Roland Doe And The True Story Of "The Exorcist"

By Karen Harris

(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Horror movies often confront us with the unimaginable, but sometimes, the terror is all too imaginable. One of the most frightening and disturbing movies of all time, The Exorcist, was based on the real-life exorcism of a 13-year-old boy known by the pseudonym Roland Doe who lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s.

Roland Doe

Ronald Hunkeler, identified as "Roland Doe" in the diaries of a priest who attended his exorcism, was born in 1935, the only child of a Lutheran family from Cottage City, Maryland. As a young boy, he spent a lot of time with his Aunt Harriet, a spiritualist who introduced him to the ouija board, but after she died unexpectedly, the family claimed they started hearing eerie noises and seeing objects move on their own. Ronald, who claimed to hear scratching beneath his bedroom floor and water dripping in the walls, was apparently the focus of these incidents. The Hunkeler family called the police, their doctor, and finally, their Lutheran pastor, who was so disturbed and dumbfounded by their stories that he suggested the family contact a Catholic priest.

In late February 1949, Father E. Albert Hughes sought permission from the local archdiocese to perform an exorcism on Ronald. He strapped the boy to a bed and began to pray, but Ronald somehow slipped one hand out of the restraints, clawed through the mattress, and snapped off a piece of a metal mattress spring. When Father Hughes approached him, he lashed out at the priest, slashing him across his shoulders. Father Hughes halted the exorcism, after which the word "Louis" allegedly appeared mysteriously on Ronald's body. It was not uncommon, according to witnesses, for words to appear as if scratched into his skin, and his parents took this one as a sign that they should seek help in St. Louis, where their niece was attending school. She put them in touch with Father William S. Bowdern, a professor at St. Louis University, who obtained permission to perform a second exorcism on Ronald after claiming to have witnessed him speak Latin in an unearthly voice as objects flew across the room and the boy's bed shook.

(Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Take Two

Roland Doe's second exorcism took place at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, where two other priests, Father Walter Halloran and Father William Van Roo, assisted Father Bowdern. In one fit of violence, Ronald broke Halloran's nose, but on April 18, after nearly a month of tireless work by the three priests, Ronald experienced several seizures and screamed that Satan would not leave him. The priests placed rosaries and crucifixes on his body and prayed to Saint Michael to free Ronald from Satan's grip, and within minutes, Roland appeared to snap out of his trance, looked the priests in the eyes, and said, "He's gone." Later, the boy claimed he saw visions of Saint Michael and Satan in battle and watched as the saint forced Satan to flee.

By all accounts, Ronald Hunkeler went on to live a normal life, and his story remained largely unknown outside of a scarcely detailed Washington Post article. One person who did take note of it was William Peter Blatty, who used Hunkeler's story as the basis for his 1971 novel The Exorcist, which became a pop culture phenomenon after it was turned into a hit film two years later. This new attention came with an increased interest in Hunkeler's case by researchers, however, who uncovered a wealth of conflicting information and failure of due diligence from those who documented the supposed events as well as Ronald's reputation among his peers as a spoiled bully who was prone to tantrums. They determined that the supposed symptoms of demonic possession alleged by witnesses were almost certainly either exaggerated or intentionally caused by Ronald.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.