In December 1973, an unlikely film became one of the highest-grossing movies of the holiday season. That film was The Exorcist. The movie was so scary that theatergoers threw up, fainted, and some even had to be taken away by ambulance. The Exorcist has been called the scariest film of all time. And it’s no wonder. In addition to horrifying, graphic scenes depicting a little girl’s possession and ultimate deliverance from a demon, the movie is littered with subliminal images and sounds.
But The Exorcist is not simply a work of fiction. William Peter Blatty, the author of the novel and writer of the screenplay, was inspired by newspaper reports of an actual exorcism that took place in 1949. Unlike the movie, the child who was possessed was a 14 year old boy. And although there were no reports of his head spinning around or green projectile vomiting, the true story is every bit as chilling as the movie: even more chilling because it is real.
Although the boy was given a pseudonym to protect his identity, today it is common knowledge where the boy lived. One famous paranormal show even did an episode in the ‘Exorcist House’. Since many of the accounts of the exorcism use the pseudonym ‘Robbie’, that is the name I will use in this article.
The time is January 15, 1949, the place is Cottage City, Maryland. And so, it begins …
There’s no record of who heard the sound first, the boy or his grandmother. But I would imagine it was the boy, Robbie. Grandma Wagner was old, and her hearing wasn’t all that good. One can just imagine the fourteen year old walking from room to room trying to locate the source of the sound. The drip-drip-drip dripping. Robbie put his ear to the wall at the foot of the staircase, but the sound wasn’t coming from there. Of course, he had checked the kitchen and bathroom sinks first, but both were bone dry. So he made his way upstairs and checked first his bedroom, then his parents bedroom but both were silent. At last, Robbie was rewarded with the satisfaction of knowing exactly which room the sound was coming from. It came from Grandma Wagner’s room.
“Grandma, come here for a minute,” Robbie called to his grandmother who was sitting in her favorite chair in the downstairs living room.
“Come where?” she called out. She was in the middle of doing a crossword puzzle, and was on the verge of coming up with a five letter word for the clue ‘Type of rum’ when the boy broke her concentration.
“Up here, in your bedroom. There’s something dripping, but I don’t know where it’s coming from,” he said.
Grandma Wanger put down her puzzle and hurried up upstairs. When Robbie said that something was dripping, she expected to see a leak in the ceiling. But when she walked in her room, there was nothing to see. There was just the sound. A steady, incessant, persistent, loud dripping sound. It seemed to come from one corner of the room, but when she and Robbie went to investigate they discovered that it actually sounded as if it was coming from the opposite corner. Making their way to that corner, the sound seemed to have moved to the center of the ceiling.
As Robbie and his grandmother looked up at the ceiling, the dripping got louder and louder. It sounded as if water was dripping from the roof and onto the ceiling above them. But then, as they stood there with their necks craned looking up, the dripping suddenly stopped. They looked at each other and simultaneously caught their breath on the intake. Grandma’s eyebrows furrowed in perplexity, and Robbie slowly aimed one ear toward the ceiling, listening intently.
All was silent, but not for long. A new sound made its way to their ears, a quiet vibrating sound, and it was coming from the wall; specifically, it was coming from the painting of Jesus that hung above grandmother’s bed. The two stared at the painting and noticed that it was shaking slightly. Then, it suddenly began to bounce and rattle as if someone had struck the wall from behind. The picture wire seemed barely able to hold it in place. Finally, the movement stopped and the painting settled down with a loud bang.
By the time Robbie’s parents got home from their night out, a new sound had emerged from Grandma Wagner’s room; the sound of scratching. It seemed to come from underneath the floorboards near the bed. The sound began at seven o'clock and lasted until midnight, and then all went silent. This same scratching sound continued for several days. Obviously, the family thought the sound must have come from mice, or rats. Perhaps they had built a nest under the floorboards, they thought. Whenever anyone stamped their feet over the sound, it got louder, so they assumed that something living must be under there. But why did the sound only occur from seven o’clock until midnight? An exterminator was called in. He drilled holes and put poison under the floorboards, but the scratching sounds continued. If anything, they became more distinct.
Ten days later, the scratching sounds suddenly stopped. The family thought that the poison the exterminator put down must have worked, and that whatever rodent was responsible for making the scratching sounds was no longer a problem. But Robbie insisted that he could still hear scratching sounds. Try as they might no one else in the family could hear anything. Then three days later, another sound emerged. This one was different, and it was no longer heard in grandmother’s room -- it was in Robbie’s bedroom. It was the sound of footsteps; the sound of squeaking shoes walking back and forth along Robbie’s bed.
Robbie was frightened. Remember, he was just a child. Any fourteen-year-old would be frightened of mysterious footsteps walking past their bed in the middle of the night, and the sound of scratching coming from underneath the floorboards.
The mysterious, squeaking footsteps only occurred at night when the boy went to bed. Everyone in the family heard it, but they were unable to make sense of it. It was clearly NOT the sound of rodents under the floorboards, but what could possibly make this type of sound? The footsteps continued for six nights, and on the sixth night the scratching sounds were back again.
As Robbie, his mother, and his grandmother lay on his bed listening to the footsteps and scratching sounds, a new sound was born. The three heard coming toward them what sounded like marching feet and the beat of drums. The sound got closer and closer to the bed until it was right next to it, and then it made its way up and down the length of the bed. The sound continued on until the mother said, “Is that you Aunt Tillie?” Her aunt had died two weeks after the sounds first started in the home. Aunt Tillie had been a firm believer in spiritualism and often used the Ouija board. She even taught Robbie how to use it, and the two of them would often try to contact spirits through the board.
Robbie’s mom continued asking questions out loud, but there was no verbal reply. She then said, “If you are Tillie, knock three times.” Robbie, his mother, and his grandmother suddenly felt waves of air blow across them as they lay on the bed, followed by three distinct knocks coming from the floor. “If you are Tillie,” his mother continued, “tell me positively by knocking four times.” Four loud knocks came from the floor. These were followed by what they later described as the sound of “claw scratchings” on the mattress that the three were laying on.
The sound of claw scratching continued over the next few nights. The activity only occurred at night. The family decided that they would try ignoring the sounds instead of asking questions about who was responsible for them. But this backfired. Whenever they ignored the claw scratching sounds the entire bed would begin to shake. One time, the coverlet of the bed was pulled out from the mattress and the corners stood up above the surface of the bed in a curled form.
By the end of February, the strange sounds didn’t shows signs of stopping. But things were about to go from bad to worse. Pieces of heavy furniture would slide across the floor, and one time a chair flipped over when no one was near it. A few minutes later, as the family members were discussing the flipped chair, they watched in amazement as a vase slowly rose up off of a table. Soon after, a bottle of holy water that was put next to Robbies bed smashed to the ground by itself. Other holy objects owned by the family were hurled across the room or thrown onto the floor by unseen hands. The family consulted physicians and psychiatrists, but no one was able to come up with a logical explanation for the activity that swirled around the boy, making his life a living hell.
On February 17, the family sought the help of their Lutheran clergyman, Reverend Luther Miles Schultze. The reverend suggested that Robbie spend the night in his home so he could observe the boy to see if any activity happened outside of the home. Robbie slept on a twin bed in the guest room, and the minister sat up in a chair nearby. He reported that when the lights were turned out, scratching sounds could be heard coming from the walls, and vibrations were heard coming from the bed the boy lay on. He also observed Robbie twisting and turning in bed, and uttering things in a language he couldn’t understand. Unable to sleep, Robbie got out of bed at one point and sat in a chair near the minister. Suddenly, the heavy chair tipped over by itself dumping Robbie onto the floor. At the same time, a pile of blankets that had been on the bed inexplicably began moving around the room. This bizarre display of activity convinced the reverend that there was an evil presence to blame. The next day, reverend Schultze suggested the family seek the help of the Catholic church, pointing out that the Lutheran religion did not have a rite of exorcism to handle demonic possession.
Robbie’s parents made an appointment with Father E. Albert Hughes at neary St. James church. After listening to the parents describe the type of activity centered on the boy, the priest said that he would like to spend the night in the family home to observe him. That night, the priest witnessed the same type of phenomenon that the Lutheran reverend had; strange scratching sounds emanating from the walls, the boy screaming and spitting, and objects moving of their own accord. He also heard the boy speaking Latin, a language that Robbie was unfamiliar with.
The priest thought that the case was one the church might take on, and the archbishop of Washington, D.C., granted permission for the exorcism to take place. Between February 28 and March 2, the rite of exorcism was performed on Robbie at Georgetown Hospital, a Jesuit run institution. The rite of exorcism is often performed in hospitals because a trained medical professional must be on hand at all times. But the exorcism ended violently when Robbie broke off a piece of a spring from the mattress he was strapped to and slashed Father Hughes from his shoulder all the way down to his wrist. The injury was serious enough to require stitches, and the priest got blood poisoning. The exorcism was called off, and Robbie was returned home to be with his family.
A few mornings later, Robbie was at home getting dressed in the bathroom. Suddenly his parents heard the boy screaming and they rushed in to see what was wrong. Robbie was staring at himself in the mirror. On the skin of his ribcage were scratched the letters L-O-U-I-S. Although Robbie’s parents were alarmed at the strange writing on their son’s skin, his mother thought, ‘Maybe this is a sign. Maybe we need to go to stay with relatives in St. Louis. Maybe if we get Robbie out of this house, all of this will stop.’ So that’s just what they did. They took Robbie to visit relatives in Bel-Nor, a northwestern suburban city of of St. Louis, Missouri.
Unfortunately, the same type of activity followed the boy to Bel-Nor and the relatives witnessed the same strange phenomenon. But one relative had an idea. She was attending St. Louis University, and she said that she would go to the head of St. Xavier Church, the church associated with the university, and seek advice of the pastor there.
One of the women’s professors was Reverend Raymond Bishop. Bishop spoke to Revered William Bowdern, and on March 11 both vicars visited Robbie in his relative’s home. They noticed the boy’s absolute revulsion to anything sacred. They also witnessed his bed shaking, objects flying across the room, and Robbie speaking in a deep, strange sounding voice.
Father Bowdern read the prayer of St. Francis, blessed Robbie with a relic and placed a crucifix under his pillow. After Father Bowdern and Father Bishop left the home, a loud noise was heard in Robbie’s room. The five relatives who were at home at the time found that a large bookcase had moved from its usual place, a bench had been overturned, and the crucifix that had been under Robbie’s mattress had moved to the edge of the bed. But most alarming was the sight of Robbie’s mattress shaking violently as the boy lay on it.
Reverend Bowdern asked permission of the archbishop for an exorcism to be performed on the boy. The archbishop agreed with three conditions: Reverend Bowdern would be in charge of performing the exorcism; he was to keep a detailed diary of the deliverance; and he was not to disclose the location of the ritual.
Bowdern was shocked! He was an elderly priest, and he had never performed an exorcism before. At the same time, he was a wise, down-to-earth man, and he was a veteran of World War II. He was a very religious man, and a very tough man, so the Cardinal thought that Bowdern would be perfect for the job.
An exorcism is not simply a series of prayers that are read through once and the person is ‘cured’ of their demon. It is a long, laborious process, and not all exorcisms are successful the first time. It may take days, weeks, or even months of constant prayer. An exorcism is actually a confrontation, not simply a rite. Once it has begun it has to finish no matter how long it takes. If the exorcist stops the rite, then the demon will pursue him which is why finishing the process is so essential. This is one reason why Robbie’s case is so unusual. The first exorcism that was started in late February was abandoned. But this time, things would be different.
On Wednesday, March 16, 1949 Father Bowdern, Father Bishop, and a young seminarian named Walter Halloran arrived at the home in Bel-Nor at 10:15 PM. One can only imagine what must have gone through their minds as they exited their car on that cold night and looked up at the neat brick house with the shutters on Roanoke Drive. Since he had never participated in an exorcism before, Father Bowdern had been studying up on the subject, so I’m sure he had a lot to tell the other priests on the drive over to the house. But now that they had arrived, it was all business. Shortly after they entered the home, Bowdern began the prayers of the rite of exorcism.
During the exorcism, the priests witnessed scratches appearing on the boy’s body, and the mattress shaking and rocking violently. In a radio interview with Father Halloran from 2000, he said that the boy’s mattress actually levitated. “The bed did levitate,” he said. “I read in an article somewhere that someone said that it moved just because it had wheels on it. Well, I was leaning on the bed and praying, and the bed came up off the floor and then went down. You know, it came up about 8 to 10 inches, then went back down.”
During the entire ordeal, Robbie was unaware of what was happening to him. Father Halloran said, “He had no recollection, or no relatable experience at all. I’d ask him questions and he’d have a very blank look. He wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”
Father Halloran said that a bottle of holy water that had been on a dresser flew across the room. “I was just kneeling there, saying the prayers in the rite of exorcism and all of a sudden this bottle flew past my head. It came from a dresser on the other side of the room. There was no one near it.”
Letters began to appear scratched on the boy’s body. Father Halloran confirmed that one spelled out the word ‘hell’. “For the most part,” he said, “the scratches were long striations. Kind of like the reaction of being stuck with a thorn. They raised up and formed a welt.”
Even though he was just a young seminarian at the time, Halloran wasn’t frightened. “I wasn’t frightened, I was mostly surprised. I looked to see if there was anything else that would go flying by my head, but there wasn’t. The only thing that had been on the dresser was the bottle of holy water.”
Although Halloran wasn’t afraid during the exorcism, the one thing that came closest to scaring him during this time didn’t take place during the actual rite. He said, “One time we went out in the country just to get the little guy away from the hospital, just to get some fresh air. We were walking along a bluff looking over the Missouri River. And he suddenly took off and started running, which surprised me, and I called his name and nothing happened. So, I ran after him, grabbed him and we were both looking over the edge of the bluff, of the cliff, when I got to him. So, that was scary.”
In the movie, “The Exorcist” the child could be heard speaking in a deep, demonic sounding voice. Father Halloran explained that this was not the case with Robbie. “The only thing that I noticed is that sometimes the little boy would try to speak in a deep voice. It would be evident to anyone that it wasn’t really a deep voice. It was a little child’s attempt at trying to imitate one. In other words, it wasn’t the voice of the evil spirit or anything like that, it was his voice.”
During the exorcism, Robbie cursed violently at the priests and he spit at them. Apparently, he spit directly into their eyes even though his eyes were closed. Like the first exorcism, this one also caused injury. While he was thrashing about on the bed, Robbie broke Halloran’s nose; but the priest dismissed the injury as nothing more than an accident. “It was just a mistake,” he said. “His arm was flailing around and I just didn’t duck at the right time!”
After three days, the exorcism was moved from the relative's home to fourth floor of the psychiatric wing of the Alexian Brothers Hospital. The change of location occurred because of the violent behavior that Robbie was exhibiting during the exorcism.
When asked what type of conversations went on with the boy, or with the demon, during the exorcism, Halloran said, “Sometimes he would be answering questions that appear in the prayer of exorcism. Questions like, ‘What is your name?’ or ‘What time will you depart from this person?’ And he’d make answers like, ‘Never’ or he’d just laugh. One time he said, ‘I’ll never leave until the word is said.’ That was about the only direct answer or statement that was given. Many times it would just be laughter on his part. My reaction was that I was hearing what the evil spirit wanted him to say. There wasn’t any change of voice or anything like that.”
The notes from the 1949 exorcism that were written by Father Bishop were recently published in a book by Christopher Saint Booth called, “The Exorcist Diary”. In his notes, Father Bishop wrote, “The most distinct markings on the body were the picture of the devil on R's right leg and the word "HELL" imprinted on R's chest in such a way that R could look down upon his chest and read the letters plainly. The imprint of the devil and "HELL" appeared at the repetition of the "Praecipio" demanding the evil spirit to identify himself. His arms were held above his head and seemed to be webbed, giving the hideous appearance of a bat. All the room observers agreed that the above two signs could not be mistaken for other designs."
During the exorcism, Robbie’s personality changed rapidly back and forth between being ‘demonic’ to being that of a little boy. “The changes would be immediate,” Halloran explained. “I’d be there talking to him and all of a sudden he’d go into a kind of a seizure, thrashing about, that type of thing; and then just as rapidly he would change from that. Most of the time when he changed from acting in a possessed manner, he was kind of mystified because he had no recollection, no recall of what had happened just previously.”
During the exorcism, Robbie’s behavior became increasingly violent. This included spitting at the priests and family members who were present, shouting and laughing fiendishly, using foul language, urinating all over the bed, and singing phrases from songs he didn’t seem to know before he was possessed such as, ‘Old Man River’, ‘Blue Danube’ and, ironically, the church hymn ‘Old Rugged Cross’.
On April 11, Father Bishop’s diary entry reads, 'At midnight, the Fathers planned to give Robbie Holy Communion, but Satan would have no part of it. Even while the institution of the Blessed Sacrament was explained to Robbie 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 Robbie’s hips to his ankles in heavy lines, seemingly as a protest to Holy Communion.'
The rite of exorcism was performed on Robbie thirty times over a two month period. On Monday, April 18, the day after Easter Sunday, Robbie woke up with severe seizures. He cursed and spit at the priests, and he said that Satan would always be with him. At 10:45 PM, Father Bowdern called upon Saint Michael and asked that he expel the demon from Robbie’s body. Seven minutes later, it was as if Robbie awoke from a deep trance. He looked around the room, looked at the priests and said, “He’s gone”. Unlike the movie, no priests died or were harmed in any way during the second exorcism.
There are some reports that a loud sound was heard throughout the floors of the hospital when the demon left. Some said it sounded like a thunderclap. Others said it sounded like a shotgun. Sound or no sound, the hospital room where the exorcism had taken place was permanently sealed off, and the hospital was eventually torn down to make way for a new medical facility.
There is little information about Robbie’s life immediately after the exorcism, but because the Jesuits and Alexians who were close to the case kept track of him, we do know that he went on to lead a normal life. He married around 1970, had children, and never experienced anything like possession again.
One has to ask the question, was Robbie actually possessed? There are certain signs that priests look for in order to determine whether or not someone is truly possessed. These include speaking fluently in a language that is unknown to the person, and demonstrating inappropriate strength. Another sign of possession is the afflicted person’s ability to know things they should have no knowledge of, such as the priest’s or other professional’s personal information. Robbie exhibited all of these things and more: Furniture moved across the room, his bed levitated, scratches appeared on his body, a vase levitated, the blanket on his bed stood up off the bed, and the bottle of holy water flew through the air.
However, poltergeist cases often show the same, bizarre type of activity such as strange sounds and the levitation and transmigration of objects. And poltergeist activity often centers around adolescents.
Is it possible that 14-year-old Robbie had some sort of a mental disorder, which was in some way responsible for poltergeist-like activity? It’s highly doubtful. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Only after a thorough examination including medical, psychological, and psychiatric testing might the person be referred to the exorcist for a final determination regarding demonic possession.” (1) In addition, there are never sudden cures for mental illness. Although it took two months, Robbie’s ‘cure’ was sudden and permanent.
If you haven’t seen it in a while, take another look at “The Exorcist”. You may think that you’re immune to foul language and gory special effects, but I think you’ll be in for a rude awakening. “The Exorcist” works on our most primal fear--the fear of the unknown. And in the case of demonic possession, it is a fear that something totally foreign, something completely evil and out of our control can take us over and ultimately destroy us body and soul.
- http://www.strangemag.com/exorcistpage1.html (Excellent and thoroughly researched article on the exorcism of ‘Robbie’)
- http://www.biblicalcatholic.com/apologetics/TrueStoryExorcist.htm (Info about the 1949 exorcism that inspired the book and film ‘The Exorcist’)
- https://www.riverfronttimes.com/stlouis/hell-of-a-house/Content?oid=2491650 (Info about the house in St. Louis where the exorcism took place)
- https://www.denverpost.com/2016/05/26/the-true-story-behind-the-exorcist-photos/ (Article with photos of the houses were the exorcism of ‘Robbie’ took place)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exorcism_in_the_Catholic_Church (Information on the Catholic church’s rite of exorcism)
- https://www.slu.edu/universitas/archive/2014/exorcism.php (An in-depth look at Saint Louis University's part in the 1949 exorcism that inspired the novel and film “The Exorcist”)
- https://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/news/article/13017185/mr-satans-neighborhood (Info about the 1949 exorcism that inspired the book and film ‘The Exorcist’)
- http://www.strangemag.com/exorcistpage1.html (Info about the 1949 exorcism that inspired the book and film ‘The Exorcist’)
- https://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/exorcist-leave-possessed-1973-review-article-1.2451412 (1973 review of “The Exorcist” movie)
- https://www.washingtonian.com/2015/10/19/think-the-exorcist-was-just-a-horror-movie-author-william-peter-blatty-says-youre-wrong/ (Info about the 1949 exorcism that inspired the book and film ‘The Exorcist’)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exorcism_of_Robbie_Doe (Info about the 1949 exorcism that inspired the book and film ‘The Exorcist’)
- https://www.amazon.com/Exorcist-Diary-True-Story/dp/0692536698 (Book review)
- https://www.amazon.com/Rite-Making-Modern-Exorcist/dp/0385522711/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=4Q1C9K7RZMD3HQBS25P9 (Book on modern day exorcisms, and the shortage of exorcists in the Catholic church)
- http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacraments-and-sacramentals/sacramentals-blessings/exorcism.cfm (United States Conference of Bishops - Facts about exorcism)
- https://www.conservapedia.com/Robbie_Mannheim (Info about the 1949 exorcism that inspired the book and film ‘The Exorcist’)
- allthatsinteresting.com/roland-doe-the-exorcist-true-story (Info about the 1949 exorcism that inspired the book and film ‘The Exorcist’)
- http://twocrowsparanormal.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-exorcist-diary-reviewed.html?m=1 (Review of “The Exorcist Diary”; original diary entries from the 1949 exorcism)
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/entries/b3dcaf69-3dae-3d90-8311-05460c60d3ae (BBC interview regarding radio drama adaptation of the Exorcist novel)
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWXs2RTg0sw (BBC ‘The Exorcist’ Radio drama 2014)
- https://www.theninthconfiguration.com (William Peter Blatty fan-site)
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC0LQMqy8Y (1984 runion of the case of “The Exorcist”)
- https://www.metv.com/stories/do-you-remember-the-exorcist-phenomenon-in-1973 (Short article about the public reaction to the film)
- http://mentalfloss.com/article/87245/terrifying-subliminal-image-hidden-exorcist (Subliminal images in “The Exorcist” film)
- http://captainhowdy.com/everything-exorcist/the-exorcist/ (“The Exorcist” film fan-site)
- https://screenrant.com/the-exorcist-making-of-behind-scenes-hidden-trivia/ (Subliminal images in “The Exorcist” film)
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=0&v=-a97uHJ08zQ (“The Exorcist” movie trailer that was banned because it was too frightening)
- https://knowledgenuts.com/2014/01/31/how-priests-tell-between-demonic-possession-and-mental-illness/ (“How Priests Tell Between Demonic Possession and Mental Illness”)