The Exorcist: the true story behind one of the most terrifying films of all…

Released 48 years ago in our theaters, “The Exorcist” by William Friedkin remains more than ever a peak of raw terror. Which also finds its origin in a striking true story, which will be used by William Peter Blatty to write his book.

48 years (!) after its release in our region, The Exorcist of William Friedkin remains more than ever a monument of raw terror. This history of possession whose age-old challenge is based ultimately on the eternal struggle between the forces of Good and those of Evil, the filmmaker delivered a truly traumatic visceral experience for the public who discovered him in dark rooms at the time.

The film shocked and frightened viewers so much that many of them confused fiction with reality: Linda Blairwho embodies poor Regan, would have been really possessed, crazy, was a henchman of the Devil… In interviews, Blair had even declared that journalists of the time asked him in horror what it was about the possession …

Stories to sleep standing surrounding the film and its creation, which were not necessarily to displease the director and Warner Bros., producer of the film, contributing to feed the phenomenon a little more. There is always that The Exorcist was a huge hit at the global box office, grossing over $440 million worldwide. And sparked a global debate on the occult within the Catholic Church, while inspiring generations of horror filmmakers. And not only.

Roland Doe, the real Regan

Adapting himself his book published in 1971 by writing the script, and moreover rewarded by an Oscar for his work, William Peter Blatty was inspired by a completely authentic news item. A possession case involving a 13-year-old boy residing in Cottage City, Maryland, in 1949.

The identity of the boy, known as Roland Doe, was not known for nearly a decade; some experts believing that his real name was Ronald Hunkeler, or Robbie Mannheim. Blatty learned of his story while a student at Georgetown University.

Raised in a Lutheran family of German origin, Ronald was apparently already familiar with the paranormal. He asked for a day for his birthday a Ouija board, board supposed to allow communication with the spirits. It was her aunt, Harriet, who gave it to her.

The Exorcist the true story behind one of the most
Warner Bros.

Shortly after her death, the boy began to have strange and frightening experiences of abnormal things in and around the house. Events that feature heavily in horror films elsewhere: strange noises in the house and in his room, scratching in the walls, vibrations of the bed, moving objects…

His family contacted various experts, without success. She was all the more panicked as the boy woke up with marks on his body, as if he had been the target of these strange phenomena. She then turned to a priest, Father E. Albert Hughes, who performed an exorcism on the young boy in February 1949.

The experience was short-lived: Roland tore a spring from his mattress during the exorcism to throw it in the face of the priest. A few days later, he bore new red marks on his body; the parents claiming to have read “Saint-Louis” on the boy’s chest. Saint-Louis being the name of the town where Roland’s grandparents lived.

Moving to the town of St. Louis, located in Missouri, where his parents thought they were finally at peace, the ailment that Roland/Ronald seemed to suffer from did not stop. Hospitalized in the psychiatric wing of the city hospital, he was cared for there by two other priests, Walter H. Halloran and William Bowdern, who made upon him a second exorcism.

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On the left, Father William Bowdern, who practiced exorcism. He was helped by Father Walter Halloran (right), who was 26 at the time.

Becoming threatening, insulting and spitting on the priests, with an increasingly frightening voice, Roland did not let himself be done, like Regan facing Father Merrin assisted by Father Karras in Friedkin’s film. A third priest, a Jesuit named William Van Roo, came as reinforcements to exorcise Roland. Particularly agitated, the boy even broke Father Halloran’s nose, who will tell, in 1988, seeing words like “Hell” on the unfortunate boy’s body.

Engineer at NASA

As often in such a case, the interpretations are very divided. Psychiatrists deemed the boy to be suffering from mental illness, inflicting the observed marks on himself. Some have spoken of a child disturbed and over-spoiled by his father, raised by a religious and very superstitious mother.. A child subject to harassment from his classmates, who would have created all these agitations himself to draw attention to himself. For the Church, this remains a case of demonic possession.

Still, after a series of exorcisms, the child was no longer subject to the crises that had taken hold of him, and led a fairly normal life. What is quite astonishing is that the experts believe that he worked, under the name of Ronald Edwin Hunkeler quoted above, as an engineer at NASA, and actively participated in the Apollo program to send the first man to the Moon. He apparently worked on the design of the rocket’s ultra-resistant panels, capable of withstanding very high temperatures.

Very few people knew his true identity and the exorcisms he was subjected to; the Church wishes to keep the anonymity of the persons on this point. Quoted in the article of New York Post, a longtime friend of Ronald Hunkeler explains that he was constantly worried that someone would find out about his past. Every year, when Halloween approached, he even left his house for fear of being harassed. Hunkeler retired from NASA in 2001 after 40 years working at home, and died in 2020 in Marriottsville, Maryland, a month before celebrating her 86th birthday.

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