The Exorcist True Story: What Happened To Roland Doe, The Real Regan

The true story of what happened to Roland Doe inspired The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, the 1973 horror movie tells the story of a young girl possessed by a mysterious entity, and much of the story is actually loosely inspired by a young boy in Cottage City, Maryland during the 1940s. The boy, known as Roland Doe, was not identified for almost a decade, but many experts believe his real name is Ronald Hunkeler. The boy has stayed out of the public eye, but since his death in 2020, more information on him and his story has come to light.

The Exorcist is based on the 1971 book by William Blatty, who was inspired to write the novel after reading about the Maryland case while he was a student at Georgetown University. The Exorcist was adapted into Friedkin’s 1973 film and starred 12-year-old Linda Blair as Regan, a young girl who becomes possessed. While the movie is clearly dramatized, using convincing special effects to thrill its audience, The Exorcist true story — the case of Roland Doe — is just as chilling.


Related: The Exorcist 2: Every Sequel Mistake The Reboot Must Avoid

The Exorcist spawned sequels, and a reboot is currently in the works. David Gordon Green (Halloween Kills) is the director of the upcoming reboot, which will be a direct sequel to the 1973 original. The upcoming film has Ellen Burstyn returning as Chris Macneil, as well as featuring Leslie Odom Jr., Nigel Barto, and Nick Benas. Here is a breakdown of The Exorcist’s true story, who the real Regan is, and where Roland is now.

Roland Doe’s Exorcism True Story Explained

The Exorcist true story is based on the experience of Roland Doe. In March 1949, newspapers reported that a 14-year-old boy known as “Robbie” or “Roland Doe” was possessed by something sinister and that The Exorcist‘s priests performed an exorcism on him. The boy, raised in a German Lutheran family, was no stranger to the paranormal things in life. After asking for an Ouija board for his birthday, his Aunt Harriet gifted him one. After she passed away, the boy began to experience creepy and abnormal things around the house: rattlings on the walls, strange noises, and flying objects. The Exorcist recreates many of these events to great effect.

Roland’s family contacted every expert, all leading to a dead end. After getting no answers, the family finally received help from Father E. Albert Hughes, the family’s local Catholic priest, and an exorcism was performed in February 1949. The exorcism that inspired the movie The Exorcist had to be stopped early because Roland ripped off a piece of mattress spring and threw it at the priest. A few days later, Roland started getting red scratches, with the marks spelling out the word “LOUIS.” This alerted the family to go to St. Louis University, where he was introduced to Father Walter H. Halloran and Rev. William Bowdern, who performed an exorcism on Roland.

What Happened To Roland Doe

So what happened to the boy in The Exorcist’s true story? There has been much mystery surrounding Roland Doe. Over 75 years later, experts believe the boy is Ronald Hunkeler, a former NASA engineer who helped with the 1969 moon landing. Hunkeler died of a stroke just a month shy of his 86th birthday in 2020. He passed away at his home in Marriottsville, Maryland.

Related: Why The Exorcist Sequels Failed (& How The New Movie Can Succeed)

After the series of exorcisms that Hunkeler went through as a child, he actually had an incredibly successful career as an adult working for NASA and helped patent the technology to make space shuttle panels resistant to extreme heat for the Apollo missions of the 1960s (via New York Post). Not many people knew about his secret identity, except for a few close friends, academics, as well as the Jesuits who knew the priests who performed the exorcism. According to his partner, Hunkeler was always very worried that his coworkers would find out and would even leave his home every Halloween, terrified that someone would harass him. Hunkeler retired from NASA in 2001 after almost 40 years with them and lived a quiet life.

How The Exorcist Adapted Roland’s Story

The author William Blatty, who passed away in 2017, got the idea for The Exorcist, widely considered the scariest movie ever, when studying at Georgetown University. A professor had a lecture about exorcisms in class, specifically mentioning Roland’s story. The lecturer mentioned a diary that one of the priests had, and he was able to get a copy. Blatty also contacted Rev. William Bowdern, the priest who performed the exorcism, and with this information adapted Roland’s story. Blatty’s novel was released in 1971, topped the bestsellers list, and stayed there for four months. A couple of years later, William Friedkin contacted Blatty to turn it into a film, and Blatty wrote the script. 

What The Exorcist Kept & Changed About The True Story

Many horror movies (like The Conjuring 3) pay homage to The Exorcist now, but the thought of an exorcism did not always appease audiences. To keep Roland’s identity under wraps, Blatty had to change a few things: Roland became a 12-year-old girl instead of a 14-year-old boy, and Regan’s mother was changed to a single parent as opposed to having a large family. The violent outbursts and Roland’s creepy low-toned voice all occurred, but the infamous ceiling crawl and head-spinning have never fully been confirmed or denied to have happened in the Exorcist true story. Another thing that does not occur is the “X” that appeared in scratches on Ronald’s chest, signifying that ten demons possessed Roland. The cuts on Roland’s skin saying the words “LOUIS” was changed to “HELP ME,” taking away the fundamental aspect of moving to St. Louis.

Although a few things were left out, Blatty kept much of The Exorcist’s true story horror closely tied to the novel. This included both Roland and Regan acting oddly after playing with an Oujia board, only acting strange at night, as well as the two acting extremely violent when any religious object was presented to them. The Exorcist book and film are very closely connected, as Blatty did write the script, but the true story of Hunkeler is a bit different from the film. In the end, the true, chilling story of Regan is much more terrifying than the novel or film, as a young child went through such a terrible experience.

Related: Why The Exorcist’s New Sequel Can’t Follow Halloween’s Approach

Is The Exorcist Reboot Also Based On The True Story?

Regan under hypnosis in The Exorcist II

It’s been announced that a new The Exorcist trilogy is in the works, and there’s a lot of confusion over whether it’s a sequel or a reboot. Reportedly, the new 2023 Exorcist movie is considered a sequel to the original movie franchise, and Ellen Burstyn’s Chris is the thread that holds the two together. Therefore, it’s doubtful that the new trilogy will follow the same true story featured in the original The Exorcist. While the first movie is considered one of the most successful horror films of all time, The Exorcist 2 was a commercial flop. However, The Exorcist 3 performed well enough in its own right, bringing the famous trilogy to a close. Studios didn’t believe that the trilogy should be the end of the story, so more movies were spawned, along with a short-lived television series starring Geena Davis.

While The Exorcist is both based on a true story and William Blatty’s book, the second and third installments are entirely products of Hollywood’s imagination, meaning the newest sequel will follow suit. However, the character of Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn) has already finished filming her scenes in the movie, so at least one of the characters from the original made it into the new trilogy. Presumably, The Exorcist 2023 installment should be considered a legacy sequel, akin to Scream 2022, in which a new team of people takes over an old story. Not much else is known about the project other than its planned release date of October 13th, 2023, and that David Gordon Green will be at the director’s helm. That being said, the new The Exorcist sequel probably isn’t based on a true story.

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