The Spirit of St. Louis: Exorcist Sites in the Lou

I explain this picture later in the post.

September 17, 2014 – I like that the most infamous exorcism in modern history happened in a real saint of a city. Yup, I’m talking that exorcism. The one that inspired William Peter Blatty to write that book and William Friedkin to make that movie. The one that made these stairs such a cool part of Georgetown.

When it comes to The Exorcist and the real-life story that inspired it, we often think of the Washington D.C. area, and for good reason. It was there that the spiritual shenanigans started and there where the movie was filmed and took place.

But the climactic exorcism itself happened in St. Louis, Missouri. And in my casual tracking of all places Exorcist-related (like this and this and, as I already mentioned, this), I finally made it to the Lou a few months back…and it was anticlimactic.

Now that I’ve cut the legs out from under this article, let’s go.

I’m not going to get into all the nuances and details of the story here. Or stories, actually, depending on whether you believe the event an actual, documented demon possession or the go-for-broke actions of a troubled boy acting out. Although it’s way too funny that a really dedicated temper tantrum and demon squatting can have similar symptoms. However, here’s the more fun version of the two in a nutshell:

In the 1940s, 13-year-old Roland Doe (not his real name) developed a condition. Possibly due to a Ouija board he used or just because we are all pawns in an invisible spiritual battle, he had the devil on his back. He lived in Maryland, and when things got a little too demonic—flying furniture, injured priests, spooky sounds—and the local doctors couldn’t figure it out and local churches failed at exorcising it, the family took Roland to live with relatives in St. Louis. There, the power of Christ finally compelled the creature poking around Doe’s innards with its sharp horns to leave that kid alone.

So first on my agenda was the house where Roland lived. It’s in a suburb northwest of St. Louis called Bel Nor. The address is 8435 Roanoke Drive, halfway down a cul-de-sac in a nice residential area.

It was here in this two-floor brick house with bookend chimneys that, according to the story, Roland was visited by Fathers Raymond J. Bishop and William S. Bowdern, two Jesuit priests based out of St. Louis University. In that house, they supposedly witnessed a shaking bed, levitating objects, and Roland speaking in a weird voice and reacting badly to holy artifacts. Their conclusion? An excellent day for an exorcism, of course.

I didn’t get to scrutinize the house too closely. It has a big picture window on the first floor, and there was obvious activity inside. I’m assuming dinner activity, not paranormal. As a result, we satisfied ourselves with two quick drive-bys (hence the first pic in this post). There was no way I was going to stand in front of the house, get called out, and have to answer, “Because somebody once lived here who had a creamy demonic center that inspired a kick-ass movie and I’m a little obsessed with that chain of events.” I am comfortable telling you that, of course.

Anyway, the boy was moved to the campus church downtown. That’s stop #2. St. Francis Xavier College Church is on a busy street, 3628 Lindell Boulevard, at the edge of St. Louis University. It looks like your typical ornate city church, the kind of building that would be awe-inspiring if there weren’t a million others like it. Roland stayed in the rectory out back, which is no longer around as it was pulled down straight to hell…for a more modern building. Regardless, it was a quick stop, both for me and him. He was on his way to the psychiatric ward of nearby St. Alexius Hospital. I was on my way to what was left of it.

Front of the hospital.

St. Alexius has two campuses that are basically adjacent. The one relevant to our dark interests is at 3933 S. Broadway. That’s the main entrance, at least. The psychiatric building where the ultimate showdown between a young boy with a devil and some robed dudes with a god was somewhere near the intersection of Osage Street and S. Broadway.

Unfortunately, that building went the way of St. Francis Xavier’s rectory, and, like so many things in life, it’s now a parking lot.

No monument marks what went on in that space that is now divided into spaces, although the hospital does mention the event on the website as part of its legacy, and that makes me want to send them Christmas cards.

Approximate site of the psychiatric ward.

The titular exorcist was Father Bowdern, and he was assisted by Fathers William Van Roo and Walter Halloran. They say words appeared on the boy’s body and that Halloran’s nose was broken over the weeks it took to evict that devil. But, eventually, the priests were able to chalk up a win in the good column. And that’s good as in, “good for us that we now have a classic horror movie as a result.”

Once up a time, I thought The Exorcist presented the most accurate worldview I’d seen in a movie (Evil exists and must be dealt with). Since that time, I’ve changed to something more along the lines of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Evil exists and that sucks). Maybe Splash (Evil’s irrelevant when you have a half-Daryl Hannah, half fish in your life). Regardless, today, in 2014, I have a toy of a lacerated, rotting 12-year-old girl tied to a bed on my shelf (Motorized had spins 360 degrees! Authentic theme music plays!) all because of what went down in St. Louis 65 years ago.