A conservative news and views blog.

Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Exorcist Revisited

(From the Archives)

In honor of Holloween, I thought I`d reprint my post from last spring about the Exorcist:

Carol Iannone, writing in the National Review Online, discusses the actual story behind the exorcism of a young boy in St. Louis which Peter Blatty would adapt into the groundbreaking film The Exorcist. The case is the only documented example of demonic possession in America, and the exorcism was conducted at St. Louis University by Jesuit priests. I thought this would be an interesting piece to blog about since I knew Father Halloran, who was then a young noviciate assisting with the exorcism, and because I attended SLU and picked up a number of interesting stories (which may or may not be true) about what happened.

The exorcism was performed in 1949 by a team of 4 priests and two noviciates led by Fr. William Bowdern (who was something of a legend at SLU for other reasons) and performed at Firman Desloge Hospital (owned by Saint Louis University) on the South Campus, and later moved to Jesuit Hall next to Francis Xavier (College) Church. The exorcism lasted weeks (exorcisms have been known to last years!) and was terribly draining to the participants. Many of the scenes from the Exorcist movie were said to have occured; the boy`s body floating off the bed, projectile vomiting, supernatural physical power, etc. Fr. Halloran had his nose broken by the boy while trying to restrain him. Messages appeared on the boy`s chest and stomach. The most difficult aspect, however, was the psychological attack made by the demon on the exorcists. The demon knew everyone`s weakness and tailored his attacks to demoralize the team.

Father Walter Halloran was at St. Louis University High School when I attended, and I had him for a class in philosophy. (SLUH is a college-prep boys school loosely associated with Saint Louis University and my alma mater.) I didn`t know until much later that he had participated in the exorcism. He always struck me as grumpy and hard-headed, and I now understand why he was grumpy and hard-headed; fighting a physical and spiritual battle with the minions of Hell tends to do that to a man! Much like soldiers who witness horrible things in battle, he (nor any of the others involved in the case) never discussed the exorcism, and I suspect no one would care to bring those bad memories back. I`m sure he had nightmares for the rest of his life.

For those of you who don`t know, exorcism is a specific ritual which can only be performed on orders from high authority in the Catholic Church, and only those specifically authorized are allowed to perform the ritual. A lengthy investigation is conducted to determine if there are any grounds for an exorcism. Most investigations turn up naturalistic causes for the apparent demonic possession, and so the Church does not authorize the ritual. The Church requires documentation of miracles performed by the demon, documentable evidence of supernatural knowledge, etc. The ritual must be performed over and over, and usually requires a team of exorcists who may work months, or even years to drive the devil out. Often it kills the possessed individual, and often it injures or even kills the exorcists themselves. No one in their right mind wants to be part of an exorcism.

Like all exorcisms, this one was gruelling and almost killed the child. Because of the violent nature of the demon and the horrible, evil sounds coming out of the room, the exorcism was moved into Jesuit Hall from the Hospital. Witnesses remarked that the most horrifying noises were heard coming from the room where the boy was housed. A number of people witnessed a vision of the Archangel Michael in the sky at the final moment, and the bells at College Church began ringing of their own accord. The boy, having been freed of the devil, remembered nothing.

The room where the exorcism was held was on the top floor of Jesuit Hall, and the entire floor was supposedly closed after the ritual. It is said that an elderly priest became possessed at this time, and they were unable to drive the demon out so he was locked up by himself until he died. These stories may be urban legends, although I have heard them from some fairly credible sources. None of the Jesuits I know would confirm or deny them.

The passing of Fr. Halloran prompted Carol Iannone to write about the exorcism in National Review, and so I decided I would throw in my two cents worth. (I really wish this had appeared around Holloween.) The point to bear in mind about all of this is that the priests involved were sinners and were weak, but their faith made them fearless and with Christ they were victorious! As Carol points out, these men were true priests willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING to defend an innocent child. They stood firm against the gates of Hell literally, and they did not back down! The world definitely needs more like them!



Blogger Mattias A. Caro said...

Two thoughts:

a) I don't think that this exorcism is the only known and documented case of demonic possession in the US. My pastor was an advisor for demonic possessions and he knew of many cases. I simply think the majority cases aren't public knowledge. Not exactly something you want in a weekly newspaper column.

b) While demons certainly can possess whomever, whenever they wish, of the documented cases there is always some action or sin that can be keyed in as the source of a possession. In the case of this boy, just weeks before his symptoms appeared, he and his friends began using a Ougi Board. I used to think this was an "old wife's tale" but conducting some further research it seems pretty true.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Esther said...

Oh good lord on the Ouiji board being to blame. I was offended when someone I knew told someone else that they shouldn't play that with me because I hadn't been "saved" yet. As a Jew, that really pissed me off. ;)

GREAT story, Tim!!

8:17 PM  
Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

Good points, Mattias; my family had a Oiji board when we were kids-our dogs were terrified of the thing! They would snarl at it, and actually howled when we used it! Too many strange occurances surrounded the thing, so we threw it out.

Your pastor was an advisor for demonic possession?!?! Wow!

Thanks, Esther!

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: The boy from 1949 to whom this happened to.

Ronald Edwin Hunkeler 3807 40th Ave Cottage City ,Md.Son of Edwin and Odell Hunkeler.Exorcism took place at the home of his uncle Leonard Hunkeler in St. Louis,Mo.8435 Roanoake Drive in the Bel Nor section of St. Louis!He attended Bladensburg Junior High School in Maryland when this happened and he Graduated from Gonzaga High School in Washington D.C in 1954.His mother died in 1956.Read the article The Haunted boy of Cottage City...Just type in the title of the article for some mind blowing truth!!!!!!!!!!!!

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Possessions are real and no one knows that better than I.
I have had three Mean Relatives and a man I knew before he died in l985 sitting inside my body since the First Anniversary of his death and over the years I have tried to get people to believe my Story and I have tried to get priests to help me and I have tried to Publish a story to humiliate them thinking this might embarrass them
into leaving but nothing has worked.
The fact that I know these Spirits and they are not what we call Faceless Demons as some people think but the Spirits of three Mean Relatives and an obsessed man who say they will never leave my body unless a Priest performs an Exorcism or until I get someone to believe they are doing this to me.
They say they want to teach people this can happen and they want people to know that the spirits of their realtives and associates who have died can seek vengance if they so choose and they claim this is to further Paranormal Research.
I however am not a Volunteer I am a Hostage.
I have posted more on this Story on
and other places but so far no one much believes in these things.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Demonic possession is a rediculous and pathetic superstition from the middle ages which was used for centuries to explain mental illness.Possession by demons is about as real as monsters under the bed.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This entire story, let alone the books and movies based on it, are entirely bogus. The kid made it all up for attention and it got way out of hand. That's the simple truth.

3:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two fallacies in your story...

Jesuit Hall was not owned by Saint Louis University in the mid-1950s, it was still a privately owned hotel. When it was first acquired by SLU, it was originally used as a women's dormitory, not the primary residence of the Jesuits. At the time of the exorcism, the Jesuits resided in the upper floors of Dubourg Hall, the oldest building on campus, which today serves as the main administration building.

The boy was not originally brought to Desloge Hospital, he was brought to Alexian Brothers Hospital (today called St. Alexius Hospital) on the south side of St. Louis.

Just wanted to clear that up.

-SLU Alumnus

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you but i happen to know the excorcism was preformed at the little boys home on roanoke dr first then he was moved to Alexian brothers hospital which theyve changed the name of and stated they moved the building but in fact they did not, actaully they merely closed off that floor in the hospital and the house where the boy lived is said to be lived in by someone now. i happen to know a lot about the story, i know of all 4 of the prists the parents and boy and the aunt and uncle, it is also stated that the boy came here from cottage hills maryland for the excorcism because one of the first markings on his body was Louis carved in his stomach is mother took it as a sign to come here with his uncle, the house they were in belonged to the boys aunt and uncle. theres a lot about this situation that i know, simply because in my religion i have to know if this is fact or fiction and in this case i cant be quite clear. although it seems that it couldn't possibly have been fake at this point no one knows but Father Halloran the boy and the other people that we're closely involved.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:31 PM  
Anonymous erin said...

Um I cannot believe that they made a huge film about this (that is now a legend today) and there is no documentation where this exorcism was done? I've heard the hospital, I've heard an old dorm. Doesn't anyone know for certain? Geesh. Pretty frustrating!

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Growing up in St. Louis, I've heard this story for as long as I can remember. I've always believed it - after all, who are we to say that demonic possession isn't real?

I now work at St. Louis University and can tell you firsthand - if there is information that SLU doesn't want the public to know, then the public will never find out. Hence why all the details of the exorcism are skewed. It's hard to find exact documentation of what really happened, especially because no one (including the possessed man and the SLU priests) has or will ever talk freely about it.

While no one, including myself, knows all of the specifics and locations of this event, I can tell you this - I've been on the 4th floor of DuBourg Hall many, many times. The building itself is old and therefore slightly creepy. But the 4th floor? It gives me goosebumps every time I'm up there. Oh sure, it's been remodeled and there's a beautiful Grand Hall up there, along with many offices, etc. But it still gives me the creeps. :)

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello to all. I wanted to briefly respond to your blog, as I am a Pastor in California and have participated in over a hundred exorcisms in the last 30 years. I am not a Roman Catholic, but am a prescriptive "advisor" for many different denominations and a few psychotherapists in the city in which I minister. I have a degree doctoral degree in Demonology and diabology, and am called upon from time to time to advise those in the police department in my city who are investigating Occult crime scenes, and alleged phenomena.

I read the article The Haunted boy of Cottage City, by Mark Opsasnick when it appeared in Stange Magazine and found the portions of the article attempting to draw conclusions for the phenomena experienced by those involved in the case, from the boy, Ronald, his uclear family, others initially called in to give aid, and finally the exorcism team, including Fr Halloran to be myopic, cynical and charged with an anti-supernatural or praternatural if you like) bias or materialistic world view.

I especially distrusted Mark's references to an interview he had with Fr Halloran, which, in his article, came off sounding like Fr Halloran himself, didn't believe it was a case of demonic possession (a more accurate term would be demonization). As a Pastoral councelor who has an accumulation of experience and research in his portfolio, I can tell you that it is very difficult to openly discuss any authentic cases involving demonization of a greater or lesser degree with anyone because you have an obligation not only to keep alot of things confidential, but to also protect the dignity of the demonized person. When talking to a cynical or skeptical investigator one's reticence to talk openly about the case can be manipulated so that it looks like your unclear or unsure about the empirical phenomena that occurred during the exorcism. The interviewer will then conclude that he or she is right in their materialistic, rationalistic assumption that what one group (religious) would call demonization or praternatural, another group would call psychological, behavioral, and naturalistic.

I suspected this was the case with Opsasnick's contextualizing of his pre and post article interviews with Fr. Halloran. So, after months of trying to find someone who could help me contact Halloran, I finally found a relative who directed me to a priest who directed me to the place where Halloran was living (I can't remember if it was a rest home, or some other kind of dormitory type place, but it was one where older, retired priest go, I believe, I was able to contact the good priest and interview him via the phone. I was told beforehand that he was beginning to have problems with his memory, but can't remember if the word Alzheimer's or Dimentia were used. But in any case, during the first few minutes of the conversation I found him gruff or grumpy, almost irritated at my call. But when I explained I was a Christian Pastor who performed exorcisms, and that the reason I was calling was because of my suspicions that Opsasnick either took his remarks out of context, or misread Halloran's reticence to talk about the supernatural aspect's of the case with a non-believing skeptic, as being tantamount to agreeihg with Opsasnick's conclusions, he responded by saying I was dead on.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In fact, that is exactly what happened. When I asked him questions about the case, his memory worked fine, and he remembered more and more details as we talked. I asked him point blank, if he believed the case was one of "demonic possession." Again, as most Catholic priests are, he was initially reticent to say so. I then asked him if the phenomena reported in the diary of the exorcism and exagerated in the movie (writings being carved into the lad's body from the inside out, and the same appearing on the wall, different voices (at times more than one) and levitation total or partial, as well as telekinesis, and the speaking in different, unlearnt languages) were in fact true, he said with unshakeable conviction that indeed they were, and added the spontaneous smell of odors akin to rotten eggs (a common phenomenon in my cases as well)and what seemed to be endless evacuation of bodily fluids and spittum that could not have a materialistic answer to (Opsasnick, for instance, regards the spitting as a learned behavior in that the boy was always an accurate spitter).

I then asked Halloran again if he thought the case was in Opsasnick's understanding, something other than a case of praternatural phenomena caused by demonic possession, and he said "There is no way these things happened naturally. The boy was possessed." When I asked him a clarifying question: "Then you are convinced this was a case of demonic possession, he answered "You bet I am. Aren't you?" I answered that most of the things reported in his case I have witnessed time and again in many of my own (and then some).

So, what I found out was that Halloran had picked up on Opsasnick’s skepticism and didn’t
like where he was going with his article. So I was right: he was less than forthcoming in the interview by design and intent.In fact, wwhen someone tried to
give him Opsasnick’s article after it came out, he refused to have anything to do with it.
Again let me reiterate, Fr Halloran had absolutely no doubts whatsoever that it was a case of
“diabolical possession” and that the goings on during the weeks long exorcism were demonic and supernatural, and therefore, anyone who reads "The Haunted boy" article should keep these things in mind.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Cottage City, right around the corner from where the "haunted boy" lived. The supernatural events happened about 10 years before I lived there. No one EVER talked about it, or even seem to know it happened. Then, one of my Catechism teachers (at St James) responded to one of the boys complaining about Fr Hughes being a little "off". He told a few of us boys that he was one of the attendants at the original attempts at the exorcism at St James. His account was VERY similar to the book (when it came out), and he was certainly convinced. He said it took several grown men to try to hold the boy down. And poor Fr Hughes was never the same.
But the house...
If any of you readers are from the area, is this the house that had pet monkey's in the back during the 1960's, and/or had a Filipino family living there?

2:21 PM  
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12:26 AM  
Anonymous Mike Madonna said...

Read the story of a more recent look into things:

Not trying to sell anyone a book or video, so don't expect that I'm going to go along with all the malarkey passed as "fact".

7:36 PM  
Blogger Eric Bruno Borgman said...

Thanks for the interesting stories regarding the St. Louis exorcism. I certainly believe that it was a real case of demonic possesion. I once spoke to a former New York exorcist Father James J. LeBar and he aserted that he saw a woman levitate above the seat of a pew and that he could see under neath her. I'm convinced that the majority of paranormal events from ESP, ghosts to Ouija boards and tarot cards are caused by demons.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Gray Edenfield said...

This link is an excellent summary of the facts regarding the Hunkeler case. From the accounts of those who knew Ronald best as a child, he was a very troubled young man, desperate for attention, who found a way to get it from his zealous mother. Read the article and the facts speak for themselves.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:40 PM  

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