“It was all true,” says writer and narrator Mark Ramsey in the early opening of his latest podcast series, “Inside The Exorcist.” He’s describing a particular demonic episode, not the fictional one depicted on screen in the 1973 film that gives this series its title and reason for being. But despite the certitude within that opening recounting, much of the series that follows succeeds at terrifying and informing in equal measure, by leaving just enough to the listener’s imagination. Packed with choice anecdotes and hair-raising episodes from personal and community histories, it’s a time-bending story that uses the strengths of its format to deliver another distinct Hollywood saga.
Much like he did with his previous effort “Inside Psycho,” Ramsey traces the origins of a bedrock horror film from its real-life inspirations all the way through its production. Interspersing the experiences of “The Exorcist” novelist William Peter Blatty, director William Friedkin, actress Linda Blair and a bevy of individuals whose names may or may not have made the movie poster, Ramsey’s seven-part dive into the film’s past emphasizes atmosphere as much as biography.
Until the story reaches the eventual involvement of Blair (voiced here by Stephanie Drake), “Inside the Exorcist” is narrated and performed almost exclusively by Ramsey. It gives the whole series the feel of a veteran campfire storyteller, one who has honed his unsettling tale so sharply that it almost makes you question whether or not to believe him. Tying it all together is the fact that Ramsey is just a good actor. Whether he’s playing a befuddled Warner Bros. exec or a legendary actress indignantly rejecting a casting offer, he brings just enough distinction to each role to give “Inside The Exorcist” a faint radio play sheen.
But much like “Inside Psycho,” these aren’t stories of fancy or imagined conversations. These are anecdotes taken from autobiographical sources, including one Oscar night story that would be almost unfathomable, had it occurred four decades later. Because a straightforward chronological depiction of events would seem out of spirit for a story based on disorientation and otherworldly chains of events, Ramsey fractures this story’s timeline, hopping between generations and across continents to lay the groundwork for “The Exorcist.” Driven more by theme than by time, Ramsey is more easily able to make connections between real-life figures and the fictional characters they ushered into the public consciousness. He creates the narrative of a film guided by fate, whether or not destiny had a hand in bringing these creative and historical timelines together.
Still, there’s an admirable resistance to sensationalization here that doesn’t sacrifice the more grounded elements of the story. Not every chance encounter is a rousing success and some of the more ethereal elements go deliciously unexplained. (After all, what would a story about an elusive spirit be without a little ambiguity?)
As with his previous effort, “Inside The Exorcist” also benefits from stellar sound design. Ramsey ties these whispers and cracks into an uneasy ripple of body horror that reverberates through this story, from an electric chair execution to giant gashes and the violence that accompanies each. This isn’t just recreating heel clicks walking down an empty, echoing hallway — there’s a visceral impact wrung from sounds like creaking floorboards being splintered and ripped up. Listen closely at the right times and you might find something sinister lurking underneath the simplest parts of this tale.
“Inside The Exorcist” doesn’t skimp on examining the novel’s religious connections and origins, diving into the Catholic ritual of exorcism and the theological basis for a film that disturbed audiences across all faiths. The more unsettling stories from the late 1940s which helped plant the psychological seed for Blatty’s novel work extremely well in a podcast setting, precisely because they evoke the unseen. They force a listener to fashion for themselves the horrors that can only be felt and not witnessed.
For as powerful an invisible force as demonic possession can be in these interweaving tales, the Hollywood connections show that ambition can be just as intoxicating. The history behind “The Exorcist” shows how the desire for success, acclaim, and fame are also powers that compel. There’s a creeping sense of desperation in the desire to be rid of evil forces in a quiet Washington town that bleeds over into the pursuit of Hollywood stardom. The “at all costs” nature of both sides of this history lends an urgency to the story that unlocks it from a bygone decade.
There’s also a timeless way that “Inside The Exorcist” situates the making of Friedkin’s film in the surrounding industry history. Stretching back and forward a generation, Ramsey ties the director’s story into Hitchcock’s, blending “Psycho” and “The Exorcist” in a greater horror entertainment tapestry that still wrestles with how much of real life to let in. Be it “Psycho” inspiration Ed Gein, an old man’s tragic childhood, or any of the animals in “Inside The Exorcist” that seem to sense the presence of something nefarious, these podcasts have a way of making us ponder the unknowable. Movies may be an effective way to process that uncertainty, but this shows that those stories have captivating stories of their own.
Episodes 1 and 2 of “Inside The Exorcist” are now available to listen across podcast players. New episodes will be distributed by Wondery on Tuesdays.