There are plenty of scary things going on in The Exorcist. Over the years, numerous stories have circulated that the production was “cursed,” plagued by strange accidents and occurrences. The set caught fire; Ellen Burstyn suffered a back injury during a stunt; multiple cast members’ loved ones died; things got bad enough that a priest was asked to perform an actual exorcism on the production.
Some of these stories are true, others may be a bit on the fanciful side. And yet, perhaps the most terrifying thing about The Exorcist is that a real-life killer, convicted of one slaying but who may have claimed six additional lives, appears as an extra in the movie.
Paul Bateson was working as an X-ray technician at the New York University Medical Center, where director William Friedkin shot the famous scene of Linda Blair as Regan undergoing a carotid angiography procedure.
Looking for a bit of realism, Friedkin used an actual neuropsychiatric surgeon and his team for the shoot. The surgeon’s assistant was none other than Paul Bateson. Six years after the release of the film, Bateson would find himself at the center of a very different type of horror story–one in which he played the role of killer.
Bateson was arrested in March of 1979 for the murder of film critic Addison Verrill. According to Bateson’s testimony, he had picked up Verrill at a gay bar in Greenwich Village and gone back to Verrill’s apartment with him, where the two had sex. Bateson then crushed Verrill’s skull with a skillet and proceeded to stab his victim numerous times. Bateson never gave a motive for the brutal crime. Verrill’s murder, however, may have been just the tip of the iceberg.
While he was awaiting trial at Rikers Island, Bateson began to brag about other murders he had committed. He said that he picked up gay men and murdered them “just for fun”, that he had chopped up their bodies, put the pieces in plastic trash bags, and dumped the remains in the Hudson River. It didn’t take the police long to suspect that they had actually captured a serial killer.
In 1977 and 1978, New York’s LGBT community was terrorized by a series of brutal murders in which the bodies of gay men were found in the Hudson River, mutilated, chopped up, and bagged, just as Bateson would later describe. The condition of the bodies made identification virtually impossible, but clothing items and tattoos allowed the police to link the bodies to the city’s LGBT community.
At least six such bodies were ultimately uncovered, though the killer may have claimed additional victims. The killings became known as “the bag murders”–and sometimes by more derogatory terms–but no killer was identified, until Paul Bateson was arrested for the murder of Addison Verrill.
When William Friedkin learned that a suspected serial killer had appeared in The Exorcist, the director visited Paul Bateson in prison. Following that interview, Friedkin signed on to direct the 1980 film Cruising, in which Al Pacino plays a cop who goes undercover to track down a killer targeting gay men, a killer who follows much of the same M.O. as the “bag murders” to which Paul Bateson had confessed. Bateson is even said to have served as an uncredited consultant on the film.
Though the police took Bateson’s confession at face value, there wasn’t enough physical evidence to link him to the “bag murders”, so he was only charged with the murder of Addison Verrill. Bateson was sentenced to 20 years to life in jail. He was released in 2004 and is now said to live somewhere in upstate New York.
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As to whether Bateson actually committed all of the “bag murders” or, indeed, any of the other killings to which he has been tentatively linked, we may never know. But the man who appeared in a brief scene in one of the scariest movies ever made certainly has at least one death on his conscience, and who knows how many more. So the next time you cue up The Exorcist, just remember: the film may be fictional, but it contains one scene in which the darkness is all-too-real.
Featured still from "The Exorcist" via Warner Bros.