Warning: The following contains major spoilers for The Exorcist (1971) and The Exorcist: Believer (2023).
On lists ranking the scariest movies of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist invariably falls at or near the top. Faithfully adapted from the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, the 1973 film stunned audiences with its brutal vulgarity involving then fourteen-year-old actress Linda Blair. The story follows Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a mother and movie star who will stop at nothing to protect her daughter Regan (Blair) from a demon called Pazuzu. Coming to her aid, Fathers Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Karras (Jason Miller) perform a dangerous exorcism and lose their lives to the unholy force. In spite (or perhaps because) of the film’s notorious reputation, The Exorcist was a massive hit with box office lines stretching around the block and waves of traumatized moviegoers streaming out after the final credits. Few films since have had such an impressive cultural impact while retaining the ability to shock and destabilize five decades later.
Part of the film’s power lies in the horror of innocence lost as an increasingly demonic young Regan convulses on her bed. Not only does she physically assault anyone who comes near, but the possessed young girl spits some of the most upsetting lines of dialogue ever uttered by an onscreen child. David Gordon Green’s legacy sequel The Exorcist: Believer follows not one, but two young girls, Angela (Lidya Jewett) and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), possessed by a demonic entity who may or may not have ties to Regan MacNeil. When confronted with the truth of his daughter’s condition, Angela’s father Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) seeks out an aging Chris for help in navigating this hellish ordeal.
With twice as many victims and double the demonic power, does this result in a more shocking film? To find out, we’ll stack up Friedkin’s most infamous scenes against their counterparts in Green’s sequel in an ultimate battle to ordain the most shocking Exorcist entry of all time.
Dimmy’s Mother vs. Angela’s Birth
Both films build on the foundations of tragedy. Father Karras is a loving son trying to care for his ailing mother in Manhattan while living in Jesuit housing in Georgetown DC. Worried about her living alone, he urges her to move to an assisted living facility, but she adamantly refuses to leave her home. After a brief stay in a psychiatric ward, she passes away at home and it’s days before anyone discovers her body. Karras carries extreme guilt over abandoning his mother, compounding his already dire crisis of faith. In the midst of the exorcism, Pazuzu exploits his grief by speaking with her voice and using her image to beg for help. Even worse, it insults her memory with degrading comments and insists she’s now burning in the fires of hell.
Green’s film begins with tragedy on a larger scale. While vacationing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Victor and his very pregnant wife become caught in the devastating earthquake of 2010. Trying to escape her hotel room, she falls in the collapsing stairwell and Victor must choose between treatment for her injuries or the safe delivery of their unborn child. Catching up with the single father thirteen years later, we’re led to believe he chose the life of his child. However, during the exorcism, the demon reveals that he actually instructed doctors to prioritize his wife’s health, a choice he’s tried to keep secret for thirteen years. The demon also exploits this decision, asking him to once again choose between his daughter’s life and the life of another.
WINNER: The Exorcist: Believer
Though the death of a parent and the accompanying grief is always horrifying, Green’s earthquake is a nightmare brought to life. Not only must Victor face a devastating choice, but this opening scene is a recreation of a real disaster that affected an estimated 3 million people taking with it more than 100,000 lives.
Medical Exams Showdown
One of the most harrowing scenes in Friedkin’s original film involves Chris’s desperate attempts to help her daughter. As an A-list star, she has the resources to consult with a team of doctors and exhaust every treatment in order to find a cure for Regan’s condition. Unfortunately this means submitting Regan to a battery of painful tests including spinal taps and angiographic imaging. Cutting edge technology by 70s standards, these tests feel brutal and barbaric today. One procedure involves inserting a heavy needle into Regan’s neck, causing blood to spurt out across her body. With her head stabilized and a doctor pumping fluid into her artery, Regan winces in pain as the lights dim and machines bang just inches from her face. Even more upsetting, these tests reveal absolutely nothing. She has been put through medical hell and comes out the other side with more questions than answers.
After disappearing for three days, Angela and Katherine emerge from the woods disheveled and confused. The authorities waste no time bringing them to the local hospital in hopes of finding out where they’ve been and what they’ve survived. The two girls endure multiple tests of their own including swabs, stitches, exams, and X-rays culminating with a procedure commonly known as a rape kit. Fortunately this invasive exam reveals no signs of sexual assault in either girl, but watching them suffer through the painful ordeal feels horrific in and of itself.
WINNER: The Exorcist
Angela and Katherine endure a humiliating day of invasive tests, but luckily they’re surrounded by their parents and professionals trained to make the experience as painless as possible. These compassionate caregivers stand in sharp contrast to the masked doctor who tells Regan she’s going to feel “some pressure” then proceeds to cut into her neck. She suffers through this horrific arteriogram surrounded by strangers with her mother watching from behind a pane of glass. Anecdotal evidence from the film’s premieres reveal this scene to have caused the most visceral reactions, made all the more upsetting by its unflinching accuracy.
Faces Lurking in the Shadows
The demonic forces mostly exert their unholy influence through their chosen hosts, but they also project evil energy out into the larger environment. Chris hears suspicious noises coming from the attic and a crucifix appears in Regan’s bedroom without explanation. In a 2000 restoration subtitled The Version You’ve Never Seen, Friedkin added imagery from an unused makeup test to hint at this demonic oppression and amplify an already terrifying scene. As Chris enters the kitchen to answer a ringing phone, the overhead lights flash on and off intermittently plunging the room into darkness. Standing next to the oven’s hood, Chris peers into the next room as a demonic face appears just inches away. Gone in an instant, this subliminal imagery provides a terrifying reminder that no one is safe in the MacNeil household.
Arriving home from the hospital, Victor tries to make Angela as comfortable as possible. He tucks her into bed and gently reminds her that he will always love her no matter what. While asking again what happened over the three days she was missing, a devilish face appears in the room just behind his own. It’s unclear whether Angela sees or recognizes this apparition, but it’s presence shows that not only has the Fielding house been infiltrated by a demonic force, but it will stop at nothing to corrupt the bond between Victor and his daughter.
WINNER: The Exorcist
Friedkin originally deemed these images “too theatrical” and removed them from the film’s original cut. However, by peppering them into the 2000 rerelease, he adds an ominous presence to a film we didn’t think could shock us more than it already has. Green’s addition of a horrific face in Angela’s room may be jarring, but it disappears so quickly that it’s possible to miss it altogether.
Spider Walk vs. Bedroom Brawl
Friedkin’s film horrified audiences with its theatrical cut, but several infamous sequences were left on the cutting room floor. Dubbed the spider walk, one notorious scene tantalized genre fans for decades before finally premiering in the film’s 2000 rerelease. Just moments after learning about the death of her director and friend, Chris turns toward a mysterious sound. Regan is scuttling down the stairs like a hideous spider, her body bent into a horrifying backbend. At the foot of the stairs, she flips over and chases her mother and Sharon (Kitty Winn), the nanny, while flicking her tongue into the air like a hellish lizard.
Though Angela has been cleared by her doctors, she returns home dazed and out of sorts. Victor wakes her up the next morning and notices that his daughter has reverted to infantile habits and wet the bed. While the confused father prepares a bath and strips the sheets, Angela creeps up behind him and attacks. She slams his head into the bedframe and viciously knocks him to the floor. Not only is this a violent mockery of a family game, but Victor can no longer pretend there isn’t something seriously wrong with his daughter.
WINNER: The Exorcist
This one is no contest. There’s a reason the spider walk sequence was cut from Friedkin’s original release. It’s still jarring to watch this little girl patter backward down the stairs leading with her upside down head and the sinister grin on her face makes it all the more frightening. While Angela’s attack could ultimately be chalked up to an accident or PTSD, there’s no doubt that something evil is going on in the MacNeil home.
In Restraints vs. In the Hospital
Before Pazuzu takes possession of Regan’s body, it makes its presence known in horrifying ways. After a disturbing incident at Chris’s cocktail party, Regan begins screaming and calls to her mother through the bedroom door. Chris bursts into the room to see the entire bed violently shaking, seemingly moved by unseen hands. Later scenes show Pazuzu tossing Regan’s body around the room and causing her to harm anyone who gets too close. She convulses back and forth, strikes visitors, and injures herself before they finally manage to sedate and restrain her. For the rest of the film, Regan appears strapped into a heavily padded bed, only freed as she levitates during the deadly exorcism.
After Angela’s violent attack, Victor arranges for her to stay in a psychiatric ward until he can find some answers. As a single father struggling to make ends meet, he can’t afford to miss work to care for his daughter round the clock. Having enlisted Chris’s help to save his daughter, the two distraught parents visit Angela’s room and observe her from behind protective glass. The young girl growls at them from under the bed and scratches Regan’s name deep into the door’s wooden paneling.
WINNER: The Exorcist
Another easy contest, the sight of Regan wildly thrashing back and forth in bed is both heartbreaking and frightening. Achieved through practical effects, a malfunctioning harness caused a painful fracture to Blair’s lower spine, footage that made its way into the final cut of the film. While the implication that the demon has been laying in wait feels ominous, Angela’s sinister face and unpredictable actions simply can’t hold a candle to the horror of Regan’s transformation.
Crucifix Masturbation vs Corrupted Communion
As the demon strengthens its hold over Regan, the tween begins to act out in increasingly vulgar ways. Hearing a commotion, Chris runs up to her daughter’s bedroom to find absolute chaos. An unnatural wind is blowing through the room and Regan is using a crucifix to stab her crotch with so much force that blood splatters all over her nightgown. Chris jumps on the bed and tries to wrestle the cross away but Regan grabs her head and shoves it into her lap screaming “ lick me.” Chris emerges with her face covered in blood as Regan strikes her with enough force to send her flying across the room.
After bringing Katherine home from the hospital, her parents attempt to reinstate their weekly routine. This includes church on Sunday morning where they prepare to give thanks for their daughter’s safe return. Unfortunately, Katherine has other ideas. The recovering girl, still bruised and bloody from her time in the wilderness, sits strangely in the pew and stares at her younger siblings. The positioning of her skirts implies she is masturbating during the service but we never get clear confirmation. As her parents get up to take communion, Katherine sneaks to the back of the church. She emerges with her white dress covered in communion wine screaming, “the body and the blood” over and over again as the congregation looks on in horror.
WINNER: The Exorcist
It’s difficult to describe how effective Friedkin’s scene is. Not only is Regan being forced to viciously assault herself, but her poor mother receives unthinkable punishment for trying to intervene. This moment is also followed by Regan turning her head around backwards and screaming obscenities. Trapped in the room with a monster who looks like her daughter, Chris can do nothing but turn her own head to the wall and wail. While Katherine’s actions are shocking, no one is physically harmed unlike Chris who will likely be traumatized by this moment for the rest of her life.
“Help Me” vs “Help Me”
One of the most upsetting moments in Friedkin’s film leads to Regan finally getting the help she needs. While the poor girl sleeps, Sharon notices something truly horrific and rushes to tell Father Karras. Lifting the shirt of Regan’s nightgown to expose her stomach, they see raised marks appear from underneath her skin. These faint lines seem to form the words “help me” a clear sign that the real Regan is calling out from deep inside her tortured body.
Green recreates this moment and adds his own bloody spin. Photographic records taken during Angela’s exam reveal the same words marked in bloody scratches on her own stomach. Nurse and neighbor Ann (Ann Dowd) finds the photo and remembers a similar occurrence described in Chris MacNeil’s book recounting Regan’s terrible ordeal. When confronted with this connection, Victor can no longer deny that what his daughter truly needs is an exorcist.
WINNER: The Exorcist
This one is a bit more difficult to decide. While Angela’s damaged skin is more physically destructive and causes scars she will carry for the rest of her life, we only see the after effects of this injury. There’s something so unsettling about watching the faint cry for help appear on Regan’s skin, making us wonder what kind of hellish prison the little girl is currently trapped in.
Deadly Dresser vs. Blinding Wounds
Though Regan is Pazuzu’s direct target, Chris does not escape the film unscathed. While her daughter assaults herself with a crucifix, Chris attempts to grab the weapon, earning a backhanded blow that knocks her to the floor. As the household staff rushes to her aid, the door closes on its own and a heavy bureau rumbles across the room moved by unseen hands. She meets Father Karras with the marks of Regan’s violence clearly visible across her face.
Unfortunately, Chris does not fare so well in Green’s sequel. Visiting Katherine’s home, she and Victor find the house nearly deserted as the demonically possessed little girl wanders the halls terrorizing her family. When Chris enters the girl’s bedroom, the demon seems to recognize her from Georgetown all those years ago. Katherine jumps onto the bed and stabs Chris in both eyes, using a crucifix to blind the woman trying to save her.
WINNER: The Exorcist: Believer
Leaving aside the question of Chris MacNeil’s presence in this sequel, there’s no doubt that Green’s story is more brutal to its legacy character. She emerges from her Georgetown home traumatized and bruised but mostly okay. However, this new interaction with the demon has forever taken her ability to see.
Two Deadly Exorcisms
Both films climax with horrifying exorcisms that prove fatal to several men of the cloth. We don’t see Father Merrin die by Pazuzu’s hands, but the medication he’s been taking leads us to believe the strain of this religious rite has caused a fatal heart attack. Father Karras reenters the room to find his body lying on the floor, the demon watching on with pleasure. With hope fading away, Karras makes a devil’s bargain that ends up taking his own life. He asks for the demon to leave Regan and enter his body then throws himself out the window. Falling down a steep flight of stairs, he lands in a bloody heap on the street far below.
Once Ann begins to suspect possession, she turns to Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla) to help the two tortured girls. Unfortunately, he’s unable to convince the Catholic Church to get involved and tries to dissuade Victor from going ahead with the ritual. Father Maddox later enters the Fielding home determined to join the fight on his own accord, but the demons take quick action. As he begins to read from the Bible, the girls cause his head to slowly twist to the side. We hear a horrific crack and watch as the bones of the young priest’s spine begin to poke into the skin of his neck while his head faces backward, snapping his neck with the unholy force.
WINNER: The Exorcist
While Father Maddox’s grisly demise is certainly unsettling, we know very little about the man himself. However, Friedkin’s tale belongs just as much to the exorcists as it does to the girl they’re trying to save. Our hearts break for Father Karras when he finds the body of his mentor and we wince as he tumbles down the concrete stairs. Lying in a pool of blood, he gives a dying confession by squeezing the hand of his best friend, a devastating ending to a harrowing film.
WINNER: The Exorcist – 7
The Exorcist: Believer – 2
Fifty years after its theatrical release, Friedkin’s film still packs quite a punch. Though Green attempts to double the emotional impact with two possessed children, we lose the emotional connection to the doomed girls and the slowly escalating terror as demons take incremental control of their bodies. While Green’s film is undoubtedly shocking, he’s battling a true titan of the genre. It’s unlikely that few films will ever be able to match the shocking vulgarity, violence, and vicious cruelty on display in Friedkin’s flawless film.