1973’s The Exorcist took the world by storm, shocking audiences across the U.S. and bringing to film an entire new horror sub-genre.
Rumors circulated that William Peter Blatty, author of the 1971 novel that spurred the film two years later, based his story on an African exorcism (and a sequel to the movie seemed to be a confirmation).
But the reality was different from the rumors – and perhaps even more sinister. Though the real child who inspired Blatty’s novel and the blockbuster horror film remained anonymous, stories relating to the child’s alleged demonic possession and the subsequent series of exorcisms had experts and laypeople alike up in arms – and very, very afraid.
The Real ‘Regan’
William Peter Blatty’s terrifying novel, The Exorcist, was inspired by a case the author learned about as a student at Georgetown University. According to reports, a Cottage City, MD-based adolescent male – alternately called “Robbie Mannheim” and “Roland Doe” – exhibited behaviors so odd and frightening that the family eventually turned to exorcism.
The boy, born around 1935, was reportedly an only child with few playmates. As a result, “Robbie” depended upon the adults in his family, such as his Aunt Harriet, for companionship. According to the reports, including a collection of diaries kept by eyewitness and co-exorcist Father Raymond Bishop, it was Harriet who gave “Robbie” a Ouija board. The boy is said to have then played with the board alone (an event which would be replayed by Regan in the novel and film).
Afterward, the “Mannheim” household began to experience disturbing events such as strange noises, furniture moving by itself and levitating objects.
The Exorcism Begins
Frightened by the unusual phenomena, the family reportedly called in their pastor, Luther Miles Schulze.
After observing the boy, Schulze suggested a meeting with a Catholic priest was in order, and Father Edward Hughes was contacted. Hughes then performed the first stage of the exorcism, which took place at Georgetown University Hospital.
According to some 48 witnesses, nine of them priests, a variety of phenomena occurred during the exorcism, including levitating objects, the bed shaking, the unexplained appearance of the words “evil” and “hell” on the boy’s body and the boy speaking in an unnaturally guttural voice – all elements utilized later by author Blatty. The boy supposedly also managed to free himself of his restraints and attempted to attack the priests in attendance.
The exorcism was performed in stages and was considered successful. Afterward, “Robbie” is said to have gone on to lead a normal life.
The anonymous and difficult to believe story nevertheless captured the imagination of the public, as well as psychiatrists and other scientific experts. In his 1993 book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism, author Thomas B. Allen claimed that “Robbie was just a deeply disturbed boy, nothing supernatural about him.” He added that “Robbie” was likely nothing more than a bully and a trickster.
Writer Mark Opsasnick stated, “To psychiatrists, Rob Doe [sic] suffered from mental illness…[writers and those involved in the creation of the film] manipulated the facts and emphasized information that fit their own agendas.”
And skeptic Joe Nickell said there was “simply no credible evidence to suggest the boy was possessed by demons or evil spirits” and maintains that the symptoms of possession can be “childishly simple” to falsify.
However, the sheer number of reported witnesses would seem to indicate that something went on in the house in Cottage City, MD, and religious academics noted that there are “some things that simply can not be explained by psychiatry.”
Whether or not “Robbie’s” case was authentic demonic possession, there’s no doubt that The Exorcist opened the collective mind and imagination to the possibility.
The subject has gone from the realm of the otherwordly and mysterious and into academic circles, with more and more reported cases being investigated as allegedly affected individuals come forward.
The idea of exorcism is by no means confined to Catholicism, and exorcisms by communities of a variety of well-known religions, including Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, have been reported.
“It is a big phenomenon,” minister J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion said in an ABC News interview. “There is a lot of exorcism going on.”