‘The Exorcist’ is 50 years old, and its origin story is still haunting

‘The Exorcist’ is 50 years old, and its origin story is still haunting

The boy launched into a violent scream and curses in Latin — a language he had never learned — every time the Catholic priest in front of him tried to cast the devil out.

The ancient ritual of exorcism had to be performed at least 20 to 30 times before the job was done, The Washington Post reported in 1949, citing “Catholic sources.” A priest spent two months completing “perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history.”

Placed on the front page of the newspaper, the story is said to have inspired William Peter Blatty, then a student of English literature at Georgetown University, to pen the 1971 horror novel, “The Exorcist,” which he later adapted into an Oscar-winning screenplay.

Fifty years after the movie first captivated audiences, a reboot hit theaters. As Halloween approaches and audiences seek out the classic horror film, its origin story — describing a teenage boy possessed by the devil and set free by the Catholic Church — remains intriguing.

After learning the story of the teenage boy, Blatty connected with a priest who claimed to have exorcised the demon from the Mount Rainier boy, The Post reported. The Jesuit priest, William F. Bowdern, was from St. Louis and had shock-white hair, Blatty learned.

Bowdern had kept a diary during the months-long exorcism and he assured Blatty that what he witnessed was “the real thing.”

Before the exorcism, it was said that the bed in which the boy was sleeping would suddenly move across the room, fruit from on top of the refrigerator would be tossed around, and strange scratching sounds came from the walls of his home.

Earlier, a Protestant minister had reported seeing the straw mattress on which the boy slept sliding across the floor until the boy’s head bumped against a bed, waking him up, the original story reported.

The minister also witnessed a heavy armchair in which the boy was sitting tilting to a side and tossing the boy on the floor.

Although Blatty had been inspired by the story and followed up with at least one of the priests involved, he told The Post that the novel “came entirely out of my head.”

When the R-rated film first screened in Washington in 1973, some moviegoers threw up while others fainted, The Post reported. The special effects were ahead of their time: green projectile vomiting, a girl’s head rotating 180 and 360 degrees, and bodies and beds levitating. Local police were charged with ensuring that no one under 17 was attempting to see it, even when accompanied with parents or guardians.

To this day, when tourists visit Washington, many hike up to Georgetown to see the “Exorcist steps.” The movie is screened every Halloween across the D.C. region.

Instead of a young boy, the film is centered around a 12-year-old girl who is not behaving the way young girls are meant to. This is more than a rebellious move to dye her hair or get a tattoo; Regan MacNeil is cursing out a priest, backhanding her mother across the room and repeatedly defying gravity to hang out near the ceiling of her bedroom.

She is also suspected of killing at least three characters in the movie.

It is only after such modern medicines as Ritalin and Thorazine fail, medical tests reveal nothing, and doctors agree that the problem is likely not a lesion on her temporal lobe, that the idea of a traditional exorcism is introduced.

It went the same way for the teenager from the original news story. He was first taken to Georgetown University Hospital and then St. Louis University. The Post reported that only when both hospitals said they were “unable to cure the boy through natural means … was a supernatural cure sought.”

More than 20 years after the movie was released, a five-part magazine story outlined that the allegedly possessed 14-year-old was probably not housing a demon, and definitely wasn’t from Mount Rainier.

Mark Opsasnick, a history buff and self-described investigator of strange phenomena, spent a year trying to find the boy and verify his story, during which he claimed to have spoken to a confidant of the priest involved in the exorcism.

Opsasnick found that the boy lived in Cottage City, Md. Childhood friends and neighbors told Opsasnick that the boy was a brilliant trickster, who practiced certain pranks to scare his mother and fool neighborhood children, The Post reported.

According to Opsasnick, there never was a possession, it was all just an elaborate prank by a teenager.

Nevertheless, the boy had instilled such fear in his neighbors that they were seen sprinkling (holy?) water around the family’s house to ward off the devil, The Post had reported.

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Maham Javaid

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