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Forty years after "The Exorcist" premiered, the anniversary of that classic horror movie has led to renewed interest in the 1949 possession case that reportedly inspired it. The movie, based on a book by William Peter Blatty, showed the demonic possession of a twelve-year old girl in a performance that made Linda Blair a horror icon. As for the real-life case in St. Louis, MO that inspired the Blatty book, a recent panel held at St. Louis University demonstrates the fascination that it still has for the people of St. Louis.
The boy at the centre of the exorcism case remains anonymous although he was assigned the pseudonym of "Roland Doe" by the Catholic Church (later sources changed the name to "Robbie Mannheim"). Doe, who was thirteen years old in 1949 when the exorcism occurred was an only child who was born into a German Lutheran family and raised in Maryland. Later moving with his family to St. Louis, supernatural activity began shortly after the death of a favourite aunt who had been a spiritualist. Allegedly, she had introduced him to the supernatural along with how to use a Ouija board.
According to various reports, unexplained occurences began in the house in which "Robbie" and his family lived. This included furniture moving, strange noises, and a picture of Jesus rattling on the walls. After the frightened family turned to their Lutheran pastor for help, Robbie was examined by clerics and psychiatrists who could find no explanation for what was happening.
After Robbie spent an evening at the pastor's house, various occurrences led the pastor to conclude that "evil was at work" and arranged for a Lutheran rite of exorcism to be carried out. According to most accounts, Robbie underwent an Anglican exorcism and, when that failed, the case was referred to Reverend Edward Hughes, a Catholic priest, who carried out the exorcism at Georgetown Hospital near Washington, D.C. During that exorcism, Robbie injured the priest and required him to receive stitches. The ritual was then stopped and he was sent home to his family.
In desperation over Robbie's worsening problems, his family took him to St. Louis University where two Jesuit priests examined him. According to the eyewitness accounts still available, Robbie was showing many of the classic signs of possession including aversion to holy symbols, flying objects, and Robbie speaking in a guttural voice. After receiving permission from the Archbishop, the Reverend William Bowden and two other priets conducted the exorcism in the psychiatric wing of Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis. In diary which Reverend Bowden kept of the exorcism, he reported that words such as "evil" and "hell" broke out on Robbie's skin and he broke the nose of one of the priests during his violent thrashing. When the exorcism was finally complete, witnesses reported a loud noise in the hospital.
Robbie Mannheim went on to have a normal life and reportedly has no memory of the exorcism. As they reported afterward, all of the priests in attendance were consistent in their belief that it was an actual possession. Along with inspiring William Blatty's book and the movie of the same name, the case of Robbie Mannheim was also depicted in the 2000 movie Possessed and a 1997 documentary In The Grip of Evil. While Robbie Mannheim has never gone public with his experiences, several of the priests who took part in the exorcism, including Father Walter Halloran, continued to insist that the possession was genuine.
But skeptics examining the various statements made afterward noted key discrepancies that cast doubt on the eyewitness accounts. In an investigative piece for Strange magazine published in 1997, journalist Mark Opsasnick examined the diary that had been reportedly kept by the lead priest carrying out the exorcism. He also interviewed Father Halloran and determined that many of the statements attributed to him about the exorcism had been exaggerated by previous reporters seeking to play up the sensational aspects of the story. The claim that Mannheim had spoken in tongues during his possession was also dismissed by Father Halloran along with the words that had "miraculously" appeared on his skin. All of the "supernatural" phenomena reported by eyewitnesses could have been faked by Mannheim himself, possibly as a way of getting attention. In his own investigation of the Mannheim case, skeptical investigator Joe Nickell largely confirmed the conclusions raised by Opsasnick.
Without being able to interview Robbie Mannheim directly, no clear conclusion can be made over whether he was behind what occurred in 1949. Despite speculation that mental illness may have played a role in the case, no evidence that Mannheim suffered from any of the different diagnoses attributed to him over the years (including Tourette's syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia) has ever surfaced. What evidence there is focuses on eyewitness testimony and all-too fallible memory.
In the decades since the Mannheim exorcism, the cultural impact resulting from the events of 1949 has been profound. Along with The Exorcist, virtually every movie featuring exorcisms has drawn on the Mannheim case, either directly or indirectly. Regularly invoked as proof that demonic possession exists, the case may also have inspired "copycat" possession cases including the 1978 exorcism-related death of Anneliese Michel which led to the conviction of the 23-year old woman's parents and the two priests who conducted the exorcism.
While no clear link was ever proven, there seems little doubt that reports of demonic possession rose sharply in the years following the release of the 1973 movie and that exorcism continues to have a strange popularity. Exorcists are being trained in increasing numbers and the demand for their services has risen as well. That many of the people being exorcised suffer from mental illness and that deaths resulting from exorcism continue to be reported seems not to have dampened the enthusiasm of people believing themselves to be possessed.
Until "Robbie Manheim" comes forward or until more reliable evidence surfaces, the mystery surrounding the St. Louis exorcism case will continue to be invoked by the true believers as "proof" that the Devil is at work in the world. What that might mean for future exorcism cases is anybody's guess.
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