Two Years Before The Exorcist Hit Theaters, A Live Exorcism Was Televised Nationwide

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The world has long since had a fascination with evil. Modern books and films have chronicled humankind's belief that evil forces exist and are waiting to enter the body of a weakened person, controlling them by possession. Perhaps no other film in the history of cinema has captured the act of demonic possession and the quest to rid the body of the evil spirit more than the 1973 film "The Exorcist." The film follows the harrowing events surrounding a 12-year-old girl who has fallen under the power of an evil entity, and the two priests who perform the sacred Catholic rite of exorcism to cast it from her body and save her eternal soul.

The film's plot is a slow burn into the eventual terror that it conveys on the theater screen, but the chilling score — featuring pieces written by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and the Mike Oldfield theme "Tubular Bells" — coupled with the eerie imagery directed by Friedkin cast a sense of discomfort and impending doom onto viewers from the first few frames of celluloid. The work was based on the best-selling novel of the same name, penned in 1971 by author William Peter Blatty. Blatty loosely based his writing on a supposedly true story of a boy possessed by a demon. He had the story relayed to him by one of his professors in 1949 when he was a senior at Georgetown (per the New York Post). But the concept of exorcism was brought to the public's attention on the nightly news before Blatty's words would ever make the big screen.

A young couple's pleas for help get answered

Two years before "The Exorcist" had its theatrical release, NBC aired a short segment that featured an actual exorcism being performed on a home for a Chicago couple who purported to be plagued by spirits. For those who might not be familiar with the concept of exorcism, it's a ritual that is performed to not only rid a person of an invasive spirit but also to cleanse a home, area, or object from otherworldly forces.

The couple, Edwin and Marsha Becker, speak to reporter Carole Simpson at the start of the news piece and describe their ongoing ordeal (via YouTube). They had bought the home a year before and moved into it with their young daughter. The Beckers had not lived there long before they began to experience some strange and terrifying phenomena. Edwin Becker speaks of how phones would remove themselves from their cradles and says doors opened and closed on their own. The week of the interview, they say that the sound of a woman crying woke them up in the middle of the night.

Desperate for help, Marsha Becker tracked down someone she had heard of that had a reputation for exorcising spirits. Joseph DeLouise and Reverand William Derl-Davis of the Independent Spiritualist Church came to their rescue and went to work with a ritual to clean the house. They allowed NBC and their reporter and cameraman to witness and film the ritual — under the condition that everyone there wore a cross as protection.

The ritual to cleanse the house begins

They set up shop in the dining room, fashioning an altar on the table. A bible, a crucifix, blood, and wine were arranged for the exorcism by the pair. After a reading from the Bible and a short communion ceremony partaken by the two men, Joseph DeLouise went into a deep trance. A self-proclaimed spiritual medium, he told the reporter that this allowed him to communicate with any nearby spirits (via YouTube). 

Once in his trance, things get a little spooky. A strong breeze blows through an open window, blowing the curtains and making the Venetian blinds tremor. Soon, a spirit begins to speak through DeLouise. Though the audio cannot pick up clearly what his voice is saying, William Derl-Davis explains that the spirit has been revealed to be that of an old woman who is desperately searching for a number or a combination. The ritual continues and includes the spirit being shown that it is not able to cast a reflection so that it can understand that it is no longer alive. The spirit is also offered communion.

It's revealed that the Becker home had previously been occupied by an elderly woman who died in the house. Whether or not the spirit that was lingering in their space belonged to its former tenant could not be determined. But the newscast certainly eludes to that being a strong possibility.

Edwin Becker later said it wasn't the end of their nightmare

After lots of prayers and discussions with the distressed and confused spirit, the two ministers are ready to wrap things up. The ritual concludes with the two men sprinkling salt over various parts of the house, inside and out. It's explained that this substance will "seal the house symbolically, keeping the spirit from returning." The news segment concludes with the statement that the house has "been quiet" since the exorcism (via YouTube). But it was later revealed that this was not be the end of the home's possession. As Edwin Becker wrote in his 2011 book about the ordeal, the exorcism only solved a small part of the problems that the residents faced there.

The book "True Haunting" details how there were more spirits in the house than just the one belonging to the elderly woman that was exorcised from it. Becker alleges that the house was haunted by multiple entities and says that exorcisms had real power to rid the residents of these spirits. He writes of how he and his family continued to be terrorized by these spirits and were forced to live in fear while under that roof. In the description of the book on Amazon, it's said that there "is no happy ending" for the Beckers, who were eventually forced to practically give away their investment so that they could move on.

Becker's book has been made into a film set for a 2023 release

The Lineup reports that "True Haunting" became a bestseller. But the impact of this tale doesn't end with the printing press and digital downloads. It was announced that Screen Gems studios adopted Becker's book for a feature-length film. Becker's words were adapted into a script written by screenwriter Richard D'Ovidio in a movie that was originally to be directed by Cindy Cowan (per Deadline) but now has Gary Fleder at the helm (via IMDb).

The film stars Erin Moriarty and Jamie Campbell Bower as the Beckers. It was originally slated for a January 2023 release, but Cinema Blend reports that the official release date is yet to be determined. But with all of the advance hype, it might be safe to assume that this tale of the terror experienced by the Beckers is much anticipated by horror movie lovers and paranormal enthusiasts everywhere."True Haunting" also co-stars Harriet Slater, Adam Davenport, Emma Gojkovic, and John Tench.

Evil seems to sell

Just how much has the concept of demonic possession been a factor in pop culture? Since millions of Americans first saw an actual exorcism ritual broadcast into their living rooms that evening in 1971, there have been scores of films made about the adversary of the Christian God, as well as countless books and short stories written about the evil deity. The phenomenon behind the film that vaulted the idea of this sort of evil into popularity has become quite a profitable franchise on its own (per Cinema Blend). "The Exorcist" spawned two sequels ("The Exorcist II: The Heretic" and "The Exorcist III" as well as two prequels ("Exorcist: The Beginning" and "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist"). A TV show of the same name was filmed for two seasons (per IMDb), and it was recently announced that a big-budget sequel of the original film is set to be released in 2023 (per The Wrap).

But it's hard to argue against the successes of the film that started this cinematic universe. "The Exorcist" was nominated for 10 Academy Awards the following Oscar season and became the first film in the horror genre to be nominated for best picture. It also won two categories, including a statue for best screenplay for William Peter Blatty (per IMDb). According to CBS News, the film grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts, which, adjusted for inflation, is over $1 billion in 2019 dollars.