Nothing that has joggers running on it can ever really look that creepy. At least that’s what The A.V. Club discovered when we visited the steps from William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. As imposing as the steps are—they’re claustrophobic and ridiculously steep—there’s nothing scary about fit college dudes in sleeveless workout shirts bounding up them. (Said dudes were very patient with us as we tied up their demon-killing workout spot for half an hour.)
Maybe it was the timing. We arrived in the late morning of a lovely summer day, not in the dead of foggy autumn night. The “Jesus Wept” poster on the stairs would have probably creeped us out more if we had. The surrounding area is charmingly collegiate, thanks to the Georgetown campus and its Hogwarts-esque Healy Hall, located just down the street (and also seen in The Exorcist).
Friedkin—whose gonzo methods, said our guest Dan Kois, made him practically a caricature of the crazed ’70s director—helped the area look menacing by using fog machines during his exterior shots. That’s a sane, reasonable way to get the desired effect, but Friedkin wasn’t known for such habits. The set he built for Linda Blair’s room was kept at freezing temperatures so he could get the actors’ breath in the shots. Blair injured herself in one of the scenes, and star Ellen Burstyn suffered a permanent spinal-cord injury in another. The set burned down. Initially scheduled to last just a few months, production on the film dragged on more than a year.
The stair scene comes at the end of the film, and when it was shot, Georgetown students sold tickets so people could watch from the building adjacent to the stairs. (They have to pay for that steep Georgetown tuition somehow.) As we mention in the video, filmmakers had to construct a facade of a wing for the house, because Blair’s bedroom window is actually 40 feet away from the stairs.
The Exorcist is actually a unique D.C. film in that the city’s famous landmarks play no role in it. That was the problem we encountered when looking for good Pop Pilgrims destinations there; the vast majority of them are landmarks on their own. Tons of movie scenes and television shows have been shot at the various memorials or government buildings, but nothing really grabbed us—and really, what could compete with a bunch of locations from The Wire located just 45 minutes down the road? Definitely not the scene in Forrest Gump where Tom Hanks sees Robin Wright at the Reflecting Pool. Or Albert Brooks’ apartment from Broadcast News. Or the Ellipse, where part of the original The Day The Earth Stood Still was shot.
Probably our favorite D.C. pop-culture landmark was something we didn’t shoot: the Dischord House, the home of Dischord Records. It was only a 10-minute drive from the Exorcist stairs, and label co-founder/Fugazi co-frontman/punk icon Ian MacKaye was kind enough to give us a tour. While we were there, he told us how sitting on the arch over the Exorcist stairs was a rite of teenage passage among kids in the area when he was growing up. He mentioned his first band, the Teen Idles, had planned to shoot a group photo from atop the arch, but decided against it later.
That makes the Exorcist steps unique among our Pop Pilgrims locations: Where else could cinematic history, punk rock, and cardiovascular fitness intersect?