Among the many differences between William Friedkin’s newest film and his most famous, one is considerably more visceral than the rest: “The Devil and Father Amorth” probably won’t make anybody faint and/or vomit. The Academy Award–winning director has revisited “The Exorcist” 45 years later with a documentary about an actual priest who performs actual exorcisms, making a kind of companion piece to his horror classic.
“The Exorcist” was ahead of its time in many ways, not all of which were confined to the screen. Reports abounded — some confirmed, some not — of audience members having extreme physical reactions to the film. Nearly half a century later, that tradition continues in fits and starts — someone might even make a documentary about it one day.
The most recent of these is Julia Ducournau’s instantly infamous “Raw,” a cannibalistic horror offering that proved so unsettling to two attendees of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival that they required medical attention. “An ambulance had to be called to the scene as the film became too much for a couple patrons,” Ryan Werner, a publicist for the film, said in a statement at the time. It was a rare case of such incidents being downplayed rather than exaggerated for effect.
A year earlier, genre maestro Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever,” “Hostel”) received what he called the “best review ever” when one patron fainted during a screening of “The Green Inferno” at the Deauville American Film Festival. His film also concerns cannibalism, which is almost encouraging insofar as it confirms that most of us are not, in fact, cool with that practice. Less than 10 days later, “Goodnight Mommy” director Severin Fiala told IndieWire that “two people fainted” at a screening of his film. “That’s the best compliment we’ve had so far.”
Roth and Fiala aren’t wrong: Incidents like these become part of a film’s legacy, even when they’re apocryphal accounts no one can confirm. The earliest of these is Tod Browning’s legendary “Freaks,” which prompted a lawsuit after one woman claimed that watching the film about a group of sideshow performers resulted in a miscarriage.
That would be the most extreme reaction of all time were it not the fact that one moviegoer in India is said to have literally died while watching “The Conjuring 2” a couple years ago. (Even stranger, his remains went missing upon being transported to the morgue and were never found. How has this not inspired a movie of its own?) Ditto “The Passion of the Christ,” whose crucifixion scene reportedly gave one woman a fatal heart attack. “It was the highest emotional part of the movie,” said a spokeswoman for the Wichita, Kansas TV station that first broke the news. That may be something of an understatement.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” which caused four people to faint at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Von Trier wasn’t the first provocateur to make festival-goers pass out on the Croisette: Seven years before chaos reigned, another Cannes selection caused people to get officially sick: Gaspar Noé’s “Irréversible,” which has always been best-known for a graphic rape scene that occurs early on. At Cannes, where it first premiered, the film “proved so shocking that 250 people walked out, some needing medical attention,” according to the BBC. In addition to its most infamous scene, the film also features a bass-heavy, low-frequency score during its first half-hour that can’t be heard by the human ear but is specifically designed to induce feelings of distress.
“The Exorcist” differs from most others on this list insofar as audience reactions were actually caught on camera following some of the film’s many, many sold-out showings. “I have a friend in there alone, and I don’t want to leave her in there alone,” one woman says. No one loses their lunch, but several people discuss their decision to leave the theater because they were too frightened; one woman can be seeing lying face down on a couch to collect herself, while another woman passes out.
A theater employee discusses the protocol for such incidents: “I’ve never in my life known a movie where people would faint. I mean, it’s hard to make people faint. Well, as soon as they faint, I get out the smelling salts,” he says. All these decades later, that may still be the best approach.