On Sunday, February 17th, FEARnet celebrates 40 years of The Exorcist with a marathon of all the franchise films starting at 2 pm EST, and to mark the occasion, we spoke with genre icon Linda Blair about her experiences making one of the most influential horror movies of all time.
During our exclusive interview, Blair discussed how The Exorcist continues to surprise her even after four decades of living with Regan MacNeil, her surreal experiences dealing with the press as a teenager, why William Friedkin’s film is more than just a horror movie and much, much more.
Dread Central: I just rewatched The Exorcist for probably the 60th time last night, and I’m still amazed by the fact that every time I see it, it’s almost a different experience for me as a viewer. When I was a kid, it was more about being scared for your character, and now, as an adult, I just see it as such a tragic story for both Chris’ (Ellen Burstyn) and Father Karras’ (Jason Miller) characters.
Linda Blair: That’s great! That’s what the movie is supposed to do. Every time I watch it, I still see something new, and I’ve seen it a lot as you can imagine (laughs). When fans only talk about the scares, they’re not really learning anything, which is a shame because Billy really put a lot of thematic elements in this movie that are supposed to make you think. It wasn’t just about scaring people; it was a family drama that had horrific elements. It’s not a horror movie.
Dread Central: Since you were such a young age at the time you made The Exorcist and considering the material you were dealing with, how much of it resonated with you and how much of it did you pick up on after the fact?
Linda Blair: You have to understand that when we made The Exorcist, I was a child first and foremost so when I first read the novel before auditioning, I saw it more from the perspective of a kid- how were they going to do these things? How was the bed going to levitate? That kind of stuff. I didn’t really think about the religious aspects of the story because it was beyond me at that time.
Nothing like it was being made at that time so I just really had no idea of what this story would become, what these characters would become to fans throughout the years. I didn’t understand it. And when the movie came out, the amount of pressure that came down on me wasn’t anything I was prepared for. Especially all the pressure the press put on me- they thought I had all the answers about faith and Catholicism.
I was not raised Catholic so I didn’t have any answers, and I certainly didn’t understand a lot of what was happening in the story either. We didn’t talk about any of these things – God, the devil, evil – before we started shooting, and I really didn’t ask any questions either; to me it was just a character that was made up from special effects and not a symbol of something more like Regan has become over the years.
Dread Central: Being a reporter, I just can’t imagine a time when journalists would look to a poor teenage girl for answers on religion and God and faith- that just seems incredibly unfair to you as a young actress.
Linda Blair: It was; it was probably the most awful thing you could imagine. Back then they didn’t have one-on-ones like we’re doing now. It was me standing behind a podium with hundreds of journalists in the room, and if we were traveling overseas, then chances are they didn’t speak English, which was even more intimidating, being so young. To me The Exorcist was a work of fiction; I didn’t realize then that it dealt with anything in reality, and so when the press kept asking me about all the devil stuff, it just kept adding to the pressure I was under, and it was just an awful thing to go through as a teenager.
I’ve been working on my autobiography, and just looking back at all the things they put me through to market that movie around the world- it was surreal. They’d put me on planes for these ridiculously long trans-Atlantic flights, which weren’t nearly as quick as they are now, and then I’d be thrust in front of hundreds of people I often couldn’t understand who were putting their faith into my hands- it was horrible.
Dread Central: I wanted to go back for a moment to the relationship between Chris and Regan because it’s fascinating to me on so many levels; I think it was one of the first times we saw a single mother as a central figure in a horror movie and one that was an actress as well, which definitely establishes a very unique dynamic. But after revisiting the original last night, I have to say that some of my favorite moments in The Exorcist are the quieter moments you and Ellen share together. Everything about it still feels very natural.
Linda Blair: Thank you for saying that! All of the credit for that is due to Ellen; I’ve said it so many times before- Ellen is the heart and soul of The Exorcist, and there would be no movie without her. She’s just extraordinary. We did rehearse a lot, too, which is why I think our relationship felt so natural- it was easy to feel comfortable around her. She pulled me aside one day when we were shooting and told me if I ever needed anything to just ask her; back then I had this solo thing going on, and she could just read right through me. She saw that I needed that, and it really helped me.
And without our relationship, all the love and all those single-parent issues Chris was facing in The Exorcist, I don’t think audiences would have connected as well with it. Even after 40 years, those are all still relevant issues and just prove that there’s no substitute for timeless storytelling. All those other struggles, beyond Regan becoming possessed, is what drives the audience through Chris’ journey. The Exorcist is HER movie; everyone always talks about Regan, but The Exorcist is really about Chris and what she goes through.
Dread Central: From your perspective, what makes The Exorcist such a timeless film that people still continue to discover even after all these years?
Linda Blair: You know, a lot of it has to do with the performances- everyone in this movie is just brilliant. Max [von Sydow] and Jason [Miller] are absolutely amazing, and you just don’t see movies like The Exorcist being made anymore. It’s an extremely intelligent film and it’s challenging, whether or not you get anything out of it spiritually. People have tried to master what Billy made in this movie and recreate it again and again, but they just haven’t ever been able to. I think everyone gets something different out of The Exorcist, which is what makes it so great.
Dread Central: I know you spend most of your time now focused on the WorldHeart Foundation; I was wondering if you’d like to share with our readers more about that work.
Linda Blair: Oh absolutely! So the Linda Blair World HeartFoundation was created out of my feelings that we just aren’t getting enough done in our communities to help the defenseless animals out there who are suffering. I want to stop the shelters from having to euthanize because they have no other choice; I want to help communities find better ways to serve people and even help people who are losing their homes and their pets.
I feel that it’s my job to use my voice, my money and my charity to give people guidance as to how they can make a difference- whether it’s to rescue or adopt an animal, to volunteer in the community or to just keep our local food banks stocked. Animals and people out there are suffering, and we need to do something about it. You can find all the info on the official The Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation website and through The Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation Facebook page, too. I feel that it’s important that we all find a way to give back somehow.
About FEARnet’s Exorcist Marathon:
For the first time ever, a TV network is consecutively airing all films – original, sequels and prequels – associated with The Exorcist franchise. One of the most significant genre films ever made, the Academy Award®-winning movie celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. In that time it has spawned two sequels and two prequels, which FEARnet presents back-to-back starting at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on February 17th.
The original head-spinning classic The Exorcist stars Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil, a young girl possessed by the demon Pazuzu, with Max von Sydow and Jason Miller as the priests who try to save her. Next is Exorcist II: The Heretic at 4:30 p.m. ET/1:30 p.m. PT, picking up four years later, with Regan’s (Blair) recent hypnotherapy sessions revealing that Pazuzu still lives within her.
Exorcist III follows at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, starring George C. Scott as Lieutenant Kinderman, investigating a series of murders similar to those of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), who has been dead for 15 years. Then it’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist at 9:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. PT, Paul Schrader’s vision of Father Merrin’s (Stellan Skarsgård) days in Kenya, where an ancient Byzantine church causes an outbreak of madness in the camp, leading Merrin to his first encounter with Pazuzu. The evening closes with Exorcist: The Beginning at 12 midnight ET/9 p.m. PT, Renny Harlin’s version, which places Father Merrin (Skarsgård) in the ruins of a subterranean Satanic temple, where he must save a woman possessed by Pazuzu.
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