You may think you know all about exorcism movies, since you’ve seen ‘The Exorcist’ (the 1973 classic by which all other exorcism movies are judged), as well as all the documentary-style possession-and-expulsion chillers of recent years. But you may not know about the forgotten Jewish exorcism tale that launched the genre, or the apparent curse that afflicted ‘The Exorcist’ both during production and after its release, or the truth behind the real-life exorcism stories that inspired many of these films. Read on, if you dare, for a history of the horror movies that will make your head spin.
1. One of the first movies about an exorcism, if not the first, was 1937’s ‘The Dybbuk,’filmed 36 years before ‘The Exorcist. Based on the celebrated Yiddish play by S. Ansky, it’s the one of the only exorcism movies that draws upon Jewish lore (including Kabbalah mysticism) rather than Catholic traditions. Shot in Poland, the Yiddish-language film tells the story of a bride possessed on her wedding day by the tormented spirit (the “dybbuk” of the title) of the man to whom she was betrothed before her current groom. As a folk tale, it was the product of an insular Jewish culture that was already vanishing in 1937; today, it seems especially haunted, as if by foreknowledge, of the Holocaust that was about to finish the job and destroy the world portrayed on screen altogether.
2. The genre as we know it starts with ‘The Exorcist,’ based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty. The author was inspired the story of a real-life exorcism as performed on a 1940s child named Roland Doe or Robbie Mannheim, depending on the account. Blatty borrowed several details from the Doe story, including the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area setting, the levitating furniture, the strange marks on the child’s body, and the guttural voice emanating from his throat. Catholic priests performed the exorcism ritual on him 30 times before the strange events stopped happening. Today, it’s still not clear what really took place, or whether the boy might have been faking his symptoms for attention.