Weird History
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The Story Of Roland Doe Inspired The Exorcist – But It's Way More Terrifying Than The Movie

Updated September 23, 2021 175.9k views12 items

Many people have seen or read The Exorcist, and quite a few have been scared out of their minds by the story. While the fictional tale is notoriously well-remembered, how much do people know about the true story that inspired The Exorcist?

The 1949 exorcism of 13-year-old Ronald Hunkeler wasn't front page news in the small town of Cottage City, Maryland. A few articles were written about the "incident," but most residents refused to speak about what happened. The possessed was given the pseudonym "Roland Doe" to protect his identity, and went on to live a totally normal life.

The real-life exorcism of Roland Doe was enough to inspire one of the most terrifying movies of all time. So what actually happened back in 1949?

  • Photo: Ross Dunn / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Exorcist Author William Peter Blatty Got The Idea For The Book From A Newspaper Clipping

    When he was a college student at Georgetown University, William Peter Blatty saw a newspaper article that caught his attention. It was 1949, and the Washington Post headline read "Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held In Devil’s Grip."

    The idea of an exorcism stuck in his mind after reading that article, though he didn't start writing the novel The Exorcist until 1969. Blatty used some elements drawn from Roland's case, but embellished many of the scenes to make them more terrifying for readers. 

  • The Novel And Film That Roland Doe Inspired Sent The Popularity Of Exorcisms Through The Roof

    Prior to the release of The Exorcist, exorcism rituals were rarely performed. After the film and novel gained widespread popularity in the '70s, the rite was brought to the attention of the general public, and since then the number of real-life exorcisms has only increased.

    In the last decade, the number of certified exorcists living in the US has doubled. The Catholic church blames the increase in occurrences of demonic possession on the exact activities you would expect them to:

    "This rise of possessions is fueled by things like pornography, drugs, and the failure of the mental healthcare system in the United States. Many people are experimenting with paganism and atheism."

  • The Original Story Was A Jumble Of Confusing And Inaccurate Media Accounts

    As the true story behind The Exorcist, Roland Doe's life has intrigued people for decades. However, when the details of the event were first released by the media in 1949, there were several common inaccuracies.

    The simplest mistake involved where the "Doe" family lived. Although their house was located in Cottage City, Maryland, news articles listed their hometown as the nearby Mount Rainier, Maryland. Additionally, some publications reported the possessed's age as 14 (when he was actually only 13) at the time of his exorcism.

    These may seem like minor details, but they had an interesting effect on the surrounding community. Teenagers in Mount Rainer would gather at an empty lot that had become known as the site where the family had lived, scaring each other with stories of demons and ghosts. They had no idea that they weren't even in the right town.

  • Photo: Dave Winer / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    The Death Of Roland's Extremely Spiritual Aunt May Have Sparked His Possession

    Roland and his Aunt Tillie were very close. He was an only child, and relied on the adults close to his family for friendship, since he wasn't very good at making friends his own age.

    Roland's Aunt Tillie was very spiritual; she was the person who first introduced him to Ouija boards. She passed away at the age of 54, shortly before Roland became "possessed."

    The family believed that Tillie was at least in part responsible for the possession of Roland. According to the diary of one of the priests involved in the exorcism, when the spirit was asked to knock three times if they were Aunt Tillie, three knocks were heard. The family asked again for four knocks as confirmation, and received four knock in response.