What the Movie The Exorcist Taught Me About Sound

I was sixteen years old and so excited to see The Exorcist I took a train from Long Island into the city, where the movie had opened first. I went alone because I couldn’t find anyone to go with me and I couldn’t wait. Big mistake. The movie so completely terrified me I didn’t think I would ever go to a horror movie again. I’ll never forget riding back to Penn Station on the subway and looking into the faces of the people around me. ‘Anyone on this train might be possessed,’ I thought. Seriously. The movie freaked me out that much. Fear drove me temporarily insane.

Which made what happened next all the more unforgettable. Not long after I was cutting through the parking lot of a drive-in movie theatre to visit a friend. Up on that huge screen was The Exorcist. I froze. I practically had a panic attack right there on the spot. ‘Just don’t look up,” I told myself and walked on. ‘Don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up.’

Of course I looked up. I couldn’t resist. I watched one of the scariest scenes from the movie, the one where the little girl’s head turns completely around while things are flying through the air all around her. I watched that and I laughed.

It was a drive-in and I was seeing this without sound, and without sound the exact same scene was no longer frightening, but so over-the-top visually it was funny. It was the sounds that had scared me. It was an incredible revelation to me. The exact same scene! That is how powerfully sound effects you, I realized. It can take something that on the face of it is laughable and drive you out of your mind with terror.

I took these on the way to the Brill Building event at the Performing Arts branch of the New York Public Library. The Loser’s Lounge singers and musicians performed the songs division chief George Boziwick talked about and they were magnificent as always. This is the fountain at Lincoln Center.

Fountain at Lincoln Center, New York City

This was a wedding party passing through Times Square.

Wedding Party in Time Square, New York City

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

2 thoughts on “What the Movie The Exorcist Taught Me About Sound

  1. Yes, think of Psycho without the “EEE EEE EEE EEE” in the Shower Scene or Jaws without “Ba DUM…Ba DUM…Ba DUM.” But when I was a child, the type of soundtrack that chilled me to the bone was what I think of as the “disembodied women’s chorus” with each singer chanting “ahh ahh ahhhhh…”, their voices coming in on top of each other. Spooky children’s chanting scared as well; any chanting that seems as if the chanters are captives in some unearthly realm.

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