The Power of ‘The Exorcist’ Compelled Some Audience Members to Faint & Flee During Its Initial Theatrical Release

image from the 1973 film
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Jason Miller and Max von Sydow in The Exorcist

Horror fans received a shocking stocking stuffer on the day after Christmas in 1973 when Best Director Oscar nominee William Friedkin‘s classic, Best Picture-nominated chiller The Exorcist was released in theaters. But even those who liked scary movies may have been unprepared for just how groundbreakingly shocking the film, based on William Peter Blatty‘s bestseller and with an Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation by the author himself, actually would be.

The buzz around the film was incredible, not least because of news reports about long lines of people waiting to get tickets … and then possibly waiting for later showings if the screenings they had shown up for where sold out.

News items also chronicled the unusual affect the movie was having on some of the people who did get in to see it. It was reported that a number of audience members were so disturbed by The Exorcist that they had to leave during the screening, possibly feeling nauseous and/or faint from what they were seeing and hearing on the screen — if not actually vomiting and/or passing out.

Undoubtedly, a good part of what freaked a lot of folks out were graphic scenes like the image below, or ones where Best Supporting Actress nominee Linda Blair‘s possessed Regan MacNeil spews vomit and other liquids, or turns her head around 360 degrees.

scene from the 1973 movie "The Exorcist." Linda Blair as Regan is seated up in her bed, her face made up into an evil "possessed" look. Her breath is visible in the coldness of the dark room.

Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Not surprisingly, some of the reports mentioned that those most impacted by The Exorcist were viewers of faith who believed that there actually is a hell ruled by devils and demons that could take possession of people. So, aside from the physical changes in Regan, hearing what this sweet little girl begins to say, and seeing what she does, must have been especially horrifying for religious people.

I have to think that some of the non-spiritual parts of the movie must have been too intense for many, as well. Personally, I still find one of the scenes in The Exorcist that is among the hardest to watch comes earlier on, when scientific reasons for Regan’s behavior are being explored and she undergoes some really invasive medical procedures, like the infamous spinal tap scene. The visual and audio elements in that segment are as horrifying as any of the later possession scenes, and helped the film win a Best Sound Oscar.

black and white still from the 1973 movie "The Exorcist," of the scene in which Regan (Linda Blair) is lying on a hospital bed and about to be given a spinal tap.

© Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Ultimately, all of those sights and sounds were so brilliantly put together by Friedkin and Blatty, and the story so effectively enacted by Blair, Best Actress nominee Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Best Supporting Actor nominee Jason Miller and others, that The Exorcist remains about as intense and frightening now, 50 years after its release, despite audiences having become more accustomed to such things in movies.

But back in the day, the movie was an especially unnerving experience for many, to say the least. Check out some contemporary reports, images and comments from 1973 detailing the power that The Exorcist had over moviegoers.