Demonic Possession Case Study: The Real Exorcist

July 26, 2013 12:00 pm

There are countless horror films out there that deal with cases of demonic possession, but none do so quite so well as “The Exorcist” directed by William Friedkin and based on the book by William Peter Blatty. The film had audiences across the world recoiling in terror as they watched a little girl becoming possessed by demonic forces while two catholic priests do battle with the devil in order to save her. The film was released in 1973 and has since gone on to terrify generations of horror film enthusiasts around the globe, It is currently considered one of the scariest films ever made. What is more terrifying, however, is the fact that it was based on real life events that occurred in 1949, 24 years prior to its release.

The event from which the book and film take their inspiration was the alleged demonic possession and exorcism of an American boy living in Cottage City, Maryland, who was given the pseudonym Roland Doe by the Catholic Church for the sake of his and his family’s privacy. Despite being admittedly reluctant to speak about the factual aspects of the film, director Friedkin states that he made the film in order to immortalize the events that occurred in Cottage City in 1949. The film set itself was also reported to be haunted as many of the participants in the making of it, including writer Blatty described many strange occurrences during filming. Could this have had something to do with the original incident?

The story goes that back in 1949 Roland Doe lived with his Lutheran Christian family at their home in Cottage City, Maryland. Roland was an only child who lacked any playmates his own age and thus relied on the adults around him, mainly his aunt Harriet with whom he is very close, to provide him with entertainment. Aunt Harriet was a spiritualist and on one occasion introduced Roland to a Ouija board when he apparently showed an interest in what it was. According to some sources they played with the Ouija board a lot and frequently tried to make contact with spirits from the beyond. As you may have guessed already, this is when things started to get weird.

The first strange occurrence started on January 15th when the family noticed a steady dripping sound in the night. After checking around the house no leaky faucets were found but to the family’s confusion the dripping continued steadily for about a week. Then, on the 26th January, Roland’s aunt Harriet suddenly dies without explanation. The family recall her being in normal health and had no idea on how this could have happened. Roland struggled with the loss of his aunt having never dealt with the death of someone so close before. Several sources even claim that, on several occasions, Roland took to the Ouija board to try to make contact with his deceased aunt.

Over the next few nights the noises became more severe, they began to include loud footsteps belonging to no one, furniture moving on its ownPossessed and objects flying across rooms as if it had been thrown. One specific picture of Jesus Christ began to appear as if someone was banging it hard from behind the wall. One night Roland’s mother heard him call out to her from his bedroom where he had been sleeping. She dashed out of bed and went to his aid only to find that his entire bed was vibrating and shaking with Roland still on it! The confused family took Roland to a doctor but he was sent away as being nothing more than “highly strung”, a by-product of his entering into puberty.

Around about a month after his aunt’s death strange marks began to appear on Roland’s body. The family began to suspect that the spirit of Roland’s aunt may be trying to make contact with them and they try, in vain, to reach her on the Ouija board. That night more marks appeared scratched into Roland’s chest with the name Louis appearing as if it were some kind of sign. After consulting the family’s pastor, an exorcism was arranged to take place at Georgetown University Hospital. During the exorcism Roland became violent with the priest and used a bedspring to cut him all the way from his shoulder down to his wrist. The wound needed over a hundred stitches and Roland was sent home to be with his family and the exorcism abandoned.

After this, Roland and his relatives travelled to St Louis where a cousin spoke to one of his professors at the university there. He, in turn, got in contact with another priest and together the two of them visited Roland at home. After witnessing first hand the boys symptoms, which by this point included an aversion to anything sacred, a shaking bed, flying objects and Roland speaking in a guttural voice that was not known to be his own, the two priests sought permission to perform an exorcism on Roland. The request was accepted by the Archbishop on the one condition that a detailed journal be kept of all events that took place during and throughout the exorcism.

Roland returned to the hospital with the two priests to begin the process. Just before they began the help of a third priest who also worked inside the hospital was enlisted to restrain Roland while the exorcism was performed. While praying by the side of the bed the boy lay on, holy water was flung from the bedside table violently towards the third priests face, narrowly missing him. The exorcism takes place over several nights with Roland’s activity varying from talking obscenely with priests about genitals and masturbation to urinating over them several times a night. Journal entries made by the clergymen as requested by the archbishop describe several such scenes.

April 23rd, Exorcism day 8:

“He fought and kicked and spit so nearly three men could barely hold him, he has been violent towards the priests and he is worsening”

“He proceeded to urinate over those present while giggling and laughing, there were several such urinations a night.”

As the exorcism continued Roland became increasingly violent as the three priests invoked the name of god. By now the clergymen believe that the devil is speaking freely through the boy yet refuse to enter into conversation with it as instructed by an old roman text from which they studied the processes of exorcism. On March 31st Roland, or whatever it was possessing him, requested to be handed a pen and some paper and begins scrawling words on it. Another extract from the journal explains what the priest saw when he took the note from Roland.

March 31st, Exorcism day 16:

“What he wrote was, ‘I am the devil himself, in ten days I will give a sign.”

The priests were exhausted and decided to try use what they thought was their most lethal weapon against the prince of darkness, baptism. Roland agreed to go through with it and for a while afterwards it looks like the devil has been cast out. But, as soon as the priests leave everything starts back up again in full force. The priests return and again exorcised Roland this time invoking the lord’s name as much as they could. After an intense battle of good versus evil, the priests were supposedly able to finally cast the devil out of Roland, which reportedly resulted in a loud sound ringing through the hospital, signaling his departure. After the incident, Roland grew up to be a happy and successful father and grandfather until his death in 1980.

So there you have it, the real life events that inspired The Exorcist one of the scariest films of all time. Several years after its release in cinemas, in an interview in the year 1995 with The Kansas City Star, two of the priests present described their experience. 

“Arrows and words like ‘hell’ or ‘go’ were on his arms, chest, stomach, and his legs,” One of the priests explains. “The image of a winged bat or devil appeared on his skin.” One of the priests who assisted went on to add, “I believe this was a genuine case of possession,”

Further investigation into the exorcism of Roland Doe has uncovered further questions about the validity of some of the accounts of people present and also claimed some to have been exaggerated. Other non-believers try to explain Roland’s erratic behavior as mental illness. The most popular medical condition being touted as responsible being temporal lobe seizure as sufferers are prone to hallucinations, dissociative actions, hyper-religious thought and delusions. There are even claims that Roland was simply a spoilt, disturbed bully who threw deliberate tantrums to get attention or get out of school. While this could never be ruled out there seems to be an awful lot of unexplainable phenomena surrounding these events and it is unlikely that the full truth will ever be known. Whether what happened to Roland was the result of a mental illness or a real life case of demonic possession, one thing is for sure, no one person can say they know the whole story.

What are your thoughts? Is demonic possession a legitimate phenomena? let me know in the comments and poll.

  • Richard P.

    Really interesting article and I highly enjoyed reading it. I have always had an interest in demonic possession. There is no doubt that I am a skeptic but with some of these cases of possession it really is hard to explain some of the things that happen.

    Fantastic article.

  • AdminCharlie

    Great article Ryan, really interesting to know the story behind the Exorcist. Have you seen the film, The Rite with Anthony Hopkins? That coupled with the exorcism of emily rose are two of my favourite films on exorcism as they present the question of doubt and are both based on true events as well.

    It is so difficult to see the truth in these things as we always have our information second hand, but some of the things I have discovered (I did some work on this in my degree from a historical point of view) do make me think that perhaps demonic possession should be considered as something potentially real.

    Thanks for the great article.

  • Z-one

    No, demonic possession has not been determined to be a legitimate phenomenon. This case, and other so-called “documented” cases, fall short of offering any actual evidence on the subject.

  • Steve Erdmann

    The outreach to darken and besmirch this man’s character, family history, innocence – not just in his adulthood but as a child – continues with innuendo and incantations.
    Edited and Updated Comments on the 1949 St. Louis Possession Case. (This post may be updated and edited from time to time, so watch for it carefully.)
    Henry Palka:
    Do you believe that the boy in the book and the movie ‘The Exorcist’ was possessed? I understand his real name was mentioned on the Net and that he later worked for the space program. What do you hear?
    Steve Erdmann:
    Same thing: my experiences in this case were similar to what you have heard in the media. It has been fairly well covered and the press has torn into this man’s private life like alley-dogs fighting over trashed meat. Do ‘I’ believe in demon-possession? It depends on several factors. I have known the ‘boy’s’ name for some time. What bothers me are the wide-eyed ‘investigators’ that just want to hound him to death and try to get bits and pieces of dirty little secrets about his past and present life, like he is a criminal or a dirty little lab specimen. I actually started out with one of these ‘hounds’ on an investigation of him because I thought the investigator was sincerely objective. I thought he wanted to conduct a ‘scientific’ investigation – only to find out he was a classical debunker who wanted to make a name for himself and replicate another debunker who made a name for himself – which will probably lead to another (on and on)…he sort of tricked me somewhat. He later vacillated between remarks that he might get the man to “confess” to somehow acknowledge he was influenced by his relatives, or that he was a teenage hoaxer. Nice.
    I did not “refuse” to work with him, rather, I let my somewhat sympathetic views on demons, and my realization as to what Christ said on that matter, be known to him (which he resented somewhat, as it was not part of his ‘mission’), and that led to a gulf in cooperation. I did suggest a committee or panel of “experts” or “professionals” get together and plan a trek to Maryland and various connected sites to investigate. However, I also suggested that this investigation be done in a rather objective and impartial way (having read and being concerned about the mentality of die-hard debunkers): That idea did not go over so well, to say the least, as that did not fit into his pattern of inquiry.
    (I confessed to having fallen into the ‘monger’ syndrome back in 1973-1975, when having been sent Father Eugene Gallagher’s copy of the “diary,” it led to a ‘spree’ of published articles on the diary by Steve Erdmann. I did not feel such an ‘event’ should be singled out to one and only one publication [against the wishes of an editor that wanted complete and total control], and I wrote about it in two other magazines.)
    His latest piece on the topic was a long list of ‘dirty laundry’ about the man (once the ‘boy’), prying into the man’s girlfriend’s life, relatives’ lives, parents’ secrets and besmirching him and his family; Innocent until proven guilty? These skeptics shrouded themselves beneath descriptions of being “scientific” investigators, “skeptical” rectifiers, or some other type of lone wolf private eyes. In addition, who was to say that this “’investigator’s” background was so pristine, holy and perfect that he could set himself up as a Papal authority to judge this man and his family? Sounds like evil intentions also.
    The other problem or area was the question: what ‘is’ EVIL? These debunkers said the kid was just a mean, snotty, bully of a kid who hoaxed it: but by their very descriptions of him, they described someone that was mentally ill, sadistic, cruel and—evil. It seemed like the pot calling the kettle ‘black’.
    I suggested to this ‘researcher’ that an independent, open, scientific, objective and impartial panel – not a monger-headlines-group – be set up to check out the facts. He said he did not want to set around with a bunch of psychic mumbo-jumbo. That kind of talk sounded more dark than light to me; I had in the past (post 1975) – and I was afraid now – of people crashing into the life of this man – now almost 80 years old – like a bunch of snarling wolves; which they did.
    They also left out many ‘facts’ that needed to indicate something paranormal happened – and they used only statements and opinions that would support their apriori and preconceived belief. This is why I felt that experts that are more fair-minded should handle it…including other information such as…
    The male nurse who attended the boy’s room at the time and saw many strange things…it does not fit their ‘pattern’ so they say it is a fiction…but I heard this man lecture on his involvement!
    Latest advances in quantum physics and neuroscience, indicate indeed there are chemistries involved that transcend our ‘accepted’ or ‘known’ world.
    I told this person, at one time, that I did not really believe in demon-possession. I misspoke! What I really was trying to say is: I rather ‘not’ really believe in it! However, after seeing some cases up close and personal – and realizing that Christ, Himself, treated Satan and demons as very real – I cannot say I have a total disbelief. This debunker claimed to be Baptist and a firm Bible student, yet he failed to see his own encounter with this evil in his own life. He tended to switch, back and forth, from saying, the boy was a cruel and mischievous “hoaxer”, to a boy that had a mental illness, or some combination of both, rather than being evil incarnate. In addition, while I did not totally exclude a critical or skeptical approach to the incident, I did think the topic should also include symmetrical evidence from all avenues. From the tone and demeanor of this lone wolf, he was not out to be fair.
    (It is interesting to note that this critic said he was a devout Baptist and believed in Satan and the Bible: but I believe this was a ruse to get more information out of me. This skeptic was avidly trying to follow in the shoes of a fellow skeptic who he worshipped and wanted to create his own trail of publicity like his ‘hero’. This “wannabe” went so far as to misquote me about information he witnessed of the boy’s relatives on an Internet “chat room” [I will quote in the future; an aside, more recently, this critic began splitting thin-hairs as to whether he used the words ‘chat room’ or just mentioned seeing the relatives talk on an Internet ‘blog’], and said that I was the one who invented the remark.) (In the early stages of his investigation, I did much to help him with copies and photos of the late aunt’s gravesite and her house [and other data, addresses, and information], none of which I received credit for, but rather his erroneous and fallacious attack about the boy’s family speaking in a “chat room” {which he brought up}.)
    Because a majority of the people who were attracted to this critic’s websites had no real knowledge of the similar paranormal cases, or the other details involved in this case, most would have no real complaints with the critic. People with intimate knowledge of parapsychology would probably take issue with many aspects of the debunking more readily than the public; perhaps this is one reason the critic said he is taken to task very seldom or hardly ever receives criticism. Having seen the various “stages” of his inquiry–and his formation of how he accepts evidence or rejects it (most recently, he has rejected any corrections from me on his erroneous statements, outright, and tends to shy away from support of any paranormal theory)–a person, such as myself, would be more adept at spotting his modus operandi.
    (The last “exchange” between this particular critic and myself resembled a Tic-Tac-Toe game of traded insults, with this man insisting his comments were error-free and my comments were totally faulty [and deluded] and that he was refusing any further discussion.)
    What information have you uncovered? Can you download to me? I am preparing a paper promised to a Historical Society; any contributions are welcomed. Do have an email address I can download some files to you? (You can reach Steve Erdmann at or You can friend him at Facebook or visit the Dissenter/Disinter Group at!/groups/171577496293504/. His Facebook email is
    Stephen Erdmann
    (The ‘male nurse’ mentioned above was not Brother Greg Holwinski, but an entirely different hospital employee.)
    (Troy Taylor’s book and video production seemed to be an objective rendering of the case, quoting psychoanalyst Professor Terry Cooper and others, though Taylor tended to deal in exclusivity.)
    Feel free to publish or use the above, provided you make appropriate grammar and spelling corrections.

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