The Exorcist's Assistant: A Look Back
at the Late Father Walter Halloran

By Mark Opsasnick

Father Walter H. Halloran, who died at 83 on March 1, 2005, was best known for having been called upon to assist Father William Bowdern (pastor of St. Francis Catholic Church in St. Louis) and Father Raymond Bishop (director of the St. Louis University Department of Education) with the exorcism of a “possessed” 13-year-old boy originally from Cottage City, Maryland.

This 1949 exorcism later became the basis for the novel and movie The Exorcist. In the years since the movie was released, Father Halloran was frequently contacted by journalists, television reporters, and documentary filmmakers for commentary about the notorious exorcism and, through time, statements attributed to him changed greatly. In some instances the media portrayed him as a zealous true-believer who professed the boy had indeed been possessed by the devil, while at other times Father Halloran provided his suitors with shaky, reluctant recollections of the exorcism experience.

The rite of exorcism was alternately performed on the boy at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, a neighboring rectory, and at the private home of one of the boy’s relatives in Normandy, Missouri. Father Halloran, who was then studying history on the graduate level at St. Louis University as part of his Jesuit training regimen, was summoned to the hospital by Father Bowdern on the night of March 16, 1949 and remained an unwilling assistant until the ordeal concluded on April 18, 1949. Exactly what Father Halloran saw and experienced during the four-week exorcism is still open to speculation.

In the ensuing decades, published articles on the St. Louis exorcism alleged that a diary kept by one of the priests described how the teen-aged subject would frequently use Latin phrases that were beyond his ken and often displayed fits of cursing, urinating, and vomiting. Allegedly, the priests also witnessed strange markings that inexplicably developed on the boy’s body. A copy of the diary was later obtained by writer William Peter Blatty, who crafted his 1971 novel The Exorcist based on the events described within. The Exorcist was released as a major motion picture on December 26, 1973 and to this day is hailed as one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

In October 1997 this writer turned his attention towards the real-life “Exorcist” episode and conducted a completely objective, unbiased, and professional investigation into the legendary event — something that had never been done before. The resulting article, “The Haunted Boy of Cottage City: The Cold, Hard Facts behind the Story that Inspired The Exorcist” appeared in issue #20 of Strange Magazine in December 1998 and served to conclusively prove that the boy in question had never been demonically possessed.

Central to my investigation were two talks I had with Father Halloran himself — one a casual conversation to set up a future interview, and the second the actual interview itself. When I first spoke with Father Halloran, he told how the directors of one popular documentary in which he had appeared had broken him down after several on-camera interviews, eventually coaching him on what to say regarding the famous exorcism. When I asked him why he had succumbed to their orders, he simply answered, “Because I need my head examined.” It was obvious that reporters could easily sway Father Halloran to say exactly what they wanted to hear.

My “official” interview with Father Halloran brought closure to the entire episode through a series of direct questions that I believe were honestly and soberly answered. Most significant of all, I asked him if he would go on record as saying whether he thought the boy was demonically possessed or not. “No, I can’t go on record,” he told me. “I never made an absolute statement about the things because I didn’t feel I was qualified. I hadn’t studied the phenomena and that sort of thing. All I did was report the things that I saw and whether I would make a statement one way or another wouldn’t make any difference because I just don’t think I was qualified to do so.” Halloran’s subsequent statements to me regarding his observations of the “possessed” boy left no doubt that published comments attributed to him regarding demonic possession and this exorcism in particular had been embellished by just about every reporter he had ever spoken with.

After the 1949 exorcism, Father Halloran completed his studies at St. Louis University, became a Catholic priest, and later returned to Wisconsin where he taught theology and history at his alma mater, Campion Jesuit High School, from 1956 to 1963. He taught history at Marquette University in Milwaukee from 1963 to 1966, enlisted in the United States Army where he served in Germany and Vietnam as a paratrooper chaplain until 1971 (earning two Bronze Stars in the process), worked for a year as alumni director at St. Louis University, and was pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in St. Louis form 1973 to 1978. Father Halloran was then given various assignments around the United States, most notably holding positions at St. Luke’s Church in Sherburn, Minnesota, and then serving several years as a chaplain at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. In the late '90s Father Halloran worked at a number of parishes in and around San Diego, California. In 2003 he was diagnosed with cancer and retired to St. Camillus Jesuit Community.

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