As The Exorcist returns to the small screen we look at the terrifying true tale behind the story and how close it is to the movie
The cult film The Exorcist terrified the world more than 40 years ago, but the 1973 movie about the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl, held more truth than we realised.
It is a story that has gone on to inspire films and TV shows alike – the latest being Syfy’s The Exorcist, where two priests attempt to purge another girl of her demons 40 years after the events of the movie.
We have William Peter Blatty to thank for bringing the tale to the masses. In 1949, the author sat reading the Washington Post when he saw an article about a Maryland boy, named as Roland Doe to protect his identity.
The story grabbed his attention, so much so that he went on to write his novel, which in turn became the cult movie we all know and love.
But what actually happened to Roland Doe?
It all began with a 13-year-old boy, a bookish child born to a German American Protestant family.
Family friends described the family as normal but that all changed in the summer of 1948.
Roland’s aunt died and he began to hear weird scratching noises in the basement.
The boy said he saw an image of Jesus in his grandmother’s room twist and move as if someone was hitting the wall behind it.
At first, the family thought it was mice and called in pest control, but what happened next left them in no doubt – this wasn’t rodents.
Roland’s mattress moved violently in the middle of the night, there was a constant bashing coming from the basement, a smell of excrement flooded everything and ordinary objects were suspended in the air.
It wasn’t just the family witnessing his ‘attacks’.
A friend was in their house when the boy was sitting in a chair and then quickly, without any warning, he was thrown from it and landed multiple feet away.
It was the first time that someone outside the family had witnessed the weird incidents.
Things started to go wrong at school. Roland’s family removed him after teachers claimed his desk would move during class as well as objects. He was seen as a troublemaker.
A fellow student explained what happened: “The desk was shaking and vibrating extremely fast and I remember the teacher yelling at him to stop and I remember he kind of yelled back ‘I’m not doing it!'”
“You know that I’m the Devil” – calling in the Exorcist
When Roland’s mother walked in to find his bed shaking, they decided enough was enough. She tried to speak with what she thought was the spirit of Roland’s aunt, imploring her to stop and asking her questions. She claims to have heard something scratching the mattress until it fell to the floor.
The family, at their wits end and sure Roland was possessed by his dead aunt, turned to a Lutheran pastor who, when he realised how bad things were, recommended they contact a Catholic priest.
A local priest was sent but Roland screamed at him in Latin: “O sacerdos Christi tu scis me esse diabolum” (O Priest of Christ, you know that I am the Devil).
Disturbed and shaken by what he had seen, the priest applied to the Church to carry out an exorcism. Tests were held, as the Church requires mental and physical evaluations to be done before exorcism can take place.
The boy was taken to Georgetown University Hospital, a Jesuit run institution, where he could be cared or.
Rumours abounded, including that the priests wore rubber clothing under their cassocks as the boy kept urinating on them.
Attempts to exorcise him began in earnest. In the middle of the first try, Roland broke free of his restraints and slashed one of the priests with a bedspring on the arm, maiming him for life.
The records state that “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 the body by claws.”
Just five days after Roland had been brought to the hospital, he was whisked back home.
Running away to St Louis
Public record shows Roland stayed at the hospital under his real name and that medical and psychiatric evaluations took place (all coming back normal).
Desperate, his parents decided to have him baptised but on the way to the church, Roland turned on his uncle, who was driving, screaming: “You son of a b****, you think I’m going to be baptised but you are going to be fooled!”
Witnesses claimed that Roland thrashed about as the priest tried to carry out the relatively short service. When asked “Do you renounce the devil and all his works?” he went into a rage and had to be restrained.
Not long after Roland was checked out, the family moved to St Louis. Whatever was possessing him seemed to agree as ‘LOUIS’ appeared written on his ribcage despite his mother saying he had been under constant supervision and no one had seen him do it.
The possession was far from over.
In his new home, the strange goings continued. Roland’s mother dotted blessed candles around the house but they were always snuffed out. In one instance, a comb shot across the room striking the candles. Fruit flew across the room and a kitchen table overturned, milk and food went flying from the counters. One time, a coat pulled itself from a hanger and a bible landed at the boy’s feet. Roland began to spin furiously in his chair.
The family called upon another priest, Fr William Bowdern, 52, who found Roland in a terrible state. He recoiled from anything religious, spoke in a deep guttural voice, and lashed out.
He was moved to a psychiatric ward in the Catholic-run Alexian Brothers Hospital.
What occurred during his stay remained a secret for many years as the church doesn’t permit priests to talk about exorcisms.
Blatty’s research is refused
There had been rumours about a diary one of the priests had kept. Then one day a lecturer held a talk on exorcisms at Georgetown University where Blatty was studying.
Another student, a psychiatrist’s son, said such a diary did exist. The lecturer asked for a copy and eventually received an 16-page booklet called ‘Case Study by Jesuit Priests’. Blatty asked to see the document when he was researching, but was refused.
Not giving up, Blatty came across another name, Fr William Bowdern – but he refused to comment.
It was the end of the road for Blatty’s research and, out of respect, he made a few changes to his book. Roland became a 12-year-old girl. Blatty did, however, use the violent outbursts and even added the crawling on the ceiling and the famous head spinning.
His book topped the bestsellers list and remained there for four months.
The story became legend.
Apparently Fr Bowdern had spoken to someone, a fellow Jesuit. The story made it’s way to National Geographic writer Thomas Allen, who found Fr Halloran, a priest who had assisted in the exorcism, who was willing to talk.
Fr Halloran, who had since moved away, was suspicious at first, but admitted there was a diary…
The truth in a desk drawer
In 1978, the truth was finally revealed.
Workmen demolishing part of the St Louis Hospital, where Roland had stayed, were removing furniture. In a locked room, they discovered an official record of his visit tucked away in a drawer.
It was passed to hospital supervisors who identified it as the work of one of the priests who had helped with the exorcism.
While the manuscript had been locked away, Fr Halloran had made a copy, which he gave Thomas Allen, who published his findings in 1993. It’s the only record that’s now publicly available.
The document went into detail about those four nights the priests tried to exorcise Roland.
Fr Bowdern had read the rite, while the stronger priest Fr Halloran, a former football player, held the boy down as he writhed and shouted at them.
What made it more disturbing was the additional information; blotched writing in what seemed to be blood appeared on Roland’s skin.
He was branded 30 times all over his body including the words ‘HELL’ and ‘HELLO’. All the while, he apparently cursed and screamed obscenities in a voice that “ranged from deep bass to falsetto”.
The priests asked him what he called himself.
The demon ‘Sprite’ is exorcised
“I will answer to the name of Spite,” he shrieked. Roland vomited over the priests, and spat in their faces, farted and belched as well as contorting his body.
“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!”
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