— Andrew Huff (@HuffyTweets) November 1, 2015
Before Friday night, I had never seen William Friedkin’s 1973 horror masterpiece, The Exorcist. That left me a minority among dozens of fans who huddled around Georgetown’s iconic “Exorcist Steps”—a 75-step staircase featured in the film—on Hallow’s Eve to watch Mayor Muriel Bowser honor the cult landmark in an official ceremony.
Blocks before approaching the steps—situated between 36th and Prospect streets NW—I was already getting warnings of the devil: An elderly man passed me a flyer reading “Bowser needs an exorcism,” advising me to watch out for “signs” like a spinning head and projectile vomit.
The scene at the steps was less ominous: Despite eerie fog machines and multiple replays of the film’s chill-inducing soundtrack, the buzzing crowd exuded excitement. Some were movie buffs dressed as film characters, some were passersby—and some were in the movie themselves, like Paul Bucher, an Arlington resident who serendipitously gained a role as an extra while a student at Georgetown University.
Bucher was on-scene to watch the (spoiler alert!) fatal plunge by character Father Damien Karras down the iconic steps.
“I was on my way to class, and one of the crew members came up and asked me if I wanted to be an extra,” Bucher told me before the commemoration. “Then they were talking about the movie and saying this was going to be a big thing.”
A “big thing” is right: The film would go on to garner ten Academy Award nominations, winning two, and seven Golden Globe nominations, winning four—not to mention scaring the shit out of hundreds of thousands of moviegoers.
Andrew Huff, who organized the event, managed to raise $7,000 from dedicated local fans to get the steps commemorated. Huff says he first saw The Exorcist as a ten-year-old.
“When I watched it, I knew then that I was watching a film that would have an impact on me for the rest of my life, and it did,” he said. “When I have guests and visitors that come to D.C., I don’t take them to the mall, I don’t take them to the Smithsonian, I bring them here, to the Exorcist steps.”
The crowd’s excitement only increased when Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty took the stage. “[The commemoration] means more than any of the awards that I’ve ever won or that this film has won” Friedkin said in a short speech. Blatty, a Georgetown University graduate, calls the commemoration “the highest honor ever bestowed upon me.” Of all the Academy Award winners, he jokes, “How many have a staircase in prime real estate?”
Before unveiling a small bronze plaque recognizing the steps as a “significant contribution to D.C.’s film history,” Bowser took the opportunity to rep D.C.’s Film and TV Development office, saying that the landmark helps put D.C. “on the map” as hub for filmmaking. “Not only are we focused on the arts, we’re specifically focused on how D.C. can be a film town,” she says. “It is a marker for us to put in the ground to say that we’re going to double and redouble our efforts to make D.C. a film town.”
Joining her was Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who unveiled a resolution declaring Oct. 30 “Exorcist Day.”
As the plaque was unveiled, the crowd surged forward, snapping photos as Friedkin and Blatty ascended up the steps that many Georgetowners still fear 42 years after the film’s release. At a Q&A before a special screening of the film following the commemoration, I asked Friedkin if he believes in demons.
“I believe that the accounts that I’ve read and heard about from people involved in this are totally real,” he said. “There is good and evil in everyone, in each of us. And I believe that it’s a constant struggle for us to preserve our better nature and overcome.”