Fox's 'The Exorcist' Finds Chilling Inspiration in Real Cases

Producers previewed the new Fox drama on Wednesday during a screening and Q&A for press.

Fox's new psychological drama series The Exorcist draws inspiration not only from the 1973 William Friedkin film, but also from modern day exorcisms that, the network hopes, will send chills down your spine.

The thriller stars Geena Davis as Angela Rance, a mother who enlists the help of two priests, Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) and Marcus Brennan (Ben Daniels), to rid her daughter of possession. Producers on hand Wednesday during a press screening, noted they did their homework for the drama.

"We’ve had actual priests come consult who have conducted exorcisms and some of the stories they tell are pretty chilling,” executive producer Jeremy Slater told THR. "If you go into our writers' room you’ll see about three-dozen books that are all evil grim wars from the 14th century, witch manuals and cases of famous demonic possessions."

The show has elements woven in from the most famous of American exorcism cases like the controversial tale of 16-year-old Anneliese Michel, who had more than 70 exorcisms performed on her during the course of 10 months in the 1970s. The rituals were performed by two priests in secret after her request for someone to come in and rid her of demons was denied by the family. Ultimately, efforts to save her were not successful and Anneliese died from emaciation and starvation.

Perhaps the most famous case on record is that of Iowa teenager Anna Ecklund who is said to have been possessed by multiple entities in the early 1920s, many of which were said to be the same spirits who would possess Anneliese Michel all those years later. (Her story was being adapted into a movie.) Witnesses claimed to have seen the girl levitate, cling to walls and speak in foreign languages she did not know. In 1928 Ecklund sought help and after three complete exorcism rituals, she was said to be rid of the demonic presence.

It is stories like these that make the upcoming series grounded in reality, producers said. "You see the pictures and videos and it is just the most haunting, upsetting thing you’ve seen in your entire life,” Slater says. “You look at that and you say, ‘There’s no way that person’s faking that!’ But the only alternative is almost too scary to think about. Those are the ones that stick with you and those are the ones that really creep you out.”

While The Exorcist takes cues from both the 1973 movie and 1971 book by William Blatty of the same name, Slater stressed that Fox's version is its own demon.

“[We’re] trying the same approach as Fargo where here’s a show that takes place in the same universe as the original film, same tone, same mentality, but brand new characters and a brand new story,” Slater tells THR. “If you enjoyed the movie Fargo you are probably a fan of the television series. That’s really been the goal for this show. That’s why we are doing the internet research scene where you see the famous Georgetown exorcism did take place in the '60s to let audiences know that we’re not rewriting history. We’re not taking away the story you love. All that actually happened, but this is a new story and we’re going in a very different direction. Hopefully after the first couple episodes we can stand on our own kind of as our own beast and step out of the shadow a little bit.”

The Exorcist, which also stars Alan Ruck (The Catch), Brianne Howey (Scream Queens) and Hannah Kasulka (The Fosters), premieres Sept. 23 on Fox.

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