- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2000

William Peter Blatty has gotten lots of ink lately from the re-release of his 1973 horror movie, "The Exorcist," but the story behind the tale of a priest's battle to free an innocent child of demonic possession is less well known.

Mr. Blatty, a Georgetown University literature student who became a best-selling novelist and screenwriter, got his inspiration from Washington newspaper reports in the summer of 1949.

Early that year, the articles said, Roman Catholic priests in Washington and St. Louis had freed a 14-year-old suburban Maryland boy of demonic possession.

Ever since, writers, skeptics and believers have sought a bright line between fact and fiction.

"That line has been blurred," Mr. Blatty said in an interview. "I tried so hard to correct that. The novel is my construction. It is fiction, though based upon the facts related to possession."

First, he inquired with the Rev. William Bowdern, a Jesuit in St. Louis who led the exorcism. The priest could not collaborate on a nonfiction account because of church confidentiality but claimed it was real. Father Bowdern was not against the novel about the case, and at some point wrote, "Good luck with your apostolate of the pen."

To mask the identity of the boy, who reportedly lived in Mount Rainier, Mr. Blatty concocted a 12-year-old daughter of a movie star and dramatized her possession based on the "least common denominators" involved in most cases of possession, the 1949 news accounts and rites of the church.

Finally, he said, "The Exorcist" was a storyteller's account of "verifiable exterior paranormal phenomena," and an expression of Catholic faith.

"This has been a [serious] apostolic work," he said, noting his career in comedy writing. "I hope it has been something good and useful in the portfolio of my life."

Once the novel hit the best-seller list, a St. Louis priest sent Mr. Blatty a copy of the diary that Father Bowdern's assistant kept in the final weeks of the exorcism.

But it was not the only copy, as Bethesda writer Thomas B. Allen would learn two decades later.

In 1992, the Jesuit-educated journalist and author met the Rev. Walter Holloran, a Nebraska priest who is the last living eyewitness to the St. Louis case. He gave Mr. Allen a copy of a 26-page diary, which became the core of the 1993 nonfiction work, "Possessed."

"There's no question in my mind that the event took place," said Mr. Allen, an agnostic on the supernatural. "The case is remarkably well documented."

The book was released again last month, now including the full diary minus the names of the boy and his family. On Oct. 22, Showtime will air a dramatized version of "Possessed."

Besides the diary, Mr. Allen based his "true story" on Father Holloran's eyewitness account, three secondhand accounts of official church reports, a confidential Georgetown talk by one of the exorcists and interviews in suburban Maryland and St. Louis.

Also in 1993, the Allen account grabbed the attention of filmmaker Brian Kelly, executive producer at Henninger Productions. He successfully requested a copy of the Allen diary to produce "In the Grip of Evil" for the Discovery Channel in 1997.

Mr. Kelly's work produced more paper trail. He turned up a 1949 letter from the Lutheran pastor in Mount Rainier who first saw the boy's strange behavior.

The pastor said he believed it was a prank, but nevertheless inquired with a parapsychology center at Duke University. That letter mentioned the boy's name and address in Cottage City, which abuts Mount Rainier.

Once the Kelly crew began filming and interviewing in Mount Rainier, Cottage City and St. Louis, "We kicked the beehive, so to speak," he said. "So many people say so many things."

He decided, like others before him, to shield the boy's identity, and while using a shot of the Cottage City house, the city or street were not named.

"We chose not to go any further," Mr. Kelly said.

In the end, he is confident in the documentary theme, even after flying to Rome to cover an exorcism that turned out to be no more than a psychological problem.

"One side of me wants to pick up the phone and talk to [the boy from Cottage City] and get to the bottom of it," Mr. Kelly said.

That's exactly what Greenbelt writer Mark Opsasnick did in 1998 after identifying the boy from a Gonzaga High School yearbook, then talking to his Cottage City neighbors and boyhood friends.

"No one had gone there and talked to the old-timers," said Mr. Opsasnick, who got on the case in 1997 as he researched local rock 'n'roll history in Mount Rainier.

In that town, he said, there was an "urban legend" about the haunted house since razed and replaced with a city park but also remarked that the boy never lived there at all.

"I separated fact from fiction," he said. "And it was fun."

Mr. Opsasnick identified the family by yearbooks, news reports and land records but like everyone else keeps it to himself.

"There's been a real attempt by a lot of people to keep the kid's identity confidential," said Mr. Allen, who in "Possessed" said he mailed an inquiry to the grown man but got no reply.

Still, Mr. Opsasnick insists that the confusion over the boy's 1949 address has been used as a "smoke screen" so people don't go to Cottage City and interrogate the locals. The ones who remember 1949, he reported in 1998 in Strange Magazine, think the boy was "sick," not possessed.

"I don't believe it was a possession," Mr. Opsasnick said. "He was emotionally disturbed."

He argues that the boy, alienated at school and mischievous on the block, contrived the weird "possession" phenomena scratching sounds, spitting, speaking ancient tongues, objects moving, his bed shaking or spinning.

"A childhood friend said they learned to spit long distances through their teeth," he said. "He mimicked the Latin phrases the priests used." Beds in those days, he said, were on wheels and could be spun by a clever teen-ager.

In the debate over fact and fiction, Mr. Opsasnick gives credit to Mr. Blatty's flair, saying, "He writes fiction very well." His only grievance, he said, is with the true story approach of "Possession" and its documentary, "In the Grip of Evil."

"They are liars," said Mr. Opsasnick, reared a Catholic and still a believer. He said his year of research has been stonewalled by the major media. "No one wants to debunk a legend."

Intrepid as Mr. Opsasnick's work may be, the apparent confusion over Cottage City is a non-issue, said Mr. Allen.

"The business about Cottage City is really about geography. It has no impact on the veracity of the story," he said. "A Maryland boy was the object of an exorcism. It doesn't matter whether he was supernaturally possessed or suffering from a psychiatric illness."

Mr. Blatty was struck by the Opsasnick report that the boy's friends remembered that 50 years back his bed had wheels, and thus the "paranormal" phenomena is explained.

"I tossed the magazine into the circular file," he said. "Maybe the case wasn't genuine. I wasn't there. But the [Opsasnick] explanations are more incredible than the reported paranormal phenomena."

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