Decades later, case that inspired "The Exorcist" still fascinates St. Louis

Max von Sydow played Father Merrin in the 1973 movie "The Exorcist." The movie and the book on which it was based were inspired by a 1949 case in St. Louis. AP

ST. LOUIS Zach Grummer-Strawn has never seen "The Exorcist," the 1973 horror film considered one of the finest examples of cinematic terror. He's only vaguely familiar with the monthlong 1949 demon-purging ritual at his school, Saint Louis University, that inspired William Peter Blatty's novel and later the movie.

But just in time for Halloween, Jesuit scholars have joined a whole new generation of horror buffs in St. Louis to recount the supernatural incident. The university hosted a panel discussion Tuesday on the exorcism, which involved the treatment of an unidentified boy. About 500 people crammed into Pius XII Library to listen.

Linda Blair starred as Regan, a possessed girl, in "The Exorcist."
Warner Bros.

"I'd like to believe it's the real thing," said Grummer-Strawn, a theology and sociology student. "But you just can't know. That's part of why we're here. It's the pursuit of truth. And it's such a great story."

The university scholars and guest speaker Thomas Allen, author of a 1993 account of the events at the school's former Alexian Brothers Hospital, emphasized that definitive proof that the boy known only as "Robbie" was possessed by malevolent spirits is unattainable. Maybe he instead suffered from mental illness or sexual abuse - or fabricated the experience.

Like most of religion's basic tenets, it ultimately comes down to faith.

"If the devil can convince us he does not exist, then half the battle is won," said the Rev. Paul Stark, vice president for mission and ministry at the 195-year-old Catholic school. He opened the discussion with a prayer from the church's exorcism handbook, imploring God to "fill your servants with courage to fight that reprobate dragon."

Some in the audience spoke of personal connections to an episode that has enthralled generations of St. Louis residents.

One man described living near the home where the 13-year-old boy arrived in the winter of 1949. Another said she was a distant cousin of Father William Bowdern, who led the exorcism ritual after consulting with the archbishop of St. Louis but remained publicly silent about his experiences - though he did tell Allen it was "the real thing."

Bowdern died in 1983.

In "The Exorcist," the possessed girl and her mom lived in this house near Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The original case involved Saint Louis University in St. Louis.

Bowdern was assisted by the Rev. Walter Halloran, who unlike his colleague spoke openly with Allen and expressed his skepticism about potential paranormal events before his death a decade ago.

"He talked more about the boy, and how much he suffered, and less about the rite," Allen said. "Here was a scared, confused boy caught up in something he didn't understand.

"He told me, 'I simply don't know,' and that is where I leave it," the author added. "I just don't know."

Allen zealously protects the anonymity of "Robbie," despite others' efforts to track him down.

Blatty, who could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, said in a 2011 interview with The Huffington Post that was timed to the book's 40th anniversary, that the "1949 case was the novel's inspiration." The book and film were set at Georgetown University rather than in the Midwest, and the possessed child became a girl instead of a boy.

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