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Stairway to Hell: Revisiting the Legendary ‘Exorcist’ Steps on the Film’s 40th Anniversary

The Exorcist 40th anniversary
Warner Bros.

‘The Exorcist’ has plenty of memorably terrifying moments – Reagan’s curse-laden tirades, the split-pea vomit all over Max von Sydow, the bloody crucifix scene – but the ones that always stuck with me involved the infamous ‘Exorcist’ steps. Growing up in the D.C. suburbs probably had something to do with it, as my childhood home was only a half-hour away from the famed staircase (funny enough, I knew about the steps years before I even saw the film).

This Christmas marks the 40th anniversary of the release of ‘The Exorcist,’ originally released on December 26, 1973 In honor of its place in movie history – specifically, the four decades it has spent scaring the living crap out of audiences all over the globe – it’s worth taking a brief look back at the history of the staircase and how director William Friedken managed to turn it into a horror landmark.

A storyboard from the film (via Behind the Exorcist)

For the select few who need a quick plot refresher, the film – based on the novel by William Peter Blatty – stars Ellen Burstyn as Christine MacNeil, a famous actress living in Washington D.C., and Linda Blair as her 12-year-old daughter Reagan. The story focuses on Reagan’s possession by a demon named Pazuzu, and the numerous attempts to rid the young girl of the evil spirit.

The first time we see the stairs in ‘The Exorcist,’ it’s from a distance. As the camera zooms in over the Potomac River, past the Key Bridge, you can spot the bottom of the staircase jutting out in between two large brick walls, foreshadowing the terror that’s set to take place there over the next two hours.

Though much of the film takes place in and around Georgetown University, the stairs themselves, which date back to the 19th century, aren’t actually on campus grounds.

“It was built circa 1890 in the setting of the Car Barn, which is the building it runs up alongside of,” said Jerry McCoy, the Special Collections Librarian at the D.C. Public Library’s Peabody Room. Though they would become a tourist attraction almost a century later, according to McCoy, the steps were historically just a shortcut between M Street and Prospect Street, nothing more. In fact, prior to the movie being shot, they were always referred to as the Hitchcock steps, in honor of director Alfred Hitchcock. As Blatty told the Washington Post earlier this year, the stairs “always evoked something spooky and suspenseful” (Blatty attended Georgetown in the late 1940s).

The first staircase incident in the film occurs early on, when Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) tumbles down them, breaking his neck. ”He must have been drunk,” surmises one of Chris’s friends. Though we never see the incident––just Chris driving by the bottom of the steps as a crowd and ambulance gather around––it’s fairly obvious who was behind it, particularly when we later discover that Dennings was found with his head completely turned around, facing backwards.

The Exorcist
Warner Bros.

After Dennings’ death, Lieutenant Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) begins snooping around the steps, looking for clues. The scenes here feature several foreboding claustrophobic shots of the staircase, making you feel like the walls could collapse in on them at any moment. This all builds up to film’s climactic ending, involving Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). After a lengthy exorcism ceremony, performed alongside Father Lankester Merrin (von Sydow), Karras walks back into Reagan’s room to find Merrin dead. In a fit of rage, he begins to choke the girl, telling the demon to possess him instead. Pazuzu then transfers into Karras, as the priest soon throws himself out the window, onto the stairs below. By the time he reaches the bottom, he’s a bloody mess, eventually dying of his injuries.

In order for Friedkin to shoot this scene, the house they used for the exteriors in the film had to be extended. In real life, the original structure, located at the corner of Prospect and 36th street, was at least 40 feet away from the stairs, forcing the crew to build a false wing, which allowed Karras to fall directly out of Reagan’s window to the steps below.

Although actor Jason Miller portrayed Karras, it was a stunt double who ended up rolling down the stairs. According to Listverse, all 75 steps were padded with half-inch-thick rubber to film the stunt, which they ended up shooting twice. Rumor has it that Georgetown University students charged people $5 each to watch the stunt being filmed from the rooftops.

Today, the stairs have become a tourist attraction, bringing in legions of horror fans looking to get a glimpse of the steps and possibly walk up and down them. During the years I spent in and around D.C., I occasionally heard rumors of some daredevils who would venture out on the archway and look down at the precipitous drop below (yeah, no thanks).

Other than ‘The Exorcist,’ the stairs in general have had a pretty tame history. “I am sure people have tumbled down it over the past 125 years,” McCoy said, “but to my knowledge, no other movie has ever been filmed there.”

Either way, what Friedken and the rest of the ‘Exorcist’ cast did on screen is more than enough to keep the steps’ creepy reputation living on for years to come.

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