The True Story Of Roland Doe That Inspired ‘The Exorcist’

Published October 26, 2017
Updated June 21, 2020

Discover the tale of Roland Doe, the child whose ordeal represents the true story of The Exorcist.

Roland Doe Exorcism House

Discovery via Getty ImagesThe St. Louis house once home to “Roland Doe” as seen in 2015.

In the picturesque Bel-Nor neighborhood of St. Louis sits a beautiful, Colonial-style house on Roanoke Drive. It looks normal on the outside with an all-brick exterior and white shutters framing the windows while huge trees and neatly manicured bushes dot the yard.

Yet one of the most extraordinary horror stories turned urban legends in American history transformed this house into a landmark for the macabre and provided the true story of The Exorcist.

A Troubled Boy

This story, the true story of The Exorcist, begins in the late 1940s in suburban Washington, D.C. with a family named Hunkeler. Their 13-year-old boy, believed to be named Ronald (and later referred to pseudonymously in the literature as “Roland Doe” among other names), was despondent over the loss of his beloved Aunt Harriet, a spiritualist who’d taught him many things including how to use a Ouija board.

In early January 1949, shortly after Harriet’s death, Ronald began to experience strange things. He heard scratching sounds coming from the floors and walls of his room. Water dripped inexplicably from pipes and walls. The most troubling thing was that his mattress would suddenly move.

Disturbed, Ronald’s family sought the help of every expert they knew. The Hunkelers consulted doctors, psychiatrists, and their local Lutheran minister, but they were no help. The minister suggested that the family seek the assistance of the Jesuits.

Father E. Albert Hughes, the local Catholic priest, asked his superiors’ permission to perform an exorcism on the boy in late February of 1949. However, Hughes stopped the rite when Ronald broke off a piece of spring from the mattress that he’d been strapped down to and lashed the priest across his shoulders.

A few days later, red scratches appeared on the boy. One of the scratches formed the word ‘LOUIS’, which indicated to Ronald’s mother that the family needed to go to St. Louis, where the Hunkelers had relatives, in order to find a way to save their son.

More Help Arrives For Roland Doe

Priest Who Performed Exorcism Of Roland Doe

Wikimedia Commons

A cousin of the family was attending St. Louis University at the time of Ronald’s struggles. She put the Hunkelers in touch with Father Walter H. Halloran and Rev. William Bowdern. After consulting with the university’s president, these two Jesuits agreed to perform an exorcism on young Ronald with the help of several assistants.

The men gathered at the residence on Roanoke Drive in early March of 1949. There, the exorcists witnessed scratching on the boy’s body and the mattress moving violently. These were the same types of things that had happened in Maryland when the first exorcism failed.

Amid these bizarre happenings, Bowdern and Halloran, according to their reports, noticed a pattern in Ronald’s behavior. He was calm and normal during the day. But, at night after settling in for bed, he would exhibit strange behavior including screaming and wild outbursts (clearly details that identify this as the true story of The Exorcist).

Ronald would also enter a trance-like state and start making sounds in a guttural voice. The priests supposedly also saw mysteriously flying objects in the boy’s presence and noted that he would react violently when he saw any sacred object presented by the attending Jesuits.

At one point during this weeks-long ordeal, Bowdern reportedly saw an “X” appear in scratches on Ronald’s chest, which the priest believed signified the number 10.

In another incident, a pitchfork-shaped pattern of red lines moved from the boy’s thigh and snaked down towards his ankle. These types of things happened every night for more than a month and everyone witnessing the events believed that Roland was possessed by 10 demons.

A Constant Struggle Against Evil

St Louis Hospital

Wikimedia CommonsThe Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis.

The two priests never gave up as they continued the exorcism night after night. On the evening March 20, the exorcism reached an unhealthy new level. Ronald urinated all over his bed and began shouting and cursing at the priests. Now, Ronald’s parents had had enough. They took him to Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis for more serious treatment.

Finally, on April 18, a “miracle” occurred in Ronald’s room at Alexian Brothers. It was the Monday after Easter and Ronald awoke with seizures. He yelled at the priests saying that Satan would always be with him. The priests laid holy relics, crucifixes, medals, and rosaries on the boy.

At 10:45 p.m. that evening, the attending priests called on St. Michael to expel Satan from Ronald’s body. They shouted at Satan, saying that St. Michael would battle him for Ronald’s soul. Seven minutes later, Ronald came out of his trance and simply said, “He’s gone.” The boy recounted how he had a vision that St. Michael vanquished Satan on a great battlefield.

There were no more documented instances of strange occurrences and behavior after that, and Ronald went on live a completely normal life from that moment forward (despite providing the true story of The Exorcist).

The True Story Of The Exorcist

The True Story Of The Exorcist

Warner Bros.A still from the film version of The Exorcist.

No one would have ever known about the exorcism of “Roland Doe” (nor would it have become the true story of The Exorcist) if not for an article in The Washington Post, which reported in late 1949, albeit with few details, that priests had indeed performed an exorcism. The case wouldn’t make headlines again for more than two decades.

In 1971, an author by the name of William Peter Blatty penned the bestselling novel The Exorcist based on the unofficial diaries kept by Halloran and Bowdern. The book stayed on the bestseller list for 54 weeks, and it spawned the hit movie in 1973.

The movie took many liberties with its source material, turning the teenager into a 12-year-old girl named Regan and not a boy named Ronald. The movie’s story also takes place completely in Washington, D.C. and the Georgetown area, which is somewhat true-to-life since Ronald was hospitalized for a week in Georgetown in late February of 1949.

Although the scratches, shouting, spitting, red lines on the skin, and cursing in the movie mimicked what Ronald had experienced, the boy’s head never turned 360 degrees like Regan’s did in the film. Similarly, Ronald never vomited green matter during his many tantrums nor did he use a bloody crucifix to masturbate.

After The Exorcism Of “Roland Doe”

Roland Doe House Interior

Discovery via Getty ImagesThe stairs inside the St. Louis house once home to “Roland Doe” as seen in 2015.

Following the exorcism of “Roland Doe,” his family moved back to the East Coast. Sources say that Ronald found a wife and started a family. He named his first son Michael after the saint believed to have saved his soul. If Roland is still alive today, he would be in his early 80s.

Bowdern, on the other hand, died in 1983 after serving the Catholic Church for decades. Halloran lived until 2005, when he died of cancer. He was the last surviving member of the main team that had performed the exorcism of “Roland Doe.”

The room in Alexian Brothers Hospital was boarded up and sealed following the exorcism. The entire facility was torn down in 1978. The house where the family lived in Maryland is now an empty lot after it was abandoned in the 1960s.

Experts believe the real name of “Roland Doe” to be Ronald Hunkeler, although only one person reportedly knows for sure.

In 1993, author Thomas B. Allen wrote a nonfiction book entitled Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism. In writing the book, which relies heavily on Halloran’s detailed accounts, Allen claims to have uncovered the true identity and story of “Roland Doe,” but has said that he will never reveal the person’s true name.

As for the cozy house on Roanoke Drive, it sold to new owners in 2005 for $165,000. Perhaps the buyers embraced the property’s legendary reputation that claims that Satan may have once lived in an upstairs bedroom.

After this look at “Roland Doe” and the true story of The Exorcist, then read up on the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, the real-life Emily Rose. Then, check out 16 iconic horror film locations, including one from The Exorcist, that you can visit today.

William DeLong
William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith. He thanks you for reading his content.