In anticipation of the release of Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Rite, a religious horror film opening wide on January 28th, we now present to you part 4 (the second of this segment) of B-D’s ongoing series on exorcism. In this article we put the spotlight on two more real-life cases of alleged demonic possession, one of which inspired author William Peter Blatty to write The Exorcist. The other is a much more obscure but nonetheless just as sensational incident that occurred at a small Catholic school in South Africa during the early 1900s. Whether you believe in the Devil or not, both are fascinating case studies that should at the very least send a few shivers down your spine.Roland Doe/Robbie Mannheim
Place: Washington, D.C./St. Louis, Missouri
While 1973’s The Exorcist is generally hailed as one of the most terrifying films ever made, few people realize it is based on the real case of a 13-year-old alternately known as either Roland Doe or Robbie Mannheim (we’ll call him Robbie for the purposes of this article). The strange story began just outside Washington, D.C., where Robbie lived with his parents and grandmother. The family began reporting strange occurrences surrounding the boy that started sometime in late 1948 or early 1949. Phenomena included scratching sounds on the walls and under Robbie’s mattress, the violent shaking of the boy’s bed, and furniture moving on its own in his presence. Robbie’s behavior also started to deteriorate; he became physically violent and even defecated on the walls of his family’s home. He also appeared to have an aversion toward sacred objects.
Robbie was taken by his parents to both a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, neither of whom could find anything physically or mentally wrong with him. Desperate, they turned to their local Lutheran minister, Reverend Schulz, who requested that Robbie spend the night at his home to see if he himself could observe any of the bizarre anomalies. The Reverend reported later that while Robbie was there, the bed he slept in began shaking so violently that Schulz was forced to remove him from it. In addition to other freak events, including Robbie being violently ejected from a chair he was sitting in, Schulz became convinced that something supernatural was afoot and directed the boy’s parents to the Catholic Church, who he said “ha[d] ways” of dealing with cases like Robbie’s.
Robbie’s parents did as instructed and took him to St. James, the local Catholic church, and met with a young priest named Friar Albert Hughes. Hughes became convinced there was something evil about the 13-year-old after a telephone flew off his desk while they were talking; he also claimed that Robbie spoke to him in Latin, a language the boy had never studied, and that the temperature in his office had dropped several degrees when Robbie entered. After convincing the local archbishop of the boy’s possession, Hughes was cleared to perform an exorcism and reserved a room at nearby Georgetown University Hospital. It is alleged that only a few minutes into the ritual, Robbie became violent and stabbed the priest with a broken-off bedspring, after which he was released from the hospital. Hughes, who reportedly required 100 stitches as a result of the incident, reportedly never made another attempt to clear Robbie of his “possession”.
Back at home, Robbie’s bizarre behavior continued, culminating in a screaming fit in the bathroom during which the word “Louis” supposedly appeared in welts that sprang up on his chest. When Robbie’s mother asked him if the message meant “St. Louis”, where the family had several relatives, she then claimed that the word “Yes” had appeared on his stomach. It was around this time Robbie’s parents became convinced that the soul of Robbie’s spiritualist aunt in St. Louis, who had recently died and with whom Robbie had experimented with an Ouija board, had taken possession of his body. Feeling they’d run out of options, they relocated to St. Louis to see if perhaps returning there would help to quell Robbie’s “demons”. In St. Louis, one of Robbie’s cousins, who was currently attending the Jesuit-affiliated St. Louis University, spoke with one of her professors, Friar Raymond Bishop, about the strange events. Fr. Bishop then contacted another local priest, Friar William Bowdern, and the two traveled to the home where Robbie was staying to evaluate him for demonic possession.
Convinced after their visit that the boy was indeed possessed by an evil force, the priests met with the local archbishop, who after some prodding finally gave permission for Bowdern to perform an exorcism. With a team of nine Jesuit priests and a total of 48 witnesses, Robbie was subjected to the exorcism rite 30 times over a period of six weeks, during which the boy reportedly struck out violently, spat at great lengths across the room, spoke in a low, demonic voice, and mimed masturbation. His bed also allegedly shook uncontrollably, with words such as “evil” and “hell” spontaneously sprouting up on his skin. After the last exorcism was completed, witnesses reported the sound of a loud thunderclap or shotgun blast as the boy spasmed uncontrollably one last time before finally returning to normal. The adult Robbie (whose true identity has remained closely guarded) apparently grew up to become an ordinary, healthy adult and apparently has no memory of what happened.
Clara Germana Cele
Place: Umzinto, South Africa
One day in 1906 at Marianhill mission school in Umzinto, South Africa, Father Erasmus Horner came to hear a strange and troubling confession from one of the young Catholic students there – she’d made a pact with the Devil. The student was 16-year-old Clara Germana Cele, known by the nuns as an ordinary, if somewhat unpredictable, young black girl who’d been orphaned by her parents as an infant and attended the school since the age of four. While the confession was quickly forgotten, in the following weeks Clara began engaging in erratic behavior – behavior that graduated to insane levels on August 20, 1906, when the startled sisters at the school witnessed Clara tearing at her clothes, growling like an animal, and engaging in conversation with seemingly invisible beings. At one point she is reported to have said: “Sister, please call Father Erasmus. I must confess and tell everything. But quick, quick, or Satan will kill me. He has me in his power! Nothing blessed is with me; I have thrown away all the medals you gave me.” And later: “You have betrayed me. You have promised me days of glory, but now you treat me cruelly.”
Clara’s bizarre outbursts continued. Nuns reported that the girl’s skin would burn when sprinkled with holy water, and that she would act disturbed and lash out violently when crosses or other sacred objects entered her presence, even when they were concealed. She also reportedly developed clairvoyant powers, able to describe personal details of other people’s lives that she couldn’t possibly have known about otherwise. The accounts of several nuns also reported that Clara possessed the ability to speak and understand several different foreign languages to which she had never been exposed, including Polish, German, French, and several others. It was said that Clara had been imbued with superhuman strength as well, easily overpowering authority figures at the school when they attempted to restrain her.
Another seemingly far-fetched assertion from many witnesses was that Clara began levitating up to five feet in the air on a regular basis, her clothes sticking to her body as if they too had managed to defy the laws of gravity. It was claimed that only after being sprinkled with holy water could she be brought back down, during which time she would also temporarily snap out of her possessed state. Most outlandish of all were the claims that the young woman had the ability to transform into a sort of snakelike creature, her body becoming as flexible as rubber as she slithered across the floor. At one point she was said to have bitten a nun on the arm and left puncture marks like those of a serpent’s fangs.
After it was determined that Clara met the criteria for demonic possession, her confessor Father Horner and another priest, Reverend Mansueti, were cleared to perform an exorcism on the girl. On September 11, 1906, the ritual was performed, lasting from the early morning hours until noon, and then picked up again at 3pm and continuing on into the night. Among other bizarre and violent behaviors, Clara allegedly knocked a Holy Bible from one of the priests’ hands and attempted to strangle him with his stole. The next morning the rites were administered once again, with the possessing demon supposedly departing Clara’s body after telling the priests he would signal his exit by an act of levitation, which occurred in front of an audience of around 170 people in the mission chapel. The priests then asserted that Clara had been cleared of the Devil’s influence.
However, in January 1907 Clara claimed to have made another pact with the Devil and another exorcism was reportedly performed that lasted for two days. After the demon departed for the second time, witnesses reported that the air became filled with an overpoweringly foul smell. That was the last time any supernatural disturbances were reported in the case of Clara Germana Cele, and there is no record available as to what became of her following her bizarre ordeal.