I waited for the sun to lower in the sky and walked into Georgetown.
In large cities people run. Men go bare-chested, sweat slick and pound down paved sidewalks. Women ponytail their hair and dress in LYCRA. Each runner wears determination on their face and white wires in their ears.
I’m a jaywalker by trade and so I find crosswalks to be more suggestions than requirements. In a city like Washington D.C., these interstices are life-saving devices tuned to anticipation—islands within the tumult. The bellwethers at crosswalks pay little attention to backlit pictograms, no, they wait on intersecting stoplights and as soon as the light turns red it’s go, go, go. As I walk L St NW from downtown the knot of pedestrians slackens, traffic thins and yet the runners continue apace.
This year high summer means the return of cicadas to the District. The insects chittering overwhelms the city’s drone. Call it a song, a natural defense or what it is, screaming, a sound that is incessancy itself. This infernal chorus adds the exact ingredient to the compost of my mind as it fixes on my destination, what D.C. city fathers have termed a landmark, The Exorcist Steps.
Built in 1895—the same year the first comic strip appears in a newspaper and the Lantham Loop leads to the first US patent for a movie projector—the 97 steps of this vertiginous staircase, long known as the Hitchcock steps due to their obtuse angle, stand at the corner of Prospect St NW and 36th St NW and lead down to M Street NW. If you reach the gas station you’ve gone too far.
In an article tracing the staircase’s history, the Georgetown Metropolitan reprints a letter from 1929 in which Blanche Howlett calls “the awful looking steps a desecration [she hopes] can be remedied.” The Exorcist Steps, a desecration. Oh, Blanche you seer of seers.
It’s rare to visit the actual place where a movie was filmed. As movies move from the physical to digital plane fewer and fewer ‘real places’ act as settings for productions. Today’s sets are virtual, climate controlled green-screened worlds—hell, whole universes—that exist as binary code and nothing more. Movies will always use practical places to establish their setting, but that’s second unit work—backdrops to ground the suspension of disbelief. Not so with this stone stairway, as real as it is steep. The Exorcist Steps blaspheme the ephemeral nature of ‘the movies.’
The charm of a cobblestone street is annoyingly undeniable so too is Georgetown. Its colonial roots make me miss my native New England. It’s far from the hardscrabble rural areas I came up in. Uh-uh. Georgetown’s rarified refinement reminds me of visits to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, places where the great unwashed go to learn how the other half lives. I pass designer boutiques, bars, food franchises, hip eateries, and bike shops. The warm evening invites ice cream eating and Georgetown welcomes such supplicants. Wherever capitalism and history intersect you find ice cream.
None of these earthly delights sways me. Get thee behind me, Pinkberry! As my body separates from the herd, my spirit reflects on why I am walking to walk an old stone staircase. It’s catholic and Catholic. The Exorcist numbers among my favorite films, sure, but I’m no more fanatical about it than any other movie in such an idiosyncratic and instable list. The difference comes from denial. The movie was put in my personal Pandora’s Box of childhood no-nos by my parents along with booze, coffee and swimming in the ocean at night. Nothing creates a greater desire in the human animal than to withhold something. To imbue a thing with verboten significance is both godlike and human in both its power and folly. My fate to visit Georgetown and walk these stairs was sealed the second I was told The Exorcist was “too scary for me” and I couldn’t watch it (maybe) until I was older,” the ultimate in damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t logic that makes parenting such a paradox.
Each Christmas I reject Satan, all his works and his emptypromises, but we’ve never lost touch. Anyone of faith, Catholics included, possess an extraordinary imagination. The Bible is a collection of stories, military and bureaucratic reports, letters and lists. It’s dry. The mind’s eye, always curious and in thrall to drama, needs more than to go on, so too does belief … and faith. Satan is a real to me as Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Stretched to its limits, to believe in Satan presupposes Heaven exists. What a wonder that would be? “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Indeed. Hell? In theory, yeah, but Hell will always be the bridesmaid. I don’t take The Exorcist as gospel. No. It’s still “only a movie,” but The Exorcist’s premise that there’s “otherness” in our world—“more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy—is as solid as the stairs that now bear its name.
The retaining wall that dominates the setting is a feat of artistry and engineering, the work of human hands. Its Hollywood association aside, it’s the roughhewn grey stone of the wall that makes this site so physically imposing. It’s easy to feel small and insignificant in such a place. In time The Exorcist may fall from favor and be forgotten—pigeonholed in some desert wasteland with a totem or two to warn the innocent—but a structure like this endures for eons.
I should have known to temper my expectations. In the time it takes me to walk from downtown D.C. to this odd lot at the ass end of urbane Georgetown, my eagerness barely keeping pace with my mind, I forget the power of this place is as internal as eternal. For me it’s one of cinema’s holy places, for non-believers, the stairs are
one hell of a workout. It’s
not fellow pilgrims pursuing Tinseltown glamour that I meet on my assent, but more
infidels in thrall to physical fitness. To increase the intensity of their
workouts they carry kettlebells and crabwalk the stairs or time themselves as
they run up and try not to pull a ‘Karras’ on the way down.
(Running or) walking this staircase, you feel it, in your legs, your back, your arms and your head. As adductors and longus muscles lurch incline-wise, the obliques and glutes burn. Yes, The Exorcist Steps hurt your ass. Steadying yourself on the well-worn handrails bolted to the grey stone of the retaining wall or the much more OSHA approved railing on the opposite side lessens the dizzying climb, but you find it’s another ingenious little torture as your natural inclination is to use your arms, like a fool, to pull the your sack of bones, blood and gristle up, up, up. All of a sudden you’ve become some sorry sore ass mountaineer. No matter the speed in which you take the stairs, this sudden change in altitude causes your brain to rush blood to your head as your body fights against gravity because for reasons known only by some other arcane corner of your brain you’ve decided to unexpectedly fling yourself off the planet. After you’ve summited that final ninety-seventh step your entire body, all those sinews and synapses, sing out in Hosannas of having survived. You feel high. You are.
At the summit stands the Exorcist house. This being a Thursday night, the current occupants have dutifully set out their wheeled trash and recycling barrels on the sidewalk for Friday’s pickup. No cab rolls into frame. No satanic light streams out of any of the upstairs windows of the house. No tall elderly Scandinavian man arrives in a slouch hat carrying a valise. There’s no lamppost on the sidewalk. No wrought-iron gate. No decorative entryway accents of any kind whatsoever. It’s a two-story single-standing rectangular red brick bunker on a quiet and otherwise unremarkable suburban street. The last moviemaker or more likely teamster left long ago and made sure to turn out the lights.
It’s getting dark and I’ve lingered longer than I intended. After waiting on the runners to finish their circuits I snap a few photos. I try to frame out the dumpster and electrical generator at the bottom of the stairs. I turn to leave as a man on a mountain bike, because of course, rolls up beside me. He’s decked out in red LYCRA and wears a red and white helmet with sharp angles made from of injection-molded plastic.
“Whoa,” he says.
“Yeah,” I reply as tilt my head down the stairs and point at the bike, my mouth fills with demonstrative pronouns, “you’re not going down those on that.”
He takes me for a local and asks, “Is there another way around?” For him this is nothing more than a too steep stairway not suited for mountain bike travel. He doesn’t know, or realize, he’s standing in the exact location where the only horror movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and one of the highest grossing and scariest movies of all time, a verified classic of late twentieth-century moviemaking, was made. A Catholic priest, recently-possessed by a demon, flung himself headfirst down these stairs and fake died—the stuntman who had to play out the scene, twice, lived—at the bottom and this dude doesn’t care. To him The Exorcist Stairs are merely an impediment to an evening bicycle ride.
I answer in a confident way that doesn’t betray gaps in my knowledge so I guess or, closer to the truth, I lie, “Back out and to the right there’s a street, it’s steep, but … yeah?”
He nods and as he turns to ride away and I begin to walk down the stairs his cellphone rings.
Now it gets weird, sort of.
What I hear is a soft minor key piano line in 15/8 time. Tubular Bells. I’d swear it on a stack of family bibles in front of the Pope and Jesus Christ himself. This rider’s ringtone is set to the theme of The Exorcist! Maybe he is a fellow devotee under deep cover as a cyclist. My mind course corrects and rules out such psychosomatic nonsense with instantaneous intellectual rigor in order to retain saneness. No way. No way. Not possible. Don’t all cellphone ring tones sound like they were written and performed by a legion of Mike Oldfields? I heard it. I know it. I believe it. Imagined or not, I heard the opening notes of Tubular Bells as I stood at the top of The Exorcist Steps on an August night with the cicadas bawling in the trees and the sun almost set.
I went down the stairs, with care, passed a man at the bottom going up, took a picture of the plaque that marks the significance of this otherwise urban gore and put The Exorcist Steps to my back. Turning left onto M St NW I swear I could smell Sulphur, probably from the blue oblong dumpster.