The word demon usually isn’t taken literally anymore, but even figuratively, wrestling with demons is a serious issue. We’re usually talking about intense personal struggles with mental health issues and addiction that are robbing us and our loved ones of our selves, our identities, our peace, and our happiness. Many, though, believe demons are literal spirits that can overtake our bodies, turning us, unwittingly, into puppet-like monsters.
The 30 exorcisms performed on an unnamed 13-year-old boy known as aliases Robbie Mannheim and Roland Doe, are the basis for the fictionalized 1973 hit film The Exorcist, a movie that reignited the public’s mind to the possibilities of demonic possession. It was based on a book of the same name written by William Peter Blatty.
In anticipation of Halloween, Destination America aired “Exorcism: Live!” featuring a seance and exorcism not on a person, but on a building: a house where “Robbie Mannheim” exhibited the strange behavior that encouraged his religiously devout parents to seek help from priests. The exorcism will be carried out by a veteran building exorcist who isn’t affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
This isn’t the first time a “real” exorcism has been broadcast on TV, however. In 1991, ABC’s 20/20 devoted an episode to the exorcism on a troubled 16-year-old girl named Gina. She’d been traumatized by physical abuse from a peer as a child, and by her parents divorce. At the time of her exorcism, her behavior had disintegrated into tantrums, spitting, and talking in two different voices who went by the names “Minga” and “Zion.”
Gina’s mother said she sought help from the church because the intense psychiatric care Gina was receiving wasn’t helping her symptoms. Her psychiatrist at the Miami Children’s Hospital, Dr. Warren Schlanger, worried that the ceremony would hurt her rather than help, possibly by confirming any delusions she had of being possessed. During the filmed ritual, she is seen vomiting out holy water they gave her, acting out violently and speaking several different voices that seem to be mimicking the “scare” voices we hear in films. At one point she starts speaking in gibberish, an effect known as glossolalia. One of the official criteria for the need of exorcism intervention is the demonstration of a person speaking in a language they’ve never studied, but that doesn’t seem to hold up if it’s not a language at all.
Usually, people exhibiting glossolalia will be thought to be speaking Latin, since the sounds they’re making can seem similar to someone who doesn’t know the obscure language, and the people hearing them usually don’t know it either. Oddly enough, a similar but positive religious phenomena called, “speaking in tongues,” also involves glossolalia. These occurrences usually happen during highly charged church services where this type of behavior is expected. A person who speaks in tongues often feels euphoric and flails around. This is actually another case of alleged possession, but the spirit inhabiting the human form is supposed to be the Holy Spirit, not the Devil or a demon.
After Gina’s exorcism, which involved a number of people there to restrain her and provide medical attention if needed, she had to be readmitted to the hospital for psychiatric care and continued to take medications as prescribed. A producer for the show later said that while both Gina and her mother consented to the exposure, they had admitted feeling pressured by the priests to follow through with it. For a diehard believer in exorcisms, the footage may be shocking and unsettling, but for skeptics it merely shines a light on the theatrics of this type of situation.
Since The Exorcist legend is so shrouded in hearsay and fiction, it’s easier to get a spook out of it. The film was executed so masterfully it caused severe reactions in some of the first theater-goers. Others needed intense therapy for a lingering “cinematic neurosis.” But, that was just fiction, the information we have to go on concerning the “reality” of the events the film was based on are ominous reports from eyewitnesses. What we don’t have is video, or even photographic, footage of what was going on with Robbie Mannheim.
Here’s a summary of Robbie’s story, according to some of the 20-40 people who witnessed his month’s worth of exorcisms:
In the summer of 1948, “Robbie Mannheim” spent a lot of time with his spiritualist aunt and her Ouija board. When she suddenly passed away the following January, his family says Robbie became obsessed with using the object to contact his dead aunt, who had been his best friend. Around this time they also claimed that things were moving around the house, glasses were being broken, and the boy was seen levitating atop his bed, which appeared to be vibrating. He started acting out as well: he would spit, throw things, spew profanities and developed what were thought to be unexplainable scratches all over his body.
The family alerted their Protestant clergy, who referred them to Anglican, and then Catholic priests. Once the priests got involved, accounts of ominous happenings get more intense. Roman Catholic priest Edward Hughes said he saw nothing behind Robbie’s eyes when he met the boy. He said when he put a copy of a bible near Robbie, he started to levitate on his vibrating bed. When Hughes asked who he was, Robbie is said to have replied, “I am legions.” From that answer they believed they were dealing with multitudes of demons and malevolent spirits, and something extreme had to be done.
He was taken to a nursing unit at Georgetown University where he was strapped down for three consecutive nights of exorcism rituals, where he foamed at the mouth when he wasn’t cursing out the priest. On the last night, he got free of his restraints and slashed Hughes’ arm.
After that incident, Robbie’s family sought further help by moving him from his hometown in Cottage City, Maryland to a house owned by his relatives in the Bel-Nor neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. This is the house that will be exorcised on live television on Friday, but there were not exorcisms performed there. He was yet again moved to a hospital, this time a psychiatric ward, for the ceremonies to take place.
What followed for the priests and Robbie were six harrowing weeks of constant torment. Robbie continually hurled hatred and sexual insinuations at the priest, spoke in a guttural voice, and responded with violence. His flesh erupted in scratches, with the priests claiming to see words like “evil” and “hello” etched out on his skin before their eyes.
Eventually, the exhausted priests decided to baptize Robbie and force him to eat a communion wafer so the Catholic Church would have more power over him. When they attempted this, he reportedly threw one of the priests across the room. Still, they were able to somehow slip a communion wafer into his mouth without getting a finger bitten off.
The next few days showed no improvement, but one day Robbie sat up and said, “Satan! Satan! I am Saint Michael, and I command you, Satan and the other evil spirits, to leave the body now.” After that, he slowed regained his life, got married, had children, and is still living a quiet life devoid of any demonic presence.
Although exorcisms can offer psychological relief to those who believe in their powers, exorcisms can also result in severe physical and mental harm, sometimes even leading to death In 2003, an 8-year-old autistic boy died of asphyxiation during an exorcism performed on him by members of his church. In 2005, a 23-year-old Romanian nun, who had been previously diagnosed with schizophrenia, died of dehydration and suffocation after being tied to a cross, gagged with a towel, and left there for three days without anything to eat or drink.
Although The Exorcist was a fictionalized account that involved a girl, in 2000 Thomas Allen published Possessed that included details from the 1949 case. It was later adapted into a Showtime documentary. Notable differences between the fiction and documented accounted besides the gender of the child are that the pea soup spitting and head-spinning were never reported to have happened to Robbie.
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