'The Exorcist': The Story Behind the Movie

I was watching the movie "The Exorcist" with some of my friends. Can the devil really possess someone? Does the Church really do exorcisms? I heard that the movie is based on a real story. Is that true? — An eighth grade student in Annandale. Last week, Straight Answers addressed the issues of diabolical possession and exorcism. Concerning both the book and the movie versions, The Exorcist was based on a true account of diabolical possession. One must remember that the book and especially the movie have certain sensational, "hollywoodesque" elements which are purely fictional. The true story began in January 1949 and involved a 13-year-old boy named Robbie who lived with his parents and grandmother in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. Robbie was very close to his aunt who visited the family frequently from St. Louis, Missouri. She was a medium and attempted to communicate with the spirit world. Not only did she spark Robbie’s interest in this practice, she also taught him how to use the Ouija board. Strange phenomena began happening on Jan. 10, 1949. The family heard scratching on the walls; however, exterminators found no evidence of pests of any kind. Objects moved by themselves: a table would turn over, a chair would move across the room, a vase would fly through the air, and a picture of Christ would shake. At night, Robbie felt scratching in his bed, and he suffered nightmares frequently. After the aunt died suddenly on Jan. 26, Robbie continued to use the Ouija board to communicate with her and others. The strange phenomena also continued. Moreover, Robbie’s disposition changed — he become unsettled, agitated, and angry. In February, his parents took Robbie to visit their Lutheran minister, Rev. Schulze. Being interested in parapsychology, he thought perhaps a poltergeist was tormenting the family. Pastor Schulze allowed Robbie to move into his house for observation for a couple of days. The minister witnessed chairs and other objects moving by themselves. After he saw the bed shake, he moved the mattress to the floor, where it glided along by itself. Pastor Schulze became suspicious of the presence of evil. Upon Pastor Schulze’s recommendation, the family took Robbie to the Mental Hygiene Clinic of the University of Maryland for testing. After two rounds of testing, nothing abnormal was discovered. Pastor Schulze then advised the family to contact the local Catholic priest. Robbie and his parents visited Father Hughes of St. James Catholic Church in Mt. Rainier. While interviewing Robbie, Father Hughes saw the telephone and other objects in his office move by themselves. Robbie also cast obscene and blasphemous remarks at him in a strange, diabolical voice. The room became eerily frigid. Father Hughes was convinced that Robbie was possessed. After reviewing the facts of the case and the medical evidence, Cardinal O’Boyle authorized an exorcism. Robbie was admitted to Georgetown hospital, where Father Hughes began the ritual of exorcism. The boy became violent, with spitting and projectile vomiting. He cast obscenities and blasphemies at Father Hughes. Although restrained to the bed, Robbie broke loose and wrenched out a metal spring with which he slashed Father Hughes from his left shoulder to wrist. The wound required over 100 stitches to close it. Robbie seemed calm after this attack, not remembering the ordeal. He was then released and sent home. The strange phenomena soon resumed at their home. One night, when Robbie was changing for bed, he screamed. A bloody word had been scratched on his chest, Louis. His mother asked if this meant, "St. Louis," and another bloody word appeared, yes. Almost immediately, the family journeyed to visit their cousin in St. Louis, Missouri. The same strange phenomena began to happen. The cousin, a student at St. Louis University, talked with one of her priest professors, Father Bishop, S.J., about the situation. Father Bishop then contacted one of his close friends, Father Bowdern, S.J., pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church. The two priests and a young Jesuit scholastic went to interview Robbie on March 9, 1949. They noticed bloody zig-zig scratches on his chest. They heard scraping sounds. They saw a large bookcase move and turn around by itself and a stool move across the floor. Robbie’s bed would shake as he lay on it. He hurled obscenities and blasphemies at them. The priests knew they were confronting evil. They petitioned Cardinal Ritter for permission to perform an exorcism. After reviewing all of the evidence including medical and psychiatric exams, he granted permission on March 16. As the priests began the Rite of Exorcism, Robbie became violent. He made howling and growling noises. The bed shook up and down. On his chest appeared bloody scratches with the words hell and devil, and even an image of Satan. Robbie spit at the priests as he hurled obscenities and blasphemies, with intermittent fiendish laughter. For his own safety and for the family’s welfare, Robbie was then transferred to the Alexian Brothers Hospital and placed in the psychiatric ward. Father Bowdern, continued to perform the exorcism. With the family’s consent, Robbie was baptized a Catholic. When Father Bowdern tried to give him First Holy Communion, Robbie five times spit out the Sacred Host; they then paused to say the Rosary, and Robbie finally received the Holy Eucharist. On April 18, Easter Monday, the exorcism came to a climax. As Father Bowdern continued the ritual, the demon recognized the presence of St. Michael the Archangel, and was expelled from Robbie. A sound like a gunshot was heard throughout the hospital. After this whole ordeal, Robbie remembered nothing of the diabolical phenomena, except the vision of St. Michael. Certainly, this story is frightening, but is nevertheless true. So to answer the reader’s original questions, yes, the devil really can possess someone, and yes, the Church really does exorcisms. Be on guard! Stay away from anything dealing with the occult, including Ouija boards. Use the weapons of the holy arsenal that protect us from evil: pray, attend Mass, receive Holy Communion, live by the commandments and the teachings of the Church, and confess sins frequently. If we rely on this holy arsenal for God’s graces, we have no need to fear: the love of God will always triumph over evil. Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls. Copyright ?1998 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

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