The Version You’ve Never Heard: The Evolving Soundtrack of The Exorcist

by Jeffrey Bullins

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 131] Abstract: The Exorcist (1973) was one of the most successful horror films of the 1970s and many subsequent films copied its subject matter and style. However, its aesthetics do not carry over to its own rerelease, The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen (2000). Beyond 10 minutes of extra footage, the soundtrack is heavily modified. New music and sound effects are added, and existing effects are combined with new elements. This soundtrack is more complex and layered, working against the style of the original. Twenty-seven years later, instead of following the realistic aesthetics of the original, Version borrows stylistically from late 90s horror. Rather than influencing its contemporaries, it is influenced by them. This works against director William Friedkin’s professed goals of realism and suggests significant narrative differences. This article examines changes in the soundtrack between The Exorcist and Version and how a realistic, objective aesthetic morphs into a stylized, subjective soundtrack closer to its 2000 contemporaries.

Keywords: The Exorcist rerelease, film scores and soundtracks, Jack Nitzsche

It can be difficult to overstate how influential The Exorcist (1973) has been to both the horror genre and cinema, so much so that we are still talking about it fifty years later (and an issue of Supernatural Studies is entirely devoted to it). It is hard to imagine a film coming out in 2023 that would cause the hours-long lines formed around theaters for The Exorcist. With William Peter Blatty producing the screen version of his novel, director William Friedkin coming off an Oscar win for The French Connection (1971), and a big budget supporting it, The Exorcist was primed to be a hit. It did not disappoint. “The response was immediate and extraordinary” (Kermode 1), drawing in audiences who were not horror fans and helping the genre’s mainstream visibility (Wells 84). The Exorcist initially played in theaters for two years. Its box office success [page 132] resulted in stylistic mimicry in dozens of films “because producers seeking comparable success will utilize similar aesthetics and/or narrative aspects” (Olson and Reinhard 44). Though its style may have been copied in the 1970s, it does not hold for the release of The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen (hereafter Version) in 2000. In addition to an added ten minutes of footage, including the infamous “spider walk” sequence of Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) crawling backward down the stairs, the soundtrack is heavily modified. This includes music not just in new scenes but inserted into previously quiet ones. New sound effects are added, and existing sound effects are revised through combination with new elements. This soundtrack is much more complex and layered, which works against the style of the original. William Whittington notes of film sound in the early 1970s, “Even on big budget horror films like The Exorcist, the sound methods were somewhat primitive and matter of fact” (“Horror” 174). Twenty-seven years later, the capabilities of digital audio are anything but. Instead of following the realistic aesthetics of the original Exorcist, Version borrows stylistically from genre films of the late 1990s. Rather than influencing its contemporaries, it is influenced by them. The result is a change of tone that works against Friedkin’s professed goals and suggests significant narrative differences. 

This article will examine some of the changes in the soundtrack between The Exorcist and Version and how a realistic, objective aesthetic morphs into a stylized, subjective soundtrack closer to its 2000 contemporaries. Version does contain many “realistic” instances rendered through layered backgrounds and sounds emanating from any onscreen source. However, the impact of the original soundtrack’s subtlety and quiet is reduced by the increase of audio elements. The realism of the original film owes much to minimalism, which allowed for sudden, jarring changes in volume. Jay Beck notes that, in the 1970s, theater owners often adjusted the volume to not overwhelm an audience. Still, Friedkin’s goal was to do that by “manipulating the dynamics of the optical soundtrack” (181). [page 133]

Analysis of the differences between the 1973 and 2000 soundtracks will begin with the Iraq prologue and move linearly through the film, with focus on scenes where the soundtracks differ considerably and in which the result has an appreciable impact on narrative and/or aesthetics. Indeed, much of the film remains similar, but when differences occur, they are often quite striking. As such, this discussion will focus on particularly impactful moments of contrast.

Assessed decades later as “the first modern horror film to begin excessively using distracting special effects” (Williams 106), the disturbing images of Regan’s transformative possession, projectile vomiting, and head-spinning were key to achieving Friedkin’s desire to enact primal, physical responses from the audience. Beck notes, “it was his desire to shock and terrify his audience by any means at his disposal” (180). Beck goes on to describe the “highly expressive sound track [sic]” that is a significant part of the film’s horrifying formula. In particular, the contrasting dynamics, sudden loud sounds erupting from almost silence, served to jolt the audience and get the “gut reaction” that Friedkin was after (181). In the introduction to the 25th anniversary DVD, Friedkin asserts that films should be emotional experiences, and to achieve this with The Exorcist, it “had to be a realistic film about inexplicable events.” This is directly heard in a soundtrack that focuses on diegetic elements, subtle music use, and lengthy quiet sequences. “Friedkin preferred to utilize the awkward silences and pauses in the film to build the tension,” not wanting continuous music or “so-called frightening music” (182). Friedkin impressed Blatty with his previous film, The French Connection (1971), “which seemed to the author to possess exactly the kind of gritty documentary-style realism” that he wanted for The Exorcist (Kermode 2). Similarly, regarding the visuals for The Exorcist, Director of Photography Owen Roizman stated that Friedkin “didn’t want it to look like a horror film—that it would be much better if the film just had a very natural look” (Kermode 4). Linda Ruth Williams and Michael Hammond see Friedkin as combining his background experience in documentary and [page 134] television with an appreciation for the aesthetics of French New Wave (181).

The desire for realistic presentation in the horror genre was certainly not unique to The Exorcist. Released five years prior, Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) is often cited as having a “documentary” style resembling newscasts of social unrest at the time. However, the underscore is prominent in Night, which works against a purely realistically styled soundtrack. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), a story of satanic supernaturality that can be seen as a precursor to The Exorcist, featured a soundtrack that took particular care with the sound of the diegetic space. Also, protagonist Rosemary, like The Exorcist’s Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), experiences dream sequences, both occurring in eerie quiet. While such precedents existed for diegetically-focused soundtracks, plenty of films at this time worked with more spectacular, cinematic sounds. For instance, Brian DePalma’s Sisters (1973) and Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) featured grandiose scores by Bernard Herrmann. Likewise, John Williams’ score for Jaws (1975) showed the continued effectiveness of traditional orchestral underscore. These soundtracks, while efficacious, look backward stylistically. Heavy underscore highlighting action follows an “excessively obvious” style from the 40s and 50s (Wierzbicki 136). The Exorcist built on emerging sonic techniques and would, in turn, influence soundtracks for the rest of the decade. Andrew Tudor observes that the film works “toward a style of heightened realism” often heard in post-1950s horror (63). For instance, during the Iraq prologue, the layering of dialog, pickaxes, shovels, movement, and crumbling rock at the archaeological dig site provide a textured, convincing representation of the space. Prayer chants are also heard when the film’s title appears, replacing the more familiar and expected dissonant strings of “horror” music. 

In Version, the carefully constructed textures heard at the dig site remain, but moments such as a closeup of a pickaxe have a noticeably wider frequency response. The impact sound [page 135] contains more low frequencies, reflecting the capabilities of digital reproduction in 2000 vs. the optical track from 1973. One of the most affecting qualities of the original soundtrack is, as Friedkin focused upon, sudden, dynamic changes in volume. The 2000 Version widens the frequency range and spreads sounds to multiple speakers, resulting in a more convincing representation of the space and a loss of contrasting dynamics during transitions from moments of quiet. This is heard as Father Merrin examines the Pazuzu statue fragment found at the dig. A buzzing that will become indicative of the demon’s presence plays in the background. Michael Brown’s article exploring the concept of “noise” as it relates to Pazuzu makes fascinating connections between the demon’s sounds, disorientation, meaningful communication, and the overall importance of the prologue as it relates to later events. Bruce F. Kawin notes that the Iraq prologue “is as realistic as the subject matter allows. The fact that many inexplicable things are presented the way they might really happen accounts for a good deal of the film’s impact” (93). Yet Version also modifies the subject matter through suggesting supernatural presences earlier in the film. 

A style and relationship of contrasts in the editing and sound design is established in the prologue and continues throughout the film. However, the 2000 Version undercuts the original style by incorporating (too many?) new sonic elements. In the original, before a smash cut from the image of the Pazuzu fragment to the sun setting over Nineveh, the buzzing sound reaches a louder volume than in Version, resulting in a greater contrast to the quiet of the sunset image. In Version, more dialog and chants are added, giving a fuller soundtrack but also weakening the transition’s contrast. Similarly, just past the seven-minute mark, after telling his archaeologist friend that he must leave, Merrin walks past a line of men praying. The original soundtrack is eerily quiet, with Merrin’s footsteps reverberating off the stone walls as the men bow down silently. Version develops the diegetic space further by adding chanting. While this does create a more convincing [page 136] space and gives sounds to onscreen sources, it lessens Merrin’s isolation. He must travel alone, walk by himself, his singular footsteps echoing on the cold, ancient stones.

Mark Evans, discussing the layers of sound effects in the Iraq scenes, notes that the surround-sound mix of the 1998 re-release of the film causes the viewer to be “more quickly and thoroughly drawn into the world of the film” (101). Does this hold when the soundtrack is modified beyond a 5.1 remix? By adding so many additional sounds, Version moves toward an aesthetic of “stylistic excess.” Mark Richard Adams discusses this regarding the 2001 film Valentine (Jamie Blanks) and the “exaggerated or overwhelming use of the tools of film to create imagery and sounds that go beyond those necessary to create the intended effect” (101). Version certainly has more details, such as the squeaky wheels of the carriage that almost runs over Merrin, and the soundtrack’s expanded frequency response reproduces sounds more accurately. However, does this support the “intended effect”? Based on comments and creative choices from the director, it seems that startling volume changes and realistic depictions were of chief concern. As such, Version works against the former by having a fuller soundtrack and thus a lessened contrast of dynamics during transitions. The latter is more debatable. Nondiegetic soundtrack elements can be a linchpin regarding a realistic sonic style. Even though we know that the events on screen are not real, having only diegetic elements supports an illusion of realism. Heavy underscore, on the other hand, is indicative of the cinematic and spectacular. Overly exaggerated sound effects can also contribute to a stylistically excessive soundtrack, commonly overworking subwoofers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.1 Revisiting the soundtrack in 2013, critic Jordan Hoffman notes, “Something you don’t hear a lot of in The Exorcist are jump scare BLAMs. Indeed, there’s something much more effective. Total silence” (2013). While the original soundtrack rarely gets to “total” silence, Version fills up any quiet that is there. [page 137]

From Iraq, the film moves (or returns in the case of Version) to Georgetown. Craig Martin notes the contrast between the “primitive” sounds heard in the Iraq sequence and the “modern” sounds following the transition to Georgetown. As with the prologue, Version adds additional background sounds, such as traffic and indistinct voices. The additions are not particularly necessary, nor do they work against Friedkin’s goal of showing “a real street in a real town with real people living in it” (Friedkin 2000).2 When Regan’s mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) goes into Regan’s room to find a chilly draft coming in from an open window, narrative implications do occur. The original soundtrack has the wind noises fairly low in the mix, which leaves more space for scratching sounds that Chris hears coming from the attic. In Version, the wind sound is more layered and louder. This follows the prologue in which the swirling desert wind also featured prominently. Yet by focusing on the wind, the suggestion seems to be that a threat is coming from outside instead of already being inside, just above Chris’ head. Further, a focus on the scratching raises questions following butler Karl’s (Rudolf Schündler) assertion that the attic is rat-free. Also shifting focus in this scene is the addition of Regan’s bubbling aquarium. The original soundtrack is quiet and still, providing a tender moment of a mother checking on a sleeping child. While the onscreen objects in Regan’s room now have appropriate sounds, the emotional impact of the moment is lessened by a soundtrack that focuses attention on the things in the space more than the characters. In turn, the higher volume due to these additional sounds lessens the transition from the quiet bedroom to the noisy kitchen.

In general, there are fewer quiet moments in Version and less time to digest what we have seen and heard. This is exemplified in changes made to the underscore during a scene of Chris, an actor, walking home from the set of her film. In the original, as she strolls down a tree-lined street, “Tubular Bells,” a pre-existing song by Mike Oldfield now forever associated with The Exorcist, fades in. This allows for a few mo-[page 138]ments of quiet transition. In Version, the music cue begins before the visual cut, creating a pre-lap transition. This does serve a transitional function, which fits with Friedkin’s comments about practical uses of the underscore; he did not want it  “to carry most of the emotional weight in the film” (Beck 185). Unfortunately, this change throws off the timing of other elements, such as a low-frequency hit synced up with a cut to another wide angle of Chris walking. She pauses upon overhearing two priests talking. Father Karras’ comment, “there’s not a day that I don’t feel like a fraud,” is punctuated by a musical hit in the re-edited score of Version. In the original mix, the hit is still there, but the music fades down for the line of dialog before the entire soundtrack is filled with the noise of a passing airplane, adding intrigue about the unheard conversation. The sound of the airplane increases in volume before abruptly cutting out on a smash cut to the MacNeil home. In Version, the effect is remixed to sound as if the airplane is receding before the cut. This makes sense as the plane is not about to land in the cathedral’s courtyard. However, it directly works against the drastic volume changes so lauded in the original soundtrack. Further, the original effect illustrates Beck’s observation that The Exorcist uniquely “blurred the boundaries between sound effects and music” (181). The airplane roar functions similarly to a dramatic music swell, increasing in volume until a climactic cut. Version positions the sound more logically as an offscreen effect but, in doing so, reverts to traditional demarcations of sound categories rather than leaning into the film’s distinctive aural style.

Transitioning to Karras waiting in a subway station, Version plays up the electrical sparks of the track more spectacularly than the relatively quiet environment of the original. The sparks are present in the original mix but are much more subtle. With the ability to have hundreds of simultaneous audio elements and a sound for everything on (and off) screen, Version follows contemporary stylistic excess in which every movement, action, and object is highlighted and enhanced. A [page 139] hollow, airy reverberation added in Version certainly fits with the underground space but also lessens the impact of the sudden arrival of a train. Further, in Version the sound of the train carries over longer into the next scene. The post-lap transition in the original is present but very short. The increase of overlapping sounds both before and after transitions smooths those cuts and gives a feeling of cohesion and interconnectedness. This fits with a faster editing pace common to the late 1990s, moving more quickly from one scene to the next, but in doing so, the stark demarcations between scenes are lost, even a transition as innocuous as the one after Karras, talking in a bar with fellow priest Tom (Thomas Bermingham), says he has lost his faith. The original contrasts the noisy bar environment with soft wind blowing outside the MacNeil house. In Version, the wind is much louder and blustering, reinforcing the suggestion heard earlier from Regan’s open bedroom window that danger is approaching. Martin sees Version as responding to questions of narrative ambiguity by providing “clearer links” between the Iraq prologue and the rest of the film. Such can be heard here in the wind, which in turn references the mythological wind demon Pazuzu. Though not mentioned by name in The Exorcist, the sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman, 1977) delves deep into the lore of Pazuzu and explains the buzzing sound motif by tying him to plagues of locusts. While adding more wind sounds is not particularly exaggerative, such narrative implications do matter. Pamela Morow notes the presence of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia during scenes with Chris and Regan, which “creates the sensation that Evil is present at all times” (4). As with the preference for the sound of wind over scratching in the attic, antagonistic threat is shifted from inside to outside.

Granted, such changes are often subtle, allowing for some of the objectivity at the heart of the film’s style. Morrow observes, “The notion of not allowing the music to instruct audiences how to feel or perceive the scenes was very important for Friedkin,” which resulted in minimal underscore and Friedkin’s infamous rejection of Lalo Schifrin’s overly [page 140] “frightening” score (2).  The scene following the blustery shot of the MacNeil house has Chris swearing at an operator while trying to get in touch with Regan’s father, who has forgotten his daughter’s birthday. Initially, Chris’ voice was the focus of the soundtrack as Regan and the audience listen from down the hall. In a choice that seems very against the established style of the film’s first half hour, underscore is added in Version. It remains low in the mix, not competing with the dialog, but its presence influences the perception of the scene. Although the specific target is somewhat disputable, the music could be continuing the suggestion of foreboding danger with a sinister-sounding stutter of sharp notes. Friedkin notes in a commentary track for Version that Regan hears what is happening, but “we don’t know what’s going on in this little girl’s head.” The underscore, however, clues us in. Though the music begins as a tone blended with the wind sounds, it ends up working against any blurring between music and effects. It is instead a rare moment of purely musical elements alongside dialog. Stylistically, this aligns with the fuller, layered soundtracks of the late 1990s and works against Beck’s observation that music in The Exorcist is purposefully subtle, “being either barely perceptible or indistinguishable from general background sounds” (183).

 A much more elaborate addition of underscore occurs during the “spider walk” scene of Regan crawling backward down the stairs and vomiting blood. Friedkin had planned to include the scene in the film but opted to remove it due to concerns about pacing, taking focus away from Burke Dennings’s (Jack MacGowran) death, and potentially noticeable wires (Lealos and Kennedy). It had been available as a deleted scene but was not included in the film until Version. Just after Chris learns of Burke’s death, the original film had a somewhat awkward fade to black (most edits in the film are hard cuts) as Chuck (Ron Faber) tries to comfort her. The close-up shot of this action is gone in Version. As Chuck leaves, a low, airy, reverberant tone fades up. It is similar sonically to the ambiance of the subway station and may initially exhibit the ambiguous [page 141] qualities of a sound somewhere between music and effect. However, this gives way to frenetic strings as Regan comes down the stairs. Blood pours from her mouth, and the growl she issues combines with the music, increasing in volume and complexity and carrying over from Chris’ reaction to a black screen. This is a rare moment of sounds without visuals. 

While there are certainly not always visible anchors for sounds, part of the realism in the original soundtrack came from containing sounds to scenes and not carrying them over. Prominent underscore in the mix seems to work against James Marriott’s observation that “the music itself tends to be unobtrusive, mixed low in the sound production to add an air of unease without distracting from the story” (134). It may not be distracting for everyone watching the spider walk scene, particularly if one is used to the loud, dissonant strings common to the horror genre. However, it does stand out as a stylistic contrast in which the soundtrack eschews subtlety for the thrill of a startling jump scare. As Roger Ebert noted, the spider walk is so different that it “exists in isolation from the scenes around it.”

The spider walk occurs just after a sequence that contains some of the most distracting additions in Version: superimposed images of the demon. The white-faced, sharp-toothed demon face had been shown previously at 37:47 of Version in a newly added scene of Regan undergoing various medical tests. The flash is very brief and takes up the entire frame, just as it does in the original during Karras’ dream sequence. The flash with Regan, however, is accompanied by a brief sting that sounds similar to the airy reverberance of the subway and precedes the spider walk. When Chris arrives home to find Regan alone, the demon’s face does not flash full frame. Rather, as Chris walks through the kitchen, it appears floating over her shoulder on the stove’s exhaust hood. The face is accompanied by a low shing akin to scraping over piano strings. This isn’t an extravagant jump scare, as Chris remains curious rather than startled. Friedkin notes that this scene indicates that “some other presence … has now invaded this household.” In [page 142] the original, this is suggested by flickering lights and a ringing phone without a caller on the other end. Strange things have been happening, of course, and Chris’ uneasy glances in the dark convey anxiety and uncertainty. The superimposition of the face seems to add little to the scene, being merely a little startling, but it sets up a bigger jump scare immediately after transitioning from the kitchen to Regan’s bedroom. 

A quick flash of the face of the Pazuzu statue fades up and down over black before Chris enters the room. The sound with this image is a much louder and higher-pitched screech, clearly designed to be a startling seat-jumper. This gives way to a low pedal point that runs through the rest of the scene. Slight, buzzy fluctuations in the tone refer to Pazuzu’s sonic motif. Sustained, unresolved notes are commonly used to increase tension in horror film soundtracks. As such, Version here again incorporates traditional genre tropes instead of embracing the unique sonic style of the original. Like the superimposed images, the tone doesn’t seem necessary in this scene. The original mix highlighting Chris’ shivering breaths and the distant sirens floating through the open window already convey unease and uncertainty. A final superimposed image of the entire Pazuzu statue from Nineveh silently fades in on the wall after Chris leaves the room. Following a couple of starts and a pedal point suggesting an otherworldly presence, this image is not a jump scare. As such, it is perhaps the most unsettling of the images, reminding us that Regan is indeed not alone in her room. Neither is the audience, as these superimposed images directly call attention to the filmmaking process and work against a “documentary” style. However, such awareness fits the horror genre’s self-reflexive craze of the post-Scream 1990s. 

Other aural additions to Version are not as obvious but still work towards filling up the soundtrack and leaving fewer pensive instances of quiet. For example, when Chris is hosting a party at her Georgetown home, dialog is added in an exterior shot. The original soundtrack contains ambient sound, but in Version, an unseen character says, “I must say it’s really nice [page 143] to meet you. We’ve been friends of the family for years.” It is unclear who is saying this or what narrative implications it may have. A friend of the MacNeil family? It seems odd to mention having known them for years since they don’t live in Georgetown. This seems more like a throwaway line of dialog meant to be part of the background ambiance rather than contributing to a plot point. So what is it adding to the moment besides filling up the track with more sounds? 

Similarly, as Regan is undergoing tests in Version, a line of dialog from a nurse, “Let’s move her,” is added. She is about to be moved anyway, so the line doesn’t add anything beyond another audio element. As such, it fills an otherwise quiet soundtrack, the auditory starkness of which in relation to the medical testing is particularly important. The thunderous clamoring of the medical equipment is often noted as one of the most affecting uses of the soundtrack’s extreme volume changes. In a 1974 review, Robert F. Willson, Jr., notes, “The mechanical screech of X-ray examination machines, heard in a scene in which we realize that possession by medical science can be as menacing as possession by the devil” (184). Willson laments the emergence of the multiplex and questions the efficacy of the film when viewed in less-than-ideal conditions. Indeed, this is certainly even more of a concern by 2000 when many viewers are likely watching the DVD at home. The dynamics produced from television speakers or even a modest home theater system are far from the sonic impact achievable in a properly calibrated theater. As such, the soundtrack for new sequences in Version of Regan undergoing tests relies more on layered effects and music than contrasting volume dynamics. This is heard in an added scene of tests, inserted into Version following Karras checking on his mother in the hospital. Changes during transitional moments also lessen the impact of volume changes. Just past the 56-minute mark, a cut occurs from Chris speaking with doctors to Regan strapped into a loud machine. In the original mix, this is a hard cut for the audio and picture, a sudden jarring introduction of mechanical noise. Version introduces the noise before the cut. The [page 144] transition becomes smoother, more polished, and more cinematic. This is in line with the quicker pace of editing, for both image and sound, of the late 1990s but inconsistent with the established sonic style of the original film. Granted, the original mix does become somewhat more cinematic as it progresses. That is, there is more underscore and complex effects. Low music is heard during Regan’s hypnosis scene, “Tubular Bells” returns as she is once more examined, and music blends with siren sounds as Chris drives home. Thus, the addition of underscore as Karras and Detective William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) discuss Burke’s death does not seem wholly out of place. Nor does the addition of effects such as a low rumble as possessed Regan slides a bureau towards her mother. 

Music is added for a new scene in Version with Karras listening closely to recordings of Regan’s voice. Further, the underscore swells when Sharon (Kitty Winn) guides Karras to Regan’s room. Thematically, these additions seem to fit. As the words “help me” form on Regan’s torso, something beyond our reality is clearly at work. The realistic style established throughout the film’s first half gives way to the fantastic. Karras and his struggling faith are clearly outmatched, so Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) is contacted. Martin notes the presence of hammering sounds as Merrin walks in the woods before he receives the message about Regan’s possession, tying the moment sonically to the opening sequence when Merrin observes Iraqi blacksmiths. Hermann Kappelhoff also draws connections between the ancient/ modern as it relates to Iraq/Georgetown but incorrectly identifies “Tubular Bells, which accompany Father Merrin as he wanders, shaky and obviously exhausted, through the streets of Nineveh” (182). The comment draws correlations between Merrin and Chris, but the former remains more characterized by the sounds of the space he is in rather than with underscore. The hammering sounds in the woods are from a debatable diegetic source. They are not in the original; instead, the light sounds of birds suggest a peaceful location for the aging priest. Both suggest, though, a location distant [page 145] from the modernity of Georgetown and, thus, the connection Merrin has with the ancient and supernatural. Whittington similarly recognizes comparable “echoes” that “tightly weave together the narrative and themes of the film” (“Sound” 4). 

Version adds a low-frequency tone at the start of the scene. This carries through and is blended with higher frequency music that originally started after Merrin receives his message. The original music has a light, mystical quality, again establishing the priest as in touch with the supernatural. However, the addition of the tone brings with it the ominous suggestion of danger, of something large and unseen. The audience knows what the message is about, so a nondiegetic tone adds little to Merrin’s quiet stroll through the woods, indicating danger before he is aware of it. While part of the fun of a horror movie can be having knowledge that characters do not, at this point, past ninety minutes into the film, the plot is well understood. As such, the tone follows many of the additions in Version by more overtly guiding the audience, which in turn lessens the objective style of the original mix. Evans, in discussing the importance of rhythm in the soundtrack of The Exorcist, notes that it is “the constant uncertainty of knowing when the horror will strike that give[s] the genre its power” (122). Yet Version foreshadows and telegraphs with sound elements.

Such subjective emphasis is heard as Karras and Merrin ready for the exorcism itself. Merrin comments about the demon, “there is only one.” In the original mix, this line is followed by silence as Karras, with the audience, ponders the implications. In Version, a low cello note is added, and ambiguity is removed. Fluctuating, low-frequency rumbles are also heard as Regan floats during the exorcism. This certainly amplifies the moment’s precariousness but removes the original’s breath-catching silence. Such moments, as well as additional growls and noises as the priests fight the demon are in line with Lisa Coulthard’s observations about onscreen violence and trends in the early 2000s, which have “more complex layering of sound elements and a greater attention to communicating an experience of violence” (54). So, while the [page 146] impact of the 1973 soundtrack relied on startling volume changes and realistic presentation, horror soundtracks twenty-five years later are more concerned with exciting, subjective experiences for the audience. Film critic William Thomas stated that the best way to watch The Exorcist is in a quiet late-night screening: “watch it with a popcorn audience raised on roller-coaster rides like Scream and people will laugh.” As such, even a defining 20th-century aesthetic document like The Exorcist is not immune from evolving genre trends and audience preferences. The original film relied on contrasting dynamics to unsettle the audience, which fit with Regan’s disturbing transformation. Version consistently adds more layers of sound, working more towards a stimulating, subjective viewing experience. This is closer stylistically to horror films of the late 1990s/early 2000s, of which film sound scholar Robert Spadoni asks, “Why are films needing to stimulate us so much more now? You could argue that the modern condition is sort of overstimulated or something. But I also tend to think in terms of ... it’s commercialism, it’s what the next guy’s doing.” The Exorcist, rather than retaining its sonic uniqueness, becomes modified in The Version You’ve Never Seen into a 21st-century horror film.


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Jeffrey Bullins is a sound designer and educator living in Greensboro, NC. He is an Instructor of Communications at High Point University. His production credits include working in the sound department for several horror films. He has written on various aspects of the genre and his first monograph, Sound in the American Horror Film, is under contract with McFarland. He thinks The Exorcist is one of the scariest movies ever made and still has to watch it with the lights on. 

MLA citation (print): 

Bullins, Jeffrey. "The Version You’ve Never Heard: The Evolving Soundtrack of The Exorcist." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 131-148.