ST. LOUIS – The horror classic “The Exorcist” was based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name. But few people are aware of the true origin of the story.
A real case inspired the tale of a child possessed by a demon. A young boy was subjected to a series of exorcisms in Maryland and, eventually, St. Louis.
Is there a medical connection to the supernatural story? A Saint Louis University archivist and an author say that there may be an autoimmune disease that explains some of the behavior.
The Exorcist is based on the real-life events of Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, who was unnamed until he died in 2020. He was given the pseudonym Roland Doe to protect his identity.
Several Jesuit priests associated with the College Church or Saint Louis University are in the original story.
Hunkeler’s possession allegedly happened in late 1948 and early 1949.
“He lived in Cottage City, Maryland, which is a suburb of, the District of Columbia, of Washington DC.,” said John Waide, archivist emeritus for St. Louis University. “He was an only child. He lived with his parents and his grandmother, which was his mother’s mother.”
When Waide was in school at SLU, he did not remember any of his classmates discussing the exorcism. It was not until the book and movie came out that the case got some attention, Waide said.
“Anyway, that movie comes out. I come back and work here a couple of years later, but by the mid-to-late 1970s, people are starting to ask about what happened here,” he said.
The devil and the disease
Waide discussed a theory that Hunkeler might not have actually been possessed.
“Father Bowdern [a priest involved in the exorcism] believed to the day he passed away that Hunkeler was possessed,” said Waide. “And there are people who evidently knew him as a teenager who said this kid was kind of goofy. Regardless of that, just trying to figure out what happened is very difficult.”
Waide tells us of a young New York Post journalist who was hospitalized in early 2000 for symptoms similar to Hunkeler’s possession.
“She ended up in the hospital and had no recollection of what had happened to her for the previous month,” Waide said. “She evidently was foaming at the mouth, saying weird things. Her body was rising around, doing all these things, and they took her to a psychiatrist, to psychologists, to medical doctors.”
Waide said that they eventually diagnosed her with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the brain. These antibodies disrupt the brain and cause swelling in brain receptor signaling. It primarily affects the young, including young children and adults. This disease is more common in women.
“Brain on Fire” is a book by Susannah Cahalan, a journalist who was affected by this disease. There is also a movie adaptation with the same name. She describes her “month of madness” as similar to the outbursts in the movie “The Exorcist.”
This is how the New York Times describes her ordeal:
“Susannah Cahalan was hospitalized with mysterious and terrifying symptoms. She believed an army of bedbugs had invaded her apartment. She believed her father had tried to abduct her and kill his wife, her stepmother. She believed she could age people using just her mind. She couldn’t eat or sleep. She spoke in gibberish and slipped into a catatonic state.
Had it not been for an ingenious doctor brought in to consult on her case, Cahalan might well have ended up in a psychiatric ward. Instead, as she recounted in “Brain on Fire,” her best-selling 2012 memoir about her ordeal, she was eventually found to have a rare — or at least newly discovered — neurological disease.”New York Times, 2019
The start of something unexplained in Washington
From Jan. 15 to April 18, 1949, unexplained events took place in Hunkeler’s home in the Washington area.
It was Saturday evening, Jan. 15, 1949, when Hunkeler and his grandmother heard what they thought was the sound of water dripping in the home. They looked around but could not determine where the sound came from.
While searching, Hunkeler and his grandmother thought they saw a picture of Jesus on the wall that began to shake.
By the time Hunkeler’s parents made it home, the sound had developed into a scratching noise, like claws against the wood. The family thought it was a rat. After several more evenings of hearing scratching sounds, the family called pest control.
The company did not find anything unusual.
Hunkeler’s aunt, Matilda Hendricks, died on Jan. 26, 1949. Different accounts say that either Aunt Tillie was into spiritualism and the occult, or it was Hunkeler’s mother and grandmother.
Hunkeler and Aunt Tillie were very close. After his aunt’s death, Hunkeler came into possession of an Ouija board and began using it to try and contact her.
Hunkeler, his mother, and grandmother all felt claw-like sensations running under the mattress of Hunkeler’s bed. They reportedly felt the bed shake. When the shaking stopped, the bed cover flew off the mattress.
These sensations would follow Hunkeler around the home and even to school.
Hunkeler’s parents took him to see a medical doctor, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist. After the doctors did not find anything wrong with him, they decided to contact a local Lutheran church.
Reverend Luther Miles Schulze, a Lutheran minister from a church near Hunkeler’s home, agreed to observe Hunkeler.
Schulze saw furniture move, dishes fly, and Hunkeler’s bed shake. Schulze had no explanation of what was going on. All he could do was suggest to Hunkeler’s parents to bring him to a Catholic priest.
The family found Father E. Albert Hughes and told him what was happening to Hunkeler. Father Hughes prayed over Hunkeler and gave his mother holy water and some candles.
These items supposedly had no effect on the boy. The bottle of holy water was thrown across the room and smashed. The candles either would not stay lit or the flame was so high it was dangerous.
As the story goes, Hunkeler was checked into Georgetown University Hospital and underwent a series of physical and psychological tests between Feb. 28 and March 3, 1949. The tests showed Hunkeler was not suffering from any significant physical or psychological conditions. Around this time, Hunkeler’s family began to notice that a scratch that appeared on Hunkeler spelled out words.
Waide explained that there were “these odd occurrences of scratching noises and all that.” Waide said scratches even appeared on Hunkeler’s body.
“One of the scratches that appeared or welts that appeared on his body, they said, ‘L O U I S’,” he said.
Hunkeler’s deceased Aunt Tillie was from St. Louis. It was around her time of death that these strange events started happening.
Time in St. Louis
The family moved to Bel-Nor, a suburb of St. Louis. He had an aunt and uncle who lived in the house that is now known as the “Exorcism House.”
From March 6 through April 18, the activities took place in St. Louis at several locations, including Saint Louis University.
“He stayed with an aunt and uncle out in Bel-Nor, and that family had a daughter who was a student here at St. Louis University at the time,” Waide said. “And she mentioned to one of her teachers here that her cousin was staying with them.”
Waide said that the daughter mentioned all the strange things that were happening to her cousin to Father Raymond J. Bishop, who was a faculty member at SLU at the time.
Father Bishop decided to visit Hunkeler at the home in Bel Nor and observe what was happening.
“The talking and the different voices, the markings on the body, according to what Father Bishop and others reported as all true,” said Waide.
As he made his way into the Bel-Nor home, Father Bishop blessed each room. When he opened the door to Hunkeler’s room, he saw the boy lying still on the bed, but then the bed began shaking back and forth.
Father Bishop sprinkled the bed with holy water in the sign of the cross, and soon the shaking stopped.
In his notes, Father Bishop recorded each day’s experience trying to exercise this spirit from Hunkeler. He describes in his diary of March 18, 1949: “Next the Fathers began the Litany of the Saints, as indicated in the exorcism ritual. In the course of the Litany, the mattress began to shake.”
The diary continues, “The shaking ceased when Father Bowdern blessed the bed with Holy Water. The prayers of the exorcism were continued and R. was seized violently so that he began to struggle with his pillow and the bed clothing.”
“The arms, legs, and head of R. had to be held by three men. The contortions revealed physical strength beyond the natural power of R,” said the notes. “R. spit at the relics and the Priests’ hands. He writhed under the sprinkling of Holy Water. He fought and screamed in a diabolical, high-pitched voice.”
In the following days, Hunkeler was passed between his home in Bel-Nor and the St. Francis Xavier College Church rectory at SLU.
Alexian Brothers Hospital
Father Bishop decided to bring in another priest from SLU. Father Bowdern was introduced to the family.
Father Bowdern decided to inquire about a room at the Alexian Brothers Hospital in south St. Louis. They were friends of Bowdern and assured him that there would be room at their hospital.
“When they took him to Alexian Brothers, they took him to the psychiatric ward there, because they didn’t know exactly what was going on,” Waide said.
Waide said the reason why Alexian Brothers Hospital was chosen was that they had handled cases in the past that were unusual.
“They treated victims of the bubonic plague back in the middle ages. So my point is they had experienced treating these odd and unusual cases,” Waide said. “They were very happy to take him in down there.”
The exorcism concluded during Hunkeler’s hospital stay. The father blessed Hunkeler and the boy contorted against his restraints. The actions of the exorcism reached their climax on Easter weekend in April 1949.
On Easter Monday, April 18, Hunkeler woke in a fit. Father Bowdern continued once again the rite of exorcism, placing various medals and rosary around Hunkeler’s neck and placing a crucifix in his hand.
Father Bowdern demanded to know the name of the demon who possessed this body, and he was going to leave him. The tantrums continued.
“Hunkeler was having another one of these fits and tantrums and the bishop was saying the rights, the prayers, and then, they reported that another voice came from this boy,” said Waide.
Waide said that the demon was mocking the priest. He said that the report then talked about a different voice coming from the boy.
A short time later, Hunkeler woke up and said simply, “He’s gone.”
“And that, evidently, is the only thing that the boy ever remembered was seeing this vision of St. Michael,” Waide said.
No one can answer definitively the question of what was the cause of Hunkeler’s troubles. Was he possessed by the devil or some other evil spirit? Was he suffering from some serious psychological or physical disturbance? Or was Hunkeler making up the entire episode for attention?