Speak of the devil

The residents of Mt. Rainier are almost eerily protective-- of their town, of a local boy's privacy and of the facts behind a supposed haunting that inspired 'The Exorcist.'

September 26, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

MOUNT RAINIER, Prince George's County - Autumn leaves speckle the ground at 3210 Bunker Hill Road. Sparrows sweep across the grass. A dog barks. Children have left chalk drawings of hearts and sweet messages scrawled on posts and beams of the gazebo: JESUS RULES, PEACE & LOVE, ROSE & JEFF.

For almost 30 years, this tranquil place was known as "the devil's house," the dark portal where a fallen spirit penetrated the psyche of a fragile 13-year-old.

"I passed that house every day on the way to school," said 53-year-old Vernon Sears, a lifelong resident of Mount Rainier. "That was where the boy succumbed to whatever it was, and then the family moved closer to St. James [Catholic Church] to be near the priest. Why it was abandoned after that, I don't know, but you could speculate that no one wanted to live there."

Hard to believe this tidy lot anchoring an old neighborhood now serves as a playground for Mount Rainier Elementary School. Church people use it as an outdoor sanctuary. The town hosts concerts at the gazebo. Some remember what once loomed here - an unpainted three-story house that slowly crumbled, sporadically burned and became such a frightening spectacle that people crossed the street to avoid its influence - and they sigh with relief.

"A couple of years ago we moved our sunrise service to the gazebo," said Pastor Malcolm Smith, whose Mount Rainier Christian Church stands on the opposite corner. "A few people expressed some nervousness about it, but we had a wonderful service. The sun rose spectacularly and shone through the stained glass window across the street. I have to say that inside me there was a feeling of reclaiming the land for good and not evil."

And yet just last week, school children strolling up Bunker Hill Road walked on the other side of the road. They said they believe the house is still there, only now buried beneath the ground.

The story spreads

In 1971, a former Georgetown University student named William Peter Blatty wrote a richly disguised novel about a case of demonic possession that reportedly happened here in January 1949. His book, "The Exorcist," frightened the bejesus out of a lot of readers, became a best seller and caught the fancy of Hollywood. A few years later, the movie made a lot of money and became one of the world's most popular horror films.

A nonfiction book and meticulous descriptions of the actual incident have been published in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, and Hong Kong.

In 1998, the BBC produced a documentary, and the British relinquished a 12-year ban on "The Exorcist" video, setting off a flurry of reports about Mount Rainier around Great Britain.

Just recently, a journalist for The Guardian in London wrote a story about the "spooky old house at 3210 Bunker Hill Road." With last week's release of an updated version of the movie, yet another documentary crew has been seen lurking around the neighborhood.

Despite 50 years of all this fervent interest, the real story of the boy's exorcism has always been a bit confused.

In the film, Georgetown, not Mount Rainier, is the setting. A 12-year-old girl is the devil's victim. The parents are divorced. The priest battles privately with a loss of faith.

None of this is factual.

In Thomas Allen's nonfiction book, "Possessed: The True Story of An Exorcism," the boy's name is Robbie. In the movie, the girl is Regan. Around Mount Rainier and in news accounts, the name comes out as Jarboe, Douglas and John. His father reportedly worked at a local bar named Bass's, or as a mechanic. People say the boy today lives in California or Minneapolis or, maybe, outside Washington, D.C.

What no one disagrees about is that priests did try to exorcise a demon.

Sometime during January 1949, the boy's mother noticed odd noises around the house, found furniture moved and saw strange marks on the boy's body. She consulted her minister, who dismissed her concern about demonic possession. But after an evening in his own home with the boy, seeing a chair lift up and toss the boy in the air, the minister sent the family to a young priest at St James Catholic Church, Father Albert Hughes.

Shortly after that, an altar boy, Winfield Kelly, noted an awful change in the priest.

"I saw him every day for Mass, and I became aware of some trauma he was going through," said Kelly, now chief executive of Dimensions Health Care in Prince George's County. "He had a handsome face, but at one point it became mottled, like he'd been hit with cigarette lighters. A very handsome dark-haired man grew gray and haggard."

Around the schoolyard kids talked about strange goings-on in the boy's house. It was said Father Hughes had become involved.

Whether the priest actually attempted an exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital is not certain. For years, Father Hughes refused to discuss it or even mention the boy's name.

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