One of the greatest horror movies of all time is based on true events. That thought should give everyone a moment’s pause.
The Exorcist, both William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel and William Friedkin’s 1973 movie, came a time in our history when people had stopped believing in the existence of the devil. A great time for the devil, a scary time for us.
Spoiler … It’s a lot more reality than Hollywood.
taken from the notes of the exorcists priests, the eyewitnesses, the neighbors, friends, classmates, and the newspapers.
You will find that truth is much stranger than fiction …
This is a chapter in a larger book I wrote on the subject: True Catholic Exorcisms. Now, also an audiobook, narrated by BBC-veteran Alan Turton.
First off, it wasn’t a little girl — no Linda Blair. It was a little boy that was possessed.
Also, before diving into this, it’s a good idea to pray the St. Michael prayer for protection:
Meet Ronald. Ronald Edwin Hunkeler was given the pseudonym, Roland Doe, by the original Washington, DC newspaper accounts of the possession in 1949. His real name wouldn’t be revealed until his recent death in 2020, may he rest in peace.
Roland Doe, 1949
The exorcism which re-captured the nation’s imagination – this is the exorcism which inspired William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel turned movie, The Exorcist. Blatty, himself, heard rumors of the exorcism from the Jesuits priests of Georgetown University, while a student there as a member of the class of 1950.
1950 and 1971, many priests had begun dismissing the reality of the demonic,
including many Jesuits. Merely metaphorical or social evil was preached from
the pulpit. The Devil was just a personification of the evil within us. Demons
did not exist. Psychologists and academics, even to this day, dismissed all
supernatural phenomena as superstitious nonsense.
is why The Exorcist re–captured the nation’s imagination. The
Devil had succeeded, for a time, in convincing the world he did not exist.
Cuneo discusses The Exorcist case at
length in the opening chapter of his book American
Exorcism. Cuneo points out that the case was sensationalized. Some of the
story’s most basic details were changed. For example, the possessed child was a
boy who lived in Mount Rainier, not a girl living in an upscale Georgetown neighborhood.
Georgetown setting was due to the author’s personal encounter with the story
while attending Georgetown University. Blatty’s time at Georgetown clearly made
a lifelong impact: “Those years at Georgetown were probably the best years of
my life,” Blatty said in a 2015 interview. “Until then, I’d never had a home.”
pea soup vomit and spinning heads were just literary embellishments. Once you
hear the true story, however, you will wonder why any embellishment was needed
in the first place.
Unfortunately, the ridiculous quantities of green, projectile vomit were not
merely embellishments. Check out the chapter in True Catholic Exorcisms detailing the exorcism of
The Exorcist case is important not only
because of the extreme supernatural phenomenon on display. It’s important for
the impact it had on the American psyche. It is the single most familiar exorcism
to the wider American public, whether or not people realize it was based on a
The Exorcist left an indelible
impression on the world’s imagination more so than any other case of possession
ever has. This is because it was thrust upon the world after several decades of
mounting disbelief in the existence of Satan.
The Exeter Report showed that fear of
Satan was already on the rise in England, exorcisms in America had declined
precipitously. The United States had fallen into a deep sleep after its victory
over evil during World War II. Even the Pentecostals had tried to dampen their
more charismatic deliverances.
launch of The Exorcist in movie
theaters all over America released a flood of repressed fears. It had been
simple enough for the Devil to recede into the background of a world faced with
nuclear annihilation and extinction. Then came the The Exorcist, and an ancient history of satanic awareness surged to
the foreground. Many people found themselves unable to cope with the sudden jolt
of religious revival, or at least the reminder of supernatural realities.
resurgence in satanic awareness resulted in thousands of people suddenly fearing
that they or a loved one was possessed. Father Tom Bermingham, one of the film’s
minor actors and a researcher for Blatty’s book, suddenly found himself swarmed
by hundreds of requests from individuals seeking an exorcism.
Exorcism and possession suddenly became mainstream, and the devil who had
benefitted from being ignored and forgotten, now was suddenly benefitting from
being a celebrity.
off, let’s get the location right.
Doe, the pseudonym used for the possessed boy, is commonly described as being a
resident of Mount Rainier, Maryland. At the time of the first exorcisms in 1949,
Mount Rainier was a small, working-class community of nearly 8,000 residents
quietly tucked away in Victorian homes and bungalows on the outskirts of
since the early 1980s and the release of (the first) Exorcist movie, local teens have been flocking to a then-vacant lot
at the corner of Bunker Hill Road and 33rd Street in the residential heart of
Mount Rainier. An
urban legend, spawned by local newspapers, holds that this was the former site
of the house of Roland Doe.
Prince George’s County teens have long delighted in roaming the lot at all
hours of the night, drinking beer, conducting initiations, erecting wooden
crosses on the property, and yelling and screaming until local police are
forced to come and chase them away.
with several other sources, Dean Landolt, a lifelong Mount Rainier resident of
over seventy years, informed researchers that, “I was very good friends with
Father Hughes, the priest involved in that case, as was my brother Herbert. Father
Hughes told me two things: one was that the boy lived in Cottage City, and the
other is that he went on to graduate from Gonzaga High and turned out fine.”
easy to understand the confusion. Cottage City is an even smaller,
semi-isolated community just a short distance from Mount Rainier. Cottage City
is nestled between the towns of Colmar Manor and Brentwood.
DO NOT use Ouija Boards. Terrible idea.
decision to sensationalize the story does not mean the source exorcism of
Roland Doe was without bizarre phenomena.
a 1979 article for Fate magazine,
Steve Erdmann includes the following description of events taken from a diary
maintained by one of the priest-exorcists, Father Bishop:
January 15, 1949—A dripping
noise was heard in his grandmother’s bedroom by the boy and his grandmother. A
picture of Christ on the wall shook and scratching noises were heard under the
floor boards. From that night on scratching was heard every night from 7 p.m.
until midnight. This continued for ten consecutive days. After three days of
silence, the boy heard nighttime “squeaking shoes” on his bed that continued
for six consecutive nights.
in another description:
For some time prior to the
exorcism […] the unidentified boy had been tormented by a battery of bizarre
phenomena: There were scratchings and rappings on his bedroom walls, pieces of
fruit and other objects were sent flying in his presence, and his bed
mysteriously gyrated across the floor while he tried to sleep.
were these things happening to the pseudonymously named Roland Doe? Was it just
random? No, it appears the child’s aunt introduced him to the demonic.
Doe was born into a German Lutheran family and was his parent’s only child. Since
there were no other children in the family, Roland looked to his parents and
other adults in his household for playmates. The boy spent much of his time
with his Aunt Tillie.
Tillie was reportedly a “spiritualist”, which seems to indicate that she dabbled
in witchcraft and other occult interests. She introduced Roland to the Ouija
This is when the trouble began.
“Aunt Tillie,” who had a deep
interest in spiritualism and had introduced Roland to the Ouija Board, died of
multiple sclerosis at the age of 54. Mrs. Doe suspected there may have been
some connection between her death and the seemingly strange events that
continued to take place. At one point during the manifestations Mrs. Doe asked,
“If you are Tillie, knock three times.” Waves of air began striking the
grandmother, Mrs. Doe, and Roland and three knocks were heard on the floor.
Mrs. Doe again queried, “If you are Tillie, tell me positively by knocking four
times.” Four knocks were heard, followed by claw scratchings on Roland’s
Mrs. Doe also recounted using blessed candles when
a comb flew across the room and extinguished them.
Other observations include fruit flying across the room, a kitchen table
turning over, milk and food moving off a table, a coat and hanger flying across
the room, a Bible landing at Roland’s feet, and a rocker spinning around while Roland
was sitting in it. Roland was also removed from school after his desk moved
around the classroom floor on its own.
The desk event left an indelible impression on one
eyewitness. Roland’s best childhood friend also recounted this event in detail
in a 1998 interview with Mark Opsasnick:
One thing happened regarding all of this and I have a hard
time clearing it in my mind. We were in eighth grade, it was the ’48-’49 school
year and we were in a class together at Bladensburg Junior High. He was sitting
in a chair and it was one of those deals with one arm attached and it looked
like he was shaking the desk—the desk was shaking and vibrating extremely fast
and I remember the teacher yelling at him to stop it and I remember he kind of
yelled “I’m not doing it” and they took him out of class and that was the last
I ever saw of him in school. The desk certainly did not move around the room
like that book [Possessed] said, it
was just shaking. I don’t know if he was doing it or what was doing it because
I just can’t clear it in my mind.
The diary also describes Mrs. Doe taking a bottle
of holy water and sprinkling its contents throughout the house. When she returned
the bottle to its shelf, it flew across the room on its own but did not break.
Another night, while holding a lit blessed candle at
Roland’s bedside, Mrs. Doe experienced the whole bed rocking back and forth.
|The Tools of the Catholic Exorcist: Holy Water, Blessed Salt, and the Rosary|
The Need for a Priest
to American Exorcism by Michael Cuneo,
the boy’s family initially requested the help of a Protestant minister, Luther
Miles Schulze, but this only worsened the situation.
Schulze had long been interested in parapsychology, and arranged for the boy to
spend the night of February 17, 1949 in his home for observation.
Schulze witnessed several disturbing phenomenon during this and subsequent
encounters, including household objects and furniture moving by themselves.
Brinkley interviewed Pastor Schulz for an article for The Washington Post entitled “Pastor Tells Eerie Tale of ‘Haunted’
Schulz describes the as boy sleeping nearby in a twin bed. In the dark, the
minister reported hearing vibrating sounds from the bed and scratching sounds
on the wall. Schulz also observed the boy sitting in a heavy armchair, which tilted
on its own and tipped over. While the boy was laying on them, a pallet of
blankets also inexplicably moved around the room.
soon advised the boy’s parents to “see a Catholic priest.”
The family then sought help from the local Jesuit community. Despite their
theological disagreements with the Catholic Church, Protestants generally
acknowledge that priests are needed for the most difficult possessions.
ordained priest, with the blessing and permission of the local bishop, can
perform an exorcism. Exorcisms, for that matter, are not all that rare.
Elements of exorcisms are (or were once) incorporated into many Catholic
liturgies, including the Mass and the Rite of Baptism, for example.
the Church provides training for priests who are asked to specialize in exorcisms.
This process is described by Father Gabriele Amorth, the designated exorcist
for the Diocese of Rome, in his book, An
Exorcist Tells His Story. Father Amorth describes the benefit of special
Amorth also laments the decline of “the school” for training exorcists:
I am convinced that allowing
the ministry of exorcism to die is an unforgiveable deficiency to be laid
squarely at the door of bishops… Today the exorcist is seen as a rarity, almost
impossible to find… The Catholic hierarchy must say a forceful mea culpa. As a result of this
negligence, we now have lost what once was the school; in the past, a
practicing exorcist would instruct a novice.
Father Edward Albert Hughes
(1918-1980) was a Catholic priest who served as an assistant pastor from June
16, 1948 to June 18, 1960 at St. James Church in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. Father
Hughes performed the first round of exorcisms on Roland Doe.
Hughes reported giving a bottle of holy water and candles to
Roland’s parents to give to Roland before he went to sleep. The parents said
the telephone table on which the holy water sat smashed into hundreds of pieces
while the candle flamed up, torching the ceiling.
Shortly thereafter, it is recorded that Father
Hughes received permission to exorcise the boy and the ritual was undertaken
first and unsuccessfully at Georgetown University Hospital.
As discussed before, it is imperative that the
local Bishop grant permission and authority to the presiding priest. It is not
certain whether Father Hughes received such permission. This may be the reason
Father Hughes was ultimately unsuccessful in exorcising Roland Doe. Father
Hughes also only had a short time with the boy, and may have only attempted an
abbreviated or informal exorcism.
The next attempt at exorcism would occur when the
Doe family left Maryland for Missouri.
priests who initially handled the case were not trained exorcists, so they took
various precautions. They ensured that the child underwent a battery of medical
and psychiatric evaluations and was placed under 24-hour observation.
J. B. Rhine, director of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, reportedly
described the phenomena associated with the possession, the “most impressive
manifestation he has heard of in the poltergeist field.”
the best help of medical professionals, the situation continued to deteriorate:
When a natural cure wasn’t
found for his affliction, […] and the bizarre symptoms threatened to rage
completely out of control, it was decided to pursue a more drastic course of
action. A Jesuit priest in his fifties was assigned to the case, and over the
next several weeks […] he performed more than twenty exorcisms on the boy. In
all but the last of these, [according to an article in the Post] the boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing
and voicing of Latin phrases—a language he had never studied—whenever the
priest reached those climactic points of the 27-page [exorcism] ritual in which
commanded the demon to depart. It was the last of the exorcisms, after two nerve-jangling
months, that finally did the trick. Following its completion, the strange
symptoms disappeared entirely, and the boy was restored to full health.
One of the attending priests kept a meticulous diary during the boy’s exorcism. This diary was obtained by Blatty while he was researching The Exorcist and served as a major inspiration for the novel. The diary details many of the supernatural phenomena that occurred during the exorcisms.
of the phenomena associated with demonic possessions can be attributed to
mental illness, even some of the amazing displays of seemingly superhuman strength.
following, however, cannot be attributed to merely natural causes.
exorcist’s diary described mysterious brandings and inflammations that spontaneously materialized on the thirteen-year-old
boy’s skin at various points during the ordeal. The brandings were not just
random shapes. The brandings sometimes formed entire words, such as the word “SPITE”.
There were times when images, even portraits, formed on the boy’s skin, including
a hideous satanic visage.
diary also described furniture shaking and crashing in the boy’s presence.
There was also one particularly memorable incident in which a hospital
nightstand flung itself from floor to ceiling.
some might dismiss such witness testimony out of hand, since it is coming from
religious men. Men of faith are prone to delusions, right? Ignore the fact that
Jesuit priests are among the most educated people in the world, and have been
for the last five centuries.
these incidents were not just witnessed by the exorcist priests. Cuneo notes
that these incidents were also witnessed by a physics professor from Washington
University. The professor later remarked that there is much we have yet to
discover concerning the nature of electromagnetism.
The Exorcist movie still, “…
an old priest and a young priest”, as potrayed by Max Von Sydow and Jason
Raymond J. Bishop, S.J. was a Jesuit priest who assigned to teach at St. Louis
University. In case you are wondering, no – Father Bishop never became Bishop
Bishop. He spent the last 20 years of his life teaching at another Jesuit
institution, Creighton University in Nebraska.
in March 1949, Father Bishop was approached by one of his female students. She
asked for the priest’s help with her thirteen-year-old cousin, Roland Doe (at
this point, sometimes also referred to by a second pseudonym, Robbie Manheim).
After contacting his close friend, Father William Sporing Bowdern, the two
priests decided to perform the boy’s exorcism together.
Bowdern was the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church, the church located on the
grounds of St. Louis University. In addition to the permission of the local
bishop, the assistance of the priest with authority over the local geographical
area would be crucial to the success of the exorcism.
age difference between the two Jesuit priests, Father Bishop and Father
Bowdern, was not as well defined as The
Exorcist movie portrayed it. Bowdern was 52 and Bishop, his assistant, was 43.
to the diary, Father Bishop met the boy for the first time on March 9, 1949,
and witnessed the scratches on the boy’s body and the unexplained movements of his
days later, on March 11,
Father Bowdern arrived on the scene. After Roland fell asleep around 11pm, Bowdern
and Bishop began praying a Novena for the intercession of St. Francis Xavier.
Bowdern also blessed the boy with a first class relic of St. Francis Xavier,
and fixed a relic-encrusted crucifix under the boy’s pillow. Shortly
thereafter, both priests departed and the boy’s relatives left his room.
Father William Bowdern
only a short time had passed, a loud noise was heard in Roland’s room and the five
relatives present rushed back to the boy’s bedroom. They discovered that a
large book case had moved, a bench had been turned over, and the crucifix had
been moved to the edge of the bed. The shaking of Roland’s mattress had also
resumed and only came to a halt after family members yelled, “Aunt Tillie,
exorcism began on March 16 after Father Bowdern received the permission of the
local bishop, Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter, to begin the formal rite of
night Father Bowdern was again accompanied by Father Bishop, as well as a
Walter Halloran. A series of exorcisms would occur over the next months and
into April. During this time, the ritual was performed at various locations
including the boy’s aunt’s house in Normandy, Missouri,
the nearby rectory (likely of St. Francis Xavier parish), and the Alexian
Brothers Hospital in the southern section of St. Louis.
Father Walter Halloran, then just a Jesuit Scholastic and not yet a priest
on April 18, 1949, the nightmare came to an end.
The precise number of exorcisms performed is not known for certain, but the
number likely exceeded twenty, as is typical of the exorcisms described in this
in the night, Father Bowdern succeeded in forcing Roland to wear a chain of holy
medals and to hold a crucifix in his hands. Roland’s demeanor visibly softened,
and he calmly asked questions about the meanings of certain Latin prayers.
continued the ritual and demanded to know the name of the demon that was possessing
Roland and when he would leave the boy. Roland erupted into a tantrum, but
nevertheless admitted that he was one of the fallen angels.
persisted with the ritual until 11:00 p.m., at which point Roland interrupted
the priest. There was a new voice coming from the boy. The voice announced
himself as St. Michael. St. Michael roared through Roland the following
Satan! Satan! I am St.
Michael! I command you, Satan, and the other evil spirits to leave this body,
in the name of Dominus, immediately! Now! Now! Now!
body shook with one last spasm before falling quiet. “He is gone,” Roland announced.
would later tell Father Bowdern that he had experienced a vision of St. Michael
holding a flaming sword. Twelve days later Roland and his family left Missouri
and returned to Maryland.
[Remember that prayer to St. Michael! Pray it with your Wheaties in the morning]
all accounts, Roland Doe, or Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, his real name, lived the
rest of his life in peace, in the most ordinary of ways. Doe/Hunkeler graduated
from Gonzaga High School in 1954 and, it seems, played a lot of canasta with
friends and family.
friends had little else of note to say about the boy or his family, except one
notable change occurred following the boy’s successful exorcism by Fathers
Bowdern and Bishop.
Happily Ever After: Roland Doe’s Yearbook Picture
Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, the real Roland Doe,
graduating senior class 1954, Gonzaga High School