William Peter Blatty’s novel THE EXORCIST (1971), later adapted into a film by William Friedkin in 1973, sparked an intense curiosity in the world of demonic possession. Exorcisms were rarely practiced before the novel, and film brought the practice to the main stage. So then what was the inciting incident that inspired Blatty to delve into the world of possession? To find out we have to go back to the late 1940s, and the first exorcism ever performed in the United States.
Ronnie Doe aka Ronald Hunkeler, was born in 1935 to a Lutheran mother and Catholic father in Cottage City, Maryland. At the age of fourteen, Ronald was introduced to the Ouija Board by his Aunt Tillie. Although a direct correlation between Ronald’s possession and the Ouija Board is never made, it was believed that the ghost of Aunt Tillie was one of the first spirits to visit Ronald. It wasn’t long before this friendly spirit turned sinister. The family first noticed angry voices and sound of furniture moving across the room. Not long afterwards they began seeing claw marks on Ronald’s body. That year, the family traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, believing that getting away from their home might end their troubles.
While in St. Louis and noticing no change in Ronald’s behavior, the family enlisted the help of Father Bishop, a Roman Catholic Priest teaching at St. Louis University. According to his diary, when Father Bishop entered the home he found Ronald lying on his bed perfectly still as the bed shook under him. The bed ceased moving once Father Bishop sprayed holy water on the boy. However, Ronald quickly began experiencing sharp pains in his stomach. His mother pulled back the covers to reveal a series of scratches all over his mid-section.
Two days later, Father Bishop returned with Father Bowdern from St. Francis Xavier College Church. Not long after entering the room and finding Ronald asleep, a bottle of holy water was thrown across the room by an unseen force. Five minutes later, a book case moved across the room. A few days later, St. Louis Archbishop Joseph Ritter gave the permission to carry out an exorcism on Ronald. During the course of the next several days, the priest’s prayers were met with violent actions and profanities all emanating from the demonic presence they believed infected the boy. After a week of what must have been an incredibly stressful experience for Ronald, the family and priests agreed to take him to the psychiatric ward at Alexian Brothers Hospital. Once there, the rites of exorcism continued. Then on Monday April 18th, the day after Easter, the evil spirit made one last violent attempt at remaining inside Ronald before finally being expelled forever.
Twenty-four years after Ronald’s ordeal, William Peter Blatty penned his novel THE EXORCIST. Although heavily influenced by the actual events of Ronald Hunkeler, Blatty did make a few changes to divert attention away from Ronald, changing the subject of the exorcism to a twelve-year-old girl and setting it in the Washington DC neighborhood of Georgetown. Whether you believe Ronald was possessed or just a disturbed young boy, THE EXORCIST and the events that inspired the book and the film have impacted our society immensely. The film created an entire sub-genre of religious horror that is still popular today. As for the number of exorcisms performed just in the US, since the release of the film and the book, some say that number has gone from 10 to 15 a year to 10 to 15 a week. However, this number is based off of reports from so-called “professional exorcists” and some reportedly unscrupulous con-artists touting mental illness as demonic possession.