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The real story behind "The Exorcist"

part of the movie poster for "The Exorcist"
fair use of movie poster image

Personally, I never understood the big fuss about the movie The Exorcist. The best thing about the movie was Mike Oldfield’s haunting soundtrack tune, Tubular Bells.

In my opinion, The Omen was a much scarier movie.

The head-spinning effects of Linda Blair in The Exorcist simply didn’t look real. By comparison, when David Warner was decapitated in The Omen, it looked very realistic.

The special effects in The Exorcist failed to impress me. Hollywood apparently ruined a pretty good story. Good ultimately triumphed over evil, but the priests died in the process. The ending was a bummer.

True, The Omen didn’t have a happy ending, either.

It was comforting to remember both films were the product of the imagination and Hollywood.

More recently I learned that in the case of The Exorcist, Hollywood sensationalized and grossly exaggerated a true story.

The real exorcist was not Max Von Sydow, but a Catholic priest from St. Louis named Father William Bowdern.

The teenage boy called Richard (not his real name) described in the television program called Exorcists: The True Story on Planet Green was apparently possessed by a real demon.

Internet sources have referred to the alleged victim in the case as Robbie Mannheim or Roland Doe.

Whatever the poor kid’s real name, this is the crux of his story….

Shortly before her unexpected death, Richard’s favorite Aunt Millie introduced him to the occult on her last visit during the holidays.

They spent hours playing with an Ouija board, trying to make contact with the spirit world. It seemed like harmless fun. Millie’s visit ended and she left. No big deal.

Problems at Richard’s home started rather innocently a few weeks later, in mid January. The sound of a dripping faucet could be clearly heard every night, but no leaks or dripping pipes were ever found.

The irritating pattern of inexplicable behavior continued for more than a week. News arrived that Aunt Millie died very unexpectedly.

The mysterious sounds in the house increased in number and volume. Chairs overturned suddenly. Religious paintings rattled on the wall without explanation.

The apparently paranormal activities eventually moved out of the walls and into Richard’s bed. Then something seemed to move into Richard.

Foolishly, the entire family experimented with the Ouija board, attempting to contact Millie.

Richard began suffering deep scratches on his body and large welts that appeared to spell words. Richard's mother took him to their family physician for help.

After exhausting the limits to which medicine could help them, the family called their Lutheran minister.

However, he was unaccustomed to dealing with cases of alleged demon possession. Their pastor asked for help from his Catholic priest friends.

The first Catholic priest he consulted was Father Raymond Bishop. Bishop recruited Father Bowdern, who sought and received permission from the archbishop to perform the exorcism.

With Father Bishop serving as scribe and Father Walter Halloran as his assistant, Father Bowdern used the Rituale Romanum, the ancient Latin rites of exorcism which were more than four hundred years old, to purge Richard of the demon that allegedly possessed him.

For weeks the exorcism continued, with little or no improvement in the boy’s condition.

The priests moved Richard from his home and had him admitted to the psychiatric ward of a nearby Catholic hospital where they prayed over him every night.

Richard responded to their efforts with superhuman violence and profane language. He also spat and urinated on the priests.

In one instance, Father Bowdern blessed Richard with holy water and put the bottle on a nearby table. Almost immediately, it flew off and smashed against the wall behind Father Halloran, narrowly missing him.

Halloran said later that particular incident convinced him that this was no ordinary case of bad behavior by a mischievous teenager.

Seventeen days after their ordeal began Father Bowden offered what he believed was the most potent weapon in his arsenal. He asked Richard if he would like to be baptized.

Richard accepted the invitation.

However, his apparent possession continued even after Richard renounced Satan during the course of his baptism.

The priests began to grow somewhat discouraged.

Richard began to mock and taunt the priests, telling them one important word never mentioned during their prayers, rendering them ineffective.

Finally, the priests realized the missing word was “Lord.”

They began invoking the word relentlessly in their prayers.

Twenty seven days into the exorcism, as the priests prayed the rosary, Richard suddenly screamed in pain and claimed that his chest hurt.

The priests found the word “EXIT” clearly carved into his flesh.

The rosary prayers resumed, but then Richard interrupted them again, this time claiming to see a vision of St. Michael the archangel battling with Satan at the gates of hell.

He spoke in an odd voice, as if the archangel were speaking through him.

Finally, Richard declared that St. Michael had won and banished Satan back to Hell.

Encouraged by the positive turn of events, Father Bowdern gave him first communion.

Soon thereafter, a loud blast sounded throughout the hospital and in the church across the street, though no trace of an actual explosion was ever found. Then the lights went out.

When they came back on moments later, Richard proclaimed that Satan was gone for good.

The following day he returned home to his parents, 28 days after the ordeal began.

It was as if nothing had ever happened.

In the real story, no priests were killed during the exorcism.

The big showdown between St. Michael and Lucifer had not been fought for human eyes to witness.

The true story behind The Exorcist simply didn’t make for good drama. As a result, Hollywood had to embellish the truth.


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