HOW THE FILM THE EXORCIST CAME ABOUT
by Dr. Raymond Fenech
A small group of nuns and priests met the woman in the chapel of a house one June evening. Though it was warm outside, a palpable chill settled over the room.
As the priests began to pray, the woman slipped into a trance — and then snapped to life. She spoke in multiple voices: One was deep, guttural and masculine; another was high-pitched; a third spouted only Latin. When someone secretly sprinkled ordinary water on her, she didn’t react. But when holy water was used, she screamed in pain.
“Leave her alone, you f***ing priests,” the guttural voice shouted. “Stop, you whores. … You’ll be sorry.”
The above excerpt was taken from the article, When Exorcists Need Help, they call him, published by CNN’s journalist John Blake on August 4, 2017.
The same article then refers to the 1973 film, The Exorcist which at the time had created much controversy and was even banned and rated X by many cinemas. Was it an exaggerated reaction, or was there more than the eye could see in this blood curdling story of the exorcism of a 12 year old girl possessed by the devil?
How did the story based on true events actually come to be screened? In 1949, the author William Peter Blatty was reading the Washington Post newspaper, when a particular article about a boy, Roland Doe (to protect the boy’s identity the newspaper changed his name) from Maryland who had been possessed by a demon. He was so impressed, he went on to write his novel, which in turn became the cult movie that became the greatest office success of the time its record remaining unbroken until only recently by the film IT.
Blatty had a good reason to be impressed by what he read about the boy. It all started when the boy lost his beloved aunt and in 1949 he started to hear weird scratching noises in the basement which was at first thought to be caused by rats. But then he claimed to have seen Christ’s image moving as if someone was hitting the wall behind it in his grandmother’s bedroom. The walls inexplicably leaked water and his mattress kept moving in all directions when he was in bed.
The boy’s beloved Aunt Harriet, a spiritualist who had mentored him taught him into her weird world, including the use of an Ouija board had passed away. Ronald was heart- broken and that is when strange things started to happen.
At night, Roland’s would start to move mysteriously and there was a constant pounding noise coming from the basement. The house smelt of feces and all kinds of objects would lift and stay and remain suspended in the air.
Some sceptics wanted to believe his family was experiencing weird things but they were not the only witnesses of this paranormal activity. A friend of the family was once visiting at their home. Roland was sitting in a chair when suddenly, he was thrown from it and landed multiple feet away.
The home incidents were just the beginning. Roland was forced to leave school after teachers claimed his desk and other objects would start shaking violently during class.
One fellow student said: “The desk was shaking and vibrating extremely fast and I remember the teacher yelling at him to stop and then he kind of yelled back: ‘I’m not doing it!”
His family were at their wits end as they suspected Roland was possessed by his dead aunt. They requested a Lutheran pastor to intervene but when he saw how serious the situation was, he recommended they contact a Catholic priest. This is when Father E. Albert Hughes, the local Catholic priest came into the picture and an exorcism rite was performed on the boy in February1949.
When the priest came to visit Roland, the boy screamed at him in Latin: “O sacerdos Christi tu scis me esse diabolum!” (Oh Priest of Christ, you know that I am the Devil). Father Hughes was forced to stop the rite, when the boy broke the spring of the mattress to which he had been tied down. Then he lashed out and hit Fr Hughes across his shoulders.
Frightened and disturbed by this experience, the priest made a request to the Church to carry out an exorcism. An assessment of the case, which included mental and physical evaluations of the alleged ‘possessed’ victim, required by the Church to authorize an exorcism was made.
The report on the diary stated: “There appeared scratches on the boy’s body for about four successive nights. After the fourth night, words were written in printed form. These letters were clear but seemed to have been scratched on his body by claws.”
According to public records, after Roland was admitted at the hospital under his real name, the medical and psychiatric evaluations all read he was coming back to normal.
But the saga was to continue as his parents decided to baptize him to make sure whatever evil entity was inside him, it would never return. On the way to the church, Roland suddenly spoke to his uncle, who was driving the car, and shouted angrily: “You son of a b****, you think I’m going to be baptized but you are going to be fooled!”
When the priest in church to perform the baptism rite witnesses claimed Roland lashed out and went into a rage when asked: “Do you renounce the devil and all his works?”
Soon after Roland left hospital and the family moved to St Louis. The evil entity that was possessing him indicated they go to St. Louis when, ‘LOUIS’ appeared inscribed on his ribcage. Despite he was under constant supervision no one had seen him or anyone else make that inscription.
The true story that inspired Blatty to write, The Exorcist, takes place in the late 1940s in suburban Washington, D.C. It was not a girl that had been possessed but a boy. Sources have revealed that his true identity was that of Ronald Hunkeler or Robbie Mannheim. The 13-year-old boy born to a German American Protestant family was later referred to among other names in several newspapers as Roland Doe.
The terror continued a few days later when red marks appeared on the boy when words including the, ‘Louis’ were carved deep into his flesh. To Ronald’s mother this was a message telling them to move to St. Louis, where they had relatives. She was hoping the solution to save her son would be found there.
Their family’s home was situated in Bel-Nor neighborhood of St. Louis, a Colonial-style house on Roanoke Drive. Everything about it at first glance looked normal but within its walls the most macabre and terrorific events were about to take place.
Finally a relative of Ronald’s family recommended they get in touch with two Jesuit priests, Father Walter H. Halloran and Rev. William Bowdern who agreed to attempt an exorcism rite on the boy with the help of several other qualified assistants. The priests worked every single night but in the end events took a turn for the worse and Ronald’s family feared his life was in manifest danger. This was when they decided to take him for special treatment to a hospital in St. Louis run by the Catholic Alexian Brothers.
Many weeks had passed from the beginning of this nightmare for the Hunkeler/ Mannheim family, but on April 18, Easter Monday there was a strange occurrence in the room at the hospital. It started with Ronald verbally abusing the priests, telling them Satan would always own him. Holy relics, crucifixes and rosary beads were laid on the boy as his body was being tortured by invisible hands among deep scratches and strange signs appearing on his legs.
That night, a miracle happened as the exorcists prayed for St. Michael’s intervention to expel the demon from the boy’s body. Few minutes later, Ronald suddenly became conscious. He was out of his trance and simply uttered the words: “He’s gone.” He then went on to explain he had a vision of St. Michael fighting Satan to the death.
After these macabre events Ronald’s family moved back to the East Coast. Ronald got married and it was no surprise he named his first son Michael for the saint he believed saved him from the devil’s clutches.
The Jesuit priest, Bowdern, passed away in 1983 and Halloran succumbed to cancer in 2005, the last surviving member of the exorcism team of Ronald Hunkeler/Robbie Mannheim.
At the Alexian Brothers Hospital the room where Ronald had been exorcised was sealed. But in 1978 the hospital was demolished. The Family’s house in Maryland remains uninhabited since they abandoned it in the 1960s.
The house on Roanoke Drive was sold in 2005 for $165,000. The new buyers didn’t seem to mind the possibility that Satan himself might have actually made the upstairs bedroom his personal abode.
Rumours had it that a diary with detailed information of Roland’s exorcism was kept by the two priests. During a lecture on exorcism at Georgetown University where the Blatty, author of The Exorcist was studying another student mentioned the diary. The lecturer was prompted to ask him for a copy which eventually was presented to him in the form of a 16-page booklet entitled, Case Study by Jesuit Priests. Blatty wanted to see the diary for his own research but they refused to lend it to him. Later he tried asking Fr Bowdern himself for a copy but he also refused.
But Fr Bowdern had spoken about eh exorcism with a fellow Jesuit and soon the story was in the hands of Thomas Allen, a National Geographic correspondent. He managed to contact Fr Halloran, the other Jesuit priest involved in Roland’s exorcism who accepted not only admitted the existence of the diary but also to be interviewed.
The detailed exorcism report was revealed in a desk drawer in 1978, when workmen assigned to demolish parts of the St Louis Hospital, where Roland had stayed, discovered the diary in a drawer in a locked room. But whilst the report had been hidden away, Fr Halloran had made a copy which comprised all the detailed exorcism rites performed on Roland which he then handed to Thomas Allen. It was first published by the writer in 1993.
Some Graphic Details of the Exorcism Rite
When Fr Bowdern read the rite, the stronger priest Fr Halloran, a former football player, held the boy down as he writhed and shouted at them.
More macabre was the detailed report which mentioned blotched writing in blood that appeared on Roland’s skin. His body had been tormented by being branded 30 times by words including, ‘Hell’ and ‘Hello’ whilst he cursed and verbally abused the priest with obscenities, his voice changing from “a deep bass to falsetto”.
The priests repeatedly asked the demon to reveal his name (this part of the exorcism is imperative as only when the entity reveals its name can it be cast out of the possessed person). In response, it screamed back: “I will answer to the name of Spite”. Then, Roland vomited all over the priests. He spat in their faces, belched and farted in defiance whilst his body contorted uncontrollably.
“One night the boy brushed off his handlers and soared through the air at Father Bowdern standing some distance from the bed with a ritual book in his hands,” one priest wrote. “Presumably Bowdern was about to be attacked, but the boy got no further than the book. And when his hands hit that – I assure you…I saw this with my own eyes – he didn’t tear the book, he dissolved it! The book vaporized into confetti and fell in small fine pieces to the floor!”
Witness to this incident was a nurse who described the priests as having: “had a terrible time”. Furthermore, he asserted he had no doubt that what happened was supernatural adding, he’d constantly cleaned vomit from the boy’s room several times.
The same diary details Roland’s continuous violent behavior. He often assaulted people, especially during his First Holy Communion attempt, punching the priest in the testicles when he tried to put him on a train back to Maryland.
What became of Roland
To this question, your guess is as good as mine because there are many different accounts as to whether he had been possessed, or was simply suffering from some form of mental illness. But truth be told, evidence shows that the boy’s family had initiated trying to solve his problem by taking him into psychiatric and medical care. The exorcism came later, when the scientific solutions failed to achieve the desired results.
Roland’s exorcism became well known not by coincidence, but because so many eye witnesses saw the supernatural events unfold before their very eyes. His weird behavior was highlighted and evident, both at home and at school, by many students, in hospital by nurses and other staff and more so during the exorcism rites in which many people were involved, besides the Jesuit Priests.
When Roland became normal again, after the successful exorcism, he wrote to Fr Bowdern to thank him. From there, he went on to attend a Catholic school and became a devout Catholic. He also got married, had a family and worked for NASA.
Any evidence Fr Bowdern could have given to support the report was buried with him in his grave. As for his colleague, Fr Halloran, when he was once asked whether he believed the incident was real, he replied: “I have always thought in my mind that it was.”
Filming Incidents and the Aftermath of the Exorcist
How many horror film enthusiasts know that the actual filming of The Exorcist, a film that terrorized many of its viewers and created mayhem was more macabre and terrifying than the film itself?
Many strange, paranormal events happened for non-believers in the supernatural to be able to dub as, ‘coincidences’. Was the film set being possessed by a real evil entity?
Well, the best thing would be to go through the events that happened and I will leave it up to the reader to decide for himself whether such things were coincidental, or caused by a real demon.
In the first part of this article, How the film, The Exorcist came about, I researched some documents on how the author of the novel, William Peter Blatty in 1949 read an article on the Washington Post about a young boy who had been possessed by a demon. So far, this was not fiction, but a harsh reality in which family Hunkeler in Maryland struggled at their home in an attempt to save their son from what he himself described as Satan. The novel was turned into the 1973 block buster film, The Exorcist.
When the film was in the making, its shooting had to be interrupted after the set burst into flames. The Mac Neil’s home (the house where the film shooting took place was gutted completely by the fire. Nobody knows for certain what caused the fire but William Friedkin, the film’s director said that some sort of bird with talons entered one of the circuit boxes short circuiting it and setting the props alight. The creepy and macabre part of this ‘story’ was the fact that the raging fire did not touch Regan’s room!
During filming, actress Ellen Burstyn, who played Reagan’s mother, was actually injured when the possessed Reagan throws her to the ground. Her painful scream was actually used in the film and was truly the result of a real injury which she still feels to this very day.
Statistics show that a film that takes over a year to complete, must have been affected by various shooting problems. In the case of The Exorcist, calling this a delay would be an understatement especially when a few deaths were actually reported.
Both actors, Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros died soon after their participation in the film was concluded. By now, you would be asking yourselves: “But didn’t both these characters in the film die?” If you have asked that question the answer is yes, they did and this makes it quite a weird coincidence: or was it?
But as if that’s not creepy enough, Linda Blair’s grandfather passed away and Max Von Sydow’s brother died on Max’s very first day of acting his role as the exorcist priest. Jason Miller, who starred as Fr Damien Karras almost lost his son when he was hit by a motorbike.
Linda Blair injured her back during one of the scenes, when she was thrown out of bed and landed badly as one of the rigging broke. Strange but true after the film had been publicly screened, she received several death threats to the point the studio was forced to have her escorted by bodyguards.
The life of actress Mercedes McCambridge, whose voice terrorized entire audiences as she changed it to mimic the demonic voice of the demon that possessed Linda (Reagan), Pazuzu was completely wrecked, when her son mysteriously went into a rage killing his wife and children and himself in 1987.
Televangelist Billy Graham was convinced, watching the film was like an invitation for viewers to be possessed by a demon. In his own words: “There is a power of evil in the film, is in the fabric of the film itself.” The Exorcist was banned in the Middle East, except for Lebanon, but the ban was imposed on its re-release. When the film was being screened in Rome, viewers experienced torrential rainstorms, thunder and lightning as they made their way to the cinema.
Could all this have been mass hysteria because of all the pre-hype made by the newspapers? Some people even claimed to have heard demonic cries coming from outside the theatre as soon as the film started. Accidents of people fainting, falling and hurting themselves were not uncommon and one particular woman who broke her jaw in a fall whilst watching the film actually went on to sue Warner Brothers. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
When Exorcists need help, they call him by John Blake, CNN August 4, 2017
Is The Exorcist Based on a True Story? Real Life Tale of Roland Doe’s Possession that’s more terrifying than the Film and TV Show by Jo Anne Rowney, Mirror, October 23, 2017
The True Story of Roland Roe that Inspired, ‘The Exorcist’ by Williiam Delong, October 26, 2017
Is The Exorcist Cursed? By David Ian Mckendry, 2015
About the Author:
Raymond Fenech embarked on his writing career as a freelance journalist at 18 and worked for the leading newspapers, The Times and Sunday Times of Malta. He edited two nation-wide distributed magazines and his poems, articles, essays and short stories have been featured in several publications in 12 countries. His research on ghosts has appeared in The International Directory of the Most Haunted Places, published by Penguin Books, USA.