Why You Should Visit America's Spookiest Public Stairway

Washington, D.C.'s most iconic pedestrian staircase, a 72-step flight of steps made famous by a certain head-spinning movie, has been officially recognized as a landmark. (Photo: Mike Maguire [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

In a town where there's a monument or memorial around every corner, this Washington D.C., landmark doesn't commemorate fallen heroes from previous wars, a venerable statesman or a watershed moment in American history. Rather, it marks the spot where a priest, having just purged the foul-mouthed demon Pazuzu from the body of a 12-year-old girl, lunged out a bedroom window and tumbled down a particularly vertiginous outdoor stairway to his death. You could say that by committing this grisly act of self-immolation, he really took one for the team.

These steep concrete steps — all 75 of them — are "The Exorcist Steps," a bona fide D.C. tourist diversion and the best place in Georgetown to enjoy an intense aerobic workout. (But seriously, it's almost impossible to pose for a photo without being plowed over by joggers or training college athletes.) Its base quietly tucked away behind an Exxon gas station parking lot near the Key Bridge on M Street NW, the staircase isn't hard to find but it's not exactly in the thick of it all either.

Built in 1895 by the Capital Traction Company alongside a red brick structure that once housed trolley cars used in the District's long-defunct streetcar system, the gritty public staircase didn't achieve international notoriety until 1973, the year that Warner Bros. released the film adaption of William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel, "The Exorcist," into theaters and promptly traumatized moviegoers across the globe.

As reported by the Georgetown Metropolitan, the Washington Post first published the term "The Exorcist Steps" five years after the film's release in 1978. However, it wasn't until more recently that the iconic stairway — "a precipitous plunge of old stone steps fell away to M Street far below" as described by Blatty in his 1971 novel — received official landmark designation from the city during a commemoration ceremony attended by Georgetown University alumnus Blatty (he won an Academy Award for the adapted screenplay) and director William Friedkin.

Friedkin and Blatty were clearly moved by the designation. "This monument will be seen by thousands, tens of thousands, and eventually, perhaps more, that will come through here, that will associate the film that we made with this beautiful and historic community," Friedkin, a man who put an entire generation off pea soup, exclaimed. "I'm really proud of that and grateful."

He added: "In time, the Rockies will crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they're only made of clay, but these steps are here to stay."

Actor and playwright Jason Miller, who portrayed troubled Jesuit psychiatrist Father Damien Karrass, passed away in 2001 at the age of 62.

For Miller's violent stair-tumbling scene, the steps, referred to the "Hitchcock Steps" by Friedkin's crew, were padded with a half-inch of rubber; a stuntman performed the actual fall, which was filmed twice.

And as for the bedroom window that Miller's character throws himself from before crashing down the steps, it's not actually located directly above the stairway. A touch of cinematic magic in the form of a false building wing was employed to create the illusion that it is. However, the private residence that's exterior played home to Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her sometimes-levitating daughter Regan (Linda Blair), does sit adjacent to the pedestrian staircase at 3600 Prospect St. NW.

In addition to the staircase, which also appears in Blatty's thoroughly disturbing 1990 sequel, "The Exorcist III," the campus of Georgetown University was featured prominently in the original film.

The "Exorcist house" in Georgetown
While the most horrifying 'Exorcist' scenes were filmed on a studio soundstage, the exterior of the MacNeil residence is at 3600 Prospect St. NW in Georgetown. The public stairway featured in the horror classic's climatic scene is located next to it. (Photo: Kevin Burkett [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

The landmark designation came after months of campaigning and fundraising by Andrew Huff, a local "Exorcist" enthusiast who refers to the staircase as "... kind of my Lincoln Memorial. When I have friends and family visit D.C., I don't take them to memorials, I take them to the ‘Exorcist' steps."

Working alongside the Georgetown Business Improvement District and the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, Huff managed to raise $7,000 in funding for the ceremony and the plaque itself.

A step forward for staircases everywhere

In addition to being a shining moment for horror movie buffs and proponents of the District of Columbia's increasingly busy film and television industry, the landmark designation of Georgetown's most photogenic staircase also surely delighted public staircase aficionados everywhere.

Often overlooked and vulnerable to the ravages of time, street-linking stairways aren't without a devoted base of advocates who recognize them as as vital elements of the urban fabric in cities across the globe. Largely built prior to large-scale roadwork and modern infrastructure projects, publicly accessible outdoor staircases played an integral part in the development of rapidly growing American cities as urban populations extended into steep hillsides and difficult-to-access terrain ... after all, car-less residents had to get to and from their homes somehow. At the very least, they provided shortcuts.

"Outdoor public stairways are a window into the soul of a community," Doug Beyerlein of Seattle-based stair enthusiast website PublicStairs.com notes.

Exorcist Steps, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
The view from the top of America's spookiest pedestrian staircase is of ... Arlington, Virginia. Scary!. (Photo: Robin Taylor [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

Beyerlein goes on to tell Governing that "stairways are a great way of getting people out just walking around their own community. They can go out and see their community from a different perspective."

While "The Exorcist Steps" might be the spookiest pedestrian stairway in North America, Washington, D.C., as a whole, isn't known for them. It's in other cities, primarily cities with tricky/hilly topography, that you'll find an abundance of steps: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Quebec City and Pittsburgh, home to a staggering 45,454 steps in total, top the list.

According to information collected by Beyerlein, the most step-heavy outdoor public stairways in the U.S. are the Murphy Ranch East Stairway (512 steps) in Los Angeles, followed by Gil's Stairs (413) in Hood River, Oregon, and Pittsburgh's 56th Street Steps (394 steps). The Filbert East Stairway (383 steps) and the 16th Ave Titled Steps (163 steps) rank among San Francisco's most climb-worthy outdoor escaliers.

While the 72-step flight that connects M Street with the corner of Prospect Street and 36th Street NW may not be as steep or scenic as the superlative public stairways found in other cities, a demonically possessed priest did die on them in a movie. And in a town chock full of historic landmarks, that's something worth celebrating.