Between the Devil and the Holy See

“I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as…animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”—Lankester Merrin


On the day after Christmas of 1973, what is widely regarded to be the scariest movie of all time was released in the U.S. The buzz it immediately created had people standing in lines for hours to see it in some places. Theaters brought in paramedics and ambulances to treat those who fainted or were overcome with emotion. People reported being unable to sleep for weeks due to the fear and horrific nightmares that this film inspired.

Th Exorcist movie posterHonestly, I think that a lot of this was the result of suggestible people buying into the hype and allowing themselves to be scared silly to the point of stupidity. I remember all of the furor created by this film from when I was a little kid, and even then I didn’t understand how a movie could so unravel so many people. I didn’t see it myself until I was in high school. I watched it with a group of maybe seven or eight friends. Some of them probably had nightmares, but none of us were overcome by anything. I just thought it was a really good horror movie, and those are few and far between, at least for those of us who don’t like slasher flicks or gore for the sake of gore.

What most people didn’t know then and still don’t know now is that The Exorcist was based on a true story. As is almost always the case with “based on a true story” horror films, to say that it is only loosely based on actual events is a gigantic understatement of an understatement. Nobody turned their head backwards or projectile vomited green slime on anyone.

Robbie Mannheim (aka Roland Doe) was a 13-year-old boy who lived with his parents in Cottage City, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC. In 1949, his Aunt Harriet got him interested in the ouija board during a visit. The two of them would use it together, although we have no way of knowing what sorts of results they obtained.* Robbie reportedly continued to use the board on his own after his aunt left, and the first sign of something unusual began shortly thereafter. The family started to hear the sound of water dripping from somewhere in the house at night, even though no source for it could be found.

Just a few weeks later, on January 26, 1949, Aunt Harriet died suddenly. Soon after this, the Mannheim home was beset with poltergeist-like activity. Furniture began moving around on its own and objects in the home would hover in the air or fly across the room. It was exactly one month after Harriet’s death on February 26 that strange welts or scratches (sources vary on the details) started to appear on Robbie’s body. The family seems to have believed that all of this was connected to Aunt Harriet and thought that she was trying to communicate with them from beyond the grave. They tried to contact her via Robbie’s ouija board, but apparently she was unavailable for comment. Having struck out with the board, they decided to consult their Lutheran minister, Luther Schulze. By then, they had noticed that all of these unusual occurrences seemed to be somehow connected to Robbie, and they had just about convinced themselves that their son had become the target of an atack by the forces of evil.

After spending some time with the boy and witnessing some of the paranormal activity that occurred around him, Pastor Schulze decided that this was out of his league and recommended that they consult a Catholic priest. They were supposed to be the experts at this sort of thing, even though your run-of-the-mill priest probably knows about as much about demonic possession and performing an exorcism as the average person on the street.

Although most sources just skim over exactly how the next phase of our story came about, it seems that Robbie was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital, a Catholic run facility, where a Father Edward Hughes attempted an exorcism. By some accounts, the boy managed to slip one of his hands out of its restraint, tore a spring from the bed and used it to badly injure Father Hughes on the arm during the ritual, bringing it to a screeching halt. Other sources say only that the exorcism failed.

Either way, what is known for certain is that the family abruptly relocated, at least temporarily, to St. Louis. Since they stayed with a relative there who was Catholic, the most reasonable explanation for this sudden move is the one that claims that they did it because this cousin knew a certain priest there who she believed would know more about this sort of thing than most.† If this was the case, she was wrong. Father Raymond Bishop (possibly one of the best names ever for a priest) didn’t know any more about demons and exorcisms than any other priest. That being the case, he contacted his colleague, Father William Bowdern, in the hope that he could help to shed some light on the situation. It turned out that he couldn’t. Neither of them knew anything more about demons or exorcisms than Father Hughes, but they ultimately decided to take a shot at it anyway.

Upon their initial visit to examine Robbie, they supposedly witnessed his bed shaking and objects flying around the room. Robbie spoke to them in a harsh, gravelly voice. He also reacted with hostility toward holy objects, prayers and religious recitations. This was enough to convince them that the boy was possessed, and after obtaining permission from their bishop, they began their attempt to cast the Devil out of him at the house where he was staying on March 16, 1949. In addition to themselves, they brought in Fathers William Van Roo and Walter Halloran, who was the youngest of the bunch by far and whose main duty was to hold Robbie down during the proceedings.

Saint Vincent's HospitalAfter a week without success, they moved Robbie to St. Vincent’s Hospital, a Catholic mental hospital at the time and currently the Castle Park Apartments, where I’m guessing rent is relatively cheap, unless a lot of people want to live in former mental institutions where a famous case of demonic possession occurred. Over the next four weeks, the ritual of exorcism was performed on an almost nightly basis. By day, Robbie seems to have been fine. It was at night during the exorcisms that he would slip into trance-like seizures and thrash about wildly while cursing at the priests. He also sometimes spoke Latin, although Father Halloran would later say that the Latin the boy spoke seemed to be more of what he had picked up from them than any sudden, supernatural ability to speak a previously unknown language.

Robbie’s fits were so violent that his strength was said to be superhuman. It sometimes took three men to hold him down, which seems very impressive on the surface, but for those of us who have had to restrain a violent and/or hysterical person, this really doesn’t sound like that big of a deal at all. Trying to subdue someone who is losing their mind and couldn’t care less whether or not they hurt you while you’re doing everything in your power to try to restrain them without hurting them is a tricky business. It’s not like a fight where two people are trying to hurt each other. It’s even more difficult if they also have a penchant for hurting themselves. In that case, you’ve got three things to worry about, not even counting trying not to get hurt yourself. Father Halloran suffered a broken nose during one of these fits, but so did a guy I used to work with. No one there thought that the kid who did that to him was possessed. Lucky for us, the kid who did think that he was possessed wasn’t violent at all, but I digress.

During the thirty or so times that the ritual of exorcism was performed, the bed was said to shake violently while Robbie cursed and spat at the priests. Most of the insults are said to have been rather childish and pornographic, usually having to do with their genitalia and masturbation. Words were also reported to have appeared scratched into his body, including “hell” and “evil.” By some accounts, “hello” appeared on Robbie’s chest during Bowdern’s first attempt to cast out the demon. Toward the end, the word “exit” appeared carved vertically down his chest. Shortly after this, the demon (claiming to be the actual Devil) spoke through Robbie and told them that “He has to say but one word, but he’ll never say it.” This was taken to mean that if Robbie said this word, the demon would leave. According to Father Halloran, the priests later decided that the word was “Lord,” but he didn’t elaborate on how they came to that conclusion. Apparently, he never did say it, but it turned out not to matter, because a bigger fish was about to enter the fray.

On April 19, the final day of the ordeal, Robbie said that he saw a vision of the Archangel Michael, who spoke to the Devil through him, saying “Satan! I am Saint Michael! I command you to leave this body now!” In his vision, Robbie claimed that he saw the angel Michael fighting a demon at the mouth of a fiery cave. Michael then threw the demon into the cave, and Robbie was instantly cured, which was awfully convenient. A final note in Bowdern’s journal says that a few minutes later, there was a loud bang that was heard by people hundreds of feet away, but there were no concussive side effects, like windows rattling. He took this as a sign that the demon had departed. According to Father Halloran, Robbie went on to lead a normal life with a wife and kids and grandchildren.

The Roman RitualsSo was Robbie really possessed? I’ve said before that I’ve never found a credible, verifiable, convincing case of demonic possession, and this is definitely not one. No matter how true any or all of these claims of paranormal phenomena are, none of them are outside of the range of typical poltergeist activity, with the exception of Robbie claiming to be possessed. Even words scrawled in people’s skin have been reported in multiple cases. In fact, the only difference between most reported cases of demonic possession and some particularly nasty poltergeist disturbances is one of perspective. Whatever the root cause, poltergeist activity is almost always centered around one person. If that person is told or believes that they are under attack by the Devil, then they call it possession. Otherwise, it’s thought to be some sort of spirit related or psychic phenomenon.

Most skeptics think that the whole episode was just one of an emotionally disturbed child faking a rather bizarre affliction to get attention. They also say that there were no alleged paranormal feats that couldn’t be pulled off relatively easily by such a boy. As usual, they’re full of crap. I don’t know how many of the various things reported in the numerous accounts are accurate, but I’m pretty sure that making things levitate and fly around the room isn’t something that most boys his age could manage. I’m more inclined to believe that this was a poltergeist case with one rather unusual component: a willing human accomplice.

Almost all cases of poltergeists center around a teenager. Although it’s usually a girl, it sometimes happens to boys. These disturbances also frequently follow a traumatic event, or at least a very unpleasant situation. We’re two for two in that regard, as Robbie was said to have been very close to his aunt and was very upset when she died. We should also factor in the family’s experimentation with the ouija board. I’ve never personally had any unpleasant results in my limited experience with them, but I know people who have. Taken all together, this sounds to me like a pretty solid argument for the sudden appearance of a mischievous spirit.

So what about Robbie’s claim that he was possessed? Why would he do that? It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure (see footnote below), but we do have some definite clues that he was putting everyone on, and perhaps even himself a little. First, there’s the Latin that even Father Halloran said he thinks was just Robbie mimicking them. A real demon should be able to speak fluent Latin, or so one would think. There is also the matter of the rather juvenile insults that Robbie hurled at the priests. They were supposedly the words of the demon, but they sound suspiciously like the sorts of obscenities that one would expect from a boy in his early teens playing pretend. As far as the messages scratched into his body are concerned, I have no way of knowing whether they appeared spontaneously or if Robbie made them in advance when no one was looking, although I suspect the latter. In either case, they’re all rather banal. “Hello” seems almost friendly, or at least polite, and “evil,” “hell,” and “exit” are all pretty generic. They don’t convey any sort of information at all. William Peter Blatty passed on all of these and had “help me” appear on Regan in The Exorcist, which is much more direct and chilling. One might think that such messages in a real case of demonic possession would be equally disturbing.

One major problem in trying to piece together the facts of this story is that it happened decades before it got any real interest from investigators. Even the book considered by many to be the most authoritative look at the case wasn’t published until 1993, a full 44 years after the fact. While both Fathers Bowdern and Bishop were still alive at the time of the release of the movie based on their exorcism, there’s no evidence that I can find that they ever spoke to anyone about it, at least not on the record. The same goes for the Mannheim family. Almost everything that we know comes from two sources: Father Bowdern’s journal of the events and Father Halloran’s personal accounts.

I’ve never been able to find a copy of Bowdern’s journal (which makes me a little suspicious about its actual existence), but I have seen and read several interviews with Father Halloran. His noncommittal answers to some questions have always made him seem to me like a man stuck in a very precarious situation (hence the title of this article). On the one hand, if he had admitted that he didn’t believe that this boy was possessed, he would have been admitting that he thought the Catholic Church had sanctioned and performed a very lengthy exorcism on a mentally ill and/or emotionally unstable teenager. On the other, if he had said that he did believe that the boy was possessed when he really didn’t, he would not only have been lying about this one particular case; he would also have been tacitly endorsing a belief in something that he may not have thought was real. That’s a serious offense for a man who is supposed to be a servant of the Lord. Obviously I didn’t know the man, but he always struck me as someone who cared about things like honesty and Father Halloranintegrity, as well as loyalty. Sometimes it’s not easy to balance those qualities.

One final note: Halloran volunteered for chaplain duty in the army in 1966, and he spent two years in Vietnam from ’69 to ’71. He later said that he saw more evil there than he ever did during Robbie Mannheim’s exorcism. Make of that what you will. What I make of it is that humans are capable of being far more evil than any demon, real or imagined.


*People who later managed to track Robbie down with the intention of asking him about his ordeal either got hung up on or had the door slammed in their face, so his version of the story remains a mystery. I haven’t even been able to find out if he’s still alive.

†According to a couple of sources, “Saint Louis” was spelled out in welts on Robbie’s chest during the exorcism attempt by Father Hughes. His Aunt Harriet died in St. Louis, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that this cousin was her daughter, but I haven’t found any sources that state this definitively.

and all the devils are here




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