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“We argued over the crucifix scene”: what it was like being the demon in The Exorcist

Eileen Dietz is responsible for arguably the scariest face to ever appear in a horror film. She reflects on her experience of working on the 1972 horror masterpiece, and why she’s happy she ruined your childhood.

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A rotating head. A levitating teenager. Pea purée puke. Your mother sucks cocks in hell. The power of Christ compels you. Even if you’ve never seen The Exorcist, you’re almost certainly aware of The Exorcist, with the film’s legend now just a part of pop culture folklore. But for actress Eileen Dietz, who played the terrifying demon Pazuzu that possesses 12-year-old Regan (played by Linda Blair), being connected with the iconic horror was, for many years, a thankless task.

With those evil eyes and defiant growl, which occasionally breaks out into a sinister smile, the face of Pazuzu is directly responsible for the nightmares of millions of people (this author included). The face may only flash up on the screen four or five times as a subliminal image during the movie, but whenever it does, it really feels like you've come face-to-face with a pure incarnation of evil. Yet many people still don’t know it was Dietz (who for many years went un-credited) under all of that make-up, or that it was her, not Linda Blair, who acted as Regan in some of the film’s most iconic scenes.

“I got a call from my agent asking me if I wanted to audition for this horror film,” the now 75-year-old, who still has a youthful glow and looks nothing like the purest incarnation of evil, reflects. “They were looking for someone who was small but also very strong and didn’t mind being thrown around a bit, so I went down to the audition and that’s how it all started.”

She adds: “You have to remember that Linda Blair was just 12 so it wasn’t possible for a child to film stuff like the crucifix masturbation scene or the fistfight with Father Karrus [played by Jason Miller], especially not back in the 1970s. That’s where I came in. If you see Regan vomiting then that’s me, but if you see her after the vomiting then that’s Linda.”

Dietz effectively did all the stuff they couldn’t ethically ask a little girl to do, but the fact she performed this role with such intensity only added to the film’s atmosphere of dread and the intrinsically terrifying idea that multiple guests had, quite literally, taken over Regan’s body.

She was instructed by director William Friedkin to sadistically act as a primal force of malevolence. Subsequently, she never saw herself as Regan, even when made up to look like her. Instead, Dietz was always… Pazuzu  (or Captain Howdy, as the demon is innocently referred by Blair’s Regan). “I wasn’t playing a little girl, I was playing the demon that possessed a little girl,” she clarifies.

With The Exorcist grossing $441m worldwide, which would be in excess of $1bn if adjusted to today’s economy, it’s now rightly now looked back on as the peak of classic horror. However, being on that set back in 1972 was far from a glamorous experience for Dietz, with writer William Peter Blatty and Friedkin openly at war with one another, and reshoots pushing the film wildly over budget.

“There was a lot of stress, because it was way over budget for its time,” she remembers. “The film took 14 months from pre-production to post-production because Friedkin re-shot every scene over and over. The scene where the bed shakes violently wasn’t easy to achieve, but he re-shot that too! People were literally placing bets on what he would re-shoot next. We always knew when people from the studio in California would visit as they had these amazing sun-tans; they were coming over to keep tabs on us.”

But despite this problematic interference, Friedkin had absolute faith in his vision for the film and knew his dictatorial methods, which seemed to sometimes border on abuse, could consistently inspire blood-curdling performances out of his cast. “There’s a scene where I’m Regan and the doctors run in the room with Ellen Burstyn (Regan’s mother), who I then smack around the face. Friedkin must have shot that sequence over and over, and every single time the actors ran in, he would shoot this gun, which he hid in his pocket, at the ceiling. It was very effective, but also very intense, especially by the fourth or fifth take! It’s the reason they all look so shocked,” she says, letting out a howl of laughter.

Friedkin also considered himself a bit of a practical joker. “He wanted the smell of the demon to be rancid so he also did this thing during the possession sequences where he would hide old hamburger meat and rotten eggs on the set so it would make the actors feel uncomfortable. The problem was the crew and the cast all got sick so we had to stop shooting.”

But even if these methods sound unbelievable by today’s more politically correct standards, Dietz says they’re what made The Exorcist’s horror feel so primal and authentic. Friedkin, she insists, was also capable of more thoughtful moments of collaboration. “The scene where Regan masturbates with the bloody crucifix was achieved by sticking this bloody sponge to my stomach and me hitting it repeatedly with the cross,” she explains.

“I remember Willaim showing me what to do but his method wasn’t correct, well, anatomically speaking. We had this long discussion about the right way to jerk off and I showed him why a woman has to churn her wrist [more than a man does].”

While this discussion was going on, Dietz says a photographer was taking photographs of the exchange before Friedkin realised and marched over, grabbing the camera and ripping up the film. He then cleared the set so their awkward discussion could continue in private. “He was a genius,” she adds, authoritatively. “He had a priest come in every day to bless the set, so there was a lot of theatrical energy underpinning everything. He knew how to create an environment where horror actors would be at their best.”

But what about the terrifying face of Pazuzu? And how exactly was it achieved? Towards the end of filming, Dietz was asked to come in to do screen tests for the demon with the film’s make-up maestro Dick Smith, who was also responsible for Regan’s infamous bloated, scarred face. The night before this happened, Dietz says she went to the library and got out a book on wild animals. Turning off all the lights in her apartment, lighting some candles, and then imitating the book’s photographs while doing growling faces in the mirror, she started to embody what she thought Satan might look like.

The next day she brought this energy onto the set; the face of Pazuzu that you see in the final film was simply lifted from Dietz’ five minute make-up test. “I didn’t get any notes from Friedkin about how to play Pazuzu. Everything you see comes from within and I guess because of my research, it’s very animalistic.”

Dietz has enjoyed a diverse career as an actor, appearing in films like Halloween II and Constantine. One of her upcoming credits includes a role in Itsy Bitsy, a film about a family living in a mansion that’s stalked by an ancient entity that takes the form of a giant spider, and a short called The Exorcist of Beverley Hills, where she plays a severed head that comes to life. There was a time where telling casting agents that she was the face of Pazuzu “got in the way”, but now Dietz says it opens doors.

She’s more than happy to be defined by her appearance in the film, even if it only accounts for less than five minutes of screen time. The face is synonymous with evil and Dietz, who tours the world visiting horror conventions to reflect on her experiences on The Exorcist, regularly meets fans who tell her she was responsible for making them wet the bed. Not that she cares. “I’ve been told I’ve ruined a lot of childhoods, but that’s such a nice thing to hear as it means I did my job properly!”

Some critics have called The Exorcist an advert for Catholicism and suggested the film’s religious sentiment is handled a little clumsily. Yet Dietz has her own theory on what The Exorcist is really trying to say, and why, even 47 years later, it’s still captivating audiences. “I believe there’s this question mark on whether Regan is really possessed or whether she’s actually got severe mental problems that are mismanaged by the Church. That’s more prominent in the book and I know Blatty (the author) wanted it to be more obvious in the film too,” she concludes.

“Look, I think the reason The Exorcist is so totally relatable today is because there’s so much horror in the world with all these wars and mass murders but The Exorcist has this message that evil can be overcome. It gives people hope.”

Eileen Dietz’ book “Exorcising My Demons: An Actress’ Journey to The Exorcist and Beyond” is out now and can be purchased here.

Thomas Hobbs is a freelance journalist. He tweets @thobbsjourno.