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Hollywood Curse Legends

There are many myths behind movie lore concerning jinxes and mysterious deaths, but a closer look reveals these curses to be attributable more to publicity and rumor than to the supernatural.

Hollywood, myth-infused home of the movie industry, is like any other town in that it has its share of curses and mysterious legends. Stories about cursed productions take on a life of their own, making horror movies in particular seem even more ominous and frightening than if they were just works of entertainment.

When a movie deals with the subject of demons, it is all too easy to believe in a curse. Be it superstition or not, many people believe that merely dealing with occult subjects, dabbling in them, is a sure way to invoke malevolent forces. The legend of the curse surrounding the film The Exorcist can be traced to promotional materials, specifically book tie-ins, including Harold Newman’s The Exorcist: The Strange Story Behind the Film. Blame might be more correctly placed on the book’s publishers, Pinnacle Books, for their marketing. Two fatal incidents related to the production are noted in Newman’s book. The most pertinent is the death of actor Jack MacGowran from influenza. It is something of a stretch to blame MacGowran’s death on The Exorcist, as he died on another continent four weeks after all his scenes had been filmed. Then there was the death of the brother of actor Max von Sydow, which the veteran actor learned of during the shoot. As with MacGowran, the death occurred in another part of the world, Scandinavia. It is even more of a stretch to blame this on The Exorcist.

Newman’s text is actually a bit more circumspect in its implications. As for near-fatal occurrences, the most dramatic is the one that opens Newman’s book, an accident that nearly claimed the life of Jordan Miller, the five-year-old son of actor Jason Miller (who played Father Damien Karras). Newman certainly has no problem with sensationalism or any hesitancy about spreading rumors. But he stops short of explicitly endorsing them (Newman 1974).

Critic Mark Kermode claimed that William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, “played up” these sorts of rumors, especially MacGowran’s death, presumably as a means of publicity. Questioned by interviewer Michael Doyle, Friedkin denied Ker mode’s claim. “He’s wrong,” said Friedkin, before going on to elaborate: “I never ‘played up’ rumors of an Exorcist curse, although the idea of such a thing has been around almost since the beginning of [production on] the film. No, people like Ellen Burstyn played up those rumors, not me. I did everything I could to deny the existence of a curse and I don’t accept the idea now.” The director indicated that an actor expiring after a shoot was less unnerving than having an actor die on the set: “Yes, there were strange things that went on but there had been stranger and more troublesome events that have occurred on movie sets—like people dying during the course of shooting.” An agnostic, Friedkin concluded, “Personally, I don’t believe in curses, but I’ve only mentioned them because you just asked me about The Exorcist curse—as many others have over the years” (Doyle 2013).

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