The Exorcist: The True Story

Wednesday 16th December 9.00pm

This documentary explores the real-life incident that inspired the 1973 film ‘The Exorcist’. In 1949, Catholic priests attempted to exorcise a 13-yearold boy who was seemingly possessed by demons. The event inspired William Peter Blatty to write his bestselling novel, but modern-day scientists now pour doubt on the veracity of the tale.

In 1949, a 13-year-old boy in Cottage City, Maryland was apparently possessed by demons. The boy, who has never spoken about his ordeal and has never been identified, demonstrated extreme behaviour shortly after the death of his beloved aunt. The family experienced strange noises around the house and the boy’s bed began to shake violently. After bizarre markings appeared on his skin, the parents turned to the local hospital for help. When this proved fruitless, they called upon local priest Father Albert Hughes.

The late Father Hughes’s colleague, Father Frank Bober, recalls the priest’s first meeting with the boy. “He noticed a very dark stare – almost as if there was nothing behind the eyes,” he says. When Hughes asked the boy his name, he replied, “I am legions” – indicating that numerous spirits had taken up residence inside his body. Hughes attempted the then little-known practice of exorcism to dispel the demons – to no avail.

The family sought treatment in St Louis, where a priest named Father William Bowdern decided to embark upon nightly exorcisms. “Father Bowdern doesn’t want to do it. He doesn’t feel he has the training, but he feels obliged to help the kid,” explains author Tom Allen. The exorcism lasted six weeks, during which time the child swore, struggled and displayed fits of seemingly superhuman strength. Then, abruptly, his symptoms ended. The boy and his family returned to a life of relative obscurity.

Decades later, author William Peter Blatty became fascinated by the tale. After reading Bowdern’s diary, he received a letter from the priest. At the end of the letter, the priest asserted his belief in the truth of what he had seen. “Had it not been for that last sentence and the fact that he had kept a detailed diary, I would not have written the novel,” says Blatty. The resulting book and film reignited interest in the centuries-old practice of exorcism.

However, scientists now believe they can explain the boy’s symptoms without resort to the supernatural. Neuroscientist Professor Michael Persinger insists that the brain holds the key. “When it comes to religious experience, the brain generates all behaviours, no matter how mystifying they may be,” he says. Persinger believes the abrupt loss of the boy’s aunt at a vulnerable stage in his brain’s development may have prompted his bizarre behaviour.

In Persinger’s view, the nightly “harassment” of the exorcism created a frenzied state that led to the seizures. “The treatment itself causes the phenomenon,” he explains. Experiments have shown that disrupted brainwaves can cause subjects to detect a “Godly presence”, which sometimes manifests itself as a malevolent force.

Despite these theories, 40 per cent of American adults – including William Peter Blatty – say they believe in demonic possession. The Catholic church now offers exorcism training to its priests. Father Thomas Euteneuer is an officially sanctioned exorcist. “I just love to see people become free of their evil through the power of the church,” he says. This film includes remarkable footage of a modernday exorcism. Persinger, however, warns that exorcisms can harm the treatment of people with serious mental disorders. “I see the risks associated with maintaining a fallacy,” he says. “People are responsible for their behaviour, not bad influences.”

The documentary is followed by a screening of The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin.

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