Panned by critics and hailed by audiences as one of the greatest horror films ever made, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” is a classic that always finds its way onto the screens of viewers during Halloween season. The 1973 film, based on the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, centers on mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), who is desperate for answers after her seemingly normal daughter, Regan, begins to act strangely after interacting with a Ouija board in their rented home. After an attempt to contact a spirit named “Captain Howdy,” Regan’s physical, mental, and emotional state begins to decline severely and quickly, and she becomes possessed. Overwhelmed with her daughter’s aggressive persona and superhuman strength, Chris enlists the help of two priests to expel the demon from Regan before it kills her.
At the time of its release, “The Exorcist” was considered by many to be the scariest movie in film history. In theaters, many moviegoers experienced strong physical reactions — like fainting or vomiting — to many of the film’s terrifying scenes, like Regan’s neck swivel (that one is still hard for me to stomach). Though the film received mixed reviews when it premiered, it became an instant cult classic and the very first horror film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. It’s hard to imagine the very fabric of our society and film history without the supernatural horror genre, and “The Exorcism” undoubtedly helped to inspire other classics like “The Omen,” “Poltergeist,” and “The Blair Witch Project” for years to come.
The terrifying plot of “The Exorcist” may seem far-fetched, but the film was actually inspired by the real-life exorcism of Roland Doe. Before you see “The Exorcist: Believer,” which hits theaters Oct. 6, read on to learn more about the true story that inspired “The Exorcist.”
The Exorcism of Roland Doe
The real story that inspired “The Exorcist” occurred long before the film became cemented in popular culture. While a student at Georgetown University, author Blatty saw an article in The Washington Post about the possession of a teenage boy, titled, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip,” as reported by Skeptical Inquirer. The boy, identified under the pseudonym “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim,” was just 14 years old when he is reported to have begun experiencing supernatural phenomena in his Cottage City, MD, home in 1949. The reported occurrences ranged from objects moving across his bedroom to his bed moving and scratching noises coming from his walls, which led Roland’s mother to believe his recently deceased Aunt Tillie was behind the strange supernatural events.
Similar to Chris in “The Exorcist,” Roland’s family turned to Jesuit priests for help. Over the course of two months, Father William Bowdern performed between 20 and 30 exorcisms on Roland, who eventually was rid of his possession and healed of his anguish. During those two months, Bowdern also was assisted by Father Walter Halloran, Father Edward Hughes, and Father Raymond Bishop. The Washington Post reported that the possession ended following 20 to 30 rituals, after “the boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing and voicing of Latin phrases-a language he had never studied-whenever the priest reached the climactic point of the ritual, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I cast thee (the devil) out.'” Fathers Bowdern and Bishop both kept diaries of the experience, which became the inspiration for Blatty’s novel more than 20 years later.
Years after the exorcisms took place, Roland was revealed to be Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, a NASA engineer who, among other accomplishments, aided the Apollo missions that sent astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969, per The New York Post. Hunkeler retired from NASA in 2001 and seemingly lived a quiet life until his death in 2020. Despite the harrowing experience, Hunkeler himself never believed he was a victim of demonic possession. A close friend of Hunkeler told The New York Post in 2021, “He said he wasn’t possessed, it was all concocted. He said, ‘I was just a bad boy.'”
Many question whether Hunkeler experienced the alleged exorcisms or if the story was all a fabrication that took off after Blatty wrote “The Exorcist” in 1971. Regardless, the original story by The Washington Post served as an inspiration for Friedkin’s film, which was speculated to have a curse of its own.
“The Exorcist” Curse
The very nature of “The Exorcist” is scary in itself, but many became even more fearful of the movie after reports claimed the film was cursed due to injuries on set, deaths among the cast, and a fire that burned down most of the set, per The U.S. Sun.
During production, a bird flew into a circuit breaker and caused a fire that burned down a majority of the set, except for Regan’s room, where the most pivotal scenes of the film take place. The fire caused extensive damage and led to a six-week delay in production. After the set was rebuilt, a Jesuit priest reportedly blessed it.
In addition to the fire, other unfortunate occurrences happened to those who worked on the film. Actor Jack MacGowran, who played Chris’s director Burke Dennings, died from influenza complications in January 1973, 11 months before “The Exorcist”‘s release. Vasiliki Maliaros, known as the mother of Father Karras, also died before the film’s release, while Linda Blair (Regan) and Max von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin) experienced deaths in their families.
Lead actors Burstyn and Blair experienced significant injuries on set, which led to lifelong issues. While attached to a harness, Burstyn injured her coccyx as she was pulled to the floor after being struck by Regan in a scene. “I said: ‘He’s pulling me too hard.’ Billy [Friedkin, the film’s director] said: ‘Well, it has to look real.’ I said: ‘I know it has to look real but I’m telling you, I could get hurt.’ So, Billy said: ‘OK, don’t pull her so hard,’ and as I turned away, I felt him signal the guy and he smashed me on the floor,” she later recalled in a 2018 interview with The Guardian.
Blair endured a similar injury and fractured her spine during a scene where she was attached to a harness and thrashing as Regan’s possession became more intense. Blair attributed her later development of scoliosis to this injury, according to a feature from Strauss Scoliosis Correction.
“The Exorcist” Caused a Surge in Reports of Possessions
It’s safe to say audiences reacted strongly to “The Exorcist,” and immediately after the film hit theaters, there was a surge in reports of possessions. A 1974 article from The New York Times reported, “Chancery officials have been confronted with a wave of inquiries from persons who believe that they, or their acquaintances, are possessed by demons. Theologians have warned that the film distorts church teachings.” Reverend Richard Woods of Loyola University additionally told the publication at the time, “I’ve received dozens of calls from people who are horribly frightened or so confused that they have begun to lose their grip on reality. I also know of two kids who came out of the movie thinking that they were possessed, and they have now been hospitalized.”
As knowledge of demonic possessions and exorcisms became more common to the average person, many believed they were possessed or had experienced some form of supernatural phenomena. This popularization arguably led to more films like “The Exorcist” to be made for years to come, ranging from “The Shining” to “Paranormal Activity.”
“The Exorcist,” though 50 years old, is still as bone-chilling as it was in 1973. Catch the latest installment in the franchise, “The Exorcist: Believer,” in theaters Oct. 6, and watch the trailer below.