The Entire Exorcist Timeline Explained

"The Exorcist" remains one of the most frightening and intense horror films to this day. Even after 50 years, time has done little to diminish its power to shock and terrify audiences. Based on the popular novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, director William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" was a massive hit among moviegoers who were thrilled by its story of a sweet young girl getting possessed by a demon who forces her to commit all kinds of obscene and horrible acts. 

Despite the positive response from audiences and critics alike, the film also generated considerable controversy for its graphic nature and religious themes, with some even claiming that there was an evil in the celluloid itself. Still, all of the wild stories only added to the movie's legacy, further cementing its place in cinema history.

Because the original 1973 film gets all the attention, it's easy to forget that it's actually part of a larger and surprisingly sprawling franchise. From the lackluster 1977 sequel "Exorcist II: The Heretic" to the more highly regarded "The Exorcist III" to two terrible prequels and more, the series has gradually evolved into something more akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With such an expansive world that has been added to over the course of five decades, it can be hard to figure out how all of the films and TV shows connect with one another. Luckily, this handy guide is here to explain the complicated "Exorcist" timeline.

1944: Father Merrin's faith is shaken

During World War II in Nazi-occupied Holland, Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) endures a horrific event that greatly shakes his belief in God. A cadre of Nazi soldiers have rounded up the citizens of a small town where Merrin is serving as a parish priest, and are demanding justice for the murder of one of their own. The commanding Nazi officer forces Merrin to make a heinous decision: choose ten villagers to die, or the soldiers will kill everyone in town. Merrin prays to God for guidance, only for the officer to declare, "God is not here." Realizing that praying won't help him, Merrin then reluctantly picks the ten villagers to be executed in front of the whole town.

Because of the complicated story behind the production of an "Exorcist" prequel, this scene plays out twice in two similar-yet-very-different films, 2004's "Exorcist: The Beginning" and 2005's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist." This scene is depicted in a more tragic manner in "The Beginning," as it features the brutal murder of a young girl to demonstrate the Nazis' callousness. Still, both versions of this moment are incredibly difficult to watch and are definitely not for the faint of heart.

1947: Father Merrin faces inexplicable evil

In "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," Father Lankester Merrin is working as an archeologist, having renounced his Catholic faith following his tragic experience in the Netherlands during WWII. His latest assignment takes him to a small village in British Kenya where a Byzantine church has been discovered, constructed well before the earliest known presence of Christianity in the area. Merrin meets a young and enthusiastic missionary named Father Francis (Gabriel Mann), and Major Granville (Julian Wadham), a British military officer in charge of the archeological site. The excavated church is highly unusual, not only because of its pristine condition indicating that it was buried right after being built, but because it covers a hidden passageway that may have housed an ancient evil.

Of course, this is exactly the case, and now that the church's catacomb has been unearthed, all hell breaks loose in the nearby village. First, two British soldiers are found one morning in an appalling, sacrificial manner after trying to steal from the church. This prompts Granville into accusing the locals of committing the murders and remorselessly killing one of them before shooting himself out of guilt. Then, one of the villagers falls into a fit of rage and murders the children of the mission school. After several other grisly and unexplainable events, Merrin is forced to reignite his faith in God and perform an exorcism in the crypt below the church. Despite considerable temptation, Merrin is ultimately successful and returns to his life as a Catholic priest.

1949: Exorcist: The Beginning presents a different take on Merrin's first battle

"Exorcist: The Beginning" (the result of extensive reshoots on the project that started as "Dominion") finds a faithless Father Merrin hired by an antiquities collector to go to an archeological dig in British Kenya to retrieve an artifact of Pazuzu. Joined by Father Francis (James D'Arcy) and local guide Chuma (Andrew French), Merrin investigates the subject of the site — an ancient church built far earlier than Christianity is believed to have reached the region — and notices that its statues depict angels who look as if they're trying to prevent something from escaping the pagan temple beneath the church.

The surrounding area is afflicted by disturbing occurrences: one of the site's diggers is struck by a seizure, the church is desecrated when its Christ statue is inverted, the site's lead archeologist loses his mind, a young boy is brutally slaughtered by hyenas, and more. Father Francis then relates the dark history of the church to Merrin: 1,500 years earlier, two priests led an army into the region to discover the source of all evil, only for them to kill each other — all except for one priest. 

Emperor Justinian then commissioned a church to be built over the cursed region with the intention of keeping its existence secret. However, the ancient evil has been let loose and has possessed Sarah (Izabella Scorupco), a doctor working with the archeological site. Merrin follows Sarah into the church's catacombs and successfully exorcizes her, though she dies in the process. However, Merrin has restored his faith in God and returns to the Church.

Sometime before 1973: Merrin exorcises Pazuzu from Kokumo

As seen in "Exorcist II: The Heretic," years before the events of the first film, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) traveled to Africa to study its holy men. While there, he stumbled upon a young boy named Kokumo (Joey Green as a child, James Earl Jones as an adult) with psychic powers who is called upon by locals to help ward off a swarm of locusts infesting the area. However, Merrin deduces that the locusts are there because of Kokumo, who is actually possessed by the primal demon Pazuzu. With the help of villagers, Merrin conducts an exorcism of the boy, and while it nearly kills him, he drives the demon out of Kokumo. Kokumo eventually grows up to become a scientist who specializes in locusts.

It's unclear whether Merrin's experiences here are supposed to be the same as those depicted in "Exorcist: The Beginning" and "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist," as they all feature a younger Merrin exorcizing a possessed boy in Africa. Oh well — the series has been around for 50 years, so let's not be too nitpicky about its continuity.

1973: The Possession of Regan MacNeil

Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has been living in Georgetown shooting a movie with director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). After hearing unexplainable noises coming from the attic, the behavior of her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) becomes increasingly strange. Meanwhile, local priest and Georgetown University psychologist Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is struggling to care for his ailing mother and has lost his faith, prompting him to consider leaving his role.

Chris takes her daughter to be examined by doctors who subject her to a battery of tests. Unfortunately, the doctors are perplexed by what could be causing Regan's drastically altered temperament, and suggest exorcism by a Catholic priest as a last resort. Chris reaches out to Father Karras, who agrees to visit Regan, now fully under the possession of a demonic entity. Despite being taunted with the voice of his recently-deceased mother (who Regan couldn't have known about) and speaking in Latin (a language Regan doesn't know), Karras is reluctant to carry out an exorcism. 

When Karras finally commits to conducting the exorcism, he's assigned a more experienced partner, Father Lankester Merrin. Through an incredibly difficult procedure, the two priests are able to weaken the demon's hold on Regan, though Merrin dies in the process. In one last desperate move, Karras forces the demon to leave Regan and possess him, and then he throws himself out of a second story window and down a flight of stairs, dying and taking the demon with him.

1977: Regan's rematch with Pazuzu

Four years after Regan MacNeil's possession in Georgetown, Catholic priest Philip Lamont (Richard Burton) has been assigned to investigate the peculiar death of Father Lankester Merrin. Regan is living a normal life as a teenager, having no memory of what happened to her. However, she has been undergoing regular examinations by Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher), who believes that her memories of the exorcism still reside deep in the recesses of her mind. 

Lamont meets with Regan and attempts to get her to remember the traumatic events, but to no avail. Tuskin then hooks them both up to a machine called a "synchronizer" which harmonizes the brainwaves of two subjects. During this procedure, Lamont learns of Merrin's previous encounter with Pazuzu during his exploration of people with special healing gifts, which includes Regan.

Lamont takes Regan back to the Georgetown house where the exorcism took place, and is beset by Pazuzu in the form of a young possessed Regan. The priest is nearly seduced by the demon's offer of unlimited power, but is rescued by the real Regan, who helps him kill the demon's new form as the house falls apart around them. The two leave the property, with Lamont vowing to watch over Regan.

1990: Freeing the soul of Father Karras

In the years after they witness the infamous exorcism of Regan MacNeil, Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) and Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott) meet regularly to exchange memories of their mutual acquaintance Father Damien Karras. Kinderman is deeply disturbed by a recent case of a young boy brutally murdered in a ritualistic manner. But that's only one of a string of gruesome murders -– a priest is decapitated and Dyer himself dies by exsanguination. All of these murders imply that James Venamun (Brad Dourif), aka the "Gemini Killer," has returned despite having been executed years earlier.

This series of murders is made all the more shocking when Dr. Temple (Scott Wilson) of the psychiatric ward tells Kinderman that a man was committed there following the Gemini Killer's execution and has been in a catatonic state ever since. However, he has finally spoken, and claims to be the Gemini Killer. Kinderman visits the mysterious patient and is shocked to discover that it's Father Karras. 

Apparently, Pazuzu wanted revenge for getting forced out of Regan's body, so it used the Gemini Killer's spirit to occupy the dead priest's form. Sensing that a demonic force is at work, Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson) arrives to perform an exorcism on the possessed Karras. He is nearly killed during the exorcism, leaving only Kinderman to rescue his old friend from the demonic influence. Father Morning intervenes one last time before dying, giving Kinderman the chance to euthanize Karras and finally free his soul.

2016: Regan saves her daughter from Pazuzu

Season 1 of the TV series "The Exorcist" follows a seemingly familiar plot: A woman believes that her family may be plagued by something demonic, with her daughter as the focal point, and reaches out to an inexperienced priest for help. However, it doesn't take long before the plot reveals far more going on beneath the surface. 

The show follows two completely different priests — the young and idealistic Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera), and the older and more militant Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) — as they investigate the strange goings-on in the Rance family household. Meanwhile, a series of bizarre and ghastly murders in surrounding Chicago point to a larger menace, orchestrated by a secretive elite society.

As expected, it's revealed that the matriarch of the Rance family, Angela (Geena Davis), changed her identity years earlier following a traumatic episode in her youth that she has since largely forgotten. In case it wasn't obvious, Angela is Regan MacNeil, the young victim plagued by the demon Pazuzu in the first "Exorcist" film. After her daughter Casey (Hannah Kasulka) is possessed by Pazuzu, Angela gives herself to the demon to take her instead and leave Casey alone. Ortega and Keane are ultimately able to exorcize the re-possessed Angela/Regan, but she is left paralyzed from the ordeal. Keane then agrees to take Ortega under his wing and train him to become an exorcist.

2017: Keane and Ortega battle new demons

Following the events in Season 1 of "The Exorcist," Season 2 sees Father Marcus Keane continue training Father Tomas Ortega in the ways of exorcism. After barely managing to drive a demon out of a woman named Cindy (Zibby Allen), Keane grows concerned that Ortega is taking too many risks in their missions. Meanwhile, on Nachburn Island, Washington, Andrew Kim (John Cho) runs a home for troubled foster children and must prepare for the arrival of social worker Rose Cooper (Li Jun Li), who happens to be his ex-girlfriend. However, a series of strange events occur at the home, most of which center around the young blind boy Caleb (Hunter Dillon).

Ortega and Keane's journey takes them to Nachburn Island, where they detect a strong demonic presence which eventually takes hold of Kim. Ortega confronts the entity head-on before it can fully take Kim's soul as Keane and Cooper attempt to get the children off Nachburn Island. While Ortega is ultimately successful in cornering the demon and helping in its destruction, it comes at the cost of Kim's life. Cooper adopts the remaining children from the foster home, as yet another demon takes a new host.

2023: Chris MacNeil returns after 50 years

"The Exorcist" television show ended on a cliffhanger after only two seasons, with its continuity erased to make way for "The Exorcist: Believer," which serves as a direct sequel to the original 1973 film. It is the first of a new trilogy, which will be followed by "The Exorcist: Deceiver" in 2025, and an as-of-yet unnamed third installment. The creative team behind the film includes writer-director David Gordon Green and writer-producer Danny McBride, who similarly revived John Carpenter's "Halloween" series with a new trilogy in recent years.

While we'll have to wait for the film to come out to all of its plot details, what we do know is that it tells the story of single father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.), whose daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) and her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) go missing in the woods for several days. They're found, but they have brought a powerful and malevolent force with them and exhibit increasingly monstrous behaviors. Determined to discover what happened to Angela and Katherine, Fielding requests the help of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn reprising her role after five decades), whose daughter Regan was the victim of a demonic possession 50 years earlier.