Linda Blair's head-rotating, pea soup-vomiting portrayal of demonic possession is the stuff of movie legend, but the events that form the basis of "The Exorcist" and the book of the same name were actually inspired by a month-long demon-purging over a young boy in 1949.
Questions remain surrounding the boy's true identity. Known by the pseudonym "Robbie Mannheim," his real name has never been released to the public and only a few people know of his whereabouts. Last year, university archivist David Waide told KSDK-TV that Robbie is still alive and is believed to be 78 years old.
Robbie's story began at his home in Maryland in 1949 when he was 13 years old. His family said mysterious marks and welts began appearing on his body and that his bed would shake and the furniture would randomly move around his room.
Robbie's aunt, a spiritualist, had apparently introduced him to the Ouija board before the strange occurrences began. The unexplained phenomenon that followed terrified the family so much that Robbie's parents took him to a doctor. He was given a clean bill of health, but that clearly wasn't the end of the story.
When the problems didn't cease, Robbie's parents took him to St. Louis to see relatives in the hope that it would solve his problems, but it did not.
Robbie's cousin, a student at Saint Louis University, told Jesuits at the school about his ongoing plight, and they decided to help. That's when the exorcism that has captivated the imaginations of millions of Americans took place.
The Daily Mail highlighted some of the spine-tingling details from the exorcism, including some lines taken from the diary of one of the nine priests involved in performing the rite:
• "(Roland) was awake. The shaking ceased when Father Bowdern blessed the bed with holy water."
• "The prayers of the exorcism were continued and (Roland) was seized violently so that he began to struggle with his pillow and the bed clothing. The arms, legs and head of (Roland) had to be held by three men."
• "At midnight, the Fathers planned to give (Roland) Holy Communion, but Satan would have no part of it."
• "The word 'HELLO' was printed on his chest and thigh. Upon the explanation of the Apostles becoming priests and receiving our Lord at the Last Supper, scratches appeared from (Roland) hips to his ankles in heavy lines, seemingly as a protest to Holy Communion."
Inevitably, however, it's believed that the exorcism worked. Two years after the rite was performed, records show that Robbie and his family returned to St. Louis to visit the priests who helped the boy.
Another diary entry reads: "Follow up: August 19, 1951. R and his father and mother visited the Brothers. R, now 16 is a fine young man. His father and mother also became Catholic, having received their first Holy Communion on Christmas Day, 1950."
According to Waide, Robbie moved on with his life following the incident.
"He's had several children," Waide told KSDK. "He's moved back to the Washington, D.C. area. He was non-Catholic, Lutheran nominally, but he became a Catholic. He was baptized during this whole episode."
Is The Story Really True?
"Exorcist" enthusiasts have long tried to find out who the real Robbie is, but their efforts have been fruitless. Still, that hasn't tempered the intrigue.
Between Halloween and 2013 marking the 40th anniversary of "The Exorcist" film, the story is being looked at with renewed interest. On Tuesday, 500 people showed up to a Saint Louis University panel event looking at both the real-life exorcism and the resulting pop culture interest.
Photo Credit: ShutterStock.com
Thomas Allen, the author of "Possessed," a book about Robbie's story, said it isn't possible to definitively prove whether Robbie was possessed. While it's entirely plausible, the author also posited that the boy could have fabricated the events or could have been suffering from mental illness, the Associated Press reported.
Father William Bowdern, the priest who led the exorcism in 1949, assured Allen that the exorcism and the possession were "the real thing." Bowdern died in 1983 and was reportedly always reluctant to share too many details about what unfolded.
While Bowdern maintained that the experience was real, Rev. Walter Halloran, one of his assistants in performing the exorcism rite, expressed skepticism about paranormal events before he passed away a decade ago. Allen told the AP that Halloran spoke more about Robbie's suffering than he did about the rite.
As for whether this particular case was legitimate, it seems Halloran was uncertain.
"He told me, 'I simply don't know,' and that is where I leave it," Allen said. "I just don't know."
The famous "Exorcist steps" are located in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rev. Paul Stark, vice president of Saint Louis University, during the panel seemed to believe that the exorcism was very real. He said ignoring the devil's presence could mean people are playing right into his hands.
"If the devil can convince us he does not exist, then half the battle is won," Stark said.
Whether one embraces the events that inspired "The Exorcist" as real depends entirely on their views on faith and religion.
TheBlaze extensively covered this subject during the release of this summer's "The Conjuring," a film about possession, when experts had very different views on demonic possession and hauntings.
Regardless of what's true, Allen and others continues to protect Robbie's identity.
As for the book and film that resulted, "The Exorcist" author William Peter Blatty recently told The Los Angeles Timeshe never had any intention of scaring the masses. In fact, he assumed his book -- which was turned into one of the most popular horror films in history -- was more of a suspenseful story than anything else (previously, TheBlaze covered the real meaning of "The Exorcist").
"I am going to tell you something now that may stun you and you may think I'm making this up — but I'm not," Blatty told the Times. "When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones. To this day, I have zero recollection of even a moment when I was writing that I was trying to frighten anyone."
Blatty was clearly wrong.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.