October 18, 2007 — The devil’s in town, and what are a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright, Ming the Merciless, and a future soft-core porn star going to do about it? William Blatty-Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist is a horror movie that needs no introduction, but because of the steadfast laws of Strunk and White, you still have to get through that part to get to the body of the article. One day we’ll invent the immediately immersive essay, though, and check that off the master list of the world’s problems. Until then, welcome to my article. Technically, it’s about one of the set pieces of The Exorcist and not about the movie itself, but when it comes to this film, I’m totally door-to-door, accost-you-in-the-street-with-literature evangelical. In fact, I’m fighting the temptation to write this article completely as a movie critique, instead of a mere account of my visit to the location centrally used in the film. After all, the movie is so much more interesting than how I’ve killed a couple October nights over the years. Indulge me for about 500 words, though, please, and I’ll get that out of my system and then get to the stairs. Because those are my priorities.
The Exorcist is one of the greatest horror films ever made. You know that. I know that. It’s just accepted truth. Like cancer is bad and sunglasses make ugly people look better and pretty people look cheesy. However, the film never seems to be lauded for exactly the right reasons. Mostly people just dig it because it’s scary. Normally for me, reason enough to applaud. But genre-wise, or rather sub-genre-wise, it isn’t a scary movie. It’s a horror film. Literally. Its peak effectiveness doesn’t arise from its ability to scare, but from its ability to horrify. The difference between the two effects is apparent enough that any elaboration on my part would seem condescending, so I’ll press on to other points (that’s the new rationalization I’m testing out to excuse my own laziness of composition. What do you think of it?).
The Exorcist presents its horror unabashedly and without dissimulation. The film is gruesome, appalling, and disturbing almost to the point of being unenjoyable...everything a good horror movie should be. In fact, all the best horror movies accomplish this. Texas Chainsaw does it. Night of the Living Dead does it. Good for them. It’s actually not that hard a thing to do, though. You just film atrocity. It’s that easy. Where the art steps in, though, is to film atrocity in a meaningful way without reveling in the horror. The Exorcist doesn’t enjoy its own horror, as many other horror films seem to do. That type of reveling in horror actually demeans the audience somewhat. It’s the difference between seeing a bucket of gore and having your head thrust into it. Horror presented at its most honest should definitely disturb, but that feeling should be induced in a way that makes the discerning movie-goer better for the experience, not worse. Many of the best horror films do this as well, but we’re now at a way more elite level of horror film. And we’re about to shrink the pool even further.
The one thing that The Exorcist does that few other horror films even come close do doing is that not only does it present the horror in the most honest fashion possible (that is, in a way that can make you physically ill), it also attempts to come to grips with that horror. It challenges an apparent paradox, the theological “problem of evil,” that a loving, all-powerful God could be in charge of a world where atrocity exists. Which is, admittedly, a pretty horrific idea. And the movie doesn’t just lazily present the paradox and pretend to have accomplished something in doing that. It attempts a solution...of sorts. Maybe more like a context. I think. Whatever the appropriate word, it tries to cope with its subject matter in an honest, defensible way. That’s more than you can say of most horror films, although they’re often the best suited for honest presentations of the evils of the world. Actually, the 2000 re-released film (The Version You’ve Never Seen that You’ve Now Since Seen) is a much better version both thematically and horrifically for those above reasons. I’m just letting that statement dangle. I so want to keep going, though, but my earnestness is sickening me. I can only imagine what it’s doing to you.
One other thing the film does is to make you want to visit the foreboding stairs in D.C. that play such an integral part in the movie. At least, it made me want to do that. Long before Father Karras drunk-elevatored down those steps, Georgetown locals called this staircase that seems more mountain-hewn than concrete-poured the Hitchcock Steps. Hitchcock never filmed there. Point is, these steps are intrinsically entity enough to merit a name no matter what their history. The stairs are claustrophobic, vertiginous, dramatic, photogenic, and would be creepy even with being connected cinematically to a demon in a mutilated 14-year-old. If you knew nothing about the stairs, you would still comment on them as you walked by just for their mere existence. These are no melodramatic Rocky Steps like Philadelphia has. You don’t run up these and pump your fists. You lie down at their base broken and dying and in need of absolution. And you whistle past or—if you have to—down them as fast as possible at night. You’d think they’d be a disappointment in person, but these steps way beat the drama. Now granted, if you visit them at any reasonable hour they will be maggoty with titan-calved joggers, book-laden university students, bar-hoppers who’ve drunk their way too far down M Street, and gawking movie fans with cameras and swampland on the Internet, and that certainly hurts the effect. But you can still sense the ominosity if you hang out there long enough. Like any second one of those stair-climbers are going to trip and fall to the bottom in a faceless morass of black blood and broken bone, while a strange wind-sigh of satisfaction passes up that stair corridor. Friedken might have used the stairs as a symbol in the movie, but he could’ve used them as a full-blown character if he’d wanted to. Of course, then we would have had to submit them for consideration for an Academy Award. Actually, I love that idea. An entire Oscar category honoring inanimate objects. No morbidly obese egos and no annoying thank you speeches. Anyway, the Exorcist Stairs has 75 steps in total, including two small landings. I think. I counted them three times, came up with three different answers, and then just chose one at random. Plus I was just tired and jelly-legged from walking up and down them so many times.
Me and the stairs go back a ways. I wouldn’t call what we have a history; it just pops up in my life every once in a while like that strange man that dropped by your house every so often in need of a bed and a meal when you were a child and whom your parents swear is a distant relative in some relatively distant way although they never go into detail about him. For instance, I once worked in Arlington, VA, for a time, and I would daily see the thin vertical black line of the stairs from our office windows a mere Potomac River’s width away. I’ve also visited the stairs on three different occasions. All three times were at night. All three times in October. It just seemed appropriate, although the stairs would be just as imposing on a sunny day in May. The first time I went pre-dated digital cameras, and the pictures came out blurry. The second time was during one of the many chapters of my life I’ve had to delete for survival reasons, so those pics are gone, too. The pictures in this article are from my latest foray and are completely Goldilocks as far as I’m concerned.
The stairs are located just across the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The bottom of the steps is on M Street, about where it meets whatever K Street’s called at that point. There’s an Exxon and a permit parking lot at the bottom. At the top, a short sidewalk ramp connects the stairs to Prospect Street, where the author of the book and screenplay once lived and where is also still located the house and lamppost featured both in the movie and iconically on the DVD cover. For the movie, the house’s façade was altered to give it a third floor to more closely approximate the geography needed for the story, so I’m not lying to you about that being the house. Everything else, of course, but not about that. While I was there this last time, voyeuring the house in completely blatant fashion, a white-haired man with a black-haired dog arrived, threw me a suspicious glance, and then unlocked the gate and entered. Exactly who I’d envisioned living there, actually. To get to the stairs and house, you can take the Metro to the Rosslyn stop on the Orange and Blue lines and then walk across the river about half a mile, or you can drive to Prospect street and park, or you can go to the Exxon station and pretend to get gas. You can also parachute in, tunnel in, or mail yourself directly to the spot.
And here’s the Strunk-and-White-mandated conclusion. I’ve got to be honest. I don’t quite feel like I’ve done the movie or the stairs any sense of justice, even though I’ve thrown way too many words at the subject. I’ve basically just shoved a great topic sideways into a passable article. My apologies to all involved parties. And for those of you who, rightly, thought it out of character that I could fight temptation in any form in the first paragraph, I should disclose that I once wrote a 2,000-word critique of the film itself for another web site a few years back, from which I stole most of the first few paragraphs of this article. I originally posted and linked to the critique here because otherwise the file was just sitting in my hard drive gathering computer viruses, but somebody asked me to work it over and expand it for an anthology publication, which meant I had to take the original down because books hate the Internet. Not sure why they wanted it. The critique lacked style and had the reasoning structure of a comic book. But it was sincere, I guess. Point is, as a result, now the article's robbed of a tidy ending. It just dies right here. Funeral arrangements to follow.
Read about my visit to the supposed locations of the original home of the boy whose real-life possession story inspired The Exorcist and the bust of Jason Miller in Scranton, PA, who starred as Father Damien Karras in the movie.