Artist’s Conception of Devil as the Beast
Given that so few people look at the pages attached to this Blog, and because it is the month for Halloween; I will celebrate the secular season with some of my “already posted” scary stories. I have taken the liberty of making a few corrections to the text.
Before I begin my comments, it is necessary that I make some clarifications. Unless otherwise noted, the pagination to Thomas Allen’s work regards his article in Washingtonian Magazine. When his book, Possession became available, this was also read and compared to his previous statements. It is interesting that the backbone of his book was so easily condensed to a periodical format. As for my own principal sources, I had the testimony of an old priest friend of Fr. Hughes (both of whom are now deceased), course notes on demonology from Fr. Edmund J. Fortmann, S.J., and extracts from the exorcist’s diary.
Popular Exploitation: Where Do We Really Find Evil?
After reading the sensational article “Possessed,” by Thomas B. Allen in June 1993’s edition of Washingtonian Magazine, many people were eager to buy the book of the same title released in July. Having read the book, it must be admitted that there are elements to the tale that seem to validate Christian faith in God and in his mercy; however, at the same time I fear that it’s telling will surrender true religion to mockery and to superstition. No suggestion is made in the article and none in the book until the very end, that there might still be more to the story than the supernatural. However, even if it should be the case, books and films tend to give more emphasis to the demonic than to the divine. Producers and writers work ever harder to shock their patrons, an audience made increasingly insensitive to violence and to “things that go bump in the night.” We want to be entertained and producers of horror films and writers know all too well how to excite the masses with fear and gross happenings. Even the 1973 film, The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty’s book, opted to highlight vulgar language, Eucharistic desecration, obscene gestures, fanciful special effects, and finally the death and failure of the two priests. I would suspect that the battle between good and evil is more frequently invisible to the movie camera and ignored by novelists seeking to sell books. Indeed, just as the so-called Mount Ranier case (despite the location disparity) began as one of demonic obsession and only later became possession when the exorcisms were attempted; might a heightened concentration upon this issue similarly endanger people? While it is true that the devil should not become a scapegoat for all human ills, it is almost impossible to believe that he is not involved with the atrocities at home and abroad. In language, popular music, drug experiences, new cult religions, escalating crime, immoral lifestyles, wars and genocide, abortion, euthanasia, etc., Satan is exerting a subtle obsessive influence, numbing consciences and helping to distort values. If people want to be frightened, then here is the real thing of which to be afraid. Most of us, probably all of us after the age of reason, are no longer bystanders to the devil’s malice, but in every sin, large and small, accomplices. God’s grace can turn this around, if we really want Satan exorcised from our society and world.
The Documents: A Number of Contradictions
Adding to the confusion, there is a lack of collaboration between various documents of the case. Even the timetable is unreliable. Did the first exorcism begin on March 16 or on February 16? Some press reports said it lasted one month, others two, and still another, three-and-a-half months. Although the records state that the devil departed at 11:00 PM on April 18, 1949, Fr. Nicola told the Evening Star that it was “at precisely 2:15 in the afternoon.” Although Allen’s article records that the boy’s mother picked up a holy water bottle and candles from Fr. Hughes, there is a document that states that it was the father who picked them up. Allen writes that the bottle was “smashed,” however, the exorcist’s diary in Jesuit hands stated: “The mother took the bottle of holy water home, sprinkled all the rooms, and when she placed the bottle on a shelf, the bottle flew across the room and did not break.” Which is it? The diary further says that the word LOUIS appeared on the child’s ribs. However, the Lutheran minister testified that they said GO TO ST. LOUIS, and written upside down. As for the incident in the chair, the Lutheran minister said that while the boy was sitting, it tilted. However, the Jesuits were given this version of the story: “The minister brought him downstairs and tied him in a chair. The chair and boy began to whirl around the room.” Which account do we believe the primary or secondary source? It should be obvious. The Evening Star’s staff reporter, Jeremiah O’Leary, mentioned many years after the episode and his breaking story (see pages 197 and 198 of the book), that the boy spoke an unknown language, and that only later did a priest or rabbi recognize words sounding like Modern Hebrew. However, he had originally written: “A professor of Oriental languages from Catholic University was called in and he was shocked to discover the words coming from the boy’s mouth were in Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine in Jesus’ day.” Which versions are we suppose to believe? All accounts state that the boy was 14 years old; however, the diary puts his birth on June 1, 1935, which would have made him only 13. Allen collaborates the younger age in his book. All this is simply to show that a reliability of the facts in this case cannot be maintained and that nothing approaching a consistent scientific investigation is exhibited.
The Root Cause: Hysteria?
Repeated fits and seizures, marks on the boy’s skin, wild utterances and obscenities, all these things can have a basis in psychology and medicine. Neurosis can cause many kinds of strange manifestations. Hysteria can be a root cause for such disturbances and has been documented, especially as a conversion reaction, not only in cases of people who thought they were possessed but even among visionaries who claimed to see the Virgin Mary and/or Jesus. Not being an expert in this field, I will leave it to the interested reader to explore the wealth of material in this regard.
The Exorcists: Were They Really Objective?
Thomas B. Allen narrates the story as if there cannot be the slightest doubt that the version given us by media accounts and the journal are authentic. However, without giving offense, one could hardly argue that the testimony of a Jesuit priest would be entirely objective. For instance, the diary takes for granted the occurrences in Washington before the move to Saint Louis, although he never witnessed them, himself. There is no evidence whatsoever to verify flying fruit, the knocking noises from Aunt Tillie, his desk moving around at school, etc. No proof has come down to us from reliable, independent witnesses. (Official records have never been released and so we can only speculate about a long list of witnesses from Christian believers.) The Washington priest only heard the crashing of the telephone table and the assertion of its destruction from the boy’s mother. As for the boy’s visions at the end, only he saw them. Can we really take for granted the testimony of a boy, who no doubt, like all boys, had a hefty imagination? I think not. The Lutheran minister, as I said before, thought the chest writing was self-inflicted. A cross on the boy’s left arm remained for about 45 minutes; however, clinical psychologists tell us of many cases wherein hysteria makes the skin overly sensitive. Many assumptions were made with little support. For example, although the boy and his aunt had played with an Ouija board, there is no obvious cause-and-effect relationship between it and the demonic infestation. Although a superstition that violates the Decalogue, thousands of children buy such boards as toys with seemingly no ill-effect. The numbers on the boy’s chest were later interpreted as possibly the days when evil spirits left the child, if there were more than one. However, this was merely ungrounded speculation.
Conspiracy of Silence?
The author, Thomas B. Allen, states: “I now can tell the story because the secret diary of the exorcism came into my hands from the oblivion to which it had been consigned” (p. 45). At the end of the book, he admits that this diary was incomplete and to receiving a complete copy of the document from other sources. Was he really the first critic to read it? No, I suspect that the suspense was hype. Rev. Edmund J. Fortman, S.J. in a 1973 course on Demonology at the Jesuit School of Theology located in Chicago, Illinois, wrote: “Many years later, Blatty managed to obtain the diary written by the exorcist and set about researching his bestselling novel” (p. 8). Indeed, Rev. Fortman, in preparing his course, noted: “In fact, much of our information on the ‘real-life exorcism’ is drawn from the exorcist’s journal and several shorter documents by two Jesuit priests who got their material from a lecture by a priest who assisted the exorcist himself” (p. 8). It was not that the facts were unavailable, but rather, it was thought imprudent to release them. Respecting this, William Peter Blatty chose to author a fiction loosely based on exorcism accounts. In contrast, probably much in the same vein as the semi-documentaries on television, Allen has decided to give us the purportedly authentic version.
It should be highlighted that Allen’s style in sticking to the log lends his book an authenticity usually lacking in such works. To some extent this is also a bit of a drawback. While the Washingtonian Magazine article was fast paced; the book is almost tedious with its repetitious narration of possession and exorcism episodes. The boy urinates, breaks wind, spits, hits and grabs, and then the process happens again and again. Having vicariously accompanied the fatigued exorcist, in the last pages the reader is also spent.
Revelations: God’s Will or the Evil One’s?
I would hope that Allen offered the diary to ecclesiastical authorities or at least had asked for some form of approbation before chronicling the 1949 story. The fact that he interviewed and became friends with the scholastic who held the boy down is not sufficient. Why? First, it is because simple name-changing does not eradicate old newspaper reports or property records. Aging neighbors craving the spotlight might violate these people’s privacy for a few seconds on the tube. If the book becomes a sensation, the investigative reporters will besiege the matter until its figures come to light. If the subject of the exorcism and his family had wanted the story to be widely told, I am sure that they would have done so themselves. Some things are best forgotten. If the formerly possessed boy, now a man, could not recall what had happened, I pray that a copy of the book does not fall into his hands. Before his death, at about the time the Blatty film was released, the seventy year old Jesuit who had performed the exorcism remarked that he lived in dread of reporters. He was worried that the excitement over the incident could not help but ruin some fine lives. Keeping in touch with them, he asserted, “The boy in the case has grown into a fine man with a lovely wife and children.” Second, if the Church was God’s vehicle in freeing the boy from evil and in later sealing the records at hand, then in whose commission is the author employed? If he really believes the narrative, then I should think this would cause him no little anxiety. Although I hate being cynical, I cannot help but think that the author is not so much interested in playing the prophet as he is in reaping a profit. Allen admits in his book to being, not a believer, but a doubter and a lapsed Catholic; indeed, despite his pride in having had a Jesuit education, he credits them with his agnosticism. This is like a groom saying that he is in love with a gorgeous bridal gown, but cares nothing for the girl in it. Further, if this is true, then what is his motivation in telling the story? The only thing that comes to mind is that as Blatty discovered, there can be substantial financial rewards for horror stories.
Officials, no doubt, purposely misidentified the location of the boy’s home to preserve his anonymity. While Allan accepted the Mount Ranier address on Bunker Hill, the case was actually attributed to Mount Rainier because of the location of St. James Church. This was not uncommon in the past. Catholics identified themselves by their parish. It is unfortunate that some old timers have leaked the true location as a home on 40th Avenue in Cottage City. The investigation should stop here, but I suspect that it will not.
I am certain that New Age enthusiasts will eat it up, not for its faith content, but rather for its concern over devilish spiritual forces and communication with the dead. Coincidentally, Christians, Catholic or not, are traditionally urged against preoccupation with matters like possession and the devil, for fear that such an interest might itself attract demonic interference. Allen accurately informs the reader of this in his book. Further, I can testify as a parish priest, the publicity given such stories draws to our rectory doors an assortment of mentally imbalanced people who think the devil has control over them. After a cheap movie on this topic a few years ago, I recall one bizarre case wherein a man claimed he was possessed by a homosexual demon who lived in his rectum. I prayed over him and suggested that he go home and take a laxative.
Witnesses: Skeptics Close to the Case
As for the Mount Ranier story, the author admits that the psychiatrist (from Georgetown University Hospital) disbelieved in the reported phenomena (reporting that the boy was normal); however, his article, unlike the book, did not offer that the Lutheran minister they consulted was also skeptical and remained so afterwards. Jim Adams of Associated Press interviewed him and noted: “The minister said that he was suspicious of the chest message. It was written upside down on the chest as it would be if the boy wrote it himself.” Supposedly, the words “LOUIS” had appeared on his chest. His Aunt Tillie, (a name released to the public, not Harriet as in the POSSESSION book), the one who had introduced him to the Ouija board, had passed away in St. Louis eleven days before the mysterious scratching sounds in the house. (Allen notes that she died eleven days after the scratching began.) Allen writes further about the minister, he “believed that he had been in the presence of some colossal force. It did not matter whether that force was a hallucination, an outburst of supernatural powers, evidence of parapsychological activity, or an eruption from some psychological fissure deep within Robbie” (Allen, p. 104). Admittedly a bed and a chair moving, seemingly by their own power is unusual to say the least; however, the minister did see some importance in steering clear of a supernatural interpretation. He speculated that it might have been the result of a type of static electricity or that he might have been hypnotized in some manner. Later he discounted these theories, but resolutely insisted upon a natural explanation, perhaps involving latent and invisible human powers.
Signs: Demonic Activity, Latent Human Powers, or Illness?
In more recent years, various researches have looked into poltergeist activity that included such phenomena as strange sounds and moving objects. Almost always they were connected to the presence of children, especially ones with some emotional upset. As the children got older, the activity most often ceased. Might human beings have latent powers to move objects? I do not know. Some claim to have limited abilities in peering into the minds of others. Certainly, these possibilities, no matter how unlikely, have made the issue of demonic possession much more complicated. Epileptics, who were once thought possessed, even in the bible, are today understood as suffering from a physiological ailment. Psychology is acknowledging that mental deviations like various neurosis and hysteria can cause abrupt behavioral and bodily changes. Before concluding that one is being controlled or manipulated by demons, must we not objectively eliminate any of these other possibilities? Yes, I believe so.
Because of a growing skepticism regarding this issue, the ritual for exorcism was revised as early as 1952. The signs of possession, listed on pages 27 and 28 of his book, which once were considered to make a case certain, were now only “probable.” What are these signs?
- To speak fluently an unknown language;
- To reveal distant and occult things; and
- To manifest powers beyond the nature of one’s age or condition.
In the Mount Ranier case, there is no certain manifestation of the last two signs. As for the first, he may have overheard the Latin word, “Dominus,” and there is no confirmation that he spoke Aramaic. In the complement to the diary, it is remarked: “The boy would greet the priests with filthy, foul obscenities, fluently answer the exorcist’s questions in Latin, a language he had never studied.” However, if this is true, it began after the exorcisms had started; it was not an element in the prior deliberation.
Clarifications: What Really Happened?
In Saint Louis, Allen wrote: “Bowdern received permission from Robbie’s parents to convert their son to Catholicism” (Allen, p. 107). It is of interest to also know that the boy himself had asked to be baptized. His father had been baptized as a Catholic and some of his local cousins were Catholics as well. Allen narrates that the boy on the way to the church grabbed the steering wheel. “His father and uncle wrestled him away as the car swerved up on the curb and came to a stop against a lamppost. Robbie spun around and seized his mother by the throat” (Allen , p. 107). He further informs us that the boy was pinned down and baptized. The actual record reads:
On the appointed morning he rose, took a shower, ate his usual breakfast and set out for the church in a car driven by his uncle. Just before reaching the church the boy grabbed his uncle by the neck and said: “You s.o.b., you think I am going to be baptized, but you are going to be fooled.” The uncle was just able to seize the emergency brake and avert a collision by an inch. It was realized that to baptize the boy in the church would create a scene, so he was taken to the third floor of the rectory, which stands in back of the church but faces Lindell Boulevard. Every time he was asked: “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” he would go into a rage. Only after several hours of repetition was the boy able to reply: “I do renounce Satan and all his works.” Then it required several more hours to get water poured on the boy’s head.”
Truncating the story somewhat, Allen omits in the article that the family afterwards returned with the boy to Washington, DC. The book corrects this omission. Father Hughes tried to place the boy in a sanitarium or hospital in the Washington-Baltimore area, but none would accept him. Consequently, he was returned to Saint Louis and entered a sanitarium there. It was here that on April 2nd, the first Saturday of the month, a day dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima, the priests finally succeeded in giving the boy holy communion.
Allen noted that numbers appeared on the boy’s body in reference to the question to the demon about when it would depart: 4, 8, 10, and 16. A little fact that he did not share was that they were Roman numerals. Also, there is some confusion when he writes in reference to the question of the demon’s name: “The answer came etched in blood-flecked lines on Robbie’s chest: HELL and SPITE.” While admitting that his version seems well attested, there is another record that states, “…in answer to the question of his name, the words, “HELL, SPIRIT” appeared in red letters on the boy’s chest.” This latter version seems to make more sense in regard to the question of identity.
Allen’s depiction of the boy’s final liberation is faithful, but it might do well to reproduce the actual record:
Suddenly, at 11 p.m., a new voice was heard from the boy; a beautiful, rich, deep bass voice exclaimed: “Satan, Satan, go, NOW, NOW, NOW to the pit where you belong, in the name of the Dominus (the Lord).” That was the word and at that moment the boy felt a tearing sensation in his stomach, relaxed and lay perfectly quiet. He described what has happened. He saw a brilliant figure, visible from the waist up, clothed in a close-fitting white garment which had the appearance of scales; the hair was long and flowing in a wind; the right hand held something like a flaming sword or light pointing downward. It was Saint Michael the Archangel. When he spoke, the evil spirit rebelled against going on until the word “Dominus” was spoken and at this moment the boy felt the tearing sensation in his stomach. Then at some distance down he saw some evil spirits standing at the mouth of a cave from which flames issued. Then the spirits reluctantly withdrew into the cave, the opening closed and across it appeared the word: “Spite.” Thus the possession ended.
Summation: Was the Exorcism a Mistake?
In closing, I must admit that I remain a skeptic. After studying this case in depth, Rev. Edmund J. Fortman, S.J. had this to say: “. . . at the risk of being blunt, we have to assert that what began with obsession and poltergeist phenomena was transformed into possession because of the decision to exorcise.” Similarly, J. de Tonquedec (1886-1962), a psychologist and the official exorcist of the diocese of Paris for over 20 years, doubted that he ever found a real case. He wrote:
Exorcism is an impressive ceremony, capable of acting effectively on the unconscious of a sick person. The adjurations addressed to the demon, the sprinkling of holy water, the stole passed around the patient’s neck, the repeated signs of the cross and so forth, are very capable of creating a diabolical mythomania in word and deed in a psyche already weak. Call the devil and you will see him; or rather not him, but a portrait made of the sick person’s idea of him. It is for this reason that certain priests, due to their inconsiderate and imprudent practice of exorcising, create, confirm and encourage the very disorders that they want to suppress.
Is this not what happened in the Mount Ranier case? With the initiation of exorcism, obsession changed to possession. Toward the end, a document states, “Easter Monday, April 18, was the worst day and the exorcists were becoming thoroughly discouraged.” Why? The exorcisms are supposed to work, at least to some degree, through the sustained faith of the priest. Consequently, he must be fully aware of his power and authority. Nevertheless, on the most discouraging day, the exorcism succeeded. Rev. Fortman, S.J. notes, “Could it be that the boy noticed such discouragement and decided to end the entire affair which had only been created by his own mind and the minds of those who gave him so much attention?”
Materials Assembled and Retold by Father Joseph Jenkins
Allen, Thomas B. POSSESSED. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
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