The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist

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

The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist
RFT Archives/ Oct. 26, 2005

Exorcist house

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click to enlarge RFT ARCHIVES/ OCT. 26, 2005
RFT Archives/ Oct. 26, 2005

The exorcised boy, presumably Ronald Hunkeler, is reported to be living somewhere on the East Coast. He is now 70 years old. Rumor has it he named his first son Michael, after the archangel who rescued him from Satan's clutches. He supposedly has never spoken about the exorcism.

A brief addendum to the diary reports that the boy and his family returned to visit the Alexian Brothers in August 1951. The entry describes the boy, then sixteen, as a "fine young man" and tells that his father and mother converted to Catholicism shortly after the exorcism.

Little else has been officially reported on the event by SLU or the Alexian Brothers. Neither institution claims to keep extensive records of what is arguably the most famous, if not sensational, event in their history.

"Oh yeah, we get this question every year around Halloween," says SLU archivist John Wade, barely suppressing a yawn. "We have a file on the exorcism, but it's mostly just newspaper clippings."

In suburban Chicago, at the national offices of the Alexian Brothers, archivist Donna Dahl keeps a tight rein on any information regarding the case.

"This person was a patient and covered under the clause of confidentiality," says Dahl. "We don't release any information on our patients, no matter how bizarre the circumstances under which they were admitted."

Within the chancellery, Fathers William Faherty, 90, and Frank Cleary, 76, are two of the handful of people still living with any institutional memory of the exorcism, and both men knew several of the SLU priests involved.

"I was an undergraduate at SLU in 1949 when this was going on," recalls Cleary, who retired from teaching theology at the university a few years ago. "There were plenty of rumors about it at the time."

Cleary says it was only after the release of the film The Exorcist — 24 years after the St. Louis exorcism — that anyone made a big deal out of the case. "I tell students that it was probably not a bona fide case of possession," says Cleary.

As for the welts and scrapes that rose up on the boy during the rites of the exorcism?

"I'm told," says Cleary, "that is something people can do psychologically. It's like blushing."

Father Faherty, professor emeritus of history at SLU, isn't so sure. He knows his friend Father Halloran continued to believe in the possession up to his death earlier this year.

"You see from the gospel evidence of evil's influence on the individual, and the gospel took those to be possessions," reflects Faherty. "I'll leave it up to the experts."

Regardless of the veracity of the possession, the exorcism clearly put an emotional and physical strain on all involved, especially Father William Bowdern, who fasted throughout the duration of the lengthy ordeal.

"He must have lost thirty to forty pounds," recalls 80-year-old Betty LaBarge, a relative of Bowdern who had the priest over for dinner late into the exorcism. "He looked terrible, just fatigued. When we asked him what was wrong, he simply turned the conversation. It wasn't until years later we learned he played the leading role in the exorcism. Still he never did talk about it. The word came from others involved."

The only person still living in St. Louis with first-hand knowledge of the exorcism may be 86-year-old Brother John Grider. He was one of dozens of Alexian Brothers working in the hospital in 1949.

"I've never talked to the media about it, and I prefer to keep it that way," says the frail voice over the phone. "It's not something that should be publicized."

But try telling that to the residents on Roanoke Drive, where rumors persist that the "Exorcist house" remains a portal to the netherworld.

Next-door neighbor Jean Kustura tells how the young couple living in the house years earlier complained of the northwest bedroom — where the exorcism is said to have occurred — being eerily cold and drafty.

Greg LaFontain, a Bel-Nor neighbor on nearby Bellerive Drive, recalls the time he and his wife, Elizabeth, toured the house years ago when it was up for sale. Upon ascending the stairs an illness swept over Elizabeth, who ran from the house. When her husband joined her on the front lawn, Elizabeth was adamant that they not purchase the home.

Mark Willingham has heard all the tales and laughs them off.

From 1991 to 1999 he and his wife, Diane, lived at the home before moving to the Central West End and later to a house in mid-county. A no-nonsense insurance adjuster, Willingham says he learned of the home's occult past only after he purchased it.

"Sure, it came as quite a shock," he recalls. But Willingham maintains that nothing out of the ordinary ever occurred in the house while he lived there, and he assures future homeowners that they, too, have nothing to fear.

"We loved that house," he adds wistfully. "Way I see it, the place was blessed so many times during the exorcism, it's probably the safest home in all St. Louis."

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