Roland Doe: Is the inspiration for “The Exorcist” a case of possession, or something else?

If you’re a fan of William Peter Blatty’s novel and the 1973 film, “The Exorcist,” you’re familiar with the case of “Roland Doe.”

Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” movie (1973)

“Roland” – a pseudonym – was a 14-year-old boy born to German Lutheran parents from Maryland. Roland was an only child and often spent his free time with adults, including his favorite aunt, Harriet. She filled his imagination with ideas from the occult and was an enthusiastic Ouija Board user.  So before Harriet died suddenly in the late 1940s, she taught Roland how to use the board as well. But this was, perhaps, a disastrous decision on her part because in 1949, the “Doe Family” began experiencing furniture moving on its own accord throughout the house, hearing eerie noises, and seeing objects levitate when Roland was nearby.  In response to this, Roland’s parents immediately sought the help of their church’s pastor, Luther Miles Schulze.

Long interested in parapsychology, Schulze jumped at the chance to study Roland further. He immediately arranged for Roland to spend a night in his home in order to observe him. Schulze subsequently claimed that he witnessed objects and furniture moving on their own. He then advised that Roland’s parents seek out a Catholic priest – the only “sanctioned” persons qualified to perform an exorcism.

Ouija Board (Parker Brothers)

Not long after, Edward Hughes – a Roman Catholic priest – conducted an exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital, the events of which were recorded by the attending priest, Raymond Bishop.  During the exorcism, Roland allegedly slipped one of his hands out of the restraints, was able to break off a bedspring from beneath the mattress, and used it as a weapon against the priest, slashing it open. This caused the exorcism to be stopped.  The family then packed up Roland and traveled to St. Louis where they contacted William Bowdern, an associate of College Church. Together with Raymond Bishop, he convinced the Catholic archbishop to sanction another exorcism attempt. They cited the evidence that Bowdern and Bishop had witnessed Roland speaking in a gutteral voice/speaking in tongues, a shaking bed, and an aversion to anything sacred.

Before the next exorcism ritual began, another priest, Walter Halloran, was called to the psychiatric wing of the hospital, where Roland was staying. He’d been requested in order to assist Bowdern.  After the fact, Halloran stated that he’d seen words such as “evil” and “hell,”along with other various marks, appearing on Roland’s body. The boy also reportedly broke Halloran’s nose! Nonetheless, once the rite was over, Halloran reported that Roland was ‘clean’ and he went on to lead “a rather ordinary life.”

“The Exorcist” – TV Series

All of this seems very cut and dried, but when one searches further, there were a few credible detractors regarding the entire Roland Doe ordeal. Among them was prominent parapsychologist J. B. Rhine.  When he learned of Pastor Schulze’s claim that he witnessed household objects and furniture moving, he “wondered if Schulze ‘unconsciously exaggerated’ some of the facts,” because he so wanted to believe.

Furthermore, according to author Thomas B. Allen, attending priest Raymond Bishop (present at both exorcisms) had kept a diary of the events he witnessed. In it, he emphasized that ‘definitive proof’ that Roland was possessed by malevolent spirits was ‘unattainable.’ He opined that perhaps Roland had suffered from mental illness, sexual abuse, or fabricated the entire experience. Additionally, Allen posited that Father Halloran also “expressed his skepticism about potential paranormal events before his death.”  When asked in an interview to make a statement on whether the boy had been possessed, Halloran responded saying “No, I can’t go on record, I never made an absolute statement about the things because I didn’t feel I was qualified.”

So…given that the possession of Roland Doe (a.k.a. Robbie Mannheim) may not have been genuine, let’s look at some FAQs regarding the ritual

Historical Uses for Exorcisms:

Schizophrenia – to get rid of the voices (thinking that they are demonic)

Depression – used to combat “oppression” and other mood symptoms

Epilepsy – used to combat the seizures, thinking that the body is literally possessed and being manipulated.

Traumatic Brain Injuries – used to combat personality changes

Marilyn Manson – teen idol of the ’90s for malcontents

Why are so many sufferers adolescents?

Coming up with actual statistics on this was difficult, and I don’t know if this is always the case. But if I am to accept that fact as true, I’d look first at the make-up of the family. A teenager is still living at home, and is heavily under the influence of what the family believes. In Roland Doe’s case, he was brought up in a German Lutheran family and his aunt was an avid spiritualist.  Speaking as a confirmed Lutheran myself (they spoke German in my grandmother’s church), I can tell you that if something is going wrong, it’s the work of the Devil, plain and simple.  Medical or Psychiatric diagnoses aren’t generally thought of as the “most likely culprit” at all.  Instead, pastoral counseling and praying are the primary modes of combatting issues that seem foreign or disagreeable. Thus, little Roland may have been influenced by this.  Even if his behaviors were medically or psychologically mediated, it’s probably likely that his family chose to air their concerns to a man of the faith rather than a man of medicine.

In fact, this is reportedly exactly what occurred. Roland Doe’s family went to their Pastor Luther Miles Schulze for answers first. He observed the boy for one night and came to the conclusion that a Catholic priest should be summoned.  However, it’s worth mentioning here that Pastor Schulze was, himself, very interested in parapsychology and the occult.  This is notable because it seems as though no other options were sought out at the time, indicating that everyone involved was viewing this case through one lens: that of Roland’s behavior being caused by something spiritual, rather than anything else.


What is the psychological impact of possession on a family? 

There’s no doubt that the impact of such a ritual being done to/with a member of one’s family would – at the very least – be traumatic.  The ritual itself is secretive. Though there are Hollywood portrayals, the actual event is usually shrouded in mystery.  Only a few of those who are chosen are allowed to perform them.  So, on the one hand, the entire family might feel like pariahs.  However, on the other hand, there is something very “special” about being picked for this ‘procedure’ and a dysfunctional family might feed on it and encourage the victim to act even more bizarre in order to garner more attention. It’s definitely a double-edged sword.  In Roland Doe’s case, it’s unclear.  Without interviews or accounts from the actual family, it’s impossible for me to know for sure; but I know that Roland was shuttled around quite a bit and met with many different “specialists.”  This seems to indicate that his family was very open to Roland being viewed as a spectacle, rather than shielding him from those who could have exploited him.


My opinion:

Given the accounts of Roland Doe as a child and teenager, it seems pretty clear that he was attention-seeking and a bit of a trouble-maker. He was also an only child. Thus, when his beloved Aunt died, Roland may not have known how to cope with the loss.  Instead, he may have attempted to focus attention on himself by using her memory and belief in spiritualism. This worked and soon he was getting more attention than he knew what to do with!  When it comes to the various “proof” seen by clergy, I’m afraid it can all be explained. Reports have indicated that the bed shaking was nothing that a normal healthy teenage boy couldn’t have created, and the words scratched into his skin always “appeared” when he was not being observed. They were also never in a place on his body that he, himself, couldn’t reach.  Lastly, Roland appeared to be mimicking Latin words that the Priests had already said – basically, he didn’t speak fluently in any language other than his own.

So, ultimately, it seems to me that Roland Doe was a deeply troubled adolescent dealing with grief and perhaps some other issues in a very maladaptive, attention-seeking way.  His parents, unfamiliar with reasons (other than spiritual) for Roland’s erratic behavior, encouraged his contact with clergy in an attempt to eradicate the symptoms – – – which were likely feigned for secondary gain.  Given reports that Roland Doe made a full recovery and became a “family man” who lived peacefully, it’s unlikely that any other more serious psychological diagnoses were present.


4 thoughts on “Roland Doe: Is the inspiration for “The Exorcist” a case of possession, or something else?

  1. That’s wild. It looks like everything was logically explained. Kind of like magic. Misdirection used to capture attention.

    1. I agree, Rick. There was lots of misdirection in the Doe case and I even wonder if his parents didn’t “use” him a bit, as there were articles in the local papers about him, etc, when it all started.

  2. A bunch of hooey. I put no credence to any boards, seances, or spirit world contacts. As far as I know, the isn’t any proof!

    1. I’d love to agree with that…but I have a weird “fear” of Ouija boards for some reason. I won’t use one and never will! *shiver*

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