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The Exorcist steps


The Exorcist steps 

by
John William Tuohy


The "Exorcist steps", are 72 broad stone steps at the end of M Street in Georgetown (The top of the steps is located at  Prospect Street and 36th Street NW) and were an integral part of William Friedkin's 1973 horror film 'The Exorcist'.

The film gives the impression that the steps are adjacent to the MacNeil House which sits at the top of the stairs, but the house is actually about 50 feet away and sits on the right of the steps, not on the left as the films shows. The property on the left is now the Spanish Military Attaché office and was once a bus round about. (During filming the stairs were padded with 1/2"-thick rubber to film the death of Father Karras. The stunt man tumbled down the stairs twice.)

The scene in which Father Merrin's (Max von Sydow) arrives by taxi and stops at the gate of the MacNeil house, is one of the most famous scenes from the film, and in film history (The shot was used in the films promotional posters) . To give the scene its ominous feeling (The priest, symbol of goodness, peering in at the seemingly evil sole light from the girls bedroom window) the production blocked off three blocks around the house and run several fog machines. The fog floated across the river into Virginia causing a rash of call to the DC fire department from Arlington residents.  

The main story follows Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), an actress filming in Georgetown when her daughter becomes possessed and a priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, who attended Catholic University),  at Georgetown is called in to conduct an exorcism.

Former Georgetown student author William Peter Blatty (Who lived at 3618 Prospect Street neat the steps and was noted for kidnapping rival Fordham University mascot, among other things) may have been inspired to write his novel, The Exorcist, based on a series of newspaper articles, especially one that involved the rite of exorcism performed by the Jesuit William S. Bowdern and Father Edward Albert Hughes (August 28, 1918 - October 12, 1980).
William Peter Blatty

Father Hughes, who served as an assistant pastor from June 16, 1948 to June 18, 1960 at St. James Church in Mt. Rainier, Maryland.  He attempted his first exorcism in 1949 at the Georgetown University Hospital on a thirteen year old Lutheran boy, Robbie Mannheim, who was referred by Rev. Luther Miles Schulze, the boy's Lutheran pastor. 

The exorcism was considered unsuccessful as the boy broke out of his restraints and used a spring from the bed to attack Hughes.  The boy later cut Father Hughes' arm from his shoulder to his wrist with the spring and the exorcism was ended.

 Years later Hughes recalled that the temperature of the room decreased when the boy entered it and that the boy growled at him while speaking Latin.  He also stated that his telephone went flying off his desk.  It was believed that the boy became possessed after using a Ouija board. In 1973, Father Hughes returned to St. James Church and became pastor until his death of a heart attack on October 12, 1980.

The reports were that a 13- or 14-year-old boy, who lived at 3210 Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier, at the corner of 33rd Street (It is now a vacant lot and has been for many years) had undergone an exorcism. There is no evidence of the exorcism, if it happened at all except that at about the same time there had been another exorcism in Garden City, Maryland. (Actually Brandywine in PG County).

Others claim that the exorcism was conducted in nearby Cottage City, Maryland.  Supposedly, the boy underwent a first exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital conducted by local priest Father E. Albert Hughes (where the boy allegedly slashed Hughes’s arm with a bedspring), and then underwent a final and successful rite of exorcism by Father William Bowdern at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri in the spring of 1949. The boy in question, if he actually existed, was said to have remained lifelong friends with Father Hughes (Hughes said the boy lived in Cottage City) and went on to graduate from Gonzaga High.

The Washington Post ran an article on August 10, 1949 titled “Pastor Tells Eerie Tale of ‘Haunted’ Boy.” about a 13-year-old boy in the DC area. Several months later, an unnamed minister gave a speech before a local meeting of the Society of Parapsychology at the Mount Pleasant Library. According to him, the boy’s family had experienced many strange events in their suburban Maryland home beginning January 18th: scratching noises emanated from the house’s walls; the bed in which the boy slept would shake violently; and objects such as fruit and pictures would jump to the floor in the boy’s presence.

The minister, described as being intensely skeptical, arranged for the boy to spend the night of February 17th in his home. With the boy sleeping nearby in a twin bed the minister reported that in the dark he heard vibrating sounds from the bed and scratching sounds on the wall. 

During the rest of the night he allegedly witnessed some strange events—a heavy armchair in which the boy sat seemingly tilted on its own and tipped over and a pallet of blankets on which the sleeping boy lay inexplicably moved around the room. Curiously, the article described the minister as laughing as he related these incidents to his audience. He admonished the boy by saying, “Now, look, this is enough of this....”

The Evening Star, another DC newspaper, ran an article on the story on August 10, 1949 titled “Minister Tells Parapsychologists Noisy ‘Ghost’ Plagued Family.” in which the minister told the paper that the boy had made two trips to a mental hygiene clinic and that during an earlier trip to the Midwest the boy had been subjected to three different rites of exorcism by three different faiths—Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic.

In the fall of 1949 an unnamed Georgetown University student, whose father was a psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. and may have been involved in the case, told Georgetown faculty member Father Eugene B. Gallagher, S.J., of the existence of  a 16 page diary detailing the actual exorcism.  Gallagher is said to have obtained a copy of the diary, which he said was written as a guide for future exorcisms.


William Peter Blatty, according to reports, was a student of Gallagher’s at the time and repeatedly asked his teacher for a copy of the diary. In the spring of 1950 Father Gallagher loaned the diary to then-Georgetown University dean Father Brian McGrath, S.J. When Father Gallagher attempted to retrieve the diary, he was told by Father McGrath’s secretary that only nine carbon pages remained. 

The speculation is that the diary had somehow found its way into Blatty’s hands. Blatty said 'The Exorcist' is not the 1949 case.  The latter gave me the idea, nothing more. The rest -- except for the possession syndrome which is the same all the way to ancient Egyptian records of exorcism -- came entirely out of my head. Everything is made up."





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