Photograph: AF archive/Alamy
The boy whose case inspired the portrayal of a demon-possessed child in the 1973 horror movie classic The Exorcist has been named.
The US magazine the Skeptical Inquirer named the then 14-year-old boy, previously known as Roland Doe, who underwent exorcisms in Cottage City, Maryland, and St Louis, Missouri, in 1949.
Ronald Edwin Hunkeler died last year, a month before his 86th birthday, after suffering a stroke at home in Marriottsville, Maryland.
In adult life, Hunkeler was a Nasa engineer whose work contributed to the Apollo space missions of the 1960s and who patented a technology that helped space shuttle panels withstand extreme heat.
One of his companions, a 29-year-old woman who asked not to be named, told the New York Post that Hunkeler was always on edge about his Nasa colleagues discovering that he was the inspiration for The Exorcist.
“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,” she said. “He had a terrible life from worry, worry, worry,” she added.
Hunkeler eventually retired from Nasa in 2001 after working at the agency for nearly 40 years.
William Peter Blatty, who wrote the 1971 novel and the film based on the same name, first heard about Hunkeler’s apparent demonic possession when he was a senior at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
His professor, Eugene Gallager, who was also a priest at Georgetown, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university founded in the US, told Blatty about Hunkeler’s reported possessions and subsequent exorcisms.
Born in 1935 and raised by a middle-class family in Cottage City, Hunkeler began experiencing paranormal activities at 14 when he reported hearing knocking and scratching sounds from behind his bedroom walls.
The Rev Luther Schulze, Hunkeler’s family minister, eventually wrote to the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, in North Carolina, in March 1949 and explained how “chairs moved with [Hunkeler] and one threw him out [of it.] His bed shook whenever he was in it.”
Schulze also explained how the family’s floors were “scarred from the sliding of heavy furniture” and how “a picture of Christ on the wall shook” whenever Hunkeler was nearby.
The family eventually sought the help of William Bowdern, a Jesuit who conducted more than 20 exorcism rituals on Hunkeler in the span of three months. Writing in his diary on 10 March 1949, Bowdern noted how Hunkeler entered a trance-like state as 14 witnesses watched during one of his exorcisms.
There was a “scratching which beat out a rhythm of marching soldiers. Second class relic of St Margaret Mary was thrown on the floor. The safety pin was opened but no human hand had touched the relic. R started up in fright when the relic was thrown down,” Bowdern wrote.
Hunkeler was then relocated to St Louis to be treated for demonic possession. “It seems that whatever force was writing the words was in favor of making the trip to St Louis,” Bowdern wrote.
“On one evening the word ‘Louis’ was written on the boy’s ribs in deep red [scratches.] Next, when there was some question of the time of departure, the word ‘Saturday’ was written plainly on the boy’s hip. As to the length of time the mother and the boy should stay in St Louis, another message was printed on the boy’s chest, ‘3 ½ weeks’. The printing always appeared without any motion on the part of the boy’s hands.”
Hunkeler was admitted to the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St Louis on 21 March 1949. Nearly a month later, Hunkeler “broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing, and voicing of Latin phrases” as Jesuit priests allegedly cast the demon out of his body.
He “has been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil, Catholic sources reported yesterday”, wrote Washington Post reporter Bill Brinkley in an article on 20 August 1949.
Shortly before his death, a Catholic priest showed up at Hunkeler’s home unexpectedly to perform last rites, said his companion.
“I have no idea how the Father knew to come but he got Ron to heaven. Ron’s in heaven and he’s with God now,” she told the New York Post.