The One Movie That Actually Is Scary

From Burns Library, Boston College under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
From Burns Library, Boston College under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

There aren’t many movies that are actually scary. Sure, there’s movies with jumps and jolts or blood and brains, but very few films really stick with you as being deeply scary. After the closing credits, not many people are really scared that Michael Myers is going to come busting through the door, that a vampire is going to turn them into a thrall, or that they are going to check into a hostel and end up being subjected to horrific experiments.

Occasionally, a movie may stick with people as being well made and they fondly recall the hour and half they enjoyed or were startled by. But true, lasting terror? It just doesn’t really happen that often.

But there is one movie that actually, truly kept me in absolute terror, at least for a solid 12 hours. And that movie is William Friedken’s 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. On the surface, the movie doesn’t sound like it be that scary. It stars a young Linda Blair – who went on to do some prison movies and not much else – as a young girl who is possessed by a demon, and then gets yelled at for a good chunk of time by Max von Sydow.

It really shouldn’t be that scary. But, when I saw it, it was the most terrifying event of my life at the time.  And that’s mainly Chuck’s fault.

As with an inordinate amount of stories involving my early to mid-teens, Chuck plays a key role. He and I were in the same Boy Scout troop, and we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses. Chuck’s house was particularly popular in those days because his dad was one of the first parents to spring for cable and Home Box Office.  This was the late ‘70’s or maybe very early ‘80s and HBO was amazing, particularly for adolescent boys who weren’t used to seeing honest to goodness uncut movies. With cussing and naughty bits.

And The Exorcist.

Usually, a group of us would gather on the weekends, but for some reason, this night it was just Chuck and me.  Chuck’s house was a very cool old Midtown home that had, at one, been a duplex, and was never really reconverted.  His parents lived downstairs, and if you wanted to make your way to the kitchen at night, you had to go downstairs, and make your way through a front room that had windows covered by thick drapes that blocked all light from entering the house. Presumably the would have blocked light leaving the house too, but it’s hard to tell as that room never, in all the years I visited there, had any lights on. It was as if the family was convinced German bombers were en route and had a master plan to target their living room, and only their living room.

The den, along with the all-important Home Box Office (it wasn’t even HBO yet), were upstairs. This was well before DVRs or even remote channel controls for cable. At that time, you changed channels on the cable box by sliding this lever back and forth in a khaki plastic box. Not efficient, but the sound was actually oddly satisfying.

Once Chuck’s parents went to bed downstairs, Chuck and his sister held control of the upstairs. Usually when his friends were around, Chuck’s sister wisely managed to find somewhere else to go.  That was the case this night.

The house was big, so the upstairs was good-sized. The den had a patio on a balcony, and there was a fairly long walk to the one upstairs bathroom in the back of the house.

I was probably 12 or 13 on this fateful evening, certainly too young for the likes of the movie in question. Chuck was (and, for that matter is and always will be, a couple of years older than me) had consulted the magazine Home Box Office used to send to its subscribers that listed the programming schedule. In those days, the channel showed maybe three or four movies a month, maybe more, so the schedule was not complex. And that night’s movie choice was The Exorcist. And Chuck was determined we would watch it.

I had heard of The Exorcist. I knew it was supposed to be scary. And most importantly, I didn’t want to be the coward to say no to watching a movie.

So, watch it we did.

And, yeah, it was terrifying.

From the unsettling makeup for the possessed Linda Blair, to the unnerving voices of the demon Pazuzu, to that inexplicably scary Tubular Bells rendition that has forever affixed that piece to devil business. The Exorcist is a well-made, scary movie. No question about it. But the movie itself  is not the entire reason The Exorcist holds a special place of horror in my heart. It’s not even the projectile vomiting of split pea soup or the blatant blasphemy that occurs in the film.

Ultimately, the reason the movie sticks with me as a total assault of terror  is Chuck’s fault.

It kind of goes back to an early scene in the movie.  After Regan starts displaying odd behavior, her parents (Ellen Burstyn and some dude) take her to a psychiatrist. While the doctor is trying to hypnotize Regan, she lunges at him and grabs him by the goods, driving him to the floor.

Chuck somehow quickly deemed this to be the “Gritcha Gritcha!” scene.  He’d hold up his hand and make squeezing motions while saying “Gritcha Gritcha!”. And we thought that was funny.  At that moment. Later we both would dread hearing the words “Gritcha Gritcha!”, a phrase I am confident that heretofore has probably never been used in a paragraph at all, much less three times.

After the exorcism and the movie itself ended, we both tried to act like we weren’t scared. Chuck had some Catholic baggage that I did not that I suspect made it scarier to him than it should have. I was a little freaked out, but mainly because I was fairly easily spooked as a kid.

A terrifying recreation of a scene from The Exorcist. Photo by Alex Eylar under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
A terrifying recreation of a scene from The Exorcist. Photo by Alex Eylar under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

But all was well. Until I had to go to the bathroom.  For whatever reasons, numerous lights were out upstairs at Chuck’s, including most of them on the way to the bathroom, and the bathroom light itself. So, when I said I had to go the bathroom, Chuck said something to the effect of “I hope she’s not in the bathroom….Gritcha Gritcha!”

I laughed, and then made my way back to the unnaturally dark bathroom.  Nothing that wasn’t supposed to happen did, and events occurred as intended. But, to say I wasn’t scared, to say I wasn’t terrified, or to say that wasn’t the scariest trip to a bathroom I had ever had  would be false. And, mind you, I’d gone to some scary bathrooms, including one at camp from which giants snakes and spiders routinely emerged from places you do not want to see them emerge from on a late night latrine visit.

I came back to the den, probably a little shaken. Chuck made fun of me, and we ended up watching something else. I’m not sure what.

But, as the night wore on…and in those days we could stay up all night watching pretty much whatever was on TV …. Chuck had to go to the bathroom.  And, I pointed out that the possibility of a “Gritcha Gritcha!” incident was substantial.

At this point Chuck pointed out that it was a nice night, and that the balcony patio was a good place to get some fresh air. In short, and without going into detail, for the remainder of that long night, whenever one of us needed to answer nature’s call, we did so by heading out individually to the patio and communing with nature from the balcony underneath a crisp, cool starlit night.

We didn't sleep before sunrise.

To this day, 30 some odd years later, I occasionally, if only fleetingly, worry that Linda Blair is lurking in a bathroom. I suspect Chuck does as well. We certainly know at any given time what exactly "Gritcha Gritcha!" means.

I guess I’ve never really recovered from The Exorcist. Presumably the grass at Chuck’s parents'  house has.