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One Hell of a Performance: How Mercedes McCambridge Gave a Demon a Voice

What an excellent day for a celebration of Mercedes McCambridge.
Mercedes Mccambridge Exorcist
By  · Published on May 8th, 2020

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If you’re wearing a hat, you should probably take it off because we’re about to show Mercedes McCambridge some respect. This is a woman whose method acting techniques would make Daniel Day-Lewis blush. Whose voice was so powerful Orson Welles dubbed her “the world’s greatest living radio actress.” This is the woman behind one of the most memorable, terrifying, and hardcore performances in horror history.

McCambridge was one of the four performers who breathed life into The Exorcist‘s demonic antagonist Pazuzu. The possessed Regan was primarily portrayed by Linda Blair. Eileen Dietz acted as Blair’s stand-in/stunt-double and is the woman behind the expressionistic glimpse of the demon’s face. Both Blair and actor Ron Faber provided selections of Pazuzu’s dialogue. But in the end, it was McCambridge who gave Pazuzu a voice.

Not just a voice, but a character. The sounds that seep out of that 12-year old’s throat are not of this world; they are pained, guttural, and raw like an open wound. It’s a voice that is full of ancient rage and disarmingly dry wit. Ultimately, it isn’t really fair to say that McCambridge’s contribution to The Exorcist was merely vocal. Her performance made Pazuzu an entity — something evil and angry that clawed its way out of hell straight into a little girl’s body.

The retrospective documentary The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist details how McCambridge put herself through hell to achieve her performance. She broke her sobriety, gargled raw eggs, and chain-smoked to make her bronchial voice wheeze, gurgle, and wail. She was restrained during some sessions because, according to McCambridge, that kind of performance is only possible “when you have no freedom.”

McCambridge made a career out of playing tough women. Which should come as no surprise given her unparalleled ability to stare her own demons square in the face.

You can watch a clip of McCambridge in The Fear of God here:

Who made this?

The clip originates from the BBC TV version of the 1998 documentary The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist, written and hosted by film critic/The Exorcist enthusiast Mark Kermode. This version includes interviews with McCambridge and former UK censor James Ferman, both of whom were cut from the truncated version that appears on both the US DVD and UK VHS Special Edition copies of the film.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).