In this photo provided by St. Louis University, the Rev. John Padberg, S.J., director of the Institute of Jesuit Sources, speaks during a panel discussion at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, about the month-long 1949 demon-purging ritual at the school’s former Alexian Brothers Hospital. (AP Photo/St. Louis University, Michelle Peltier)
by Alan Scher Zagier
Associated Press Writer
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Saint Louis University junior Zach Grummer-Strawn has never seen “The Exorcist,” the 1973 horror film considered one of the finest examples of unadulterated cinematic terror. He’s only vaguely familiar with the monthlong 1949 demon-purging ritual at his school that inspired William Peter Blatty’s novel and later the movie.
But just in time for Halloween, Jesuit scholars have joined a whole new generation of horror buffs in St. Louis to recount the supernatural incident. The university hosted a panel discussion Tuesday on the exorcism, which involved the treatment of an unidentified suburban Washington, D.C., boy. About 500 people crammed into Pius XII Library, with some spilling into the library aisles, leaning against pillars or sitting on desks.
“I’d like to believe it’s the real thing,” said Grummer-Strawn, a theology and sociology student from Atlanta. “But you just can’t know. That’s part of why we’re here. It’s the pursuit of truth. And it’s such a great story.”
The university scholars and guest speaker Thomas Allen, author of a 1993 account of the events at the school’s former Alexian Brothers Hospital, emphasized that definitive proof that the boy known only as “Robbie” was possessed by malevolent spirits is unattainable. Maybe he instead suffered from mental illness or sexual abuse — or fabricated the entire experience.
Like most of religion’s basic tenets, it ultimately comes down to faith.
“If the devil can convince us he does not exist, then half the battle is won,” said the Rev. Paul Stark, vice president for mission and ministry at the 195-year-old Catholic school. He opened the discussion with a prayer from the church’s exorcism handbook, imploring God to “fill your servants with courage to fight that reprobate dragon.”
Some of the non-students in the audience spoke of personal connections to an episode that has enthralled generations of St. Louis residents.
One man described living near the suburban St. Louis home where the 13-year-old boy arrived in the winter of 1949 (his Lutheran mother was a St. Louis native who married a Catholic). Another said she was a distant cousin of Father William Bowdern, who led the exorcism ritual after consulting with the archbishop of St. Louis but remained publicly silent about his experiences — though he did tell Allen it was “the real thing.”
Bowdern died in 1983.