The boy who inspired the film and book The Exorcist went on to become an engineer at NASA, working on the Apollo program and patenting technology of his own design that helped space shuttles withstand the extreme heat of takeoff and reentry.
In August 1949, a series of articles told the strange tale of a teenage boy who had a number of paranormal experiences, prompting a call to a priest. According to reports, the boy (named at the time as Roland Doe to protect his identity) and his family began to hear scratching noises from the walls, and saw objects jump to the floor when the boy was around. More disturbingly his bed would apparently shake violently at night.
While they may have been better off searching for a source of carbon monoxide, the family followed the far more dubious process of asking a priest to stay the night. The priest – who was said to be skeptical, just like his counterpart in the films – did so, and supposedly witnessed events like the scratching on the walls, plus sheets moving around mysteriously on their own. The priest, to his credit, is reported to have called in the family doctor shortly afterward.
The press picked up on the story, but it wasn’t until later that month that it blew up, when several papers reported that the boy had been “freed” from the “devil’s grip” after 20 to 30 exorcisms by a catholic priest.
“In all except the last of these, the boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing and voicing of Latin phrases – a language he had never studied – whenever the priest reached the climactic point of the ritual,” one article by the Washington Post read, “‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I cast thee (the devil) out’.”
During this round of articles, details became more elaborate and unbelievable, with reports of beds flying around the room before the eventual exorcism. The real story, long after the articles filled with bizarre claims of heightened strength and had inspired the film, is far more mundane – and depressing.
Roland Doe (whose real name was Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, as revealed by Skeptical Inquirer late last year) grew up as a troubled boy in an extremely religious family. The strange details – the ones which are verifiable, at least – can be explained with ease. One junior priest who was witness to the events explained, for instance, the part about him speaking Latin phrases.
“Did the boy speak in any languages other than English?” a journalist writing for Strange Magazine who tracked him down asked in 1999.
“Just Latin,” the priest replied.
When asked whether he appeared to understand the Latin he spoke, the priest replied “I think he mimicked us.”
The priest went on to explain that there was no real change to the boy’s voice, and that he had the strength of a normal person. When asked whether the bed really moved across the room, he replied yes, before adding “it was on rollers like any bed, but I was leaning on it when it moved.”
Hunkeler managed to escape infamy thanks to the pseudonym used by newspapers at the time. He went on to live a successful life as a NASA engineer, before his death of a stroke in 2020 at the age of 86. Hunkeler contributed to the Apollo program, which eventually saw humanity set foot on the Moon. He worked at the agency until his retirement in 2001.
In spite of his success and normal life, he never quite shook the feeling that his past would be discovered.
“On Halloween, we always left the house because he figured someone would come to his residence and know where he lived and never let him have peace,” someone who knew him told the New York Post. “He had a terrible life from worry, worry, worry.”