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Cover story

‘The Exorcist’ fairly close to the mark

NCR Staff

Despite Hollywood’s reputation for sensationalism, some practitioners say the 1973 film “The Exorcist” -- scheduled for rerelease Sept. 22 -- is fairly close to the mark. The film, which was a huge box office success and is largely responsible for shaping most Americans’ notion of demonic possession, is actually fairly close to the mark.

Fr. Rufus Perea, an exorcist from Bombay, India, told NCR that if anything, “The Exorcist” pulled some punches. “Based on what I’ve seen, the movie is tame,” Perea said. Fr. Gabriele Amorth, Rome’s chief exorcist, said in an NCR interview that while he typically dislikes Hollywood treatments of the demonic, this film is something of an exception.

To “Exorcist” buffs, it’s no surprise if the movie rings true. The novel on which the film was based drew on a real series of exorcisms that occurred in 1949; details can be found in the 1993 book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism (Doubleday). That book incorporates material from a diary kept by one of the exorcists during the procedure.

The case centered on a 13-year-old boy living in Mount Rainer, Md., a suburb of Washington, who shared his aunt’s affinity for playing with a Ouija board. The board is believed by some to put the living in contact with the spirit world.

After the aunt died on Jan. 26, the boy’s family began to hear scratching noises in the walls and in the mattress in the boy’s room. Objects began to fly around the house, observers said, and the boy would lapse into long blackouts. One night he sat in a chair that, according to family members, began to levitate.

Two Jesuit priests examined the boy and, after careful consideration, decided to perform an exorcism. After five nights the procedure was called to a halt when the boy managed to pry loose a spring from his bed and sliced one of the priest’s arms open.

Stories in the local press attracted the attention of Georgetown University student William Peter Blatty, who later wrote the novel The Exorcist based on his research into the case.

When the word Louis appeared in scratches on the boy’s body, the family took it as a sign to move to St. Louis where they had relatives. There, after another round of medical and psychiatric tests, another team of Jesuits began a series of exorcisms.

In a 1995 interview with The Kansas City Star, two of the priests recounted their experiences. “Arrows and words like Hell or Go were on his arms, chest, stomach and his legs,” one of them recalled. “The image of a winged bat or devil appeared on his skin.”

“I believe this was a genuine case of possession,” said Jesuit Fr. Walter Halloran, who assisted with the St. Louis exorcism.

The priests continued to exorcise the boy with little success. At one point a demon allegedly told them he would not depart until a certain word was uttered. Then one day just before Easter, a deep voice arose from the boy identifying itself as the Archangel Michael. It spoke the word Dominus, Latin for Lord, and according to the priests a thunderous bang rang through the Alexian Brothers hospital where the exorcism was being performed.

The boy is said to have awakened after the bang and asked, “Where am I?” He was soon discharged from the hospital. Although his identity has never been made public, one of the Jesuits told the Star that the boy grew up and married, raised a family and named his first son Michael.

“This is the one case of which we have the best record,” said Jesuit Fr. Francis Cleary, who teaches a course on Evil and the Demonic Tradition at the Jesuit-run St. Louis University. Cleary noted that the book is noncommittal as to the presence of the demonic, offering several other possible explanations for the boy’s behavior, including sexual abuse.

Cleary told NCR that although he takes the possibility of possession seriously, it is a mistake to leap from that to belief in a “devil” as often portrayed in popular culture.

“If by the devil you mean a totally evil power opposite to God, then no,” Cleary said. “Pure evil is pure nonbeing. I prefer to refer, with St. Paul, to ‘principalities and powers,’ evil forces seeking to undo God’s good creation. Belief in such evil forces I understand to be a sine qua non of the Catholic faith.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000