‘I’ve Seen the Exorcist Hundreds of Times’
Andrew Huff is going to stop you right there. See, technically, The Exorcist isn’t a horror film. It’s a film about the crisis of faith.
‘The themes are universal. Faith, the loss of faith, and the battle of good and evil. That speaks to everybody.’
It certainly spoke to Andrew, a DC resident nearly as old as the movie itself, which premiered in 1973. Shot largely in Georgetown—most notably, at the infamous stairs at 3600 Prospect St—The Exorcist has been one of Andrew’s favorites since he was 8 or 9.
Two years ago—and over 100 screenings later—the film fanatic had an idea to put a commemorative plaque at the bottom of the steps, show the film in Georgetown University’s Healy Hall, and get a Georgetown priest to bless the steps.
Unsurprisingly, the University didn’t love that last bit—but otherwise supported the event. After meeting with the head of the DC office of film, Andrew tweeted at the director, William Friedkin. Much to Andrew’s surprise, William replied.
‘He said, ‘If you’re going to do this event, I’m gonna be there. But only if William Peter Blatty attends.’
The latter—a Bethesda resident who wrote the novel and, later, the screenplay—was interested.
On October 30, 2015, locals and film fanatics from across the world lined up to meet both men and celebrate what was officially designated ‘Exorcist Day’ in DC. The Tombs even delivered two steaming bowls of pea soup to the guests of honor as they signed autographs—the same food that was mixed with oatmeal during filming to achieve the effect of…well, just Google it if you don’t remember.
‘Friedkin and Blatty together in the same place never happened anymore,’ says Andrew. ‘We had people from all over—and media from all over. The meet-and-greet line was as far as you could see, and the two met with every single person.’
Andrew was admittedly fan boy’ing pretty hard that day; the culmination of months of work, and a lifetime of appreciation for the movie.
‘I’m a horror fan and I consider myself a student of the genre,’ says Andrew, who counts Nightmare On Elm Street, The Shining, and The Blair Witch Project among his other favorites. ‘I’m also a DC resident, so anything local is interesting to me. The Exorcist has always been the intersection of two things that mean a lot to me: My city, and this genre.’
In 1973, The Exorcist meant a lot to the entire city. Screenwriter William Peter Blatty—who passed away earlier this year at the age of 89—attended Georgetown University in the late 40s. It was there that he read about a local exorcism and got the first spark of inspiration for his novel, published more than 20 years later. By the time filming began, director William Friedkin had just won an Oscar for The French Connection. Hollywood had come to Georgetown.
‘It was a huge scene, and they did a lot of shooting on campus. All these streets were shut down.’
Production used the house next to the stairs to film all the exteriors, while the interiors were shot on a sound stage. Andrew says the crew built a fake addition on the house in order for Father Karras to realistically jump out of the window and fall to his death—the climax of the film.
‘Chuck Waters was the stunt man for that scene, and he had to go down the steps three times. Each step had half-an-inch of rubber on it, but there are 75 of them, and it was a long way down. Georgetown students were charging $5 to sit on top of the Car Barn to watch it. The day of the ceremony, we had so many people come up and say, ‘I was an extra, I watched that scene, I was the tennis player in the background.’’
But the lore extends beyond the locals. While Andrew was handing out fliers for the 2015 event, he says nine out of 10 visitors were international, there to get their picture at the bottom of the stairs just like everyone else.
‘The following is cult-like. We had people from Germany who came just to see the steps. Maybe they’re skipping the Lincoln Memorial and the Mall and coming here. It’s crazy.’
Crazy, perhaps, but still relevant. Friedkin recently shot a documentary called The Devil and Father Amorth about a real exorcism he filmed at the Vatican, and revisits The Exorcist at the end. Andrew was hired to take the filmmakers around Georgetown for the documentary, earning him an official IMDB page.
The film credit, the first edition, signed copy of The Exorcist, the posters Warner Brothers gave him—Andrew loves it all. But he says it’s the stairs themselves, the plaque at the bottom, and the visitors who make the pilgrimage every day that mean the most to him.
On October 30, he’ll be back at the stairs as enthused as ever, projecting Exorcist clips on the side of the Car Barn.
‘The fanfare surrounding the movie and the stairs is about local Washington, which is something that’s overlooked in the mainstream press. It’s all about Capitol Hill and Congress and the swamp. People don’t know that we’re a city and a neighborhood. Tom Sherwood, a local reporter, always says, ‘Local Washington is only as good as those people who are involved in it.’ I take that to heart. And this is how I’ve decided to be a part of it.’
When he isn’t on Prospect Street, Andrew spends his days doing community outreach for American University. The only connection to his Exorcist passion projects?
He laughs, looking down to the bottom of the stairs.
‘The horrors of working at a university.’