©2000, Mark Chorvinsky
"The too credulous are often
deceived...lunatics often declare themselves
to be possessed and tormented by the devil; and these people
nevertheless are far
more in need of a doctor than an exorcist."
The Return of The Exorcist
The theatrical re-release of the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist and the premiere of the Showtime cable film Possessed, just before Halloween 2000, have stirred up interest in demonic possession and the ritual of exorcism. Articles related to The Exorcist and the 1949 case on which it was based have been appearing regularly in newspapers and magazines. Most of these articles are the result of the efforts of Warner Brothers and Showtime flacks who suggested the articles to newspaper and magazine editors, critics, and reporters and television segment producers. What the public sees is the appearance of a resurgence of interest in demonic possession and exorcism.
As a result of the investigative efforts of Mark Opsasnick we now know a great deal more about the supposedly true case that inspired The Exorcist and now Possessed, as well as the earlier "documentary" In the Grip of Evil. This is despite the fact that many of the reporters and producers who are writing about The Exorcist have chosen to downplay or ignore the multitude of revelations in Mark Opsasnick's article in Strange 21, which is available elsewhere on the free portion of this web site. Readers who have not yet read Mark's article may want to do so before continuing, as my article is based largely on the foundation that he established. Click here to go to Mark Opsasnick's article "The Haunted Boy of Cottage City."
In this update, we will look at the response to our Haunted Boy article, examine the press's handling of the recent Exorcist flap, and consider some of the implications of Mark Opsasnick's investigation.
Reaction to "The Haunted Boy of Cottage
Strange 20 caused quite a ripple among those interested in the case that inspired The Exorcist. Mark Opsasnick's incredible investigation, the first to strip away the misinformation to get at the truth, met with international praise.
This is the first article that we ever published which resulted in an endless stream of fan mail and congratulatory e-mails. Mark's article is arguably the best investigation that we have ever run in Strange, a magazine noted for its in-depth investigations.
Several readers have opined that the Haunted Boy article should have won a Pulitzer prize, and if Strange Magazine was a mainstream publication Opsasnick might well have walked away with some awards.
Eugene Summers echoed many readers when he wrote, "Without any exaggeration, Mr. Opsasnick's piece is one of the best pieces of detective work that I've seen in years. What a dogged investigator he is!"
A selection of responses to Strange 20's Haunted Boy article may be found in the Mail department in this issue.
The article has become one of the most requested Exorcist-related sites on the web. The official Warner Brothers Exorcist web site links to our article, and the article has been widely acknowledged among Exorcist afficionados as being the first and only in-depth investigation into any part of The Exorcist case.
While Strange Magazine readers and strangemag.com guests seemed to appreciate the work that went into the investigation and the importance of its implications, most of the press had their own agenda and were loath to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The Washington Post:
"...everything you thought you knew about it was wrong."
The Washington Post's Peter Carlson, in his "The Magazine Reader" column, was the first journalist to react to the Opsasnick article. He would prove to be one of the few members of the press who would recognize the value of Mark's investigation, writing:
Strange has investigated the case that inspired the movie "The Exorcist" and learned that everything you thought you knew about it was wrong. Newspapers, including this one, have reported for decades that the famous 1949 case involved a boy from Mount Rainier. Not true, reports local writer Mark Opsasnick. The boy lived in Cottage City, Md. After an exhaustive search, Opsasnick found him but he declined to discuss the case. Still, this 24-page story is well worth reading -- and not only for "Exorcist" fans. Journalism students -- and even veteran reporters -- could learn a lot about the craft of reporting from Opsasnick's account of how he painstakingly pored through old phone books, yearbooks, land records and neighborhood newspapers to identify the troubled lad, who may or may not have actually been possessed by the Devil.
Taking her lead from journalist Carlson, Georgetown University English Professor Norma Tilden is using the article in her nonfiction classes. "I think they'd learn a lot about researching from Mark Opsasnick," Tilden writes.
To his credit, Bob Rickard, editor of the British publication Fortean Times, recognized the importance of the investigation and published an abridged version of the article as a cover story. The original article has also been translated into other languages for publication around the world.
A confused and confusing article on some of the material that Opsasnick uncovered was published in the weekly Prince Georges County section of The Washington Post, so most of the Post readers (including myself) did not have an opportunity to read it when it came out. (Material published in these county editions is circulated to a fraction of the paper's subscribers.)
The only other reference to Mark's findings was in very brief introduction to the Post's reprinting of the original 1949 article, acknowledging that writer Mark Opsasnick looked into the case and determined that it might have been a hoax. We were somewhat surprised that the Post never ran a feature article outside of their Prince Georges County weekly section, as it was the Post article that launched the story in 1949 and that gave Blatty the idea for The Exorcist. I would think that they would want to set the record straight.
Television Takes Notice of "The Haunted
Many if not most of the television tabloid news and strange-phenomena related shows on network and cable television have expressed an interest in running a segment or show based on our Haunted Boy investigation.
Inside Edition contacted us claiming that they wanted to do a short piece and that they wanted to interview Mark Opsasnick to air the whole story behind the Exorcist case. A crew shot Mark Opsasnick on location in Cottage City, but when the segment was aired only a short segment included Mark and had anything to do with our investigation. Most of the piece was biased toward the supposed reality of the Exorcist case. Mark's 24-page report was reduced to a few sound bites and bookended by pro-supernatural material. A later Inside Edition containing a segment on the case aired on February 4th, 2000. According to Opsasnick, "Out of the huge amount of material that they shot, they used two sentences that they cut together without giving my entire point of view." Inside Edition aired yet another segment on the case in July.
We have been in discussion with various production companies concerning the possibility of a one-hour show based on our investigation and the truth behind the case but have reached no agreements at this time.
A British producer who was working on a production about Tourette's Syndrome wanted to work with us as she felt from reading Mark's article that the Haunted Boy may have suffered from this malady, which would explain some aspects of the boy's behavior.
Extra also wanted our assistance with a segment but after being burned by Inside Edition we withheld our cooperation. Clearly, none of these tabloid TV shows have any interest in the truth about the case. They are only looking for a few more shots to fill up their segment. They really don't vary much from the mainstream news sources in this regard. From the media reaction to Mark's investigation, I would have to conclude that nothing much has changed with respect to the journalistic approach to the supposed supernatural since the birth of the popular press. Even when presented with the well-documented truth, reporters cling to the old myths and untruths and prefer to concentrate on thrilling, titillating material than the mundane truth. Isn't it ironic that you will find the true story of the Exorcist in a magazine called Strange, while the mainstream press has yet to tell the whole truth about the case as exposed by Mark Opsasnick?
Possessed: Another "True" Version of The
Showtime has produced a made-for-cable movie based on Thomas Allen's 1993 book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism, which is discussed in some detail in the original Haunted Boy article. This book was clearly demonstrated to have been based largely on conjecture and misinformation, yet Showtime is about to make a big deal about what is now the second production based on the "true" story of the Exorcist Boy. Thanks to Mark Opsasnick, we now know that Allen did not have the location of the house correct, despite the fact the address of the boy's house was supposedly found in the "diary" on which Allen allegedly based his book.
Allen never identified or interviewed the boy and he did not interview friends and neighbors. "He couldn't, because he wasn't looking in Cottage City, where the case actually took place," noted Opsasnick.
All of Allen's sources were newspaper clippings, Father Halloran (who assisted in the exorcism), and the "diary." At the end of the book, Halloran states that there was no evidence of supernatural ability, completely deflating the rest of the book.
In addition to professing to be showing the true story of the haunted boy, Showtime is also producing a short show about their movie, discussing the true story behind The Exorcist. This "Editorial" program purports to place their Possessed-based show in a non-fictional light. Full-page ads for the October 22 broadcast of the movie tout the film as being about the only documented exorcism in the U.S and as being more frightening because it was "real."
Showtime contacted us on a number of occasions and we declined to be involved with their production as we had no reason to think that they had any interest in telling what we have learned was the true story. Mark Opsasnick was contacted by Larry Landsman, Director of Corporate Communications for Showtime. "I spoke to him and he made it clear that they were basing the show on the sensational stories in Possessed and had no interest in the facts of the actual story." Landsman said that he read our article and acknowledged that it was the only truly factual account of the case. It turned out that what he wanted was for us to help him get the Haunted Boy (now a man) to participate with Showtime as a part of the documentary they were producing on the making of the movie Possessed.
We know that Showtime -- having read our article -- has the real story. And we suspect that little if any part of the truth will appear in their documentary about the case of their production Possessed, which Entertainment Weekly has given an "F."
Brill's Content and Showtime's
Brill's Content allegedly exists to investigate and report on the media and how it handles or mishandles stories.
The article in the October 2000 issue of that magazine by Emily Eakin, "Exorcising the Exorcist," manages to somehow completely ignore the truth of the case. This is despite the fact that we know that she e-mailed us and was aware of Opasnick's article. How did an article on how the media handled The Exorcist case manage to completely ignore our 24-page article on the case, the first to expose the media's complete mangling of the truth about the case? Her article was as problematic as those she was writing about.
The introduction to the article asks, "Now, will a new movie that revisits the same devilish story help us escape the media myth of physics-defying levitations and head-spinning contortions?" We doubt it.
Despite that fact that she was aware of Mark Opsasnick's investigative report, she writes of Thomas Allen's superficial book Possessed, that "Allen intended the book to be a comprehensive documentation of the case, not a debunking. For that, we would have to wait for Steven de Souza." De Souza is the director and co-writer of the Showtime film Possessed premiering this month. Strange Magazine readers know that this is inaccurate, as do Eakin and Showtime.
During her session with director de Souza, the two discuss some possible non-supernatural scenarios that Eakin attributes to the director but sound suspiciously like the material presented by Mark Opsasnick in his article.
"Was Robbie's bizarre behavior part of a cunning ploy to win a long vacation from the bullies at school?" Eakin writes. What she doesn't write is that this concept is presented first by Mark Opsasnick in his article, which Eakin read but did not credit.
Director de Souza notes to Emily Eakin that early in the case, the words "no school" appeared scratched on the haunted boy's abdomen. If this is true, and the scratched letters were self-inflicted, as we strongly suspect, then this supports Mark Opsasnick's contentions, based on material from interviews with the Exorcist boy's friends, that getting out of school was a primary motive for the boy's actions.
Eakin's article trumpets de Souza's pretentious concepts about the case, particularly some muddled nonsense about the case becoming a classic case of possession rather than merely a case of an emotionally disturbed boy and/or a hoax due to the paranoid social climate of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Eakin writes that: "Viewed in this volatile social context, Possessed is cable television's The Crucible and Steven de Souza is Arthur Miller. Robbie Mannheim is no longer just a little boy with a weird affliction but a full-blown cultural symptom, the product of historical forces sweeping from Moscow to Los Alamos."
De Souza, responsible for such in-depth, intelligent character studies as Die Hard and Commando, as well as the culturally astute The Flintstones, is no Arthur Miller. Nor is he qualified to be developing any culture-based theories for the Exorcist case. Indeed, this "ambitious theory" as Eakin characterizes it, is completely invalid. It was novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty's exploitation and exaggeration of the case described in the original Washington Post article that made this a classic case of possession -- decades after McCarthyism and post WWII paranoia.
The role of cultural context is one that we take seriously when we investigate a case, but the connection between the haunted boy and the atomic bomb is baseless pseudo-intellectualism. Emily Eakin points out that in the finished film the effects appear supernatural, that the "final exorcism scene is downright gothic," that a crucifix stands up on end, the boy's mattress "suddenly stands up on end," and that and the mattress, with the boy strapped to it, "flailing away on it, hangs suspended over the erect crucifix." The crucifix then flies through the air and sticks into a stone wall across the room. In other words, for all of de Souza's cultural claptrap and lip service with regard to non-supernatural theories, it degenerates into typical Hollywood horror-show hokum.
The Showtime movie of the book Possessed is really the centerpiece of the article, and its raison d'etre. Hollywood is expert at massaging journalists and critics, and I suspect that Eakin was flown to L.A., all expenses paid, to be spun by the director of Possessed. This would explain why the former screenwriter of testosterone-fueled flicks would be taken seriously with respect to his theories about the facts behind the Exorcist case, while there is nary a word about the facts of the case as uncovered by Mark Opsasnick. It was as if Mark's investigation would have somehow detracted from her article by injecting a measure of truth that would have stuck out uncomfortably. I had the mistaken impression that Brill's Content was supposed to have something to do with analyzing media, not promoting it.
The National Enquirer Lives Up to its
After the publication of our Haunted Boy article, The National Enquirer somehow got the brilliant idea of investigating this case. The first thing they did was to read our article (they are subscribers), and the author, David Wright, contacted Mark Opsasnick to pick his brain. The tabloid's article was hung up in the legal department as there was much consternation about whether to reveal the identity of the Haunted Boy, which they learned by filling in the blanks in our article. When the Enquirer story finally ran it was emblazoned across the cover.
The article begins with reporter Wright claiming, "now The National Enquirer has solved the sensational mystery behind 'The Exorcist' and found the actual victim whose haunted life was the inspiration for the earth-shaking horror movie." We know, of course, that Strange Magazine's Mark Opsasnick solved the mystery and discovered the identity of the haunted boy, not the Enquirer. Needless to say, there is no mention of our article in the Enquirer account, which promotes the idea that the boy was in fact possessed and presents none of the negative evidence that Opsasnick uncovered.
Online personality David Jodrey wrote to a newsgroup on December 21, 1999, criticizing the Enquirer for basing their article on ours without crediting us.
Jodrey carefully read and compared the Strange Magazine and Enquirer pieces, concluding:
The Strange Magazine article describes painstaking detective work to track down the actual location and persons having knowledge of the real case. It is clear that the Enquirer has piggybacked on Opsasnick's work, without crediting him.... Although Opsasnick's article does not actually name Doe, it gives detailed information about [him]. The Enquirer has followed this up and traced the subject to his current location, and interviewed neighbors and a former girlfriend. The Enquirer article...omits from its summary of the material it has taken from Opsasnick the details that make it highly likely that nothing "paranormal" actually happened....
Jodrey, in later e-mail correspondence with us, writes, "I just want to express my profound appreciation of your search for truth. As Mark Twain said, more or less, people can only stand it in small doses."The Press and the Exorcist Case: Not Their Finest Hour
Thus far, nearly every journalist who has written about the case since Strange 21 was released in 1998 has chosen to ignore or obfuscate the facts illuminated by Mark Opsasnick. Mark definitively demonstrated that the haunted boy lived in Cottage City, but the folkloric attachment to Bunker Hill Road in Mt. Rainier is so strong that it exhibits an almost magnetic attraction to the newspaper and television reporters.
Investigator Opsasnick finds himself losing patience with the media. "I came up with a version of the story that few agree with because it pokes a hole in their fantasy world. The press's handling of this case goes from bad to worse."
Most recently, the Baltimore Sun and Washington Times ran feature articles on the Exorcist case. Despite the fact that Mark Opsasnick was interviewed for the articles, both reporters chose to ignore most of what he told them, preferring to believe the folkloric aspects of the story as supported by Thomas B. Allen's Possessed and the newspaper clippings on the case. Even as the reporters rationally agree with Opsasnick's findings, they are emotionally drawn to the "supernatural" aspects of the story, explicable or not.
Mark Opsasnick was disappointed with both articles, but was particularly distressed by the Baltimore Sun piece. "It is ridiculous," complains Opsasnick. "I made it clear that the boy lived in Cottage City but the reporter totally completely ignored my article and all the information I presented him with. I don't even know why it was part of the article. It is one of the worst articles written on this subject, which is especially sad because the reporter had access to me and my article and could have told the truth about the case but chose to play up the old Mount Rainier tales."
The press must shoulder a good part of the blame for the explosion of exorcism attempts in the U.S. alone since the film came out, as not a single journalist that we know of in any medium even attempted to investigate the case and to question whether the claims being made by Blatty and the various priests that were interviewed in the media had a basis in reality. The "it's too good a story to spoil it by finding out the facts" mentality that reigned when The Exorcist was first released into the popular consciousness has continued unabated everywhere but within the pages of this magazine.
It is as though the reporters either demonstrate their own will to believe (possibly a motivating factor for their interest in writing the article in the first place) or a disregard for the truth in an effort to write a more interesting/entertaining article. Also, in almost every case, a reporter has pre-written the article in their mind. They generally know their angle and then shoehorn the facts to fit into their preconceived notion.
"You spend hours talking to [reporters], going over the case detail, and it is a complete waste of time," Opsasnick has found. "The reporters go ahead and ignore all of the facts of the case and write whatever they were going to write in the first place."
As recently as Friday, October 13, 2000, the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch ran an article by John M. McGuire entitled "The True
Story Happened Right Here In '49." Not surprisingly, it reiterated many
most popular myths of the case.