WHATEVER POSSESSED YOU TO GO THERE?
A pictorial visit to the locations used in the Exorcist.
In the 45 years since the Exorcist opened in cinemas very little has changed in the leafy streets of Georgetown, Washington. It’s a lovely little suburb of attractive houses and buildings, art galleries, vegan bistros, and craft beers. Apart from the newer streetlamps, modern cars and a lack of Mesopotamian demons, everything is pretty much as it was back in 1973.
It isn’t often that the locations in a work of fiction are in the exact place you expect them to be. In the Walking Dead, for example, what appears to be a ten-minute stroll from Alexandria is actually thirty miles away. What seems to be over two-hundred miles away is literally next door to Alexandria and cleverly kept out of camera shot.
Film makers aren’t needlessly constrained by reality and all of them take huge topographical liberties like this. They may like the look of a pub in Manchester and a restaurant in York. In the finished movie, the actor will leave the pub, walk around a street corner and seamlessly enter the restaurant.
It’s enough to make your head spin. Ahem!
With the Exorcist, William Friedkin could have found a house to film in, a flight of steps in another city and a university campus five states away. Simple editing would have brought everything together, but for once there was no need.
Author William Peter Blatty set his novel in a genuine location and plotted the story around real places - everything in the film is as he described. The MacNeil house in the novel is right where it’s supposed to be – number 1600 Prospect Street - and so are the precipitous steps beside it. The only necessary change was a fake extension, containing Reagan’s bedroom, that had to be added to the left elevation (above). This was constructed to position her window over the steps and make it more believable that two people could fall from there.
The house shutters and brick gateposts are now painted black and black wooden fencing has replaced the railings
The campus of the Jesuit university is around the corner from the house, the desecrated church – Dahlgren Chapel - is part of this, and pretty much everything we see on screen can be found in an area of Georgetown that covers about a quarter of a mile. All apart from Nineveh in the opening scenes - that’s quite a bit further away and religious people with guns make it difficult to visit and photograph.
The steep steps lead down from Prospect Street to a filling station forecourt on the junction of M Street and Canal Road.
These used to be known as the Hitchcock Steps, but since 1973 the name has changed. It isn’t difficult to guess the new name and a wall plaque helps identify them.
One of the entrance / exits to the university campus on 37th Street. The street lighting is now different and a few demonic wheelie bins have mysteriously appeared.
Ellen Burstyn leaves the campus film set within a film set and walks home along 36th Street, just after turning off P Street. It’s virtually impossible to stroll along here without whistling Tubular Bells.
The bridge where Chris meets Karras is below the house, down a footpath off M Street, it’s a footbridge over the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Instead of anxious women and priests, the bridge and pathways are now home to joggers with wires dangling from their ears.
The Catholic university of Georgetown is owned by the Jesuits and they allowed filming there and in their churches, probably because, despite all the demonology, blaspheming and jilling off with a crucifix, the priests are the heroes of the story and two get a martyr’s death.
Today, without Jack MacGowran's fictional film set...
Karras leaving the film set
The campus where Karras walked today...
As I say, the Catholic church allowed one of the most infamous horror movies of all time to be filmed on their property, probably because of the message - good beats the devil.
After countless horror films where good (often in the shape of Peter Cushing) invariably triumphed over evil, a new cinema trend was emerging back then. Practically unthinkable before, film makers were now starting to unnerve their audiences by having the devil craftily win in the end: Rosemary’s Baby, To the Devil a Daughter, Race With the Devil, the Omen, the Wicker Man – the list goes on. In the Exorcist, the Catholic priests beat the demon Pazuzu and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
Or at least they did until someone decided to ruin things by making Exorcist 2.
The steps are still an absolute deathtrap and something needs to be done about them...
I'll finish this with a shot of Lt. Kinderman investigating my substantial insurance claim...