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The Real Story Behind The Exorcist

Ben Radford

September 2, 2004

The new Exorcist film (Exorcist: The Beginning) scared up some $18.2 million on its opening last weekend but has garnered universally horrific reviews so far.

The original story was allegedly “Based on a True Story!” It is a fair question to ask for some historical accuracy when a film (or book) is touted as having been based on real events. After all, if the story is too fictionalized, why bother to go with the “ripped-from-the-headlines” angle, except for marketing purposes?

The “real story” behind The Exorcist is a long and complicated one, but I’ll give the short version and direct readers to all the gory (and not-so-gory) details for further reading.

There are a number of “this is the REAL story” accounts out there; most of them are simply rehashed and poorly researched books and articles looking to cash in on the film’s success. The script for The Exorcist was written by William Peter Blatty, adapted from his best-selling 1971 novel of the same name. In fact, Blatty won an Academy Award for his script (Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium).

Cashing in on The Exorcist gravy train, Blatty quickly followed up with his memoir about writing the book, this one titled William Peter Blatty On The Exorcist From Novel to Film. In it, he described the inspiration for the film: a 1949 Washington Post article he’d read as a grad student when he was at Georgetown University. The piece, which ran August 20, told of a 14-year-old boy from nearby Mount Rainier, Maryland, who had undergone an exorcism.

Many of the myths surrounding The Exorcist film and “real story” came about because of “the mystic twaddle Blatty gave out to the press while pushing his book” (Kim Mohan quoted in his book Nightmare Movies, p. 43). Blatty had a career and book to promote, and was not above embellishing the story with partly (and wholly) fictional elements. Of course, the film was not a documentary, but Blatty strongly suggested that the film stuck more or less to reality.

Investigative journalist Mark Opsasnick investigated the case and concluded that the Mount Rainier story, as popularly held (and which Blatty used as a basis for the novel), could not be true. For one thing, the family that occupied the home at the time the alleged possession took place did not have a boy there, demon-possessed or otherwise: the occupants were childless. Long-time neighbors denied that anything horrific or supernatural had ever occurred there. There was, however, an actual exorcism done (not in Mount Rainier but in Garden City, Maryland), though virtually all of the gory and sensational details were embellished or made up. Simple spitting became Technicolor, projectile vomiting; (normal) shaking of a bed became thunderous quaking and levitation; the boy’s low growl became a gravelly, Satanic voice. And so on. Those interested in the full details can find them in articles by Opsasnick. One is “The Haunted Boy,” published in Fortean Times, Number 123, page 34; another is in Strange Magazine, 1998, Number 20. The piece is also available online at www.strangemag.com.

More information can be found in Joe Nickell’s article ”Exorcism! Driving Out the Nonsense” in the January/February 2001 Skeptical Inquirer—25(1)20-24; and in Kevin Christopher’s review of Michael Cuneo’s book American Exorcism in the January/February 2003 issue —27(1)48-50.

It certainly is true that exorcisms have been (and continue to be) performed, often on emotionally and mentally disturbed people. Whether those undergoing the exorcism are truly possessed by spirits or demons is another matter entirely. Most often, exorcisms are done on people of strong religious faith. To the extent that exorcisms “work,” it is primarily due to the power of suggestion and the placebo effect. If you believe you are possessed, and that a given ritual will cleanse you, then it just might.

A recent book on the topic (American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty By Michael Cuneo, Doubleday, 2001) found no reason to think anything supernatural occurred in the “real” exorcist case, or any other. After attending fifty exorcisms, Cuneo is unequivocal about the fact that he saw nothing supernatural—and certainly nothing remotely resembling The Exorcist. No spinning heads, levitation, or poltergeists, though maybe some cursing and a little puking now and then.

Cuneo credits Blatty and The Exorcist with much of the modern-day interest in the topic: “Over the course of the twentieth century the popular cultural industry, with its endless run of movies, books, and digital delights, has gained a pervasive influence over the national consciousness. It has attained an enormous capacity for shaping everyday beliefs and behaviors. . . . When Hollywood and its allies put out the Word, somebody’s guaranteed to be listening” (p. 50).

As for historical accuracy, Cuneo characterizes Blatty’s work as a massive structure of fantasy resting on a flimsy foundation of a priest’s diary account of the Mount Rainier case. The Exorcist story gets less and less impressive the farther away it gets from the film that made it famous. As is often the case, sensationalism, hyperbole, and myths replace fact and reality when it comes to making a good story.

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.