Not long after arriving on campus, students and faculty new to Saint Louis University begin hearing whispers about an "event" that took place on campus, years ago. Dates and details are sparse in these whispers, but the nervous excitement is palpable. Demons. Priests. Exorcism. Was it in DeBourg Hall? In College Church? Jesuit Hall? Did the boy survive? More than a mid-century theological firestorm, the events surrounding the 1949 St. Louis exorcism have become one of the most enduring media sensations of the last fifty years. Beginning with the publication of William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel, The Exorcist, the legend of the 1949 exorcism lives among us today, haunting lecture halls and quickening the pace of late night strolls. But what really happened? We won't ever know exactly what happened over those several months in the early spring of 1949. But there are other questions to ask. Moving beyond unanswerable questions about the sequence of events--the priests and others involved worked assiduously to protect the identity of the afflicted--and the "reasons" for a teenager's violent behavior, the legend of the exorcism offers up different, more fruitful, questions about religion in St. Louis. What does it tell us about the city's Catholic history? Does it intersect with histories of race, migration, and politics? What role have media representations played in shifting the meaning of exorcism from a theological battleground into a supercharged spectacle of horror? The following analyses begin the much longer process of charting the relationship between the 1949 exorcism and the broader story of religion in St. Louis. --RML
Exorcism is a religious practice that usually involves expelling a demon or other spiritual entities from a person or place that is believed to be possessed. Exorcisms are thought by most people to be an exclusively Christian practice. However, examples of exorcisms or similar rituals are seen in many different religions. In the Catholic Church, a formal exorcism can only be performed by an ordained priest during a baptism or with the approval of a bishop. The priests are instructed to determine that the affliction of the possessed is, in fact, a demonic possession and not a result of any existing physical or mental illness. When performing the exorcism, the priest recites prayers according to a set of guidelines outlined in the book known as the Rituale Romanum. The priests evict the demon by invoking the name of God and other members of the Church. It was not uncommon for a case of possession to require several weekly exorcisms over a period of years to fully evict a demon. Exorcisms were a common practice in the Catholic Church until the the turn of the 18th century when accounts of requested and performed exorcisms dropped dramatically. There was a slight rise in requested and performed exorcisms in the late 20th century. This is generally thought to be a result of their extensive media coverage after the release of the 1973 film, The Exorcist.
When Saint Louis University students were asked to explain what they think happened during the 1949 Saint Louis exorcism, the most common response was that a boy was possessed and his exorcism took place in DuBourg Hall at the university. Others were unsure if it was a girl or a boy or where it happened exactly, but they were sure it took place at the university. Some did not know much about it all; they thought it was only a rumor. The exorcism that occurred at Saint Louis University, as well as the movie based on it, brought about a new perspective and image for religion at SLU as well as in Saint Louis and Missouri as a whole.
In January of 1949, a strange occurrence happened in the presence of a thirteen-year-old boy in Maryland. These mainly included the movement of inanimate objects. He was initially exorcised by a priest at Georgetown University Hospital but it proved unsuccessful. During the exorcism, eyewitnesses say that they heard the boy speaking latin in a guttural voice. After being strapped down to his bed the boy somehow managed to break free and slash the priest; an injury that required him to get 100 stitches. The family brought the boy to St. Louis after finding “Louis” inscribed in his chest. The exorcism started in the home of relatives, but was also performed at Saint Louis University and Alexian Brothers Hospital. After two months, the Jesuit priests affiliated with SLU pronounced the young boy free of evil spirits and the exorcism came to a close. The stories circulating around the events that occurred in St. Louis reveal what people believe about Christianity in the area. It has led to discussion about Jesuits and led to wild assumptions about exorcism. We don’t really know what happened and there are a lot of rumors about this exorcism. True or false, these rumors have shaped people’s perspectives of St. Louis and it’s Christian ties.
Since 1949, the events that unfolded in Maryland and St. Louis have been disputed and reliable scholarship on the event is thin. In his book, The Devil Came to St. Louis, the commercial ghost hunter Troy Taylor tries to uncover the "true story" of the 1949 exorcism in a sensational account. In 1993 Thomas B. Allen wrote a book entitled Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism. In it, Allen claims that the possessed boy was "deeply disturbed," and there was nothing supernatural about him. Most of the recent investigation of the exorcism was done by an author from Washington D.C. named Mark Opasnick. Opasnick reported that one of the priests present at the exorcism, Father Walter H. Halloran, never heard the boy’s voice change, and thought he only mimicked Latin he heard from pastors, rather than spontaneously learning Latin. Furthermore, Allen and Opasnick found that much of the information used to compose the generally accepted story is not documented and was never fact checked. Many other skeptics have brought forth evidence refuting almost every other part of the generally agreed upon story. In 2013, SLU held a panel discussion on the exorcism featuring Allen, Father John Padberg, S.J., and SLU University Archivist John Waide.
John Waide has worked in Pius XII Memorial Library for over forty years and knows SLU history forwards and backwards. Waide attended SLU for his undergraduate degree before the book “The Exorcist” came out and came back to SLU to work in Pius after completing his masters degree in history. When Waide returned to SLU the fictional book about the St. Louis exorcism was published and he began receiving many questions on the subject. Waide thought he might as well become educated on the topic and soon after became fascinated by the mystery behind the exorcism and is now well known for his knowledge on the exorcism.
The first subject Waide wanted tackle when we interviewed him was that the media has ramped up the exorcism a lot over the years. One example of this that Waide gave us is the show Destination America did on the house where Ronald Hunkeler, the original name of the 13 year old boy involved in the St. Louis exorcism, stayed at while he was in St. Louis. Although the exorcism took place in Alexian Brothers Hospital, the people on the show portrayed it differently.
A photograph of the house (above) is pictured on Destination America’s website with the title, “The suburban home in St. Louis where the attempted exorcism of Ronald Doe took place.” The picture was darkened and contrasted in order to make the house look ominous and perhaps eerie. When the house is seen in unmanipulated lighting (below), it looks like an ordinary home.
In addition, the title of the picture on Destination America was inaccurate because no part of the exorcism actually took place in the home. “Ronald Doe,” A.K.A Ronald Hunkeler, only slept in this room while he was in St. Louis.
The 1949 exorcism is certainly among the most notorious pieces of history regarding religion, and especially Christianity, in St. Louis. Nationwide, people are familiar with the story of 12 year old Regan from the 1973 movie The Exorcist and associate Saint Louis University with the healing of a possessed child. It is important because both William Peter Blatty's 1971 book and the movie adaptation are based off the real events that brought many to focus on St. Louis as a city with rich and fascinating religious background.
Content researched and written by Jesus Avalos, Paige Biggus, Maggie Eames, Lauren Fox, Scott Harrold, Talbot Palmer, Hannah Scheckel, Allison Underwood, and Ellie Usher.
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