By Orrin Grey.
Near the end of the 1940s, a young boy, distraught over the death of a beloved aunt, attempted to contact her spirit via a talking board—what is most often referred to as an Ouija board. His attempts awoke dark forces. Soon, the family was plagued by strange phenomena. Not knowing what else to do, the boy’s parents took him to Catholic priests, who performed a series of intense and at times violent exorcisms.
Sound familiar? That’s because this real-life case inspired William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist, and the subsequent movie adaptation of the same name.
The victim of the alleged possession remained anonymous so as to protect his family’s privacy; he was called simply “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim.” What we do know is that Roland was born in 1935, which would have made him around 14 years old at the time of the exorcisms.
Accounts of the events say that Roland was close to his Aunt Harriet, who was a spiritualist, and that she had taught him how to use a talking board. When she passed on, he attempted to contact her spirit with the board, and soon thereafter strange things began to happen. Roland’s family heard the sound of marching feet within the house, household objects levitated or were flung across the room, furniture toppled over, and religious pictures vibrated on the walls. The occurrences were even said to have followed Roland to school, where his desk reportedly slid across the floor in front of many witnesses.
After exhausting the usual channels of doctors and psychologists, Roland’s parents are said to have approached their Lutheran pastor, who invited the boy to spend the night at his house for observation. During the course of the night, the pastor heard scratching sounds coming from inside the walls and saw a heavy armchair topple over on its own. The next morning, he advised Roland’s parents to contact a Catholic priest.
What followed was the first of multiple exorcisms on Roland Doe. Edward Hughes, a Catholic priest, is said to have conducted the first exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital. It ended in disaster when the boy allegedly slipped free of his restraints and tore a bedspring from the mattress, slashing the priest’s arm.
After that, Roland’s family traveled to St. Louis, where William S. Bowdern, an associate of College Church, was given permission by the archbishop to perform additional exorcisms. The archbishop authorized the rituals after Bowden and another priest visited the family at home and observed the boy’s bed shaking and objects moving on their own, not to mention Roland speaking in a guttural voice unlike his own and exhibiting an aversion to sacred objects.
One exorcism was attended by at least three priests, including Walter Halloran, who would later report that various wounds appeared on Roland’s body—some of these lacerations reportedly resembled words or demonic faces. At one point Roland attacked Halloran violently, breaking his nose.
Other accounts attributed a frightening degree of strength to young Roland, and claimed that he spoke in perfect Latin, though the boy was unschooled in the language. Some sources state that at least one of these exorcisms was observed by no less than 48 people, nine of them Jesuits.
Roland Doe survived the sessions. What became of him afterward is anyone’s guess, though most people involved in the case say that he lived a perfectly normal life from that point forward, and had no recollection of what had happened to him during his possession.
A 1949 Washington Post article about Roland Doe caught the attention of young William Blatty, who was then just a student at Georgetown University. His 1971 novel The Exorcist, and William Friedkin’s film adaptation, shined a spotlight on the case. Several nonfiction books have since been written on the subject, including the 1993 book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism, by Thomas B. Allen and the 2006 book The Real Story Behind the Exorcist, by Mark Opsasnick. The events also inspired the 2000 film Possessed, based on Thomas Allen’s book, which is said to hew closer to the Roland Doe story than The Exorcist did.
Many of these researchers have come to the conclusion that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, and have pointed out various logical and historical inconsistencies in the “official” version of events. Allen went so far as to say that “the consensus of today’s experts” was that Roland Doe was simply “a deeply disturbed boy, nothing supernatural about him.” Opsasnick, who claimed to have tracked down neighbors and childhood acquaintances of Roland Doe, said that he “had been a very clever trickster, who had pulled pranks to frighten his mother and fool children in the neighborhood.”
While we may never know the complete facts of the alleged possession and exorcism of Roland Doe, thanks to the success of The Exorcist, the case has left an indelible mark on our imaginations, and on our notion of what a possession—and an exorcism—looks like.
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