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The true story behind The Exorcist

Brother Greg Holewinski decided to break his life-long silence and discuss the events he witnessed first-hand during the infamous exorcism.
Brother Greg Holewinski decided to break his life-long silence and discuss the events he witnessed first-hand during the infamous exorcism.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What is the true story behind the terrifying film, The Exorcist? The last living eye witness to some of the most frightening proceedings from modern history has come off his deathbed to separate fact from fiction and say the horror movie The Exorcist was based on true events. The scientific community has often declared demonic possession to be a condition of psychosis. New investigations into demonic possession have determined there is more going on in these situations than the general public may have originally thought.

In 1973 the movie The Exorcist was released. This was the harrowing story of a child possessed by the Devil himself and the events which took place during an exorcism to have the evil entity removed. The Devil was reintroduced to mainstream society through this tale. People were beginning to reexamine the existence of evil in the world today. What many people may not know is that the events depicted in the movie actually took place to a young boy in 1949.

The Catholic Church tried to keep the case private, not wishing to draw attention to the supernatural side of their activities. Talk of exorcisms and demonic possession can seem a bit backward and old fashioned to some and the Church likes to present itself as scientific and well-educated for today’s world. But in reality this case confirmed a horrifying truth, the Devil is real and actively working his evil in our world. He is capable of striking anyone.

Troy Taylor, historian and author of The Devil came to St. Louis, was fortunate to interview one of the participants to the infamous exorcism. Brother Greg Holewinski, 90, a retired Catholic monk, decided to break his life-long silence and discuss the events he witnessed first-hand during the boy’s exorcism. He wanted the world to hear what he had to say before he died from cancer.

In 1949 Holewinski was working at the Alexian Hospital in St. Louis, MO. He heard hushed rumors of a special patient just admitted and housed on an upper level in the hospital. It was said the child was possessed by the Devil. He described walking into the room for the first time and seeing three exorcists around a young boy.

Holewinski detailed how the boy’s demeanor would change when the possession was active. Every once in a while the Devil’s voice would come out of the child’s mouth, shouting profanities. Holewinski said he was stationed at the foot of the bed to hold down the boy’s legs, which were thrashing about. He admits being very frightened.

Brother Greg describes feeling the power of evil present in the room and said he even saw the boy’s body levitate off the bed. He says it all was real and it is an experience he will never be able to forget. To him anybody who witnessed what he saw would never question whether or not this was a hoax or misdiagnosed mental disease.

To those directly involved with the case, dark forces were clearly at work and it is an experience they will never forget. Something convinced the priests there were dealing with the supernatural in this case. But were scientific possibilities even considered?

Historian Troy Taylor investigated the detailed diary kept by one of the priests. He was interested in looking into whether or not psychiatric conditions could be the actual cause of the boy’s symptoms. Mr. Taylor set out to try and scientifically debunk the supernatural aspect to this case. His first step was to look into whether the holy men involved were under some sort of mass-illusion or group religious delusion. He figured since they all had the same beliefs in the Devil and the supernatural going in, maybe they just saw what they were expecting to see, not what really happened.

Professor of Psychology, Terry Cooper, explains why this could not have been what happened in this case. Prior to the Catholic involvement in the case other people, such as the doctors, teachers, scientists and Lutheran clergy witnessed the same supernatural phenomena. All in all over 40 people claimed to have seen these occurrences. One physics professor was dumbfounded to see the table levitate and he could not come up with an explanation other than there was something beyond our known world at work in the room.

The un-named boy’s story begins three months before his arrival at the hospital in St. Louis for the exorcism at his home on the outskirts of Washington, DC, in Mount Airy, MD. Scratching and banging sounds began to come from under the child’s bed suddenly one night in Jan. 1949. This progressed till the entire bed shook violently. After several weeks of activity, which was witnessed by well-over a dozen or so people, the family finally reached out for help. No one could determine what was happening with the boy, medical, mental and social test showed him to be perfectly normal.

The family decided to move the boy to his aunt’s home in St. Louis, hoping a change of residence would cause the activity to cease. This was not so, events continued. The family, which was Lutheran, was told by their pastor to look towards the Catholics for help with this kind of situation. He explained to them how Catholics “know about such things.”

When the priests came to examine the boy they were absolutely convinced he was possessed and explained to the family an exorcism needed to be performed. There are certain criteria used to determine if a case of possession is valid. Evil can manifest itself in many ways, such as levitation, an aversion to the Bible, holy water and the crucifix. Facial shape-shifting and superhuman strength have also been reported.

Father William Bowdern is appointed as the head exorcist for this case. Catholics are turned to in extreme cases because they are known to have a powerfully effective exorcism ritual. Today in the United States there are approximately 50 trained Catholic exorcists. All Bishops are exorcists. Even Pope Francis is said to have performed a recent exorcism.

Catholic priests use the Ritual Book of Exorcism. The Rite of Exorcism is a series of prayers which demand demons to vacate the body of the possessed individual. The original rite can be traced back to about 1614. In 1999 the rite was revised. A crucifix and holy water are also used in the ritual to bless the person. These acts cause the demon to reveal itself. The desire is to have the demon submit and tell you its name. Once known, the demon can be banished from the possessed by the authority of God.

When the priest began the Rite of Exorcism on the boy, the child reacted wildly. Three large scratches appeared on the boy’s stomach, according to the exorcism diary, followed by the world “help” carved into his chest. In order to have become possessed, the boy had to have opened himself up and let evil inside in some way.

A few months before the scratching events first began in the child’s home near Washington, DC, his favorite Aunt Tilly died. The boy was devastated. It turns out that Aunt Tilly, Mathilda L. Hendricks, was a spiritualist. She was known to have used an Ouija board. It is now wondered if the boy, knowing of his Aunt Tilly beliefs and possibly even using the board with her at some point in the past, used the Ouija board to contact his aunt after she died. It is shortly after her passing events began to happen in the house.

Brother Greg described himself as being terrified during the exorcism. Items were flying around the room. He was almost hit in the head by a glass vase. He described the crescendo coming during an attempt to give the child communion. A crucifix was forced into the boy’s hand, it caused him great pain. No matter what they did, the priests could not get the communion wafer into the boy’s mouth.

Then, according to Brother Greg, a voice appeared in the room from behind the priests, saying, “Satan, I am Michael the Arch Angel. I command you in the name of Dominium to leave now! Now! Now!” At that point the child began to have convulsions and then there was stillness and quiet.

The boy told the priests of a vision he had while in the convulsive state. He described a beautiful man shining in a bright, white light holding a fiery sword. The man pointed the sword towards a dark pit and ordered the Devil to leave. The child turned to the priests and told them the name of the demon that possessed him, in Latin.

The child named Beelzebub. In Catholic teaching, Beelzebub is the Devil and he is a very real being. He leads a hoard of demons against God and the forces of light. The priests considered the fact that the child was able to name his tormentor in Latin as proof the exorcism was effective. Brother Greg said, “Saint Michael commanded the Devil to leave and with a lot of resistance he went back into this inferno.”

It has been 60 years since these terrifying events took place. The young boy is now a grown man and still alive. He refuses to speak about his experiences and remains a devout Catholic. His family converted from Lutheranism during the exorcism. The Catholic Church felt the ritual would have a stronger effect if they converted.

The Devil’s greatest desire is for the world to denounce his existence. This would give him free reign over our realm and an opening in to our lives. He would be able to take an active role in your life without you even realizing it. Brother Greg was there in St. Louis. He witnessed these events first hand. He had this to say before he died, “I believe the Devil is still here. Possession can happen today, anyplace in the world.”