The Haunted Boy: The Facts Behind The Exorcist

serialized from Strange Magazine Issue 20

Part 1

Feeling Devilish? Try The Exorcist

To this day The Exorcist stands as one of the most horrifying movies ever made, a legendary cinematic venture that graphically portrays an epic struggle between human lives and demonic forces. Adapted from William Peter Blatty’s best-selling 1971 novel of the same name, the film was released by Warner Brothers on December 26, 1973 and immediately played to packed movie theaters across the country. The ensuing media blitz focused its attention on both the movie’s hard-to-stomach scenes that depicted a child possessed by the devil and the fact that author Blatty had based the story on a supposedly real event that took place in the Washington, D.C. area back in 1949. The film was nominated in 1974 for ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and was the recipient of two: “Best Screenplay Based On Material From Another Medium”—William Peter Blatty, and “Best Sound”—Robert Knudson and Chris Newman. The Exorcist has retained a faithful following since its debut and to date has grossed over $165 million (making it the thirteenth top grossing film of all time), with video sales and rentals still bringing home healthy sums.

Produced by William Peter Blatty himself and directed by William Friedkin (who received a 1971 academy award for Best Director for the movie The French Connection), the movie tells the harrowing tale of diabolically possessed 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (portrayed by Linda Blair) and the ensuing battle waged by her mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to free her soul from the devil’s grasp. The movie, set in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., deservedly achieved its widespread notoriety for its gut-wrenching scenes of Regan’s colorful exhibitions. She vomits, curses, spins her head around and commits various grotesque acts of blasphemy. Mixed in with her ill-mannered behavior are healthy doses of sensational levitation and additional special effects designed to send the weak-at-heart heading for the exits. While critics acknowledged the film’s box-office power, reviews seemed equally divided between those who loved the movie and those who hated it. The Exorcist is a disturbing 121-minute film that leaves its audience pained, drained, and entertained.

Emphasis on Blatty’s inspiration for The Exorcist intensified after the novel was released in May 1971, went to the top of the best-seller lists, and began receiving movie offers from Hollywood. The first of many major publications to consider Blatty’s literary sources was The New York Times, which weighed in with an article by Chris Chase on August 27, 1972 titled “Everyone’s Reading It, Billy’s Filming It.” The article chronicles how director William Friedkin became involved in the project and touches upon the fact that Blatty based his novel on a local story of demonic possession that he learned of while attending college. Soon after the movie achieved worldwide success, Blatty released the book William Peter Blatty On The Exorcist From Novel To Film (New York: Bantam Books, 1974) and filled in the gaps on how he devised this literary project. He writes that as a 20-year-old English Literature major at Georgetown University he spied an article in the August 20, 1949 Washington Post (Bill Brinkley, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held In Devil’s Grip”), that told of a 14-year-old Mount Rainier, Maryland boy who had been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil through the ancient ritual of exorcism. For years the notion of demonic possession stuck in his mind though he failed to incorporate the information into his work product.

Blatty went on to become a screenwriter-author, responsible for screenplays for several movies including A Shot In The Dark; John Goldfarb, Please Come Home; and What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? He began writing The Exorcist in 1969, drawing upon the material he had discovered some twenty years earlier, and finished his project during the summer of 1971. His creative process in researching and finishing both the novel and movie is detailed in his 1974 book. The most interesting aspect of this work is that Blatty tells of a letter he composed to the priest who conducted the actual 1949 exorcism. Blatty prints a censored version of the exorcist’s response, revealing for the first time the existence of a diary kept by an attending priest that recorded the daily events of the ongoing exorcism. Blatty writes that he requested to see the diary but the exorcist declined. Blatty decided to ease the exorcist’s anxiety and change the lead character from a 14-year-old boy to that of a 12-year-old girl. In this book Blatty goes on to mention that five copies of the diary were known to exist at that time: two were in the possession of people who watched over the boy; copies were in the archives of two separate archdioceses; and one was in the files of an unnamed public city hospital where the boy had stayed. (It has since been determined that there are several other copies floating around out there among private collectors.) Blatty maintains that he did indeed eventually read the diary and based much of his book and movie on that material, though he does not reveal how he came upon his copy.

The Exorcist is truly a modern-day cultural phenomenon. A best-selling novel, one of the highest grossing movies of all time, and today a household word that instantly generates dark images of uncontrollable horror, The Exorcist has fostered an underground cult following that continues to embrace—and attempts to trace—the story’s macabre origins. There have been dozens of newspaper and magazine articles that have tried to tell the “true” story. Books, television specials, and video documentaries on the subject have appeared, with the most recent offerings being the 1993 book Possessed: The True Story Of An Exorcism by Thomas B. Allen and the 1997 Henninger Media video In The Grip Of Evil. Most of the published works on this subject are poorly referenced and offer contradictory and even erroneous material. So much has been embellished and fabricated that it has become nearly impossible to differentiate fact and fiction. There is only one constant that seems to unite the biased writers who have tried to revise this story to suit their own agendas—none have ever actually talked with the possessed boy and none have ever interviewed anyone who grew up close to the family in question. I always felt the real story could only come from them.

Who Was This Possessed Kid and Where Did He Really Live?
Inquiring Minds Want to Know...

My interest in The Exorcist tale gradually escalated during the 1992 to 1996 time period. Most of my spare hours were spent during those years conducting research for my book Capitol Rock (Riverdale: Fort Center Books, 1997). Consequently, for a lengthy chapter on blues-rock guitar great Roy Buchanan, I spent a great deal of time canvassing the city of Mount Rainier, Maryland—a smallish working-class community of approximately 8,000 residents quietly tucked away in Victorian homes and bungalows on the D.C. line. The town was known for two things: the home of the great Roy Buchanan—and the alleged site of the story behind The Exorcist.

Indeed, ever since the early ’80s local high school teens had been flocking to what was then a vacant lot at the corner of Bunker Hill Road and 33rd Street right in the residential heart of Mount Rainier. Believing it to be the former site of the house where the possessed boy lived, these Prince George’s County teens delighted in roaming the lot at all hours of the night, drinking beer on the premises, erecting wooden crosses on the property, and yelling and screaming until local police had to come and chase them away. Several local newspaper accounts had set the tale in motion and an urban legend was born.

As I logged hundreds of hours in Mount Rainier chatting with the town’s oldest residents, one unsettling aspect of the Exorcist tale continuously reared its head. Without exception, the old-timers insisted that although their beloved town was given credit for being the home of the Exorcist story, the boy in question never actually lived in Mount Rainier. I found this to be very strange, since all of the sensational material printed on the subject placed him in Mount Rainier. Having spoken with members of Mount Rainier’s largest, oldest, and most prominent families, I found it very odd that not one person knew either the boy’s name or the names of any of his family members. Several told me that they had heard rumors that the boy in question was really from Cottage City, a small semi-isolated community just a short distance away. I felt I had hit paydirt when one lifelong Mount Rainier resident, Dean Landolt (today 70 years old), candidly told me, “I was very good friends with Father Hughes, the priest involved in that case, as was my brother Herbert. Father Hughes told me two things—one was that the boy lived in Cottage City, and the other is that he went on to graduate from Gonzaga High and turned out fine.” If Mr. Landolt’s information was accurate it would explain why nobody in Mount Rainier knew the boy’s name. I felt that a serious, thorough investigation into this case was required to patch up the growing holes that were now so evident.

I went back and examined my files on this local subject. The various published writings on the 1949 possession case contained a great deal of conflicting and confusing information. Still, I felt it would be a tremendous personal challenge to conduct this investigation from an entirely different viewpoint and in October 1997 I began my pursuit. Unlike those who had tackled this case before me, I decided that I would present a completely objective and unbiased factual report on the case. In setting my investigative goals it was understood that proving whether or not the boy in this case was actually possessed was not on the agenda. I sought to explore new territories: I would examine the critical elements of the case and create a factual framework from which to work, determine who the boy was and where he actually grew up, attempt to talk with him about his experiences, and interview friends from his hometown who grew up with him or knew his family. None of this had ever been done before.

Breaking the Story of the Haunted Boy

The following articles represent a large cross section of published material on this case. A careful reading will reveal many glaring inconsistencies in the basic story-telling, but I feel all are important for the raw data they offer. In scanning this material from 1949 to the present day one can discern the most common and widely believed scenario for this case of possession. Reporters to date have claimed that the 13- or 14-year-old boy was allegedly from Mount Rainier, Maryland. (It was later revealed that his date of birth was June 1, 1935, meaning he was actually 13 when the rite of exorcism was finally completed). Later accounts declared his home address to have been 3210 Bunker Hill Road. It is said the boy underwent a first exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital conducted by local priest Father E. Albert Hughes (where the boy allegedly slashed Hughes’s arm with a bedspring), and then underwent a final and successful rite of exorcism by Father William Bowdern at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri in the spring of 1949. The road linking this information together is a muddled trail indeed.

The media first became involved in this case when The Washington Post ran an article on August 10, 1949 titled “Pastor Tells Eerie Tale of ‘Haunted’ Boy.” Written in an almost tongue-in-cheek style by reporter Bill Brinkley, the piece tells an “out-of-this-world” story of a local 13-year-old boy. The story came to light when an unnamed minister gave a speech before a local meeting of the Society of Parapsychology at the Mount Pleasant Library in Washington, D.C. According to the minister the family had experienced many strange events in their suburban Maryland home beginning January 18th: scratching noises emanated from the house’s walls; the bed in which the boy slept would shake violently; and objects such as fruit and pictures would jump to the floor in the boy’s presence. The minister, described as being intensely skeptical, arranged for the boy to spend the night of February 17th in his home. With the boy sleeping nearby in a twin bed the minister reported that in the dark he heard vibrating sounds from the bed and scratching sounds on the wall. During the rest of the night he allegedly witnessed some strange events—a heavy armchair in which the boy sat seemingly tilted on its own and tipped over and a pallet of blankets on which the sleeping boy lay inexplicably moved around the room. Curiously, the article described the minister as laughing as he related these incidents to his audience. He admonished the boy by saying, “Now, look, this is enough of this....” The article ended by saying that the minister called in the family doctor, who prescribed phenobarbital for the whole family.

The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) followed up the Post’s scoop with an uncredited article later that evening on August 10, 1949 titled “Minister Tells Parapsychologists Noisy ‘Ghost’ Plagued Family.” The Evening Star’s account differed from the Post’s in that the family was referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe” and their 13-year-old son “Roland.” It also describes their house as a “one-and-one-half story home in a Washington suburb” and refers to the events as “the strange story of Roland and his Poltergeist.” The article tells of the talk given by the minister before the Society of Parapsychology, and recounts his experiences with the boy. The minister told the reporter that Roland had made two trips to a mental hygiene clinic and that during an earlier trip to the Midwest the boy had been subjected to three different rites of exorcism by three different faiths—Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic. The article quoted Richard C. Darnell, president of the Society, as saying that Dr. J. B. Rhine, director of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, called the so-called haunting the “most impressive manifestation he has heard of in the poltergeist field.” The article ended with the minister saying that things had been calm in the household for about the last two months.

The Times-Herald (Washington, D.C.) joined the fray with an article by William Flythe, Jr. on August 11, 1949 titled “‘Haunted’ Boy’s Parents Tell Of Ghost Messages.” A basic rehash of the previous two accounts, this piece adds that the boy lived in the “Brentwood section northeast” and also tells that the family had found dermographic messages written in a rash on the boy’s body. The article states that when the messages were brought to the attention of the minister involved, “he could detect nothing more than an ordinary rash.” The family reported that the boy was taken to St. Louis, where he returned to normalcy after experiencing visions of St. Michael chasing away the devil.

On August 19, 1949 The Evening Star (Oogopogo) featured the article “Priest Freed Boy of Possession By Devil, Church Sources Say.” As the first account to provide any exorcism details to the public, the article opens by saying, “A Catholic priest has successfully freed a 14-year-old Mount Rainier, Md., boy of reported possession by the devil here early this year, it was disclosed today.” While names are withheld, it is revealed that the ritual of exorcism was given after the boy’s affliction was studied at both Georgetown University Hospital and St. Louis University. The article went on to describe the exorcism process, but offered no other significant details. The next day the same paper ran a follow-up titled “New Details of Boy’s Exorcism In Catholic Ritual Disclosed,” though in reality few new details were revealed. It did cite church sources as saying that during the rite the boy had recited a stream of blasphemous curses, intermingled with Latin phrases. The article then recapped events that had earlier been printed regarding the minister at a meeting of the Society of Parapsychology.

The Washington Post chimed in on August 20, 1949 with another Bill Brinkley-authored piece, this one titled “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” At greater length than the previous published accounts, Brinkley recounts the family’s entire haunting episode and reveals that only after 20 to 30 performances of the ancient ritual of exorcism was the devil finally cast out of the boy. He also tells that during the rite the youngster would break into violent tantrums of screaming, cursing, and voicing of Latin phrases. The exorcism, which according to Brinkley was conducted by a St. Louis priest in his fifties who accompanied the boy for two months, was first initiated in St. Louis, continued in D.C., and was ultimately completed back in St. Louis. The article states that when the last performance of the ritual was given, the boy became quiet and later reported witnessing a vision of St. Michael casting the devil out. The exorcism ritual was completed only after the boy had been taken into the Catholic church. It was this article that inspired then-20-year-old Georgetown English major William Peter Blatty to later write his novel of demonic possession.

The Parapsychology Bulletin (August 1949, Number 14), a periodical of the New York-based Parapsychology Foundation, weighed in with the uncredited “Report Of A Poltergeist,” an article that finally published the name of the anonymous clergyman of the haunted boy’s family. He turned out to be Reverend Luther Miles Schulze and in this article his experiences with the boy were reported in detail. My own research revealed that Luther Miles Schulze was born on July 30, 1906 and at the time of this case served as the pastor of St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1611 Brentwood Road NE, Washington, D.C.).

After the Novel

When The Exorcist was released in novel form in 1971 it went straight to the top of the best-seller lists. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to show interest, with Blatty quickly selling the film rights to Warner Brothers for $641,000.00. When filming began in August 1972, articles surfaced in newspapers and magazines around the country that explored the author-producer’s various reference sources. Of these writings, the most significant to appear was authored by Gwen Dobson in the November 3, 1972 edition of The Evening Star and The Washington Daily News (Washington, D.C.). Titled “Luncheon With Father John J. Nicola,” the article explains that Nicola, then 43-year-old assistant director of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. and regarded as one of the country’s leading authorities on exorcism, was called upon to serve as the movie’s technical consultant. Details of the entire case are recapped along with Nicola’s views on the subject as a whole. What makes the work intriguing, however, is that one unusual piece of information surfaces while Dobson is discussing aspects of the actual rite of exorcism that was performed on the boy. The article states, “The first priest who worked with him suffered a slashed arm when the boy wrenched a bed spring coil loose and cut the priest.” While the name of the priest who had his arm slashed is not divulged and no further information is offered, this marks the first time that such an event had ever been mentioned in print.

Go toPart 2After the Movie; The ’90s Resurgence.

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