Making a truly frightening movie is a difficult task. I use the term 'frightening' movie not to describe films that just have a few creepy moments or quick scares in them, but rather films that as a whole are horrifying works of art. Films of this type are very hard to make, primarily because what is considered 'scary' is highly subjective. What is 'frightening' often differs from person-to-person, so crafting a film with the intent on scaring everyone who sees it seems like an exercise in futility. Yet that is exactly what the makers of The Exorcist accomplished.
There may be people out there who claim that The Exorcist didn't scare them, but if there are they are minimal. No other film in history has a reputation - and a valid one, at that - of being so universally terrifying as The Exorcist.
I was first introduced to William Friedkin's masterpiece as a child when I snuck downstairs late one night to watch it on cable. The movie scared me then, but that's no great feat, given that I was six at the time. I didn't see the film again for over a decade, but found it just as scary (if not more) viewing it from an adult perspective. To this day, The Exorcist remains the most frightening film I've ever seen, a fact that is the result of a combination of factors.
First and foremost, The Exorcist connects with people because it features the one element of spirituality that a large majority of the populace actually believes: religion. Though the film surrounds itself with Christian mythology, many religions around the world involve a figure of utmost evil; something The Exorcist is able to exploit with maximum results. By taking a supernatural story and grounding it in the religious framework that so many people believe, the film creates a sense of realism that no other film prior to The Exorcist had ever done, and no film since has ever done as well.
Second, the film is set and comes from a very dark period in the history of America, giving the overwhelming sense of doubt and dread even more realistic credibility. With the optimism of the sixties dead and the Vietnam war raging, a crooked President in office, the economy sinking and inflation rising, America had lost a lot of its hope when The Exorcist was made in , another fact that the makers of the film knew and used to their advantage. People empathized so well with Reagan's mother upon The Exorcist's release because they could identify with her insecurities and doubts. The film is so good, however, at conveying this sense of universal hopelessness that The Exorcist is just as effective when viewing it today as it was almost thirty years ago, which leads right to the third reason for the film's undying success.
The Exorcist is crafted so well and with such care and precision that the slightest things make all the difference in the world. Take, for instance, the original 'extended' version of the film's ending versus the ending that was actually released (in the original version of the film, not the newer re-release version). In the first cut of the film, known as the 'Casablanca' ending, Father Dyer walks away from the legendary staircase and runs into Lt. Kinderman, with whom he strikes up an instant, newfound friendship, ending the film on a very positive note. Conversely, the actual released version of the film ends simply with Dyer gazing at the staircase and deciding to turn back. This ending, only a minute or two shy of the extended's length, is infinitely more unnerving because by ending on Dyer's hesitation we get that subtle hint that maybe everything isn't alright.
The Exorcist remains to this day the single most terrifying movie in history, a title that the film is likely to hold for a great deal longer. There is simply no better example of a perfect horror movie in existence. If you've never seen it, you're no fan of horror.