Based on a True Story: the Exorcist

Posted on 08/14/2010
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There has yet to be a more popular and well-known horror movie as 1973’s The Exorcist. Movie patrons and critics alike praise the film and it is still considered to be one of the scariest movies ever made. The film and the book by the same name that the movie is based on appeal to a very primitive fear, a fear that has been exploited since the time of the poets Dante and Homer, the fear of death. More particularly, the fear of dying and going to hell. The Exorcists is based on a William Peter Blatty fiction novel, but the novel got its inspirations from a source that is based in reality, the exorcism of Robbie Mannheim.


Robbie Mannheim is a pseudonym for a real child of 14-years-old who lived with his family in Maryland. He was supposedly possessed by a demon in the late 1940s. Historian Tohmas B. Allen who has written on the subject of Mannheim’s exorcism many times coined the name. The use of a pseudonym is necessary because the witnesses of the possession closely guard the boy’s real identity. It is said that Mannheim has no memory of his supposed demonic possession and those close to him would like to keep it that way. The story is only known through other eyewitnesses. There have been over 40 people to be confirmed as witnesses to the possession.

In the movie The Exorcist, the activity starts with what many would consider common paranormal activity, such as bumps in the night. The Mannheim family experienced similar minor incidents. It started with the sound of dripping water that had no source. Then it moved to scratching sounds and footsteps that the family chalked up to mice. Robbie’s father went as far to tear out sections of the wall and floorboard hunting for rodents but found none. This went on for quite sometime with no further increase in activity.


In the movie Regan is a lonely girl that feels estranged by her divorcing parents. Similarly, Robbie Mannheim was an only child. He grew very close to the adults around him particularly his Aunt Harriet who was a Christian Spiritualist. She taught Robbie how to use an Ouija board. Robbie was said to look forward to visits from his aunt who was the lonely boy’s best friend. Tragically Robbie’s friend was torn from him, when Aunt Harriet died. Robbie turned to the Ouija board to try and contact his lost loved one. Many spiritualists say that by tampering with the board that he opened himself up to the all ready present demon.


The paranormal activity in the Mannheim home began to escalate. Poltergiest activity seemed to follow Robbie around. Furniture in the home began sliding across the floor. Glasses would fly out of cabinets and bust against the walls. One particular incident saw Robbie at school. His desk suddenly slid across the floor and began shaking violently and banging against nearby students desk. Robbie began exhibiting behavior that was uncharacteristic. He began screaming obscenities in a voice that was not his own. He also became physically violent towards his parents. Robbie’s parents turned to science for an answer, but doctors and psychologists could offer no explanation for Robbie’s behavior. His family soon turned to the church for help.

Rev. Luther Miles Schulze stayed the night in the Mannheim home to try and observe some of the activity for himself. He claims to have seen the bed shaking on its own accord while the boy soundly slept. He heard banging and scratching on the walls of Robbie’s room as well. He also claims that furniture and blankets moved all over the room as if an unseen force was pushing them. Rev. Schulze concluded that there was an evil in the boy and he performed what would be the first of many exorcisms. Schulze performed a Lutheran Rite exorcism. This exorcism was unsuccessful in exorcising Robbie’s demon. He then underwent and Anglican exorcism, which was also uneventful.

The family was then referred to Rev. Edward Hughes, a Roman Catholic priest. Hughes observed the boys violent and vulgar behavior and concluded that an exorcism was necessary. The exorcism took place at the Georgetown University Hospital in Maryland. Hughes conducted the ceremony himself, but the rite was halted when Robbie inflicted a huge gash on Hughes that required medical attention.

The family returned home hoping that things may calm down after this exorcism, but the possession turned even more violent. One night while the family slept Robbie began screaming and cursing. Robbie’s parents rushed by his side and they discovered that “St. Louis” had been carved into Robbie’s chest. St. Louis was the city in which his Aunt Harriet had died. The family immediately planned a trip to the city.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Robbie’s cousin referred the family to Rev. Raymond J. Bishop, SJ who was a professor at the University of St. Louis. Rev. Bishop then contacted Rev. William S. Bowdern and the two of them together began observing Robbie. They noticed that Robbie despised anything that had a religious connotation. He would become violent when presented with crosses or holy water for example. He would often speak in a demonic voice in languages he couldn’t have possibly known. Given the severity of the situation Rev. Bowdern got the permission of the archbishop to perform another exorcism on the boy. This exorcism was to take place on the fifth floor of the Alexian Brothers Hospital.


Rev. Walter Halloran and Rev. William Van Roo were to assist Bowdern in the exorcism of Robbie. During the exorcism Robbie became especially violent. He spit in the faces of the religious leaders and would shout obscenities at them. A vial of holy water was sent flying across the room and crashed into a wall. Words like “hell” and “evil” started appearing on Robbie’ chest, etched into his flesh. Rev. Halloran’s nose was also broke during the rite. The ritual was performed 30 times before Robbie uttered the words Christus, Domini" which in English means "Christ, Lord." There was then a loud thunder sound after which Robbie reportedly declared, “it is over.”


Many aspects of this story are disputed among researchers. For example, there is no documentation that shows Father Hughes performed an exorcism on William at Georgetown University Hospital and no medical record that shows Father Hughes had to go to the hospital because of an injury. Also, Rev. Halloran who was present during the last exorcisms says that the supernatural occurrences have been greatly exaggerated by his fellow exorcists. He says that the change in the boy’s voice was not as drastic as let on by many other witnesses. He says that it was possible for the boy to produce the voice on his own. He also says that it was possible that the bloody writing on the boy’s body could have been self-inflicted, as they did not check the child’s fingernails for blood.

This case has been studied medically as well as psychological. Many alternative explanations have been put forth such as that boy may have been suffering from a psychological disorder such as multiple personality disorder, automatism, Tourette's syndrome, or schizophrenia, but this case does not quite match up with the usual symptoms of any of these disorders. For example, it usually takes years of therapy and medication to suppress these disorders and yet Robbie was fully cured after an exorcism. It has also been suggested that his Aunt Harriet perhaps sexually abused Robbie and he began behaving in this manner after her death due to being confused by the relationship they had shared. This theory is simply based on conjecture, though, and has no evidence to support it.

Another example of skeptisim when approaching this subject comes from author Mark Opsasnick. In an article for Strange magaizine entitled “The Haunted Boy of Cottage City: The Cold Hard Facts Behind the Story That Inspired The Exorcist.” Opsasnick wrote:

“The facts show that he [Robbie] was a spoiled and disturbed only child with a very overprotective mother and a non-responsive father. To me his behavior was indicative of an outcast youth who desperately wanted out of Bladensburg Junior High School at any cost. He wanted attention and he wanted to leave the area and go to St. Louis. Throwing tantrums was the answer. He began to play his concocted game. For his efforts he got a collection of priests (who had no previous exorcism experience) who doted over him as he lay strapped to a bed. His response was that of any normal child—he reacted with rage, he wanted out. Without delving into the dynamics of psychosomatic illness, there is no question there was something wrong with Rob Doe prior to January 1949, something that modern-era psychiatry might have best addressed. Rob Doe was not just another normal teenage boy.”

Whether the cause of Robbie’s evil possession was psychology or paranormal is debated between the spiritual and the skeptical to this day. Regardless of the answer, the true story behind the film The Exorcist is just as controversial as its movie counterpart. The exact cause of “Robbie’s” disorder will be debated for the foreseeable future. In other words, we all have to individually look at the evidence and facts presented by the eyewitnesses and determine for ourselves if this was a psychological disorder or a possession by an evil spirit.

Author: Jonathan Kaulay Copyrighted © One page article

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