January 26, 2009 — It was an excellent day for an exorcism. And by excellent I mean rainy and foggy and spooky. And by exorcism I mean visiting the supposed locations of the home of the boy whose exorcism inspired William Peter Blatty to write the novel The Exorcist that inspired William Friedkin to film the movie The Exorcist, which then scared all of us, scarred most of us, and stuck the occupation of exorcist firmly on the bad-ass scale along with such other better-than-yous as astronauts, martial arts movie stars, and these days, I guess, survival television show hosts.
In the late 1940s, a teenage boy in the Maryland suburbs of DC was deemed to have leased body space to an evil spirit after a series of events known in Church Latin as “weird shite” occurred at his home. Eventually, he and his demonic tenant were taken to stay with relatives in St. Louis, MO, where an official exorcism was performed on him.
I know it sounds like the quintessential urban myth, but the facts of the story are actually far from such, with the whole thing being eerily well-documented in newspapers of the day and even the “withheld to protect the innocent” information gradually leaking out over the years. I won’t go into all that, but in case you want to, Google any combination of the following terms: “Father Raymond Bishop,” “Roland Doe,” “Exorcism,” and “Buckaroo Bonzai.” All right, that last one’s irrelevant, but fun.
For 11 years I lived half an hour from the location of the notorious house of Exorcism Boy, but it wasn’t until I moved eight states away that I finally returned to my home state to visit the location. Good thing, too. If I’d of gone back when I lived in the area, I might have ended up at the wrong address.
You see, general lore has always placed the home of the possessed teenager that inspired The Exorcist at 3210 Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier, MD. And that's pretty much where I thought it was until a couple of months ago. Then, in planning to visit the spot, I came across an eight-year-old article that changed my life. Well, more like my plans for the day.
The article is called The Haunted Boy of Cottage City and was written by a Mark Opsasnick and published in a periodical called Strange Magazine. Honestly, you’re probably better served skipping over this article and reading Opsasnick’s instead. The only real advantage of staying here, though, is that this article ends in 800 words, whereas Haunted Boy is five parts long.
In the article, the author outlines in detail the research, interviews, and reasoning that led him to firmly believe that the Bunker Hill Road address is not the previous home of Exorcism Boy. Although I didn't double-check any of his research, his idea sounds pretty credible. More importantly, since the house he posits as the correct location is only three minutes away as the Google Maps fly from the Bunker Hill Road location, I could visit both and let God sort it out. Plus that’s a lot easier than double checking 18,000 words worth of research.
I don’t know much about Mount Rainier, other than that it’s inside the Beltway, it’s not a mount, and it has a great name…except on the drizzly day that we visited, when it was just a pun. The spot I wanted to see is located at the corner of 33rd Street and Bunker Hill Road, and I’m suddenly avoiding the use of the word house for the valid reason that there isn’t one there. Hasn’t been one there, in fact, for a few decades. According to Opsasnick, the original house that stood there had gone derelict for a while until it was burned to the ground in 1962 as part of a firefighter exercise. Since that time, it had been a vacant lot, and that was what I was prepared for.
Once again, though, I found I was way behind on my knowledge base. I’m starting to believe that my own personal versions of Al and Ziggy suck. At some point in the past few years, the spot has been turned into a nice gazebo and picnic area. Had I known, I would have brought a lunch to eat there just for style points. Instead, I just stood in the middle of it and thought, “This is going to be a short paragraph if I ever write about it.”
And just like that we were off to the second location. The address that Opsasnick offers for the real location of the previous home of Exorcism Boy is in the very nearby, very small town of Cottage City. In this case, the original house still stands, and though it’s probably a pretty jerky think for me to publish, the address is 3807 40th Avenue. Being called a jerk gives me a sense of identity.
The house is set on a straight, tree-lined road with small, similarly shaped houses along both sides of the road. If most of the streets of Cottage City look this way, the town is well named. At one end of the street, almost directly across from the Exorcism Boy house, is the town hall.
Nothing about 3807 makes it stand out from its fellow cottages. It has no ominous pall of clouds, no mysterious shadows without sources, its features don’t matrix into an evil face. It’s just a small house. I will say that it did seem well-kept, which I assume means lived-in, but you never know. There was an abandoned plastic-wrapped newspaper lying in the driveway, but newspapers are notorious for inflating their subscriber numbers that way.
As you can see from the picture, a truck was parked in the driveway when we visited. However, that truck and another one across the street both bore construction company names. So either somebody lives there and is having the house remodeled, or somebody doesn’t live there and is having the house remodeled to sell. Or, I guess, someone lives there and owns a construction company. Whatever the case, I’m sure they’re probably annoyed by the kind of attention people like me give it.
I realize that anytime I just walk past a house for pictures, it’s going to be a pretty boring article, but add that to the fact that it involves a subject I’ve already written about two other times for this site (see below), then you’ve got not just anti-climax, but anti-start and anti-middle, as well. However, in a bid to salvage the first of those three glaring flaws in this piece, I’ll end on a final, hilarious-to-me note.
In his article, Opsasnick puts forth evidence in the form of interviews with a childhood friend of Exorcism Boy that the teenager wasn’t anywhere near possessed, but was just a Michael Oliver-style problem child in a pre-pill society. That such might even be close to the truth cracks me right in half. One kid acts up, and we get butterfly-effected into a cinematic milestone the repercussions of which are still rippling outward six decades later.
Thank you, Mr. Ronald Hunkeler, wherever you are or are buried.
Read about my visit to the Exorcist Stairs in Washington, DC, where the climactic scene of the movie was filmed, or my visit to the bust and ashes of Jason Miller in Scranton, PA, who starred in it as Father Damien Karras. Also my visit to the sites in St. Louis, where all the spooky stuff actually happened.