The terrifying, real-life story behind 'The Exorcist'
It’s hard to overemphasize the monumental impact The Exorcist has had on American culture. The nation was captivated in 1973 when the film burst onto the big screen, terrifying moviegoers with the otherworldly story of a little girl who was “possessed by a mysterious entity.”[i]
The success and immediate impact of The Exorcist was so jarring that the film caught the notice of outlets like the New York Times, with 1970s news reports detailing not only its popularity but also the pervasive problems the movie was creating. After the film’s release, a 1974 Times piece warned of “terrified teenagers and priests” who were losing sleep as well as a “wave of inquiries” from people worried that they or their loved ones were possessed.
The impact was immediately widespread and palpable. Decades later, though, the movie is still wildly popular, continuing to petrify viewers across the globe.
As it turns out, The Exorcist was inspired by the strange, supposedly real-life events surrounding a young boy named Robbie Mannheim (an alias used to protect his real identity) — happenings that were said to have unfolded in 1949 on the campus of Saint Louis University (SLU) in Saint Louis, Missouri.
It was Robbie’s weeks-long exorcism there that became the basis of author William Peter Blatty’s 1971 book The Exorcist, a literary project that went on to inspire the timeless 1973 film by the same name.
Robbie was a fourteen-year-old boy from Mount Rainier, Maryland, in January of 1949, when he started experiencing some truly concerning issues in his life and home.
From scratching sounds on the walls and floor of his bedroom to his mattress moving and other elements, Robbie’s family started becoming concerned over the supposedly inexplicable events that were taking shape.
There are some theories surrounding the spiritual catalyst for these supposed issues and manifestations. Robbie’s Aunt Tillie is named as a family member from St. Louis who was close to the teenager; she was said to have been interested in the occult.[vi] Aunt Tillie reportedly introduced Robbie to the Ouija board before her death, based on some accounts. And, according to a St. Louis University retelling of the story, chaos erupted after he tried to use the board to reach Tillie in the afterlife.[vii]
Regardless of the true cause of these issues, Robbie’s family reportedly sought the help of a doctor, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist; they also reached out to a Lutheran minister named Reverend Luther Miles Schulze to help halt the chaos.[viii]
Schulze, who apparently wasn’t able to tackle the issue himself, sent them to a priest named Father E. Albert Hughes, who some believe unsuccessfully attempted to perform an exorcism and was injured in the process after the boy reportedly broke off a piece of the spring from his mattress and slashed Hughes’s arm.[ix]
Continuing on their desperate quest for spiritual healing, the family decided to take Robbie to St. Louis, and that’s when the boy’s parents connected with SLU. What followed was “one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history,” as the Washington Post stated in 1949.[x]
Robbie and his family stayed with a relative who went to SLU, and she connected them with Father Raymond Bishop, one of her former professors at the university. After connecting with other leaders and priests at the school, including Father William Bowdern, the decision was made to perform an exorcism on Robbie — a process that took more than a month.
Bowdern, who led the exorcism, was joined by Bishop, with Bishop keeping a diary of the entire ordeal.[xii] Other priests also took part throughout the month-long attempt to rid Robbie of demonic influence.
The twenty-six-page diary has been of great interest over the years, as it details what priests who were present during the exorcism claimed to have viewed and experienced. Perhaps most strangely, Bishop wrote of apparitions and images that purportedly appeared on Robbie’s body, including an image of the devil on his leg and the word hell popping up on his chest.[xiv]
Reverend Walter H. Halloran, one of the priests involved in helping with the exorcism, also publicly addressed these claims years later. He revealed some of the events he witnessed, corroborating the claim that he saw the word hell emerge on the boy’s skin— something that apparently happened “a number of times.”
If not for the Washington Post’s report, Robbie’s case would have likely remained quiet and forgotten. But somehow the Post caught wind of the exorcism, publishing an August 20, 1949, front-page story titled, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.”[xvii]
The lede of the article, by journalist Bill Brinkley, proclaimed that a boy had “been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil,” and noted that it purportedly took twenty to thirty exorcism attempts to ensure that the expulsion was successful.[xviii]
Blatty himself discovered Robbie’s story in the Washington Post report; it was a tale that stuck with him, with the author coming to believe it would boost people’s faith.
“When I heard about this case and read the details, that seemed so compelling. I thought, ‘My God, if someone were to investigate this and authenticate it, what a tremendous boost to faith it would be,’” Blatty told IGN. “I thought, ‘Someday I would like to see that happen. You know, I would like to do it.’”[xx]
And he notably claimed Bowdern — the lead exorcist — once wrote him and confirmed that this was truly the case.[xxii]
“He said, ‘I can tell you one thing . . . the case I was involved with was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then. I have no doubt about it now. Good luck with your apolistic pursuits,’” Blatty recounted.[xxiii]
To this day, Robbie’s real-life identity is not widely known. He reportedly got married and had children. There are no sources reporting his death, with his identity remaining a secret despite the cultural fascination that stemmed from his ordeal.
Regardless of where you stand on this story, it’s essential to remember the truths embedded in Ephesians 6:11. We are called to “put on the full armor of God,” as scripture tells us this will help us “stand against the devil’s schemes.”
In the end, this simply means holding close to faith, seeking God and following Christ, as these steps will help protect us from evil. For more about what this truly means, be sure to explore these realities in Playing with Fire: A Modern Investigation into Demons, Exorcism, and Ghosts.
Excerpted from PLAYING WITH FIRE: A MODERN INVESTIGATION INTO DEMONS, EXORCISM, AND GHOSTS. Copyright © 2020 by Billy Hallowell. Published by Emanate Books, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.
ABOUT BILLY HALLOWELL
Billy Hallowell is the director of communications and content for PureFlix.com, whose mission is to create God-honoring entertainment that strengthens the faith and values of individuals and families. He’s a former senior editor at Faithwire.com and the former faith and culture editor at TheBlaze. He has contributed to FoxNews.com, The Washington Post, Human Events, The Daily Caller, Mediaite, and The Huffington Post, among other outlets.
His latest book, Playing with Fire: A Modern Investigation into Demons, Exorcism, and Ghosts is available wherever books are sold.
Learn more by visiting: https://www.thomasnelson.com/9780785234517/playing-with-fire/.
[i] The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 1973).
[ii] Dr. Arnold T. Blumberg, “How ‘The Exorcist’ Redefined the Horror Genre,” Fandom.com, October 25, 2016, https://www.fandom.com/articles/exorcist-redefined-horror-genre.
[iii] Edward B. Fiske, “‘Exorcist’ Adds Problems for Catholic Clergymen,” New York Times, January 28, 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/01/28/archives/-exorcist-adds-problems-for-catholic-clergymen.html.
[iv] Susan King, “William Peter Blatty Reflects on the 40th Anniversary of ‘The Exorcist,’” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-william-peter-blatty-exorcist-20131008-story.html#axzz2jDSRIcjN.
[v] John McGuire, “The St. Louis Exorcism of 1949: The Real-Life Inspiration for ‘The Exorcist,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 28, 2019, https://www.stltoday.com/news/archives/the-st-louis-exorcism-of-the-real-life-inspiration-for/article_fbdecb6a-9d3c-5903-a12c-effd4f7a7713.html.
[vi] “SLU Legends and Lore: The 1949 St. Louis Exorcism,” Saint Louis University News, October 30, 2019, https://www.slu.edu/news/2019/october/slu-legends-lore-exorcism.php.
[vii] “SLU Legends and Lore.”
[viii] “SLU Legends and Lore.”
[ix] “SLU Legends and Lore.”
[x] Bill Brinkley, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip,” Washington Post, August 20, 1949, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/features/dcmovies/exorcism1949.htm.
[xi] Brinkley, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy.”
[xii] “SLU Legends and Lore.”
[xiii] Gregory J. Holman, “An Expert on the Real-Life Event That Inspired ‘The Exorcist’ Is Coming to Springfield,” Springfield News-Leader, October 3, 2017, https://www.news-leader.com/story/entertainment/2017/10/03/expert-real-life-event-inspired-the-exorcist-coming-springfield/693507001/.
[xiv] “SLU Legends and Lore.”
[xv] “SLU Legends and Lore.”
[xvi] McGuire, “St. Louis Exorcism of 1949.”
[xvii] “Front Page, 1949: Boy ‘Freed . . . of Possession by the Devil,’” Washington Post, accessed February 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2000/10/21/front-page-1949-boy-freed-of-possession-by-the-devil/e3567d03-f076-400a-9fa4-af77f9791da2/.
[xviii] Brinkley, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy.”
[xix] Brinkley, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy.”
[xx] Steve Head, “Interview with The Exorcist Writer/Producer William Peter Blatty,” IGN, updated May 20, 2012, https://www.ign.com/articles/2000/09/20/interview-with-the-exorcist-writerproducer-william-peter-blatty.
[xxi] Head, “Interview with the Exorcist Writer/Producer.”
[xxii] McGuire, “St. Louis Exorcism of 1949.”
[xxiii] Head, “Interview with the Exorcist Writer/Producer.”
[xxiv] McGuire, “St. Louis Exorcism of 1949.”