The demons started speaking to Chip Coffey as soon as he pulled into the driveway of the two-story brick house in Bel-Nor.
Coffey, a psychic medium who lives in Atlanta and specializes in contacting the dead, was on a scouting mission. Friday night, he will be part of a team that attempts to drive the demons out of that house, where the boy whose story inspired the book and movie “The Exorcist” once lived.
“I went there to get an idea of what we’d be confronting,” Coffey says. “It was very eye-opening. There are a lot of negative energies in that house.”
Chances are, you’re now pooh-poohing everything you’ve just read. “The Exorcist,” both the book by William Peter Blatty and the 1973 movie, were fiction, right? People aren’t really possessed, and demons aren’t real.
Or are they?
Jodi Tovay believes.
For a year and a half, she has been working on “Exorcism: Live!,” which the Destination America cable network is billing as the first live televised exorcism in history.
“Nobody wants to sound crazy,” says Tovay, senior manager of development and production for Destination America. “But the more you learn about this stuff, the harder it is to dismiss.”
Tovay wants to be clear that the exorcism won’t be performed on a person. “This will be the exorcism of a house that was the epicenter of evil 66 years ago.”
Many versions of what happened here in 1949 have circulated over the years, and they rarely agree. Blatty forever confused truth with fiction in his 1971 best-seller, which became a movie with Linda Blair as the pea-soup-spewing victim.
But in general, the facts are that a 13-year-old boy known by the pseudonym “Roland Doe,” then living in Maryland, began experiencing strange, inexplicable spells that were deemed to be demonic possession. Priests in Maryland were unable to cure the boy, and the family brought him to St. Louis, where relatives lived. (One version has the word “Louis” appearing on the boy’s chest in red scratches.)
At the home in Bel-Nor, where an uncle lived, Jesuits from St. Louis University were called in. They agreed that an exorcism was necessary, with Father William Bowdern taking the lead.
For more than a month, Bowdern performed the rites of exorcism nightly, but the boy only got worse, with his spells increasingly violent. Early on, the boy was moved to the old Alexian Brothers Hospital (torn down in 1978) and also taken to the St. Francis Xavier College Church rectory (razed in 1966), where he converted to Catholicism.
Finally, back at Alexian Brothers, the ritual seemed to succeed. “Roland Doe” returned to Maryland and lived a normal life, completely out of the spotlight. He may still be alive today.
MISSION TO EXTERMINATE
The house in Bel-Nor has been sold and bought and occupied almost continuously in the last 66 years. It is occupied today.
The family that lives there agreed to open the home to the Destination America team, but did not give interviews or otherwise participate in the making of the special. Pictures of their house are easily found on the Internet, along with the exact street address, so their reticence is understandable.
But Coffey believes the inhabitants were smart to allow the show to go on. “The is the first time that the intent isn’t just to investigate, but to exterminate,” he says. “If I were living in this house and someone offered to come in and do this, I’d be raising my hand.”
Bishop James Long will perform the rite of exorcism on the house. “In the minor rite of exorcism, we bless the home and force the entity that’s there to manifest itself,” he explains. Prayer, incense, holy water and sacraments are all used to confront the demon or demons.
Long, who teaches an online class called “Demonology for Individuals,” is a bishop in the Old Catholic Church and founder of Paranormal Clergy Institute, whose members “assist home owners who are truly suffering from demonic infestation, oppression and possession.” He himself has performed 27 exorcisms in 14 years and says the minor rite of exorcism, driving demons out of homes, takes place “more often than you might think.”
In St. Louis, Long says, his goal is to make sure everyone on the scene takes the rite seriously and stays safe.
“If you step into a home with this kind of history, and you’re taking it lightly, you can be in trouble. I’m very concerned about that,” Long says. “When the ritual begins, provoking the demon through prayer, the entity will show itself; it will provoke back.”
The crowd, and the cameras, shouldn’t affect the success of the exorcism, Long believes. “I’m impressed with how seriously the producers and everyone involved are taking this,” he says. “They have been very serious, very respectful of the ritual, very eager to learn.”
That was the intention, Tovay says. “One reason we didn’t air this last year, on the 65th anniversary, is that we weren’t ready. We wanted to do it right.”
Those participating will include the Tennessee Wraith Chasers from Destination America’s “Ghost Asylum,” plus locals including St. Louis radio host Dave Glover, who has had alarming experiences in the house before, and author Eileen Dreyer, great-niece of the exorcist himself, Father Bowdern.
What will happen that night, nobody knows, Tovay emphasizes. “This is live; you can’t script it. You can’t fake it. You can’t go back and edit it.”
And if nothing supernatural happens, “I think viewers will still be entertained,” Tovay says. “We have a lot of strong information, a lot of exclusives. But I believe we will see things. I’m confident.”
Why would demons still be lurking in the house after 66 years?
Coffey knows, because he asked. When he entered the house with a producer for the show, the producer wondered the same thing.
“The demon answered,” Coffey says, lowering his voice in imitation of a low, gutteral growl. “Is he really that (bleeping) stupid?” the demon asked of the producer. “We’re here because we CAN be here.”
What “Exorcism: Live!” • When 8-10 p.m. Friday • Where Destination America • More info destinationamerica.com/exorcismlive