The Exorcist Scene That Wasn't Released Until Years Later

Few films have the lasting notoriety of William Friedkin's "The Exorcist." This 1973 tale of terror traumatized audiences when it released in theaters, with reports of people fainting in the aisles. "The Exorcist" was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty and followed the harrowing story of a young girl named Regan who becomes possessed by an unholy force. Her mother calls upon the Catholic church to exorcise her daughter, and the priests they send undergo true horror trying to release poor Regan from the demon's clutches. "The Exorcist" features incredible performances from young Linda Blair as Regan and Ellen Burstyn as her terrified mother, as well as Max Von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin and Jason Miller as Father Damian Karras. 

There are many shocking scenes in "The Exorcist," including Regan levitating several feet off of her bed, a scene where her head spins 180 degrees, and the infamous pea soup vomit scene, but perhaps the most shocking of all never made it into the theatrical cut. 27 years later, for a theatrical re-release in 2000, audiences finally got a chance to see one of the most infamous deleted scenes of all time: Regan's staircase spider-walk.

The original spider-walk

In the original theatrical cut of "The Exorcist," the signs of Regan's possession begin more gradually before eventually ramping up to her more otherworldly antics. Friedkin decided to remove the footage of Regan walking backwards on her hands and feet down the stairs from this version because it ratcheted the terror up too quickly, and the special effects at the time felt hokey. Friedkin was especially annoyed with the wires that helped Blair's stunt double do the awkward, creepy walk, so the scene hit the cutting room floor. 

The original footage re-creates one of the freakiest moments in Blatty's novel, with Regan creepy-crawling her way down the stairs, flicking her tongue out like some kind of lizard, and then chasing after one of her mother's friends. While some of the spider-walk itself does look a little hokey, the feral nature of Blair's performance (that tongue-flicking!) and the terrified screams of her target make it a whole lot scarier. 

Even without the scene, "The Exorcist" was a huge hit that left a massive mark on pop culture. Marketing for the movie got people's fears started, but then word of mouth made it the must-see movie of the 1973 holiday season. 

The Director's Cut brings it back

In 2000, Friedkin's director's cut of "The Exorcist" was re-released in theaters, and famously billed as the "Version You've Never Seen." The inclusion of the spider-walk sequence was advertised, driving horror fans to theaters to see the long-discussed, rarely seen deleted scene. In this version, Friedkin reworked the sequence, removing the tongue-flicking and making blood cascade out of Regan's open mouth. It's grisly stuff, and it's especially shocking compared to the original footage. It happens right after Regan's mother discovers the tragic death of a family friend, who fell down a stairwell on a nearby street and broke his neck. Overwhelmed with fear for her daughter — who appears to be medically healthy but cannot control the demon inside of her — and sadness for the dead man, she is at the brink of breaking. Enter Regan, crawling unnaturally down the stairs, reminding everyone that she's not healthy at all. It sends her poor mother into hysterics, and who could blame her? 

Audiences turned out in droves to catch the director's cut and the spider-walk, and "The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen" was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. Between its original theatrical run and the director's cut run, "The Exorcist" held the record for being the highest-grossing horror film of all time until Andy Muschetti's "It" in 2017. 

The legacy of The Exorcist and its scariest scene

"The Exorcist" is one of the most famous and infamous films of the 20th century. It has been referenced in everything from "Austin Powers" to "X-Men: The Last Stand," and went on to spawn several sequels and prequels, including "Exorcist II: The Heretic," "The Exorcist III," "Exorcist: The Beginning," and "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist." There was even an "Exorcist" television series starring Geena Davis and Ben Daniels that ran on Fox for two seasons, ending in 2017. The spider-walk scene was immortalized by NECA toys in 2013, with a collectible figurine of Regan mid-crawl. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected "The Exorcist" to be preserved in the National Film Registry, citing it as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." 

The film has also holds its place in history as one of the most "cursed" horror films ever made. There were multiple deaths and disasters on set, including injuries to both Blair and Burstyn. A massive fire destroyed most of the film's sets, causing massive delays and budget spikes, though Regan's bedroom somehow survived. That was just weird enough to make the filmmakers call an actual Jesuit priest to bless the set before filming could resume. 

Decades after its release, "The Exorcist" is still a powerful and striking story about the nature of evil. The spider-walk sequence is only a tiny part of the film itself, but it's integral to the overall legend of this extraordinary film.