Given our focus here at Book Fetish, it only seemed fitting that when we heard Ann Harris was retiring after 60 years in publishing, that we should pay homage to one of the most iconic books ever written, The Exorcist.
Published in 1971 by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist was the first book that Ann Harris would get to call her own. Although Harris felt it would be a hit, initial sales of the book were dismal to non-existent.
The booksellers were returning the books in almost the same numbers that were ordered. At one point, Blatty was prevented from doing an in-store book signing because it would hinder the bookstore’s ability to return them. Blatty finally got his big break when the Dick Cavett Show had a few cancellations and out of sheer desperation they booked Blatty for the final five minute segment reserved for authors. When previous guests failed to impress, Blatty had the opportunity to fill 45 minutes, which he spent discussing his new book, The Exorcist. Upon his return from New York, Blatty picked up the paper to find his book was number four on the best-seller list and would go on to be the biggest selling book of the decade.
Fast forward to 1973, when the scariest book ever written became one the most terrifying movies ever made. Directed by William Freidkin, for which he won a Golden Globe, Freidkin was said to be quite intense during the making of the movie, doing everything he could to get true reactions from the actors. Freidkin would shoot guns behind the actors to get a startled effect. Ellyn Burstyn and Linda Blair were put into harnesses and shaken violently for scenes. In the scene where Regan throws her mother backward, the pain and screaming recorded on film were real as Burstyn landed on her coccyx, suffering a permanent spinal injury. One of the most famous incidents happened at the end of the movie when Father Dyer is attempting to administer last rights to Father Karris after his epic fall down the stairs. After many takes with no success, Freidkin pulled Reverend William O’Malley aside, asked him if he trusted him, then quickly slapped him hard across the face; cameras immediately began rolling to catch the moment. Reverend O’Malley was so angry; you can see his hand shaking in the scene. Although a bit unorthodox, Freidkin was successful in getting the effects he wanted.
In line with the Christmas spirit, the movie was released into theaters on December 26th and "The Exorcist" made quite an impact on the viewing audience. In the summer of 1974 my father felt it necessary to take my nine-year-old brother and I to see the film -- despite the fact that adults were going into hysterics, fainting and often required medical attention during the screening. While one woman jumped into my father’s lap begging for him to help her, I happily munched my popcorn while my brother looked stricken and had ceased blinking. Afraid to sleep alone, I kept my brother company for three nights, helping him erase the images in his mind by singing Kingston Trio songs. Every night thereafter, my father would stand in the darkened doorway of my room and in the voice of Father Karris’ dead mother he would say “Damie, why you do this to me Damie”.
I’ve since seen "The Exorcist" a handful of times, although admittedly only during the day. I know my brother has never watched it again; thirty years later, we still joke about watching it again, but we never do.
As we come up on Christmas 2008, marking the 35th anniversary of the movie, Ann Harris has set the bar high with The Exorcist, helping to create a book in 1971 that remains unequaled both in impact and in popular culture. As Ms. Harris rides off into the retirement sunset, I think back in fondness to the summer of 1974 and I can still hear the Kingston Trio playing quietly in the background.