Forget Hereditary, This $441M Film is the Scariest Horror Movie Ever Made

Forget Hereditary, This $441M Film is the Scariest Horror Movie Ever Made
Image credit: Warner Bros., PalmStar Media

Fifty years later, it's still the reigning champion of horror movies.


  • Horror movies used to have small budgets and weren't expected to make much at the box office.
  • 50 years ago, one movie made audience members faint in theaters and changed the landscape of horror movies forever.
  • Even though CGI has made movies much more graphic, this one is still considered the scariest movie ever made.

It's been half a century since the release of one of the greatest horror movies of all time. In a world where special effects have come a long way and audiences are desensitized to gore, can a film this old still be effective?

Most movies: no. But The Exorcist held up, and we maintain that it's still the scariest movie of all time.

What's It About?

In Washington DC, single mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) works as an actress while looking after her 12-year–old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Regan soon starts to have violent outbursts, unexplained by medical experts and quickly escalating: she projectile vomits onto a priest, stabs herself in the vagina with a crucifix, and explains that she's been possessed by the Devil.

Chris seeks out help from the Catholic Church, and it arrives in the form of Father Damien Karras. Although Karras has experience in exorcism, he's also undergoing a severe crisis of faith after the death of his mother.

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A Lesson Modern Horrors Have Forgotten

If you've never seen The Exorcist, you might assume that it's full of wall-to-wall jump scares and gore. But in fact, very little time is spent on the usual 'scary movie' excesses. Perhaps 20 minutes of the runtime is spent on head-spinning, vomiting, and the other (admittedly gross) excesses of the demon inhabiting Regan's body. What's there is extremely effective – even thinking about a 12-year old stabbing herself in the privates with a crucifix should make you shudder – but it only takes up a small part of the movie.

What makes up the rest of The Exorcist is a tension-filled, almost brooding character study of people trying to hold on to their faith. Father Karras is the prime example of that: a priest who is struggling to believe in a benevolent god. Then there's Chris, a mother desperate not to lose her daughter but with no idea how to keep her safe.

The fact that The Exorcist spends so much time on these characters is really the thing that keeps it effective to this day. Special effects age with time (though the practical effects on The Exorcist still hold up fairly well), which is why so many gore-fests just look silly a few decades down the road. But well paced, psychologically revealing dialogue and well-drawn characters can last forever.

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All of this explained why The Exorcist was such a turning point in cinema horror. After this movie made an unbelievable $441 million at the box office – a number unheard of for the genre – the era of campy vampires and werewolves was over forever.

A Cursed Movie?

In the documentary The Fear of God: 25 Years of the Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn notes that nine people died during the filming of the movie, including the child of one of the cameramen and a night watchman on the set. A carpenter accidentally cut off his own thumb, there was a fire on set, and Linda Blair severely injured her back while filming a possession scene.

Worst of all, Paul Bateson – who played a small role as a doctor giving Regan a cerebral angiography – was later revealed to be a confirmed murderer and suspected serial killer.

You can stream The Exorcist on Amazon Prime and Crave.

Sources: Collider, Daily Mail.