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The most DC story ever? Maybe it’s ‘The Exorcist’

Politics may be the ruling genre in Washington, but horror has its place

A man exercises on the stairs made famous by the 1973 movie “The Exorcist” in Georgetown in 2018.
A man exercises on the stairs made famous by the 1973 movie “The Exorcist” in Georgetown in 2018. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Most prominent Washington stories are political or historic — no surprise given its role as the capital city. But one of the most iconic horror tales of all time is set in D.C. as well: “The Exorcist,” which has been creeping people out for more than 50 years. Author William Peter Blatty set his novel in Georgetown, and director William Friedkin insisted on filming it on location. 

Louis Bayard, a Washington-based writer and author of “The Pale Blue Eye,” spoke about the city and neighborhood as a character, as well as the particulars of horror as a genre, in a recent episode of Roll Call’s Political Theater podcast

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: This is one of the biggest horror stories of all time, and it’s set right here in our backyard.

A: It sure is. And of course, the famous Exorcist steps are now a regular tourist destination for anybody coming to the city. 

William Peter Blatty went to Georgetown as an undergrad and was deeply attached to the place. He would say later that it pretty much saved his life. He had a very hardscrabble upbringing in New York City, and he got out of there with the help of some priests and got himself to Georgetown. So it was very special to him all his life, and it was probably a natural fit for him to set a horror story there.

Q: He set a couple of his stories there, including a sequel to “The Exorcist,” a book called “Legion.” And he would still go down and have lunch at The Tombs into his later years. Georgetown used to have a lot more bookstores and antique stores back then. Now it’s the Nike superstore and Sephora.

A: It was a much sketchier place when he was writing the book. We’re talking about 1970 — this was Nixon-era Georgetown. There were head shops and dive bars like The Tombs, so it didn’t have the same kind of elitist qualities that it has now. But it also had these crazy row houses, and then these steps that just dived into nowhere. I think the steps led to a gas station at some point.

Q: It’s still a former gas station, right next to one of the old car barns for streetcars. I actually had trouble finding a used copy of “The Exorcist” around D.C., but I just went to East City Bookshop and bought a new one. Right off the bat in the book, he sets the scene. He talks about the steps, he talks about M Street, and then the river and how it’s this gloomy setting. You can almost tell he was a screenwriter before this. His biggest hit at the time was one of the Pink Panther sequels.

A: He specialized in frothy, not very demanding comedies, of all things. His first novels were comic novels, and he worked steadily, mostly with Blake Edwards, with some flops along the way. The biggest one was probably “Darling Lili,” which was a musical vehicle for Blake Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews, and Rock Hudson. It really stank it up at the box office, and he was looking for a way back in. 

He was a creature of Hollywood, and he was looking for success. I think he would have read the prevailing winds and realized, “Hey, wait a minute, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ was a huge hit,” as a book by Ira Levin and as a movie. And it’s about a demon and about a maiden, an innocent person who is violated. So I would imagine that “Rosemary’s Baby” is the true progenitor of “The Exorcist” in some ways. 

Q: You grew up in the area. Do you remember when the movie first came out?

A: I grew up in Springfield, Virginia. As I wrote [in an essay for The Washington Post this summer], my parents let me watch pretty much every R-rated movie coming out. I would have been 9 or 10 when I saw “The Godfather,” for instance. But “The Exorcist” is where they drew the line. 

It’s hard to explain what a sensation “The Exorcist” was when it opened. I mean, people were lining up for blocks and blocks to get in, because of all these reports of people fainting or having seizures. It was a real change in the relationship between movies and the audience, that people went in there either hoping to be shocked or fearing to be shocked. But that was a time when movies could actually shock people, and I think we’re no longer there.

Q: This really freaked people out, and I think it had a lot to do with the religious part of it.

A: That’s definitely a major element. Certainly this is at some level a faith journey for Father Karras, who’s the de facto hero of the piece even more than the official exorcist. He’s the one who’s there trying to save this girl, Regan. The language coming out of her mouth — for 1973, that was pretty raw. 

Q: I don’t know if this story works without Georgetown. Jesuits are the intellectual centerpiece of the Catholic Church, so they’re frequently portrayed as people who are doubting their faith. But in addition to being this center of university life, Georgetown also seems a little haunted itself. With slavery, there were a lot of bad things that happened in this area. And the light, the fog, the canals, the architecture, the creepiness — the place is just a character to itself.

A: At one point, the mother says, stay away from M Street. Times have changed, because M Street is not a place you need to stay away from anymore.

One of the interesting things about “The Exorcist” is how much of it actually was filmed here. It’s one of the reasons director William Friedkin went over budget, because he insisted on shooting on location, both in D.C. and New York. And so it really is Washington you’re looking at.

Q: What about your own relationship to horror? Your novel “The Pale Blue Eye” about Edgar Allan Poe at West Point, which is now a movie starring Christian Bale, is a murder mystery.

A: I’ve always been fascinated by horror, because I think it shows us at our most extreme. One of the things I love about Poe’s work, for instance, is he thought human beings are capable of pretty much anything and everything. So his short stories are often just briefs for psychiatric interventions. One of them is about a man who is obsessed with his wife’s teeth and is prying them out of her mouth while she’s in a coma. So he was ready to follow that stuff as far as it could go. 

Now “The Walking Dead” and “The Last of Us,” shows like that, are just showing us how bad human beings can be in extreme situations.

Q: We do seem to get the horror that we deserve at different times, or the horror we need. Dystopia stuff seems to be in right now. I wonder why?

A: Because we feel ourselves to be living in one, and we’re looking for practical tips to survive it, I guess. Or just the feeling of, “Well, as bad as our world is now, it’s not as bad as that.”

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