Decades after its release, The Exorcist still remains the most impressive horror film ever made. For several reasons: for the curses that still spin around it, for the perfect work done with sounds and noises, for that sensation that the movie (and the book by William Peter Blatty that it’s based on) opens an access door to a dimension that really exists and forces you to believe in something that goes beyond what we normally deal with. And – something that always makes a certain impression when it comes to horror films – for the fact that behind it there is a true story: a real exorcism occurred in the United States in the 40s.
The Exorcist is initially a book written in 1971 by William Blatty, who then edited the script for William Friedkin’s movie which will be released in 1973. The story described is fiction, but the idea of writing that book came from a real case of exorcism that Blatty heard at the time of the university. Blatty’s original idea was to describe the true story of that exorcism in the book, and for this purpose he came into contact with the exorcist who performed the ritual, Father Raymond Bishop, who said he was willing to help him. But there was a problem: at the time of the exorcism, the family had asked to keep the whole affair confidential, so Father Bishop explained to Blatty that if he wanted his help, they had to ask the family to remove the constraint. And the family didn’t allow that. Few days later, Father Bishop reluctantly explained to Blatty that, in fact, he couldn’t help.
The identity of the boy possessed in the exorcisms of the 40s is still unknown, and the literature refers to it with the fictitious name “Roland Doe”. Roland had a special relationship with his aunt Harriett, who introduced him to the use of the Ouija board. After his aunt’s death, the family began to witness unexplained phenomena similar to the ones visible in The Exorcist movie: strange noises, objects that moved by themselves, aggressive behavior from the young guy. As in the film, the family’s first reaction was to ask doctors, who observed him and found the same inexplicable events. The same doctors advised then the family to ask help to a Catholic priest.
Even what happened during the exorcisms is not very different from what we see in the movie: the bed moved as if it had its own life, the boy spoke languages he couldn’t know, strange words appeared on his skin. And the rite took on extremely violent characteristics: one of the priests who witnessed the exorcism, Father Walter Halloran, got a broken nose in a direct confrontation with the possessed boy. The ritual lasted for weeks and involved several priests, in a struggle between good and evil that seemed to have no end. Until one day the exorcism was successful and the entities that owned the boy left, letting the young man live his life.
Years later, nothing has been revealed about the boy’s identity and the details of what happened that year. Recently new theories emerged, tending to deny that the possession was real and suggesting that the boy was actually just a victim of psychological problems. Few people who witnessed with their eyes what happened are still alive. We can only trust what Father William Bowdern, another priest involved in that exorcism, declared some years later:
“The case in which I was involved was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubt about it now.”