The real-life exorcism that inspired ‘The Exorcist’

In 1949, a young 13-year-old boy in Maryland was hearing and seeing strange things in his house after playing with a Ouija board. His family didn’t know what to do, so they contacted their Lutheran pastor. According to an historical account of the events, the pastor said, “Go to a Catholic priest; the Catholics know about this kind of thing.”

They visited a local priest who later asked permission to perform an exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital. It didn’t end well, with the boy breaking off a spring from the mattress and slashing the priest. Supernatural events persisted and so his parents felt they needed to do something more. The boy’s mother was from St. Louis and thought it would be good to find a priest there who could help.

The family ended up staying at a relative’s house, who graduated from St. Louis University. They were familiar with the Jesuit priests at the university and asked them for advice. After getting permission from the local bishop the Jesuits performed an exorcism that spanned almost 2 months. Initially the exorcism was performed at the house, but it was later moved to St. Louis University as well as the Alexian Brothers Hospital. According to a Jesuit seminarian at the time, “I got in on the business with the prayers of exorcism, and the little boy would go into a seizure and get quite violent. So Father Bowdern asked me to hold him … Yes, he did break my nose.’

The Jesuit exorcist who was chiefly responsible for performing the Rite of Exorcism fasted on bread and water throughout the entire span of events and took his role very seriously. It was a spiritual battle and he was poised to do everything necessary to defeat the assaults of the evil one.


Surprisingly, many of the events portrayed on film did happen, including a vomit that shot across the room at one of the priests. Yet, the boy never remembered any of it and woke up in the morning with no recollection of the great struggle that happened the night before.

St. Louis University relates on its website, “The exorcism continued on almost a nightly basis, even though the boy seemed to be getting worse. The priests asked his family for permission to teach him about Catholicism and convert him as a way to strengthen the fight against the supposed demonic possession. As he got closer to conversion and making his first holy Communion, his episodes become increasingly violent.”

Everything culminated with the celebration of Easter, when the priests were finally able to expel the demonic influences. The day after Easter Sunday the extraordinary events ceased and the boy went on to lead a normal life, getting married, having children and a successful career. The Jesuits believed the exorcism was a success.

While ‘The Exorcist’ may seem like a work of fiction, it was inspired by real-life events and remind us all that the devil is real and the only way to defeat him is through a life of prayer, united to the sacraments of the Church.


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