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True Story behind ‘The Exorcist’ Movie

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The Mount Rainier (Cottage City) Maryland Case

THE NEWS BREAKS

The Washington Post article in 1949 proclaims, “Priest Frees 14-Year-Old Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Almost immediately the story was picked up by the other news services and magazines. Who would think that such a thing could still happen, and in all places, modern-day America? The story has been told and retold.

Picture Here of an Oriental Demon

Unable to get access to archdiocesan records, William Peter Blatty produced his fictionalized account that resulted in a blockbuster movie of 1974. One priest lamented at the time, “It is tragic that the devil should prove so popular with people when they seem so disinterested in God.” The conclusion of the film was most lamentable in that the young priest exchanges his body for that of the child as a host to the demon and then throws himself from the window. If the story had been true, one could logically contend that the devil was really after the priest the entire time. In other words, the devil really won and the rituals and intercession of the Catholic Church were proven impotent. Fortunately, such portrayals are restricted to the movies and the real story shows that the power of Christ and of his Church can still vanquish the demonic.

HOW IT REALLY STARTED

Unlike the movie, the story surrounded a young boy who was born June 1, 1935. He and his parents lived just outside Washington, D.C. in Cottage City, not far from Mount Rainier, Maryland. (Some sources claim a popular Mount Ranier location as the site of the boy’s home. The house at this location has been torn down and a dance studio is now on the site. The diary gives the Cottage City location, instead. I do not feel it appropriate to give the full address. However, since Catholics in the past identified themselves by their parishes, we might still call this the Mount Ranier Case. The boy converted to the Catholic faith and claimed St. James parish as his own in Mount Ranier.) The first signs of trouble started on January 15, 1949. He was thirteen years old. While his parents were out that evening, he and his grandmother heard a dripping sound in the house. It only lasted for a brief period and then a picture of Jesus on the wall began to shake as if something had bumped into it. When his parents had returned home, a definite scratching noise could be heard under the floorboards next to his grandmother’s bed. This sound of scratching was repeated each night from about 7:00 PM until midnight. Logically, the family figured that there must be a rodent problem. An exterminator was called. However, despite taking up the floorboards and wall panels to spread poison, the sound did not cease. Indeed, the disturbing noises became worse.

Some ten days afterwards the noises ceased and all believed the rodent to be dead. Nevertheless, the boy was under the impression that he could still hear the scratching noises. Three days later the sound became audible to the rest of the family again.

The exorcist writes: “When the sound became audible again, it was no longer in the upstairs bedroom but had moved downstairs to the boy’s bedroom. It was heard as the sound of squeaking shoes along the bed and was heard only at night when the boy went to bed. The squeaking sound continued for six nights, on the sixth night scratching again was audible.”

It appears that the invitation for this spiritual invasion was inadvertently initiated through a favorite aunt of the boy. She had died in St. Louis two weeks prior to the first registered phenomena. “It developed that the aunt of the boy and his parents had used a Ouija board, and this probably gave the devil his first entrance.” Many religious authorities are convinced that such a so-called toy actually offers an invitation to evil spirits. Aunt Tillie had been an enthusiast of spiritualism. Suspecting something supernatural in the sound of marching feet, the boy’s mother asked (according to the exorcist’s journal): “‘Is that you Aunt Tillie?’ She obtained no verbal reply and continued: (evidently aware of the methods employed by spiritualists) ‘If this is you, knock three times.’ There were waves of air striking the grandmother, mother and boy, and three distinct knocks were heard on the floor. The mother asked again: ‘If you are Tillie, tell me positively by knocking four times.’ Four distinct knocks were heard.”

As time went by, it became evident that strange occurrences and sounds seemed to follow the boy.

  • “An orange and a pear flew across the entire room where he was standing.”
  • “The kitchen table was upset without any movement on the boy’s part.”
  • “Milk and food were thrown off the table and stove.”
  • “The breadboard was thrown onto the floor.”
  • “Outside the kitchen a coat on its hanger flew across the room.”
  • “A Bible was thrown directly at the foot of the boy but did not injure him in any way.”
  • “His desk at school moved about on the floor similar to the plate on a Ouija board.” This latter evidence of telekinesis forced the boy to quit school because of embarrassment.

Things became increasingly worse at home. “On one occasion the coverlet of the bed was pulled out from under the mattress and the edges stood up above the surface of the bed in a curled form as though held up with starch. When the bystanders touched the bedspread, the sides fell back to normal position.” It was also stated that “At first everybody, including the boy, took it as a kind of joke, but it became more than a joke.” Soon thereafter, “the word LOUIS was written in deep red on the boy’s ribs,” seeming to indicate that some invisible force desired that the boy travel to St. Louis where his favorite aunt lived.

THE LUTHERAN MINISTER

His mother called a minister of her faith, a local Lutheran pastor. He was dubious about the whole matter. Although suspicious of the chest message, written upside down as if self-inflicted, he requested that the family come to his home. What happened next struck him as defying any natural explanation. His offer to keep the boy over at his home was accepted. It was the 17th of February in 1949. At about 10:00 PM, they decided to go to bed. The room contained twin beds. After about ten minutes, the boy’s bed began to vibrate. The headboard was banging against the frame.

The minister reported: “It made a lot of racket. I thought he was shaking it but he was making no visible movement.” Seeking a practical remedy to the situation, he placed the boy in a large overstuffed chair and sat beside him. Slowly the chair began to tilt upon its side and the minister had to grab it before it fell over. The good pastor insisted that there was no way the boy could be pushing the chair over since his legs were thoroughly tucked beneath him. He then placed the boy on a scatter rug upon the floor. Certainly, this would resolve the matter for the night. But no, the rug “moved slowly until it got to the wall and then it stopped.” The poor clergyman was utterly befuddled. “I remember thinking he must be doing it himself but I realized later that would have been impossible. There was no movement of his body.” The boy was delivered home the next day. Because of his Protestant theology, the minister sought a natural explanation. Unable to come up with one, he categorized the whole incident under unknown forces.

FROM SHRINK TO WITCHDOCTOR TO PRIEST

A psychiatrist from Georgetown University was called in but refusing to believe in the phenomena he simply reported that the boy was normal but “somewhat high-strung”. The family complicated matters further by calling a spiritualist. However, his incantations for dispelling spirits failed. Indeed, the situation became graver.

Having a relative married to a Catholic, the boy’s mother described the situation to him. His response was “If what you say is true, then you should consult a priest.” The family called the nearby parish, St. James Catholic Church. The boy’s father made an appointment to talk to one of the priests. The clergyman gave him various sacramentals: holy water, blessed candles, and some recommended prayers. “Once when the mother had sprinkled the holy water around the room, she placed the bottle on a dresser and it was picked up by the spirit and smashed. When one of the candles was lighted, the flame shot up to the ceiling, and the candle was extinguished for fear that the house might be set on fire.” The suggested prayers seemed to make the phenomena worse. Deciding to call back the priest, the clergyman heard a great crashing sound. The mother of the boy told him that the telephone table she was using had broken into a hundred pieces.

This anxious situation refused to end and matters grew tenser. The priest, Fr. E. Albert Hughes, went to the chancellor of the archdiocese. He was warned to move slowly and not to leap to rash judgments. The young priest explained that he had done as much. After a meeting with the archbishop, Most Reverend Patrick A. O’Boyle, he was authorized to initiate the exorcisms. Fr. Hughes resisted, hoping that an older and more experienced man might be chosen instead. He “understood that this should be done by a very holy man because the devil is wont to expose the sins of the priest; so the Father went to Baltimore and made a general confession. But the devil is the father of lies, and there is a theological opinion that he is unable to reveal sins that have been forgiven.”

The archbishop insisted, the young priest had to offer the ritual. It would prove a terrible miscalculation. Between February 27 and March 4, the boy was moved to Georgetown University Hospital. A young man and altar server (George) who was known for his abilities in high school football was drafted by the priest to assist him. This young man is still with us and is a leader in the local Knights of Columbus today. He told me that he had a terrible struggle to hold the possessed boy down. That he could spit across the room with deadly accuracy. At one point he lost his patience and even slugged the other boy to keep him under control. He saw himself as the popular priest’s body guard. The priest made him go to confession and pledged him not to tell his mother and friends the details of the encounters. They tied the hands and feet of the boy to the bedposts. He reacted violently to the ritual. Loose items in the room crashed to the floor. The bed shook uncontrollably. Strenuously the large server sought to hold the bed down. The victim was a small boy and yet he possessed incredible strength. The priest warned his young assistant not to enter into dialogue with the boy, only to give the required responses to the ritual words of the priest. Strange words came forth from the restrained boy, supposedly Aramaic, a form of ancient Hebrew. Previously the boy had taunted the priest in Latin. Objects were thrown around the room. The boy growled like an inhuman animal. Then it happened. Somehow the boy had gotten a hand free of the restraints. He secretly tore through the heavy mattress and ripped out a metal spring. The server responded to the words uttered by Fr. Hughes in the ritual. At the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, the boy attacked the priest and tore a gash into the cleric’s arm from his shoulder to his wrist. Blood exploded over everything! The ritual prayer-book was caked in the priest’s blood! He screamed out! The exorcism had ended in failure. The priest’s life was saved by the doctors and his arm had a long track of a hundred plus stitches. He would have lingering problems with the arm and it would visibly drag at the consecration during Masses.

As an interesting aside, the young server in this episode was struck in the eye by the afflicted boy. He would develop a black eye and it was joked that maybe the priest had socked him. When the priest mysteriously left the parish, only he knew the true reason. The good priest would need to recuperate from his terrible encounter and injury. After this event, colleagues of the priest say that Fr. Hughes was never quite the same. He became quieter. He was intensely reserved about what had happened. One remarked that it was as if he was a haunted man. He died in 1980.

The sources are clear about this next point. “Up to this time everything had been obsession, that is, exterior to the boy, but as soon as the exorcisms began, real possession began.”

THEY GO TO SAINT LOUIS

The boy expressed a desire to go to St. Louis, and since they had relatives they could visit there, the family left with the hope of leaving their troubles behind them. Unfortunately, the problem with the boy did not improve. “Different displays were witnessed by two aunts of the boy, four uncles and four cousins. The printing ‘No School’ was seen by four people. The swaying of the mattress, the upsetting of bedroom furniture and the scratching on the mattress were observed by the entire group . . . Phenomena indicated that the spirit was not the devil but the soul of deceased Tillie. The spirit confirmed again to all present that she was Tillie by moving a heavy bed two or three feet with not one of the bystanders near the bed.”

Again a priest was consulted from the closest Catholic parish. Fr. Raymond J. Bishop, S.J., a teacher at the university came to the house on March 9. He “blessed the entire house, and used a special blessing in the boy’s room and on his bed. A second-class relic of St. Margaret Mary was safety-pinned to the extreme border of the pillow. Shortly after the boy retired, the mattress on his bed began to move back and forth in the direction of the bed uprights. The boy lay perfectly still, and did not exert any physical effort. The movement in one direction did not exceed more than three inches; the action was intermittent and completely subsided after a period of approximately fifteen minutes.” The next day, similar things happened. The relic was thrown to the floor. “The safety pin was open but no human hand had touched the relic. The boy started up in fright when the relic was thrown down.”

EXORCISM & BAPTISM

The next day, Friday, March 11, the priest who would perform the exorcisms visited the family. Fr. Bishop had in turn contacted Fr. William S. Bowdern, S.J. from St. Francis Xavier Church. He was shaken by what he observed. He brought additional relics and a crucifix. “Shortly after the boy had retired at 11:00 PM, he called downstairs that he had been frightened by a strong force that had thrown some object against the mirror in his bedroom. With safety-pin opened, the relic of St. Margaret Mary had been thrown against the mirror and the sound was like a pellet striking the glass. Another occurrence was a cross mark scratched on the boy’s left, outer forearm. The pain was similar to that produced by a scratch of a thorn. The cross remained evident for approximately forty-five minutes.” The family telephoned the priest in Washington, and after a few days, the priest in St. Louis brought the case to his archbishop (Archbishop Ritter) and was authorized to continue with the exorcisms.

The symptoms of possession seemed to get worse and not better with the new exorcism attempts beginning on March 16. “The seizures took place in the evening when the boy went to bed and would last from 8:OO to 12 Midnight or 1:00 AM, intermittently, and then the boy would go off into a perfectly normal sleep for nine or ten hours.” It was decided a few days later to recite the prayers earlier so that everyone could get more sleep. Nevertheless, the seizures were unabated and started about 9:00 at night and lasted until 2:00 or 3:00 AM.

Sometimes as many as ten people were required to hold the boy during seizures. He would tear the sheets and pillows to shreds, as well as the shirts and undershirts of those who restrained him. He was utterly wild, hitting and kicking. He even broke the nose of one of the assisting Jesuit students. One incident had him scratching the exorcist’s arm so badly that he could not lift it for a number of days.

“Coming out of a seizure he would complain of feeling very hot and would ask for a glass of water. After one of the seizures in the beginning, he said that the evil spirit seems to carry him down into a pit about two hundred feet deep where there were intense heat and vile evil spirits. In the beginning also he seemed to be in a long, dark cave with a tiny bit of light at the far end; as the exorcism progressed, the lighted end seemed to grow larger and larger, in one of the exorcisms, the spirit, in the body of the boy, pointed to one of the priests who were assisting and said: ‘What is the use of you being here; you will be with me in hell in 1957.’”

A few days passed. The boy asked to be baptized. It should be noted that his father had been baptized a Catholic and that some of his cousins in St. Louis were Catholics. Once consulted, the parents were agreeable. The boy was instructed and preparations were made to baptize him in church. “On the appointed morning he rose, took a shower, ate his usual breakfast and set out for the church in a car driven by his uncle. Just before reaching the church the boy grabbed his uncle by the neck and said: ‘You S.O.B., you think I am going to be baptized, but you are going to be fooled.’ The uncle was just able to seize the emergency brake and avert a collision by an inch. It was realized that to baptize the boy in the church would create a scene, so he was taken to the third floor of the rectory, which stands in back of the church but faces Lindell Boulevard. Every time he was asked: ‘Do you renounce Satan and all his works?’ he would go into a rage. Only after several hours of repetition was the boy able to reply: ‘I do renounce Satan and all his works.’ Then it required several more hours to get the water poured on the boy’s head.”

After the rite of initiation, things became calm and quiet for a couple of days. However, then the demonic business started up again and worse than before. Some of the phenomenon was quite peculiar. “One was the amount of spittle that the boy could discharge: there would be half-a-pint at one time. At times he would ask for a glass of water and it would be given to him, although it was known what would happen. It would be spat back on the bystanders. While the priest read the exorcisms, two others would hold a towel in front of his face to protect his glasses, but it was useless; the spittle would go under the towel, over the towel or around the towel and strike directly on the priest’s glasses, and the boy’s eyes would be closed the whole time. Another phenomenon was excessive urination. During the seizures the boy would utter the vilest obscenities, curses, blasphemies and ribald songs, all in a high falsetto voice that was off key.” It is noted that at one stage, the exorcist had to protect himself with a pillow, for the boy’s head moved like a cobra, aiming non-stop with spittle for his face.

FIRST COMMUNION

The exorcist and the family returned to the Washington, D.C. area. The boy’s parents were at wits end and were suffering from sleep deprivation. Fr. Hughes tried to get the boy committed to a sanatorium or hospital in the Washington-Baltimore area, but none would take him. It was decided to take him to the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis. He was given instructions in preparation for his first communion. The hope was that receiving the Eucharist might bring the possession to an end. “When the time came, it was impossible to get the Host near his tongue, but finally, after several hours, they succeeded in placing it on his tongue and three times he spat it out. Eventually success was achieved. This was on April 2, the first Saturday of the month, a day dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. The title was explained to the boy and he showed great interest. But the seizures continued.”

“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”

During the exorcism, the priest asked for the first time its name. “What is your name and when will you depart?” The response was simply “Shut up, shut up.” Later, “in answer to the question of his name, the words, ‘Hell, Spirit,’ appeared in red letters on the boy’s chest. In reply to the question of departure, red numbers: 4, 8, 10, 16, some Roman numerals appeared on the boy’s body. He said: ‘I will not go until a certain word is pronounced and this boy will never say it.’ There also appeared a red arrow extending from the boy’s throat to the bottom of his abdomen, and it was thought that the spirit might go out by the way of urine, as has happened in some cases.”

An appendage to the diary tells us that “the boy would greet the priests with filthy, foul obscenities, fluently answer the exorcist’s questions in Latin, a language he had never studied.” One day the boy was sitting in bed reading about Our Lady of Fatima with the book on his knees when he was thrown into a seizure. He threw the book across the room. On another occasion, he was given a glass of milk and threw that across the room. On one of the final days, a Jesuit scholastic gave the boy a plate of chipped beef. He grabbed the plate, jumped to one side of the room, and threatened to brain anyone approaching him. While one assistant approached him from one side, the scholastic crawled under the bed to seize him. The boy threw and smashed the dish of food against the wall.

LIBERATION AT LAST

Despite hope that the possession would end during Holy Week, it continued through Easter Sunday with particularly violent seizures. The worst day of all was April 18, Easter Monday. The exorcist and his assistants were becoming completely discouraged.

“Suddenly, at 11:00 PM, a new voice was heard from the boy; a beautiful, rich, deep bass voice exclaimed: ‘Satan, Satan, go, now, now, now to the pit where you belong, in the name of DOMINUS (the Lord).’ That was the word and at that moment the boy felt a tearing sensation in his stomach, relaxed and lay perfectly quiet. He described what has happened. He saw a brilliant figure, visible from the waist up, clothed in a close-fitting white garment which had the appearance of scales; the hair was long and flowing in a wind; the right hand held something like a flaming sword or light pointing downward. It was St. Michael the Archangel. When he spoke, the evil spirit rebelled against going until the word ‘Dominus’ was spoken and at this moment the boy felt the tearing sensation in his stomach. Then at some distance down he saw some evil spirits standing at the mouth of a cave from which flames issued. Then the spirits reluctantly withdrew into the cave, the opening closed and across it appeared the word: ‘Spite.’ Thus the possession was ended.”

CLOSING REMARKS

The diary tells us that the exorcist and his assistants “observed some severe fasting, mindful of the admonition of Christ that some devils can be driven out only by prayer and fasting.” There had been at least twenty exorcisms performed. One Jesuit involved remarked: “Only by examining the record after possession was ended, was it possible to see the meaning of the replies (the red marks on the boy’s body). The numbers may have been the days on which certain spirits departed from the boy, if there were actually more than one in his body.”

The Jesuit priest, Fr. Bowdern, passed away in 1983 and his assistant and then scholastic, Fr. Walter Halloran died from cancer March 1, 2005. The young server who tried to help Fr. Hughes has desired to remain anonymous. An interesting side note, George (the server) tells me that when the boy returned to Washington, he could not remember the active possession episodes. The possessed man is still living and there has been no trouble since. He married and had a nice family. Life went on.

A FEW ADDENDUM NEWSPAPER CITATIONS

An aunt of the boy said in a New York Times article from August 1972: (Upon the boy’s visit to her home) “All of a sudden the mattress starts going, just raised up in the air, and down, up and down, and my sister hollered for me, . . . oh I tell you that mattress just raised both of us right up in the air . . . . I happened to have a table against the wall with a vase of flowers on it and I got out but as my nephew tried to leave, that table actually flew in front of the door and would not let him out . . . .” In the same article it quotes what a Jesuit priest confided to him, “I assure you, Gene — I saw this with my own eyes — the boy did not tear the Ritual book, he dissolved it! The book vaporized into confetti and fell in small pieces to the floor!”

“Okay, maybe this story should not have been told?”

The staff writer Jeremiah O’Leary reported in the Evening Star that the boy spoke an unknown language that sounded similar to Hebrew. “A professor of Oriental languages from Catholic University was called in and he was shocked to discover the words coming from the boy’s mouth were in Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine in Jesus’ day.”

Materials Assembled and Retold by Father Joseph Jenkins

RECOMMENDED READING

Allen, Thomas B. POSSESSED. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

About The Author

Michael Bowes discerned a vocation with a religious community for 1.5 yrs before discerning that he was not called to that particular order. After leaving the Monastic life, Michael returned to Northern Virginia where he attends St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Warrenton, Va. Michael is an aspiring writer and volunteers at his local hospital as a Chaplain.

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