The real story behind ‘The Exorcist’: Q&A with Henry Ansgar Kelly

Published: October 19, 2023
Still of a person's face from the movie The ExorcistStill from the 1973 film "The Exorcist"

Jonathan Riggs | October 19, 2023

Turning 50 this year — and looking not a day over diabolical — “The Exorcist” is one of the most influential, critically acclaimed and financially successful horror films of all time. (Based on a 1971 novel, the film even inspired a 2023 sequel, as well as some silly questions.)

While its sensationalized depiction of demonic possession has all but defined this type of narrative in the popular imagination, the material itself is loosely based on a real-life case from 1949, where Father William Bowdern performed a series of exorcisms on a 14-year-old boy.

“I was the only one to whom he ever gave an interview,” says Henry Ansgar Kelly, the distinguished research professor of English who wrote it up in the 1974 edition of his book, “The Devil, Demonology, and Witchcraft.” (Read what he wrote in scanned pages here.)

Associated with UCLA for 56 years thus far, Kelly was initially drawn to the university for the interdisciplinary approach of its new Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, now known as the UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies.

“It allowed for interesting sidelines,” he says, “as long as one’s main field was not neglected. I may have published four books on the devil and a few more on assorted other topics, but I’ve also written four books on Chaucer, three on the genre of tragedy and one on Shakespeare.”

What surprised you the most about your interviews with Father William Bowdern?

I came to him with a willingness to believe that he really had dealt with a demonic possession, because of the clearly miraculous events I had been told about the case by obviously reliable witnesses. One such witness was his own brother, Father Thomas Bowdern, former president of Creighton University in Omaha, about the flying host, which I recount in the book. The exorcist’s reaction was, “Who could have told you such a silly story?” I didn’t say that it was his own brother.

Secondly, I was amazed at how shamefully amateurish and irresponsible it had been for the authorities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis to order Father Bowdern to begin exorcism, since the required investigation had not been conducted. Since none of the criteria of demonic activity were present, there was no justification for there to be an exorcism. Like the 14-year-old boy who was subjected to it, Father Bowdern was a victim of this incompetence.

What should everyone know about reality vs. fiction when it comes to the book and movie?

The author of the book, William Peter Blatty, who never succeeded in interviewing Father Bowdern, may have truly believed that the seemingly paranormal events he put in really happened, but he was clearly exaggerating when he claimed publicly that all of the events he added to the screenplay actually happened, except for Regan’s full-circle neck-turning. The truth is that none of the strange events of the book or movie took place in the exorcist’s presence. The one thing that convinced him that the devil was present was the sudden appearance of red marks on his chest, which one time seemed to spell out “HELL.”

What do possession narratives ostensibly about external evil forces tell us about ourselves?

One obvious thing is the tendency of everyone, or at least a lot of us, to unconsciously exaggerate spectacular events that we witness. Father Bowdern himself told me that he made sure to write down immediately afterwards what happened in each session with the boy, because otherwise his mind would “improve” on the facts.

What was your reaction to seeing the “The Exorcist” in 1973?

Very exciting, very entertaining, but, in comparison to the book, sensationalized. Too much had been given to the devil. In Blatty’s novel, it was always touch and go whether there really was a demon at play or not — the Jesuit psychiatrist, Father Karras, could always come up with a plausible explanation of each weird phenomenon. It’s the perfect theological thriller. But in the film, we could see that he is just kidding himself, blind to the facts.

Henry Ansgar Kelly

Henry Ansgar Kelly

1973’s “The Exorcist” won two Oscars and became a hit of monstrous proportions. Why did it make such an enormous impression on audiences?

In part because the novel was so good, a bestseller. Also, of course, because of the very sensationalism the movie added to it. Everything about it was new, it hadn’t been done before. And it was supposed to be true. And a lot more people believed in the devil in those days.

This year’s release of “The Exorcist: Believer” was different because religious convictions, like belief in the biblical and Christian devil, have receded a lot in recent decades. Also, horror has been done to death, as have computer-assisted special effects. Improvements in producing realistic phenomena have had a backlash: nothing seems real. And the whooshy music doesn’t help. You’ll note that another recent film, “The Pope’s Exorcist,” with Russell Crowe, also bombed: it claims to be based on real events, but everything is ludicrously presented.

What do you think the true takeaway of movies like “The Exorcist” should be for people?

The same as with all allegedly fact-based dramas. Don’t be too picky about watching them, or you’ll never be entertained. But don’t be gullible in accepting claimed facts as true. Especially nowadays, facts tend to “alternate.” Be cautious about eyewitness testimony, especially if you’re on the jury.

What inspired your new book on English Church Trials?

To get the truth out about inquisitorial procedure. Inquisition is a better form of trial than our jury-system, where one’s fate is placed in the hands of 12 randoms from off the street. But the rules have to be followed. The inquisition rule-book was set forth at the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome in 1215, the same year as the Magna Carta in England, and I like to call it the Church’s Magna Carta. It has the original Miranda rights for fair trials. The trouble is, in France and Italy and elsewhere, they started grilling suspects before charging them, using the third degree, the rubber hose, and worse. But in England, they didn’t. Usually.

What really scares you in a movie?

It gets me every time the young heroine opens the door to the attic stairs.

Anything else you’d like to say?

I find myself these days helping widows write obituaries for their husbands. I decided to save everyone the trouble and write my own — with a suitably advanced due date, subject to revision, of course. It’s a good way of getting the facts straight.