I’d like to tell you a story about a time when fear got the best of one filmgoer, and others paid the price. On the last day of January in 1927, an audience consisting mostly of children gathered in the Strand Theater in Bayonne, New Jersey. That day’s feature was The Fire Fighters.
Partway through the screening, just long enough for the audience of 900 people to become entranced by the film, several pieces of plaster fell from the ceiling. Startled, a child in the audience believed the flames from the screen had spread into real life.
“Fire,” the child shouted, sending the crowded theater into a panic. Thirty-one-year-old Michael Torello, his wife, and teenage daughter were all trampled as hundreds raced for the exits. Luckily, their injuries proved nonfatal. But the Torellos wouldn’t be the last to fall victim when films pushed audiences a little too far.
In director Alfred Hitchcock’s opinion, Psycho was unlikely to drive anyone completely berserk unless they were already that way when they arrived at the theater.
The infamous proto-slasher is now considered a classic piece of cinema. But the 1960 film met initial audiences with a unique set of conditions. Firstly, no one was to be admitted to the theater after the start of each screening. Secondly, audiences and critics were told not to reveal the film’s ending, as Hitch said, “It’s the only one we have.”
While some critics were put off by the level of secrecy surrounding the film, Psycho definitely left an impression on Jack Beahan of the Pennsylvania Evening Times. Beahan concludes his review by describing the film as “adult fare.”
“It would be best to leave the little kiddies home in the care of a competent babysitter. Preferably one without murderous tendencies,” he continues. “For it is possible that parents coming home from Psycho to find their little ones slain in their cribs would get hysterics, despite Mr. Hitchcock’s attempts to minimize its shock effect.”
More than any other, Psycho had the greatest effect on fans of one of the film’s stars, Janet Leigh. In what is now one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, Leigh is brutally stabbed to death in the shower. After seeing the film, Leigh received letters from fans asking if she was afraid of showers (she preferred baths). She also received reactions that were a little more severe.
“I’ve never had so much reaction from a film,” she told the Los Angeles Mirror in 1960. “Some people, who apparently took the picture literally, are even surprised to find I’m still alive.”
For years, The Exorcist was labeled as the scariest movie of all time. While its reputation may have diminished over the years as modern horror movies have ratcheted up the intensity, it’s impossible to discount the effect the film first had on audiences.
Stories of audience members fainting or becoming physically ill during screenings of The Exorcist are common. As New York City theater manager David Pelletier told the Associated Press upon the film’s release, “Three, four, or five people faint at every performance. Sometimes more. Some throw up, but they are the weaker ones. My carpets are ruined.”
But in addition to the faint and those lacking a strong constitution, there are others who were more deeply unsettled by the horrible demonic transformation of a 12-year-old girl. Those who found themselves both mentally and spiritually shaken.
In the early days of 1974, a Denver man left a theater screening The Exorcist and staggered through the chilly winter air into the nearby Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
“He was half naked, with bare feet and no shirt, and clearly distraught,” Rev. James W. Rasby, pastor of the cathedral, told the New York Times. “We called an ambulance, but he was so upset that it took the police, the attendants, and two priests to get him into it.”
The Exorcist ignited fears nationwide, as Catholic priests were flooded with requests to comfort terrified teenagers and perform exorcisms on loved ones believed to be possessed by a demon. In the three months after the film’s release, calls to Roman Catholic rectories nationwide regarding exorcisms increased by 10 to 20 percent, Father Ed Johnson of St. James Catholic Church told the San Pedro News Pilot in 1974.
“I’ve received dozens of calls from people who are horribly frightened or so confused that they have begun to lose their grip on reality,” Rev. Richard Woods, a Dominican priest at Loyola University in Chicago, told the New York Times in 1974. “I know of two kids who came out of the movie thinking that they were possessed and have now been hospitalized.”
As reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, no one contacted Woods with an actual case of possession, although several “seemed to want to be possessed.” The Exorcist was an especially problematic film for the people of St. Louis, as the city was home to the events that inspired the book the film is based on.
In 1949, a 14-year-old Maryland boy was transported to St. Louis after having shown the “classic manifestations” of demonic possession. The boy had allegedly been speaking in a foreign language, convulsing violently, and breaking out in hives that resembled certain forms and figures. After a medical evaluation, the St. Louis exorcism team was granted permission to conduct an exorcism that ultimately stretched out over three months.
In 1974, the Post Dispatch spoke with a member of the secretive exorcism team about The Exorcist. The priest confirmed that he had seen the film, but told reporters that it “overemphasizes the bizarre.”
The Blair Witch Project
With its shaky, verite style and viral promotion, The Blair Witch Project felt like genuine footage of the final days of a documentary crew upon its initial release. Enough so that residents of Burkittsville, Maryland, were met with a flood of fans of the film looking to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch, fictional reports of missing children, and the truth about the film’s origins.
The film’s setting was simply a matter of convenience. Co-writer/director Eduardo Sanchez lived nearby in Rockville, Maryland. Alongside filmmaking partner Daniel Myrick, Sanchez assembled a seven-person film crew to trail their three main actors through the Maryland wilderness. The result of this improvisational odyssey was footage that appeared as genuine as it did haunting.
The Blair Witch Project began to draw panic even before the film was completed. After the film’s first trailer was screened on the Independent Film Channel, Myrick received a call from an Albany detective who was attempting to investigate the deaths of the film’s characters. Later, a counselor who specializes in missing children reached out to the Maryland Film Festival after receiving a report of the movie.
Leading up to the film’s premiere, the Maryland Historical Society began receiving inquiries about “the only known existing copy of The Blair Witch Cult,” according to the Baltimore Sun. This fictitious collection of documents was listed as primary sources for the Blair Witch myth on a website created by Myrick and Sanchez to spread more lore about the film within a film.
The Blair Witch Project’s popularity quickly turned into a blessing and a burden for the residents of Burkittsville, population 214 upon the film’s release. The small town’s welcome sign was stolen, forcing city officials to hide the remaining three signs in storage.
Tourists and reporters inundated the town, including the Burkittsville Union Cemetery, which is featured in the film. This forced officials to secure the cemetery gates with new chains and locks to prevent vehicles from entering. Sheriff’s deputies began standing guard outside the graveyard each evening, which cost the town an extra $250 a month in overtime pay. This came after several incidents were reported around town and among the tombstones.
“They’d come along and be peeking in people’s windows, asking them where the witch lived,” an anonymous townsperson later told the Baltimore Sun. “There were even people holding candlelight vigils in the cemetery for the dead children. And they wouldn’t believe it was fiction.”
While reportedly few locals traveled to nearby cities to see the movie that brought so much attention to their hometown, 18-year-old mechanic Robert Roakes drove up from Woodbridge, Virginia, after seeing The Blair Witch Project. He felt compelled to visit the town after watching the movie the previous evening.
“It was hard to make it home. I was that much shaken,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “Don’t go see it at night. I don’t know if it was real or not, but you won’t catch me back in these woods because of what happened to them.” Roakes reportedly spent the evening searching the Union Cemetery for the graves of children taken by the witch.
The sudden attention didn’t lead to much financial gain for the small town, other than an increase in the sales of postcards, T-shirts, and bundles of sticks arranged in the form of the totems in the movie. Less than a year after the wide release of The Blair Witch Project in the summer of 1999, plans for a sequel were announced. Burkittsville residents responded with outrage.
In February 2000, producers of the sequel were met with harassment and insults before fleeing a town meeting. “We’ve already been raped, now they want us to be prostitutes,” reportedly shouted a former town council member.
One resident who refused to be identified told the Baltimore Sun, “We have incurred costs because of the publicity from this movie, while its backers have made obscene profits. I’m not going to get in the middle of another media frenzy.”
Another woman who had recently purchased her cemetery plot feared that film crews may eventually trample across her final resting place. In addition to the concern of outsiders invading the cemetery, fears were stoked when a strange man was reportedly found videotaping children in what locals worried to be some sort of “copycat” exercise inspired by the film.
In this case, the fictional events of a film within a film had inspired real-world consequences. Whether or not the events of The Blair Witch Project were true was irrelevant. The horror for the people of Burkittsville, Maryland, had become all too real.