The Story That Inspired the 1973 Movie, The Exorcist

The Story That Inspired the 1973 Movie, The Exorcist

We have all either heard of or seen the popular horror movie, “The Exorcist”. Just to start this article off, I am going to give a summary of the movie. This summary comes from, “Film Synopsis” and is extremely accurate. Without further ado, here is the summary of the beloved 1973 horror movie, “The Exorcist”. 

When young Regan starts acting odd — levitating, speaking in tongues — her worried mother seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. A local priest, however, thinks the girl may be seized by the devil. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert to help with the difficult job.

Already this movie seems interesting, and may be something a few people would want to watch, but because it’s a horror movie, they won’t. Now that you know the basis of the movie, you may be thinking, “How did this movie come to be?” Well my dear friend, what if I told you that this movie was actually loosely inspired by real events? 

I know, crazy, right?

Let’s begin. The documented story that truly inspired “The Exorcist” took place in Bel-Nor, St. Louis, Missouri with an all German-American family. In this city sits a beautiful two-story, “Colonial-style house on Roanoke Drive.”The house itself was an average family home. The brick exterior, white shutters framing the windows, and large trees that hugged the surrounding area on the grass. This house once sheltered a young boy of the name “Roland Doe” otherwise known as, “Robbie Mannheim or Ronald Hunkeler”. 

However, the first part of this story begins in Washington D.C. The 13 year old boy, who was believed to be named, “Ronald Hunkeler” was heartbroken over the loss of his beloved Aunt Harriet. Ronald’s aunt was a woman of spirit. Literally. She was a spiritualist who taught the young boy many things—even how to use an ouija board. Shortly after Harriet’s death in early January of 1949, Hunkeler started to experience different and strange things. He noticed scratching sounds coming from the floors and walls of his bedroom, water that leaked without explanation from the pipes and walls. What most troubled Ronald was how his mattress would suddenly move, almost like someone was shaking it from beneath. 

Distraught, Hunkeler’s family tried to get help from everyone of expertise they knew. “The family consulted doctors, psychiatrists, and their local Lutheran minister, but they were no help,” States ATI. The minister recommended the family with the help of the Jesuits. Father E. Albert Hughes, a local Catholic priest who sought out the permission of his superiors to perform an exorcism on the boy. With his request granted, the exorcism began.

Before performing the exorcism, Hughes strapped the boy’s arm, legs, and body down on the mattress then, he began reciting his recitations. He had to stop when Ronald broke off a piece of the mattress springs and swiped at Hughes shoulder, forcing the exorcism to be left unfinished.

A few days later, scratches appeared on Ronald. One of them spelled out, “LOUIS,” indicating that the family needed to go to St. Louis where their family was in order to save Ronald. A cousin of the family was attending St. Louis University at the time of Ronald’s possession. She had the Hunkelers in touch with Father Walter H. Halloran and Rev. William Bowdern. After talking with the university’s president, these two Jesuits agreed to perform an exorcism on Ronald with the definite help of many assistants.

The exorcists came together on Roanoke Drive in early March of 1949. There, the priests witnessed firsthand the scratching on the boy’s body and the vicious shaking of the mattress that had happened a few months prior in Maryland when the first exorcism failed. Although these happenings continued, Bowdern and Halloran, according to their reports, began to notice a strange pattern in Ronald’s actions. During the day he was calm and normal. However come nightfall, he would emit behaviors so unusual like screaming and uncontrollable outbursts. He would also enter trance-like states and make noises in a throaty and husky voice. They also noted that objects were reported being thrown; he would react absurdly and violently whenever a sacred object was brought by one of the Jesuits.

These details were all included in the film, “The Exorcist”. However, there were some that were left out.

During one point in this agonizing weeks-long ordeal, Bowdern reportedly, “Saw an “X” appear in scratches on Ronald’s chest”, which the priest believed was the Roman numeral 10, which was later believed to be signifying Ronald was possessed by 10 demons.

On another night, pitchfork-shaped red lines moved down from the boy’s thigh and towards his ankle. These horrible things happened every night for more than a month. Bowdern and Halloran never gave up. They continued to try and expel the demons night after night. Finally, the possession reached a new and dangerous level. Ronald began urinating all over his bed and screamed and cursed at the priests. The family had enough and took him to Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis for more treatment that was far more serious.

On April 18, a “miracle” took place in Ronald’s room at the hospital. It was the Monday after Easter, and Ronald woke with seizures. He yelled at the priests, saying that “Satan would always be with him”. The priests laid holy relics, crucifixes, medals, and rosaries on Ronald. 

Then, at 10 p.m that evening, the priests called on St. Michael to remove Satan from Ronald’s body. They yelled at the devil, telling him that St. Michael would fight him for Hukeler’s soul. Seven minutes later, Ronald came out of his trance-like state and muttered, “He’s gone.” He recalled seeing visions of St. Michael vanquishing Satan on the battlefield. According to Bowdern and Halloran, the strangeness and Ronald’s odd behavior ceased after that. Despite telling the true story of “The Exorcist”, Ronald went on to live a completely normal life. Sources, which have also referred to him as “Robbie Mannheim”, say that he had found a wife and started a beautiful family. 

He even named his son Michael in honor of the angel he believed saved his life.

Sadly, William Bowdern died in 1983, after serving the Catholic Church for many years. Walter Halloran survived until 2005 when his battle with cancer was lost. He was the last living member of the team who performed the exorcism on Roland Doe.

Following the St. Louis exorcism, the room where Ronald was exorcized, in the Alexian Brother hospital, was boarded up and sealed off from the public. The entire house that belonged to Ronald was left vacant and turned into a lot when the family left in the 1960’s, and the hospital that provided a space for the exorcism was torn down. The entire facility. 

As for the house on Roanoke Drive, it was sold to a family in 2005 for $165,000. The new owners may have accepted the property’s quite unique reputation. They even claim Satan himself may have once before lived in the upstairs bedroom.