Is The Exorcist Based on a True Story?

Horror movies based on true stories are always scarier.

by Mike Bedard
Image: Warner Bros.

The Exorcist: Believer is a highly anticipated horror flick that screams its way into theaters this weekend, and while it may hold a few good scares, it’ll be tough to top the 1973 original, considered by many to be one of the best horror movies of all time. It’s an impressive accomplishment to still hold that designation after 50 years, and after nearly half a century, there are still people who may not realize The Exorcist was inspired by a true story. No, Pazuzu is not a real entity you have to worry about (as far as we know), but the story of a young boy seemingly possessed by a demon would go on to inspire the book that led to the hit film.

Ronald Edwin Hunkeler Was the Original Regan MacNeil

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist, Vanity Fair spoke with Nat Segaloff, author of the book The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear. Of course, he had to discuss the story’s origins, which came from news coverage of a supposedly possessed young boy, “The events happened over a few months in 1949, and they weren’t anything like the movie. Definitely no projectile vomiting, levitation or head-spinning, but there may have been tipping chairs, shaking beds and words appearing etched on the boy’s body—possibly self-inflicted.”

Segaloff admits there’s a good chance the boy faked his symptoms to get out of school. The boy was taken to Catholic hospitals to no avail, and when natural cures failed, they sought something more supernatural. The story was so sensational it made the papers, and a horror franchise would soon follow.

The Devil’s Grip Arrives in Maryland

You can still find the original Washington Post story from 1949 online. The story goes that a priest visited a “possessed” boy over a period of two months. It was reported the boy would burst into a violent rage whenever the priest concluded the ritual by saying, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I cast thee (the devil) out.”

And if the exorcism was real, it worked. The boy’s name was only revealed following his death in 2020 — Ronald Edwin Hunkeler. He went on to be quite successful working for NASA. The author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, consulted with journals to familiarize himself with the process of exorcism. A young boy possessed was altered to be a young girl, and the rest is cinematic history.

Fortunately, people in the real world probably don’t have to worry about demonic possession. But it just goes to show how inspiration can come from anywhere, including a boy who likely didn’t want to go to school.

- This article was updated on October 7th, 2023

About The Author

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Mike Bedard has written tens upon thousands of articles online in all kinds of spaces. Some of his previous writing credits include Cracked, Ranker, and StudioBinder.