ʼTis the season for The Exorcist. What better time than late October to appreciate William Peter Blattyʼs landmark 1971 horror novel or William Friedkinʼs blockbuster 1973 cinematic adaptation of it? Much of The Exorcistʼs enduring power lies in its supposed basis in fact: just as the historic actuality of Vlad the Impaler gives Bram Stokerʼs Dracula an added chill, so does the documented 1949 case of the pseudonymous fourteen-year-old “Robbie Mannheim“ make the fictional version of it all the more eerie. Within living memory, there indeed was a genuine episode of demonic possession and exorcism in a sophisticated urban environment.
Or maybe not. Over the years, analysts have studied the testimony surrounding The Exorcistʼs real-life inspiration, and Blattyʼs story, it turns out, took some major liberties with it. Thomas Allenʼs 1993 book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism reprinted some of the original eyewitness accounts of the 1949 trauma, and while certainly dramatic, the disorder suffered by Robbie Mannheim was milder than anything experienced by Regan MacNeil. Robbie never killed anyone; his personality and appearance were never completely taken over round-the-clock by a demonic entity; he never underwent any serious medical or psychological examination prior to his familyʼs turn to the clergy. And in a remarkable piece of investigative journalism for Strange magazine in 1999, Washington DC writer Mark Opsasnick tracked down some of those involved in the 1949 exorcism and found that no one saw the boy exhibit any paranormal abilities, while some of Robbieʼs neighbors even suggested he was no more than a mischievous kid who had faked the whole thing. (Just last year, the real Robbie was finally revealed to be Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, who grew up to become a NASA scientist and who died in 2020.)
The most significant innovation of The Exorcist was in the groundbreaking grossness of its language and action. Anyone who has read the book or seen the movie will never forget Reganʼs extreme vulgarity and the very graphic scenes of verbal and physical desecration (let’s just say there aren’t many other novels containing the adverb “diarrhetically”). Looking back, though, what William Blatty construed as the work of a demon can be found in the routines of any late-night comedian and in the repartee of a dozen cable TV series nowadays; behavior that was shockingly blasphemous forty-five years ago is mainstream entertainment in 2022. In 1971 Blatty was a devout Catholic and the father of young daughters, and at some level he may have been writing out the nightmare scenario of a churchgoing parent rather than a scrupulously realistic study of a very specialized mental illness. Like his imaginary Father Karras, too, Blatty was devastated by the death of his mother Mary, who had singlehandedly raised him in the slums of New York. The Exorcist, then, is partly a parable of intergenerational conflict and partly an exercise in religious masochism which, whatever its authenticity, might not leave much of an impression if it was premiered in our current climate of multicultural tolerance, The End of Faith, and Donald Trump.
Still. As dead leaves swirl in a cold wind down dark streets on a lonely autumn night, itʼs hard not to reflect on the landmark impact of The Exorcist, one of the best-selling books and top-grossing films of all time. It may not be as “true“ as initially claimed, but it remains just about as frightening as it ever was. Even if the tale is a wild exaggeration and the theme a theological gimmick, there continues to be a timeless shudder at the image of a disembodied intelligence occupying a childʼs body and calling out from that hellishly inverted dimension of utter, unspeakable malevolence:
Nowonmai…Nowonmai…I am no one…
Hereʼs to you, Ronald, Robbie, and Regan. Thanks for scaring, and Happy Halloween.