I am an unapologetic movie geek. Ever since I was two, I have loved the movies. One of my earliest memories is seeing Star Wars in the theater, with my dad, in 1977. Since then, I have found solace, wonder, and magic on the silver screen. I remember the first time I saw Raiders, the first movie I ever went to by myself (Back to the Future), the first “R” rated movie I ever went to legally (Predator), and the first time I saw Disney’s Peter Pan. Movies have touched my heart, effected my worldview, given me hope that the geek could get the girl, and challenged my thoughts and beliefs. I have strived to be part of the process since I was a kid. I have worked hard, trying to be a part of the biz.
When I was a teenager I would watch at least one movie a day, tearing through everything from Casablanca to The Garbage Pail Kids. Later on, when I worked for a movie theater, I sometimes would go to two or three movies on a lazy Saturday. Some of my best jokes have been directly plagiarized from movies. I have bought movie props, relished movie trivia, and read books on the masters and their craft.
Whenever I get a chance to visit a shootingllocation, I jump at it. There is a strange, almost mystical connection to a film when you stand in the place where it was shot. It changes the attachment to the movie. Plus it is just cool – from a historical perspective.
Recently, I was in Georgetown, at this intersection:
This may not mean anything to you (unless you are totally awesome), but to any self-respecting film geek this is cinematic gold, because this is roughly the intersections where the famous Exorcist house and stairs are located. This lamppost is downright iconic.
If you have no idea what The Exorcist is, leave. No, I mean it. Leave immediately. . . okay, just kidding. You don’t have to leave. I still like you, but seriously, you’ve never heard of The Exorcist? Here. This is a picture of the house and the lamppost.
Ring a tubular bell?
The Exorcist is a horror movie that came out in 1973. It was the shockingly realistic portrayal of the demonic possession of a young girl named, Regan, and one Priest’s struggle with his faith while trying to exorcise the demon.
More than that, this is a movie about terror. It is a visceral experience that grabs hold of you at a place between your heart and navel, and twists – the cinematic experience of walking through the woods and stepping in what you think is a giant pile of fall leaves, only to feel your foot hit something crunchy – then soft – then wet. It is celluloid disgust. But that’s what good horror should be.
The purpose of good horror is to show atrocity, create a gut-response to said atrocity, and then attempt to deal with the atrocity. It should not be a comfortable experience if it is an honest one, because true evil is not comfortable. It should not be a laughable fun experience, because true evil is repulsive. It is horrific. It makes your palms clammy and your stomach queasy and robs you of sleep with mental replays – often grainy and in slow motion.
The Exorcist attempts to show the reality of the primeval battle between good and evil; civilization and brutality. Is is somewhat exploitative and sensational? Yes. Is it vulgar? Undoubtedly. Is it a bit over-the-top? Certainly. But that’s the point. It attempts to startle, shock, and motivate you to consider concepts that are uncomfortable and morally repulsive, and then empowers you to overcome them (with the Power of Christ compelling you, of course).
Important, deep-seeded theological paradox is at the root of this film. How can such evil exist in a world created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God? How can bad things happen to good people if God is a sovereign Father. This is the struggle of Father Damian Karras, and the reason Chris MacNeil holds tight to her atheism in light of apparent supernaturalism. As the film unrolls, so unveils the very nature of man, unable to reconcile the existence of darkness in the Presence of eternal light – a discussion that resonates with the staunchest atheist as well as the most pious Saint. And although the problem of evil is considered, explored, and exploited, a trite answer is never given. In the same vein as Job, the answer seems to be: evil is real, and crap happens.
The movie was so terrifying that it created a public dialogue; a national guttural response to the visceral nature of the film. Evangelist Billy Graham claimed an actual demon lived within the frames of celluloid. The movie was banned in the U.K., and was the subject of not just controversy, but intense worldview altercation. People fainted, hyperventilated, and went into hysterics upon viewing the film. In this day of bombing blockbusters, and flash for cash cinema, it is impossible to recreate the impact this film had on the nation as a whole. Yet, here is a tiny glimpse of the mayhem:
The screenplay was based on the book by William Peter Blatty, which was supposedly based upon a case of real possession that Blatty heard about while at Georgetown University – that of Roland Doe. A Washington Post story claims to record the events that so effected Blatty. That story can be found here if you are interested.
After all the hubbub above, it is strange to think that the original location for the movie is located on a quiet street in a suburb outside DC, where trendy shoppers, chiseled jocks, and studious undergrads hustle about their daily business with blase disregard for the cinematic history upon which they tread.
Notice the huge wall they put around it to keep meddling tourists away. It also might seem as though it is half the house it used to be. Very astute, grasshopper! The window that was Reagan’s room was actually a false wing that was added to the house for the film, as was a roof. This added to the overall atmosphere of the set, and was torn down when filming was finished. Now it no longer exists, except on celluloid.
Here is what the set looked like after the false wing and roof were constructed:
If you didn’t know this was the same building, you might walk right past it with little forethought – just another brick box on a street full of much more impressive homes, including the one the Kennedy family used to inhabit.
Next to the house are the famous Exorcist steps.
In the climax of the film, Father Damien Karras grabs the possessed girl and demands the demon to come into him. He is then hurled to his redemption and dies with is his faith.
Here is the clip:
As you can see, the stairs are a character unto themselves, and were an extremely important part of the plot of the film. Two of the main deaths happened here, and they were iconic in much the same way as the Psycho house, or the Ghostbusters firehouse are. I eagerly approached them with the same sort of timid enthusiasm a baseball fan might have on their first trip to Yankee Stadium or Candlestick Park.
And I wasn’t disappointed.
The approach was beautiful, full of stunning architecture.
Then there they were. There are 75 stairs with three landings, roughly the equivalency of a five story building. Before the movie was shot here, they were called the Hitchcock stairs because of their creepy atmosphere, although Alfred never filmed here. The steps were built in 1897, as was the Car Barn they are attached to. As you can see, they are incredibly steep, with 19th century brick on one side, and a creeping mass of vine ivy on the other.
Joggers and fitness fiends were using these steps as their own personal insanity workout, which added to the macabre idea that somehow we can flee the inevitable step into the void; that somehow mankind was made for better than a few good years and then a slow steady decline into darkness if you are lucky, or a speedy violent death if you aren’t. These are themes that fit well into the problem of evil. The desire to cheat entropy is well-encapsulated by the word I used to describe their workout: Insanity. Because eventually, the monsters do come for every one.
I’m not saying that the entire visit was cerebral. There was an emotional rush of giddiness, just exploring a set that I have seen projected on both large and small screens, and knowing the history behind the place. It was akin to the heavy nostalgic connection that I had experienced in other DC landmarks. But this was not looking at the Declaration of Independence or pouring over the Emancipation Proclamation. This was a movie site, dang it, and a horror movie to boot, and I relished in the feathery tickle of eerie anticipation that I felt invade my stomach.
I didn’t have the movie in front of me, so I took as many comparative shots as I could, such as comparing the pic above to the one below.
Not quite the right angle, but you can certainly see that not much has changed since 1972.
From the bottom, the steps are even more imposing. Even in the bright light of a June day, I found the one light on the side of the Car Barn to be somehow eerie as it cast its light into the sunny afternoon, amidst the shadows of the arch above. The arch itself looks like something that should be guarding the remote, weed-invaded corners of an old gothic cemetery.
You can see the fitness folks at the bottom of the steps. Notice the landing about twenty or so steps up. This is that same landing in the film:
Here it is from a different angle. You can get a pretty good idea of just how weather worn and steep these steps are.
Finally, we can compare the pic above with this shot from the film:
Father Karras lies dead, filmed from a crazy angle, but still obviously the same steps. When they filmed this scene, they padded the steps with thick foam and the surrounding homes charged gawkers and onlookers $5 a pop to watch the filming. They did the stunt three times.
Standing there, I could almost hear the famous theme running through my head. Though I was in the year 2013, I almost, for just a moment, could feel the early 70’s calling to me, reaching out over the foggy mist of time. I could see the lights, the boom, the camera. I could touch the Director. This kind of pilgrimage is nourishing to me in the same way that opening day is for the college Football fan or the first kick of the World Cup might be for the Fútbol fan.
The Exorcist is not a feel-good film. It is not the type of film that you throw in on a snowy Saturday in January because it is too cold to go outside. It is not eye-candy or popcorn, or comfort food. But it is an amazing film, a stirring film, an incredible film that lingers in your mind’s eye long after the projector has cooled. It has effected the realm of movie-making forever, and for a film geek like me, it is amazing to walk down those steps.
I leave you with this: (use it carefully)