Horrifying History for Halloween – the real story of the Exorcist

Long before the film “The Exorcist” terrified a nation, real exorcists fought to save a child from a mysterious force.

In the weeks after the film came out in 1974, a Boston Catholic centre received daily requests for exorcisms. Some moviegoers fainted or vomited, while others said they’d wanted to leave but were physically too scared to move.

When originally released in the UK a number of town councils imposed a complete ban on the showing of the film. This led to the bizarre spectacle of “Exorcist Bus Trips” where enterprising travel companies organised buses to take groups to the nearest town where the film was showing.

The movie is based on a supposedly genuine exorcism from 1949 of a 13-year old boy referred to as “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim”. A total of 26 people apparently witnessed the horrible things that happened during this 6-week exorcism. It was so terrifying that books, movies and tv series have been made about it.

The whole truth came out in a creepy way – a diary was discovered in the sealed “exorcism” room in 1978 while the hospital was being torn down. It detailed how night after night over four weeks, Father Bowdern performed the exorcism rite on “Roland” while a young priest, Father Halloran, held the writhing boy down. Father Bowdern prepared himself by a religious fast of prayer, bread and water. By the time the exorcism ran its course, he lost 40 pounds.

the real Exorcist : You know that I am the Devil

Roland was a studious only child and spent a lot of time with his Aunt Harriet. His Aunt, who was a spiritualist, introduced Roland to the Ouija board.

After Aunt Harriet’s death, the family experienced strange noises, furniture moving on its own accord and ordinary objects flying or levitating when the boy was nearby.

At school, his desk began hitting other desks, once injuring another pupil. The boy became prone to blackouts, and started to become violent and babble gibberish. In desperation, his parents – convinced he was possessed by his dead aunt – turned to their Lutheran church minister. He referred them to the Catholic church, saying darkly that ‘they know about things like this’.

When a local priest visited, Roland screamed at him in perfect Latin, ‘O sacerdos Christi tu scis me esse diabolum (O Priest of Christ, you know that I am the Devil).’

the real Exorcist – I will answer to the name of Spite

The boy was admitted to the Jesuit-run Georgetown University Hospital where rumours spread that the priests who dealt with him wore rubber clothing under their cassocks because he would try to urinate on them. A first attempt was made to exorcise him, but was abandoned after five nights when he slashed the senior priest down the arm with a bedspring coil, permanently maiming him.

Blotched writing, apparently in blood, would appear on Roland’s skin, spelling out ‘Hell’ or ‘Evil’ or sometimes simply ‘Hello’, they said. Asked what he called himself, the boy once creepily replied, ‘I will answer to the name of Spite.’

Father Bishop’s diary of the exorcism includes the following account dated 18 March 1949:

‘Next the Fathers began the Litany of the Saints, as indicated in the exorcism ritual. In the course of the Litany, the mattress began to shake.(Roland) was awake. The shaking ceased when Father Bowdern blessed the bed with Holy Water. The prayers of the exorcism were continued and (Roland) was seized violently so that he began to struggle with his pillow and the bed clothing. The arms, legs, and head of (Roland) had to be held by three men.’

Another entry includes the following passage, dated 11 April 1949:

‘At midnight, the Fathers planned to give (Roland) Holy Communion, but Satan would have no part of it.
Even while the institution of the Blessed Sacrament was explained to (Roland) his body was badly scratched and branded.
The word ‘HELLO’ was printed on his chest and thigh. Upon the explanation of the Apostles becoming Priests and receiving Our Lord at the Last Supper, scratches appeared from (Roland) hips to his ankles in heavy lines, seemingly as a protest to Holy Communion.’

One night in April the boy suddenly cried out, ‘Satan, I am St Michael! I command you to leave this body now!’ Roland’s body went into a final violent spasm and then he said, ‘He is gone!’.

After the exorcism had concluded the monk in charge, Brother Rector Cornelius, turned a key in the door of the exorcism room and declared that the room was to be permanently locked. It was never reopened.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.