Hell of a House

For sale: three-bedroom Colonial in charming neighborhood. Hardwood floors. Lots of personality. And, oh yeah: Satan slept here.

For the residents of this tidy, tree-lined Bel-Nor neighborhood, the haunting story that surrounds the home at 8435 Roanoke Drive may be their worst-kept secret.

"Oh yeah, that's the house," confirms neighbor Cris Coy when asked if he's aware of the occult history of the two-story brick colonial next door.

"That's what they say," acknowledges Jean Kustura, a 72-year-old widow who for twenty years has kept watch over the north St. Louis County neighborhood from her bungalow on the other side of the infamous house. "But all of that happened back in the 1940s. I'm told the victim is still alive. He won't talk about it."

A devil of a deal: The exorcism was performed in this very bedroom.
Jennifer Silverberg
A devil of a deal: The exorcism was performed in this very bedroom.


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Other neighbors, including the couple across the street and several families living on adjacent blocks, are also quick to share the mysterious story of the house. Indeed, it seems the only people who aren't eager to recount the sordid tale are the home's current owner, Gary Stafford, and the real-estate agent trying to sell the house.

"I don't want to talk about it," bristles realtor Patrick McLaughlin before quickly hanging up the phone. "It's not going to help me sell the home."

Stafford, a real-estate investor who has never lived in the three-bedroom house, says he became aware of the "rumors" only after he purchased it out of bankruptcy this summer. The last person to occupy the residence, a man named Elvis Fantroy, left the building in June and hasn't been heard from since.

"I don't think publicizing it is a good thing," says Stafford, who's asking $169,900 for the sturdy 63-year-old domicile that has been on the market more than two months. "It's certainly not something we'd need to disclose to the future buyer -- that, some 50 years ago, a boy who stayed in the house may or may not have been possessed."

"Besides," adds Stafford, attempting to further distance his investment from the events purported to have occurred there, "the exorcism didn't happen there. It happened at [Saint Louis University]."

But the fact remains that the real-life story behind author William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel The Exorcist had its origins in St. Louis.

Legend tells of an ill thirteen-year-old boy who, in the late winter of 1949, traveled to St. Louis from suburban Washington, D.C. Convinced the child was possessed by the Devil, Jesuit priests from Saint Louis University performed a grueling month-long exorcism on the boy, at last freeing the teen from Satan's grasp in the psych ward at Alexian Brothers Hospital.

Whether the child was actually possessed is still a matter of debate, but the fact that priests did perform the archaic ritual of the exorcism is not.

Blatty used a diary kept by one of the exorcists as the basis of his 1971 book, which rode atop best-seller lists for 54 weeks. When Blatty's seminal shocker hit theaters two years later, filmgoers across the nation threw up in the aisles and ran screaming from movie houses. There were also reports of people conducting their own gothic exorcisms, killing several "possessed" victims in the process.

Reacting to the hysteria, several priests with intimate knowledge of the St. Louis exorcism came forward to angrily deny some of the more outrageous claims made in the movie, such as the possessed child masturbating with a bloody crucifix and spewing pea-soup-like vomit.

But the priests did not deny that the exorcism took place in St. Louis. Follow-up news articles, some based on excerpts from the diary Blatty used to pen his book, placed the exorcism at the rectory of St. Francis Xavier College Church on the Saint Louis University campus and in the Alexian Brothers Hospital.

But missing from almost all accounts is mention of the St. Louis residence where the boy stayed prior to being moved to the rectory and, finally, the hospital.

But that house was almost certainly the property Stafford recently purchased at 8435 Roanoke Drive. With both the church rectory and the Alexian Brothers Hospital having been razed decades ago, the home remains the last surviving landmark associated with the ghastly story.

It is within that nondescript brick home that some of the most spellbinding tales of the exorcism occurred.

Priests report arriving at the house on March 9, 1949, to witness the boy's bed shaking uncontrollably. At the mention of the scriptures, the boy screamed out in pain. Scrapes and welts -- some forming letters and words -- rose up inexplicably on his skin. A bottle of holy water flew through the air.

For two weeks the priests waged night-long battles with the demon inside the lone lit bedroom on Roanoke Drive.

That these scenes in the home are not addressed in the retelling of the exorcism is not surprising, given the extraordinary care the Jesuits took to conceal the identity of the possessed boy.

In fact, few of the St. Louis priests involved in the exorcism ever spoke of it. Father William Bowdern, who carried out the majority of the exorcism rituals, died in 1983 at the age of 85, never having disclosed what he knew of the case.

Father Raymond Bishop, who kept the diary of the exorcism, and Father William Van Roo, an attending priest, also remained tight-lipped, believing media attention violated the confidentiality of the possessed boy.

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