Five decades ago, the innocuously named “M Street Steps” served as a convenient shortcut for Hoyas heading to the Car Barn and making their way between M and Prospect Street.
Fifty years later, they are fondly — or perhaps even infamously — known as the Exorcist Steps in honor of The Exorcist, the 1973 film that tells the tale of a mother portrayed by Ellen Burstyn trying to free her young daughter from demonic possession with the help of two Catholic priests. The iconic film is also a part of Georgetown’s history, as many scenes were filmed on and around campus with the help of some 300 Hoyas who served as extras in the film.
This month, moviegoers can relive the thrill by watching The Exorcist: Believer, the sequel to one of the most iconic horror films of all time. On the film’s 50th anniversary, we went back through the Georgetown University Library’s archives to remember how The Exorcist came together — and how scores of Georgetown students, faculty and staff played an important role.
The Making of The Exorcist
In 1949, William Peter Blatty (C’50) was a student working toward his English degree at Georgetown. He read coverage in the Washington Post about a real-life exorcism performed on a 14-year-old boy just miles away from the Hilltop in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Inspired by what he had read two decades earlier, Blatty published his novel The Exorcist in 1971. He would then go on to adapt his book for the big screen and served as the producer in the movie directed by William Friedkin that would go on to earn nominations for 10 Academy Awards, winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1974.
In the fall of 1972, scenes for The Exorcist were filmed on Georgetown’s campus and in the surrounding neighborhood.
Throughout the production, a series of accidents — including a carpenter who lost several fingers while working on the set — even led Rev. Thomas King, S.J., then a professor of theology at Georgetown, to bless the production several times. The set itself had to be rebuilt multiple times, including after it mysteriously caught fire. Actor Jack MacGowan, who portrays Burke Dennings in the film, also passed away in his sleep not long after completing the work on the film.
Lights, Camera, Saxa!
As part of the making of The Exorcist, some 300 Georgetown students, faculty and staff joined the film as extras, acting as passersby, tennis players and protestors.
Frank McCourt (C’75) — executive chairman of McCourt Global, founding donor of the McCourt School of Public Policy and member of Georgetown’s Board of Directors — was a sophomore on the Georgetown men’s rowing team in 1972 when the film crew captured B-roll of the team doing a grueling workout on the soon-to-be-called Exorcist Steps. When he heard that the production needed extras for a different scene, he jumped at the opportunity to portray one of many angry protestors in front of Healy Hall.
Over the course of a week of shooting a scene that would only take up less than two minutes of screentime, McCourt recalled many periods of down time, including a pickup touch football game he organized on Healy Lawn with Jason Miller, one of the lead actors who portrays Fr. Damien Karras, who in the film performs the exorcism on young Regan MacNeil.
When asked about his favorite part of being an extra in the movie, McCourt jokingly said the free food and getting to eat lunch from the same canteen truck as the movie stars on set. But McCourt also appreciated his time getting to know and meet the actors.
“The best part was getting to meet some of these people that were professionals like Ellen Burstyn and Jason Miller and hanging around with them and realizing they are just normal people doing their job and very talented obviously at what they do. It was a nice way to take all the mystery out of it,” he said.
Alan Mitchell, associate professor of theology and religious studies in the College of Arts & Sciences, was an undergraduate student at Fordham University and a Jesuit in formation in 1972 when he found his way as an extra in the hit horror film. Another Jesuit who was serving as a technical advisor on the film’s production was looking for extras to portray Georgetown students, and Mitchell and his fellow seminarians eagerly said yes.
Mitchell and his classmates skipped class and headed to the set at Fordham’s Hughes Hall, which had been modeled after a Georgetown dorm — Mitchell later realized it looked similar to Copley Hall when he arrived at Georgetown over a decade later. The film’s director had witnessed Georgetown students playing poker in a dorm room and wanted to recreate the scene in the movie.
Now, Mitchell can claim his few seconds of movie stardom in the scene when Fr. Joseph Dyer goes to visit his friend Fr. Damien Karras at his Georgetown dormitory and stops along the way to observe Mitchell and his friends play poker.
“The best part was being with my friends in what had to be a unique situation to be in this particular film,” said Mitchell, a former Jesuit who has been teaching at Georgetown for nearly 40 years. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be an extra in The Exorcist. It was a lot of fun. We cut classes that day and had lunch with the stars, and we were part of a movie that’s historic.”
Fast forward thirteen years, and Mitchell found himself teaching the New Testament at Georgetown, an irony he didn’t appreciate until after the fact.
“At the time I was filming, I didn’t know it was going to be so ironic,” Mitchell said. “Here I was playing a Georgetown student, and now I end up teaching at Georgetown.”
When McCourt and Mitchell headed to the theaters in December 1973 to watch The Exorcist, neither was prepared to witness the horror that has spooked millions of people over the last 50 years.
“It was really scary because the tension in the theater was so thick, you could have cut it with a knife,” Mitchell. “Everybody was terrified to watch this movie. There were fights breaking out in the theater because people were so nervous they were shouting obscenities at one another.”
McCourt had no idea what to expect heading into the theater with his brothers and a few friends but said he was shocked and freaked out by what he witnessed on screen. As for his few seconds of screentime, he knew his acting career had run its course — citing his friends bursting out in laughter at his scene in the theater.
“To me it was just fun. It was a fun experience, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my career,” McCourt said.
For both McCourt and Mitchell, seeing the original movie may have satisfied any appetite for watching anymore horror movies as neither has plans to see the sequel.