Anthony Breznican from Vanity Fair asked me if I could take a peek at a shot from "The Exorcist" (1973), and get my thoughts on it on whether or not it was a visual effects shot. So it was a thrill to talk with him.
Todd Vaziri, a veteran visual effects artist and historian who has written extensively about vintage filmmaking techniques, agreed with Gay’s assessment that the “demon” hidden in this shot is really just a trick of the light from her nightgown and movement.
“I’m looking at your shot and I’m stepping through it, and I’m going to say that for the first part of the shot, you can see that her screen right eye is in shadow. She’s self-shadowing. Her brow is blocking the key light,” Vaziri said. “Then for one frame, it looks like both eyes now are completely black, and it’s a little…” He pauses, then laughs. “I’m just hanging on this frame and it’s freaky as hell.”
Freaky, but most likely accidental, according to Vaziri. “This seems to me like just a lighting issue,” he said. “Her natural movement moved both eye sockets for one frame out of the key light. And that’s the effect.”
A few things I mentioned to Anthony that didn't make it into the piece.
One, "The Exorcist" is one of those films that have had alternate versions appear in the digital era. In 2000, Warner Bros. released "The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen" which features newly added scenes and digital visual effects including a morph that replaces a jump cut in one of the last shots of Father Karras. Much like the "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" Special Edition, the filmmakers and the studio have done an about-face on all the alterations and additions, and the version of "The Exorcist" that you can find on streaming and physical media is almost entirely the theatrical version (the Karras morph remains in the cut).
Two, I added that if this was a deliberate optical effect (it's not), then I'd argue that it's not a successful effect, since it's extremely subtle and only happens in one frame. It's not broad enough to register as a subliminal image.
I understand how folks want to add additional meaning and mythology into frames and sequences from "The Exorcist", especially because it's one of the most successful movies of all time, one of the most emotionally and spiritually effective movies of all time, and one that actually contains flash frames of horrific imagery. (See also "The Shining".) In this case, however, it's a trick of light and movement.
Vanity Fair: The Truth Behind the Hidden Demon in The Exorcist, by Anthony Breznican