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The movie “The Exorcist” has a factual basis—a case that occurred here in St. Louis. The directors took some liberties for dramatic effect. The Catholic Church, out of sensitivity for the family involved, does not release information about cases. Here’s what we know happened.
In 1949, a 13-year-old boy began displaying symptoms of possession. The boy’s name has never been released, but most accounts employ the name Robbie. Robbie’s aunt had recently died, and she had great curiosity in the occult. Allegedly, she encouraged Robbie’s interest in Ouija boards. Catholics consider belief in the veracity of Ouija boards as a form of the occult, and thus an avenue for possession. Robbie’s family was not Catholic, so they brought his case to the attention of several other ministers. Nothing worked. The first Catholic exorcism on Robbie took place in Georgetown, Washington, DC, the setting of the film. This rite was halted after Robbie injured the priest.
Eventually, the family arrived in St. Louis for aid from Saint Louis University. Robbie was admitted to a psychiatric unit of the Alexian Brothers Children’s Hospital, which no longer stands. Like in the movie, two priests performed the exorcism. William S. Bowdern, the older of the two, performed most of the rites, while Walter Hallorhan assisted him. Both were members of the Jesuits, a society of Catholic priests.
The two performed several exorcisms over the course of at least two months. Unlike the movie, both priests lived well past the ordeal; Fr. Bowdern died in 1983, while Hallorhan died in 2005. Both were reluctant to discuss the case, though Hallorhan later expressed doubts that Robbie was actually possessed. Robbie went on to lead a “normal life,” according to Hallorhan.
Even though the ritual has been made famous by Hollywood, the number of Catholic priests trained to perform an exorcism has been falling in recent years. In fact, the Catholic church hosted a closed-door seminar in Baltimore two years ago to train more of the Catholic ranks in the methods of exorcism.
Whenever a new book or movie dealing with exorcism comes out, Catholic officials hear from many mentally unstable people convinced they are possessed.
Exorcisms have become so common in Poland that Catholic priests have launched their own magazine.
Believed to be the first exorcism magazine in history, the publication entitled "Egzorcysta monthly" is a reflection on the rising number of practicing exorcists in Poland over the last 15 years. There are now over 120 exorcists in the country, many with waiting lists of several months. A number of occult practices including fortune telling are now considered 'work' in Poland for the purposes of taxation with many jumping at the opportunity to earn a living by offering such services.
A new phone service has been set up in Milan in an effort to help deal with increasingly high demand.
According to the diocese's chief exorcist Monsignor Angelo Mascheroni, double the number of exorcists have been appointed to deal with requests for help over the last 15 years. "We get many requests for names, addresses and phone numbers; that’s why we’ve set up a switchboard in the curia from Monday to Friday from 2.30pm to 5pm," he said. Mascheroni did emphasize however that most of the cases dealt with were not the result of demonic possessions and feels that the increase could be partly down to a rise in the number of parents unable to handle disobedient teenagers.
Many skeptics insist possession is a myth, and argue people showing the symptoms are actually suffering from multiple personality disorder.