Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Spend this Halloween at 'The Exorcist' steps

Pictured: synergy 
Longtime readers of mine--if there are any--might know about my history with the 1973 horror film with The Exorcist. Short version: For more than a decade of my life, I had nightmares about the movie--and about demonic possession more generally--after first learning about it despite never having seen it. And during Halloween 2016, I decided to face my fears and watch the movie, with the following result. As I summarized here for Acculturated (RIP):
I spent the next decade of my life blocking out any demonic pop culture—especially The Exorcist—in the hope that the fear would vanish as I aged. But it did not. My Catholic upbringing and a primal anxiety about losing control of my own body are largely to blame. The nightmares subsided, but my fright lingered. Thus, at 23 years old, I finally decided to confront my fears. I would watch The Exorcist, which was filmed in Washington, D.C., the city in which I currently work and live, for Halloween. Perhaps it would end the nightmares forever, or perhaps it would continue them indefinitely. I did not know. But so resolved, I could not back down. What I found upon watching was some of what I expected, some of what I did not, and much that made confronting my fears worthwhile.
Read the whole article I wrote for Acculturated to find my elaboration of the virtues of The Exorcist. If you don't feel like doing that, well, I'll recapitulate here: Basically, it's a wildly pro-Catholic movie about the reality of evil in the world and the importance of faith in confronting it. Owing a great deal to this, and to its genuine scares and great performances, I named The Exorcist my favorite horror movie, ranking among my all-time favorites.

Having found the experience of confronting my fears around Halloween gratifying, I decided to do the same last year, in 2017, by reading the book of the same name on which The Exorcist is based. The movie proved to be a mostly faithful adaptation of the book, with most of the few changes it made benefiting the story and not harming it.*

I started the book about a week before Halloween last year. On the evening of that Halloween, I had about 30 pages left. And then I realized something: I not only lived in the same city in which the film's famous climax takes place, but could easily access that infamous set of stairs in Georgetown (recognized as a historic landmark by D.C. on Halloween 2015, and up for national recognition). And since Halloween was a cool, pleasant night, and the area around the stairs was well-lit, I could finish the book there. As a bonus, I would get to see what it's like to be at the location of one of the most famous scenes in horror on Halloween. And so my plan for Halloween 2017 came to be.

The scary thing is that the guy walking down the stairs wasn't behind me when the picture was taken. I'm kidding (or am I?)
Reaching the steps around 6:30 pm, I found a comfortable position to sit, read, and observe. First, of course, I spent about a half-hour reading the climax of The Exorcist, during which one character takes a deadly tumble from the top of the steps down. This marked a first for me: the first time I had ever read a book at the exact location of its resolution, or perhaps any part of the book at the exact location at which it is set. As a result, I was better able to visualize precisely what I was reading better than ever before, helping the text to come alive.

But finishing the book was only the beginning of my night at the steps. Not long after arriving, I saw either a priest or someone dressed as one for Halloween approaching the steps to descend them. With the book in had, I warned him to be careful. He laughed. steady stream of hesitant tourists, of varying ages, walked by the steps and searched for some sign that they were in the right place. Showing them my copy of the book, I assured them that they were. To one of these tourists, I related a trivia fact about the book: When the filmmakers were capturing the stunt of the movie's climax (for which the stairs were covered in foam), students at Georgetown with roof views of the steps charged people to watch it from their vantage points. I volunteered to take many pictures of pairs or groups of people who came by to see the steps (one of whom reciprocated for me). Most surprising: Throughout the night, a consistent group of people were just using the steps to work out. And, finally, in the climax of my evening, at the request of one pair of horror tourists, I gave a dramatic reading of the book's dramatic resolution. I did not throw myself down the stairs at the end, but I did my best in every other respect to make it seem real. All in all, a good place to spend Halloween.

My happiness should be evidence
After leaving the steps, and in the year subsequent to my evening there, I have thought a lot about why I felt the need to go there, and why so many others did as well. The Exorcist doesn't even take place on Halloween (although at least one or two scenes seem to take place on it). So why would people go there then? To confront their fears, as I did? Because The Exorcist, as a horror movie, has become so indelibly tied up in the holiday associated with the genre? Because maybe some were hoping something might happen in that famous place on that auspicious night? Probably for all of these reasons, and more.

But whatever the reason, I highly recommend checking out The Exorcist steps this Halloween. It's a fascinating cultural experience to see who shows up there, and why. A few people may just use it to work out, but most others go to it for some ineffable, spooky, quintessentially Halloween reason(s). If you have the chance, you should join them. Just be careful not to fall down the stairs.

I hear it's happened before.

*The one exception to this might have been dropping some of the obscure references that the demon Pazuzu makes to the Bible, John Milton, C.S. Lewis, and other sources.

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