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Is The Exorcist Based On A True Story?

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Fear was the Christmas gift audiences received on December 26, 1973, with the release of William Friedkin's "The Exorcist." According to the editor-in-chief of The Film Stage, Jordan Raup, the movie brought in over $230 million at the domestic box office alone (when adjusted for inflation, that's over $900 million by today's standards). These numbers beat out "The Sting" by a large margin and grossed more than "American Graffiti," "Serpico," and "Live and Let Die" combined (via The Numbers).

"The Exorcist" follows a 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), as she battles a demon possessing her. She is aided by her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), and two priests, Fathers Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Karras (Jason Miller). The film is widely considered one of the scariest movies of all time (via Esquire) and instills fear in its audiences even today, five decades after its initial release. Though horror movies are often snubbed at the Oscars when it comes to accolades, this 2018 list from The Hollywood Reporter names "The Exorcist" as one of only six horror movies nominated for best picture. The film also picked up nine other nominations and stayed the highest-grossing horror film until it was dethroned in 2017 by "It" (via The Guardian).

One of the key aspects of a scary movie's success is the realism it implies. Rumors routinely spread following well-done horror movies that they are based on true stories — for instance, the "The Blair Witch Project" was believed to be based on fact, as its creators recalled in an interview with BuzzFeed News. But is there any truth to "The Exorcist"? Is one of the scariest movies of all time based on a true story?

It reportedly was inspired by true events from the 1940s

Of all the stories seemingly tied to real-life events, "The Exorcist" may be the most disturbing. Pitting heroes against monsters or other humans who, despite the odds, can be defeated with weapons is one thing. But in the 1973 hit, the heroes faced an unseen adversary that the protagonists couldn't beat with weapons. As unlikely and as terrifying as it seems, "The Exorcist" is inspired by the true-life events of a young boy who came to be known as Roland Doe.

According to All Things Interesting, the film is actually based on the New York Times best-selling novel "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty. The book spent 57 weeks on the best-seller list, including 17 consecutive weeks at number one (via Amazon). Blatty wrote it using notes from real-life priests Walter H. Halloran and William Bowdern, who performed an exorcism on Roland beginning in early March of 1949 in St. Louis. During the exorcism, the boy made guttural noises, his mattress shook violently, and witnesses reported things flying through the air inexplicably. Halloran recalled seeing scratches appear on the boy's chest in the shape of an "X," leading them to believe he was possessed by ten demons, one of them possibly being Satan himself. The exorcism ended on April 18th, when Roland suffered seizures and screamed that "Satan would always be with him" (via All Things Interesting). The priests used crucifixes and shouted that Satan would need to fight for the boy's soul. Roland later awoke, claiming that the demons were gone and he'd had a vision of Satan battling St. Michael.

Of course, "The Exorcist" — both the book and the movie — took many liberties with this story, including changing the setting and the gender of the possessed child. As far as the priests' notes are concerned, the boy's head didn't rotate 360 degrees, and he didn't vomit green slime. But even with the sensational exaggerations of the exorcism itself, the terrifying truth behind the film makes it even more frightening.