised (and thus making the room chilly), the bedroom set had to be refrigerated. Linda Blair, to this day, absolutely detests being cold. In addition, the aforementioned cast injuries often happened during filming: the harness lifting Blair during the levitation scene inexplicably broke, sending her down on her back. Burstyn was thrown to the ground by Regan, and she landed on her coccyx; the scream in the movie is real, and is from excruciating pain. The infamous "vomit" scene also didn't involve a lot of acting, since the vomit was actually meant to hit Father Karras (Jason Miller) in the chest. Instead, due to a malfunction, it hits him in the face. That genuine look of disgust is authentic.
The Effect It Had on Audiences and the World At-Large
"The Exorcist" was a movie of many firsts. Back in 1973, this was a horror film that certainly took its chances. The original teaser trailer, which consisted entirely of a scary white-faced demon quickly flashing on a dark background, was banned by theaters because it was deemed "too frightening." Don't scoff, because a filmgoer, while watching "The Exorcist," fainted and broke his jaw on the seat in front of him. He sued Warner Brothers and the filmmakers, claiming that the use of subliminal imagery caused him to pass out. WB settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. In a more hilarious example of how "The Exorcist" impacted the world, evangelist Billy Graham insisted (at the time) that the film's celluloid reels had a demon living inside them. Religious groups were so outraged with the film that Blair needed to have bodyguards with her for six months after the film's release.
Honorable Mention: "The Exorcist" is the first horror movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. That counts for something, right?