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"'THE EXORCIST' RETURNS" > Page 1, 2

The Exorcist, the book, was supposedly inspired by true events. William Peter Blatty got the idea after reading an article that appeared in the Washington Post in 1949. The article, "Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil's Grip'" by Bill Brinkley, reported on a minister's experiences with a 13-year-old boy in Mount Rainier, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C.. (The film takes place in the Georgetown section of D.C.) Two other Washington newspapers, The Evening Star and The Times-Herald, also ran stories about the boy, whom they called "Roland," and his parents, whom they referred to only as Mr. and Mrs. John Doe.

With a skeptical tone, the articles related some strange, poltergeist-like activity that the parents claimed centered around the boy. Blatty had read the articles while in college, when they first appeared in 1949. The story lingered in his mind until the late 1960s when he decided to begin writing the book. Blatty based the storyline on the articles and also, he claimed, on the diary of a priest who was involved in the eventual exorcism on the boy. According to the Washington Post article, the exorcist, from St. Louis, began the exorcism in St. Louis, continued it in Washington, D.C, and then successfully concluded the ritual back in St. Louis. In all, 20 to 30 exorcisms were performed on the boy.

But how true is the story? In 1999, Mark Opsasnick, writing for Strange magazine, produced an excellent, in-depth series of investigative articles looking into the case. Titled "The Haunted Boy of Cottage City," the articles turned up many facts that did not jibe with the newspaper accounts of the time. As the article title suggests, for instance, the incident took place in Cottage City, Maryland, not Mount Rainier. Opsasnick discovered where the boy actually lived, talked to friends and neighbors and even discovered his real identity, a fact that had been hidden for many years.

In a condensed version of his article, appearing in Fortean Times, Opsasnick summarizes some of the peculiar events that led the family to seek an exorcist:

We know that, in January 1949, members of the family - probably led by [the boy's] mother and grandmother - began experimenting with a Ouija board. The disturbances began around 18 January; scratching noises came from the walls, the boy’s bed would shake violently and objects (such as fruit and pictures) would jump to the floor in the boy’s presence. [The boy] - if he was suspected at all - claimed to be possessed by an "invisible entity." It is significant (from the diary entries) that Mrs. Doe suspected that there was a connection between the strange events and the death of "Aunt Tillie," a spiritualist who had introduced the family to the Ouija board. At various points throughout this ordeal, Mrs. Doe attempted to communicate with Aunt Tillie, apparently alternating the beliefs that the problems with her son were either the work of the Devil or their departed relative.

A local pastor was summoned and the boy was given over to spend an evening with him for observation. The pastor later told an audience in a lecture "of hearing vibrating sounds from the boy’s bed and scratching sounds on the wall. During the course of the night, he allegedly witnessed a heavy armchair (in which the boy sat) tip over seemingly on its own and a pallet of blankets on which the boy lay inexplicably move around the room."

After thoroughly researching the case, however, Opsasnick thinks there is much to doubt in the case as reported by the Washington newspapers:

Father Walter Halloran - the sole living eyewitness to the St. Louis exorcism attempts - maintains that he did not witness any supernatural behavior by [the boy]: no strange foreign languages (other than mimicked Latin), no changes in tone of voice, no prodigious strength, no excessive vomiting or urinating. To top it off, he is uncertain about the nature of the markings on the boy's body. The credibility of the important diary has been called into question. Personally, I do not believe [the boy] was possessed. There is no question there was something wrong with [him] prior to January 1949, something that modern psychiatry might have addressed better.

Although the case on which The Exorcist is based may be far less sensational than originally believed, there are many other cases of alleged demonic possession:

  • In China, sometime during the era of Mao Tse-tung, the sister of a member of the Red Guard supposedly became possessed. The once beautiful young girl, now looking like a disfigured old hag, told her brother, "There is only one I fear, only one - Jesus of Nazereth." The soldier took his sister to the north of China where he knew there was a community of Christians, known as Jesus Families. They performed an exorcism on the girl, who instantly returned to normal.
  • A not-so-recent but detailed case, which took place in 1565, is related in "The Exorcism of Nicola Aubrey." Although the story comes across like a 16th century Church condemnation of Protestantism, it has all of the sensational elements of The Exorcist including: a sneering, mocking, howling demon inside the girl; grotesque physical deformations; levitation; and a vile black smoke issuing from the victim's mouth.
  • Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans by the late Malachi Martin, a Catholic priest and best-selling author, details the case studies of demonic possession in the US. One reviewer said that at least one case was so horrifying that it makes "Silence of the Lambs look like 'Sesame Street.'"

Whether or not you believe in the Devil or the possibility of demonic possession, The Exorcist is well worth viewing. Be warned, however, that it is graphic, intense and might give you several sleepless nights. 

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