An interview with the priest involved in the case behind The Exorcist We tracked down Father Walter H. Halloran
, a Jesuit who assisted in the famous excorcism that served as the model for the blockbuster movie, The Exorcist. Now living in San Diego, where he is assistant pastor at St. Martin of Tours Church, Father Halloran
still vividly remembers the case, which took place in 1949 and involved a young boy named Rob (not a girl) from the Washington- Baltimore area, with the final exorcism conducted in St. Louis, where the boy had relatives. Father Halloran assisted the main exorcist, Father William S. Bowdern
of St. Francis Xavier Church
in St. Louis. Father Halloran says the boy was 11. Others say 13. But everyone agrees on one thing: it was hair-raising. Here's our short talk:
SD: Father, how many times were you present in the exorcism sessions?
Fr. Halloran: I suppose every night for three weeks.
SD: Did you have any insight into the origin of the problem?
Fr. H: In a way he was a victim to the frame of mind of the aunt (who was into spiritualism).
SD: What happened at the end? We're told the Archangel Michael manifested.
Fr. H: I was taken off five days before the conclusion, but from what I understand there was a very loud sound, a boom -- sort of like a sonic boom -- and then the boy opened his eyes and said St. Michael came and that it was over. At the same time this took place there were about six or seven priests over in the college church saying their office and there was a huge boom over there and the whole church was completely lit up. Father Bowdern, who was doing the exorcism, and the boy were at the rectory. There was a very, very bright light that lit up the whole church.
SD: What was the most striking physical phenomena that you witnessed yourself during the exorcisms?
Fr. H: I think the markings on the boy's body. I didn't think there was any way they could have been self-induced, the marks, the scratches, the words, the numbers and that sort of thing that appeared in blood red]. When the evil spirit took over the child, there seemed to be nothing he could do about it. There were a couple of times when something very dangerous might have happened and he had no recollection whatsoever of anything that took place when he was in one of these sieges. And that affected me, the power that someone or something has over someone.
SD: Did you see anything fly across the room or furniture move?
Fr. H: Yeah. The first night I was there I was kneeling at the bed on which the boy was lying and the bed started going up and down and then I just about got hit with a holy water bottle that was sitting on the dresser and came flying across the room and just missed me by an inch or two.
SD: How high was the bed going?
Fr. H: Oh, I'd say eight inches.
SD: Was there any particular prayer that the evil spirit seemed to react to the most?
Fr. H: Yes. It was more elements or words or phrases in each prayer. Whenever the Blessed Mother's name would be invoked or mentioned, the child would get very, very agitated and when Our Lord's name - Christ, Our Lord, or Jesus --when that was said, and the same thing with Michael the Archangel. And then he'd become very, very agitated with holy water. With some of the prayers you sprinkle the person with holy water and he'd become wild, physically wild, flying around and that sort of thing.
SD: Flailing around with his hands, that sort of thing?
Fr. H: Yeah.
SD: Did you see the 'Exorcist' movie?
Fr. H: I saw it right after it came out. I went with Father Bowdern and I thought it was a typical Hollywood, glitzy thing, real bizarre, trying to bring people to be fearful or to scream. I was disappointed with it. I thought it was a mess. And Father Bowdern did too. He gave sort of a running negative commentary throughout the whole movie. I thought the two of us were going to be thrown out of the theatre.
SD: So there was no neck craning around?
Fr. H: No. It was just ridiculous, and the gross one where the little girl is ing with a crucifix. It just didn't happen, that's all, and the huge amount of green vomit: Nonsense.
SD: There was some spitting, though, wasn't there?
Fr. H: Yeah, there was spitting, and when I think back on it, it amazes me, his accuracy. He'd spit right in your eye from about eight feet away.
SD: I understand at one point you saved the boy's life. He was ready to go over a cliff, wasn't he?
Fr. H: Yeah. I took him out to the retreat house in St. Louis, a very pretty place, to get out of the hospital and get some fresh air, and he didn't know anything about the Stations of the Cross and so I asked if he wanted to learn and he's says, oh sure. He was an affable little kid. Not many 11-year-old would say they were interested in finding out about the Stations of the Cross, but he was. And I explained what each one signified and we got to the 12th station and I said, this commemorates Christ dying on the cross and with that he took off and ran toward the edge of a bluff that dropped down about 150, 200 feet down to the tracks and I hollered at him and nothing happened so I ran and for once in my life I made a decent tackle.
SD: Did you have any manifestation afterward, or was that the end of it? Did you come under demonic attack afterwards?
Fr. H: No, I never did.
SD: Did you fast during that whole thing?
Fr. H: On and off I did.
SD: Bread and water?
Fr. H: No, things like just taking a cup of coffee and a piece of toast and skipping a meal and at that time we were still practicing abstinenence during Lent.
SD: Did Father Bowdern fast?
Fr. H: He did quite a bit, and sometimes he would go off because he was getting worn out the exorcism lasted six weeks].
SD: How old were you?
Fr. H: About 28.
SD: Anything else that sticks out in your mind when you think back about Rob?
Fr. H: Well, when they baptized him -- it was a conditional baptism, because he had been baptized a Lutheran as a baby -- when they went through the ceremony again, on the way down to the church from his uncle's home, he kept grabbing the steering wheel of the car. He had the car up on the boulevard and some close calls of hitting or being hit by other cars. Then when they were giving him first Holy Communion, and I was present for this, he really fought that, he was flailing around and he'd open his mouth and then as soon as Father Bowdern came close with a Host, he'd swing at him. And I was supposed to be holding him all this time. But he'd relax and I'd relax a little bit and then he'd get an arm free and the voice would keep yelling, "No! He will not receive" or -- and his eyes were closed! -- he'd take a swing at Father Bowdern in the groin and say, "How's that for a nutcracker?" And then it must have been 15 or 20 minutes of this carrying on and he relaxed and received Holy Communion.
SD: Did you fear for your life.
Fr. H: No, not really. But I wondered why me, what purpose I was there for. There was one time he asked us to stop and took his pajama top off and he was covered with these marks, scratches, and he said they hurt. It was Holy Thursday and I was telling him about Holy Thursday and he started writhing around in pain and he said, look, I can't stand this. He seemed more affected; when I said things like "the Blessed Sacrament" or mentioned the ordination of priests and things like that.
SD: What a confirmation of the power of our faith, and the powers that struggle with each other on this earth.
Fr. H: Yes. That's what affected me most, and I guess that's why I was so disappointed with the movies.
SD: Do you think it was Satan or a demon?
Fr. H: During the rite when it was asked its name the only answer I can remember that was given was "legion," which reminds us of the swineherd running into the lake.
The boy eventually married and settled back on the East Coast after attending Loyola High School in Baltimore. Father Bowdern died more than thirty years after the exorcism, in 1983. Meanwhile the movie, re-released last fall, became one of the most famous of all time. Father Halloran is featured in the video In the Grip of Evil, an excellent docu-drama and one that, like anything dealing with evil, should be preceded with prayer, Bible reading, and holy water.
Father Halloran gained a measure of renown as a paratrooping chaplain during the Vietnam War. At 48, he was then the oldest airborne chaplain at the time. He was awarded two Bronze Stars.