A Banner Day for America’s Scariest Staircase

Shadowing William Friedkin as Washington honors The Exorcist steps.

The Exorcist steps.  

Courtesy of Rudi Riet/Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, D.C.—With the passing of Halloween comes the annual ritual of stowing decorations, chiding litterbugs, and chucking decomposing pumpkins from the front steps. But in one corner of Georgetown, the weekend resulted in the commemoration of a permanent landmark. On Friday night, before a crowd of sightseers and horror fanatics lining M Street Northwest, a plaque was unveiled to honor the country’s most ominous cinematic staircase, now dubbed The Exorcist steps. The spot provided the climax to the 1973 film The Exorcist, in which a priest sacrifices himself to unshackle a demonically possessed girl before bursting through her bedroom window and plunging to his death, eating 75 concrete steps along the way. Though the accompanying resolution passed by the Council of the District of Columbia to officially declare Oct. 30 “The Exorcist Day” was ceremonial, a unanimous vote in Washington carried some of the mystical powers of an exorcism.

It’s been more than 40 years since director William Friedkin worked beneath the gothic spires of Georgetown, the country’s oldest Jesuit university. He’s still kicking himself for not scooping up property back then. “They were practically giving houses away,” he said, roaming the outskirts of the campus. He recalled touring Lloyd Bentsen’s house once for a possible purchase, to no avail.

Friedkin recently returned to America after directing the opera Aida in Turin, Italy, and his schedule in the capital was packed. The 80-year-old Chicago native still takes pride in his familiarity with Georgetown’s Byzantine streets. After a morning inspection of a nearby movie theater hosting a nighttime screening of The Exorcist, he opted to stroll to the steps instead of being driven, musing throughout the vertical hike about the digital revolution in cinema and how it allows for greater control.

“When you have a 35mm print, it’s totally frustrating, because the water in the developer is constantly changing,” he said. “The little amoeba and creatures in the water are always shifting.”

In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, he devotes several pages to his strict oversight of the release of The Exorcist. When he gave the OK for an armed acquaintance to reclaim a bootleg 16 mm print screening at a porn theater in Long Beach, California, it wasn’t due to lost revenue—the film was already well on its way to being the highest-grossing release in the history of Warner Bros.—but because of quality control.

At the steps, Friedkin popped into Wisemiller’s, a local deli. A Fox 5 camera crew gathering downslope shots sensed a story and followed, squeezing their equipment through the narrow doorway. Friedkin obliged them, conducting a live interview between bagel bites. The woman working the counter extended an arm sleeved in tattoos for a handshake while an elderly customer buttonholed Friedkin. “You scared the hell out of me and that’s why I became a Jesuit priest,” he said. Friedkin nodded. The film, he replied, has long been a recruiting tool for the church.

Outside the deli, Andrew Huff, the organizer of the event, took stock. “That was a sneak attack by Fox 5,” he said between calls. As director of community relations for American University and a former communication director for Councilman Jack Evans, Huff had masterminded the day’s media frenzy. “Do you guys have a delay on this?” he asked the costumed crew of a perky morning show interviewing Friedkin live at the steps. (He’d let an expletive fly on Fox 5.) During Jake Tapper’s teasers for his CNN report, Friedkin intentionally strolled through the frame, spoiling takes. “What’re you, Hitchcock?” Tapper laughed. “Use it!” Friedkin insisted.

Warming up in the car between interviews, Friedkin again circled the grounds of Georgetown University, where author William Peter Blatty first conceived the book and, later, screenplay. “We had an Exorcist basketball team,” Friedkin said. “We played the Jesuits, who were coached by John Thompson, the Georgetown basketball coach. They had a couple ringers from the Georgetown team, big guys. The last 20 seconds took two and a half minutes. Time had run out and the motherfuckers put extra time on the clock and beat us by two.”   

Later that afternoon, as hundreds of autograph hounds gathered at the top of the steps near the Exorcist house, Friedkin assumed his perch at the signing table. “C’mon in, folks,” he announced. After fielding several takers, his pen went dry, and he flung it skyward to approving laughter. The Sharpie pinged a Mazda slowly rolling down Prospect Street.

Toward the back of the line, a man clutched a handmade poster with the banner The End Is Near, surrounded by graphic stills from the film. When asked about the significance of the red candles he’d taped to the poster, he said it was a sanctuary from Pazuzu, the possession-prone demon. “I’ve seen him,” he said. “In Iraq. He wants blood. It’s real.”

Surveying the crowd bundled in layers of horror shirts and pregame Capitals jerseys, it was hard not to flinch at the occasional sighting of a woman in full Pazuzu makeup. Like the subliminal frames of Pazuzu’s shocking scowl that Friedkin spliced into the film, she would suddenly appear over a shoulder or pop up behind a passerby. When asked how she executed such convincing makeup, she removed her false fangs, sucked back the accumulated saliva, and said, “I did a tutorial online.”

Blatty, who arrived by town car from his home in Bethesda, Maryland, signed books outside for more than an hour, betraying his 87 years. Perhaps no inscription was more cherished than the one for the Pazuzu poster-maker, who placed his scroll at the altar of Blatty, careful to avoid the bowl of split-pea soup an admirer had left on the table.

Across the street, a father escorting his family to a Halloween party stopped to adjust his son’s horse costume. A gust of wind caught the spare blankets draped over their stroller and violently tipped it over. Onlookers gasped before realizing the stroller was empty. “You never know,” one said. “We’re around that house.”

Later that evening, with Mayor Muriel Bowser in attendance, the plaque was unveiled at the base of the Exorcist steps, on a stage flanked by the uplighting of foreboding stones. Huff served as master of ceremonies, though Friedkin requested to introduce Blatty, whom he declared the successor to Stoker, Shelley, and Poe. Blatty acknowledged the commemoration was the highest honor ever bestowed upon him. “Academy Award–winners are the plague of the Earth,” he said. “How many of them have a staircase in prime real estate?”

Before the screening that followed, Friedkin asked the crowd to pay attention to the prologue, photographed over three months in Iraq in 1973, before Saddam Hussein’s reign. “Everything you see on the screen was an actual archeological dig in Hatra,” he said. “I understand that it has been totally destroyed by ISIS. … All that antiquity, gone. The only memory of it will be, now, in this picture.” The weight of those remarks cast new light on a rejoinder Friedkin had been echoing throughout the day, when asked about his gratitude for the commemoration. Bringing Gershwin to Georgetown, Friedkin proclaimed, “In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble. They’re only made of clay. But these steps are here to stay.”