Eerie Tales Shed Light on Local Frights
Published: Friday, October 28, 2011
Updated: Friday, October 28, 2011 01:10
From the steep flight of stairs dropping off Prospect Street to the spectral appearance of the clock tower blending into the night sky, the Hilltop's haunted history lives on through the whispers of campus lore.
If you haven't attended the annual Halloween screening of The Exorcist in Gaston Hall, you're missing out on one of campus's biggest urban legends. Originally penned by William Peter Blatty (C '50), the tale follows a young girl who becomes possessed by a malevolent spirit and descended into madness. The Exorcist captivated readers with its supernatural allure, staying on The New York Times best-seller list for weeks. Blatty went on to adapt it for the screen, crafting the iconic horror film of the same name.
In the film, a Georgetown Jesuit, Fr. Damien Karras, S.J., seeks to heal the young girl, who speaks in foreign tongues, spews green vomit and scares the hell out of audiences everywhere when she turns her head 360 degrees. Eventually, Karras throws himself to his death down the menacing stairs off of Prospect Street to conquer the demon.
Despite being grounded in truth, much of Blatty's adaptation differs from the original story he heard of during his time as an undergraduate. The home depicted in the film version and the incident on the "Exorcist steps" were added for dramatic flair. Additionally, the actual press coverage from the 1940s tells the story of a boy, instead of the girl featured in the movie.
Georgetown priests were involved with the case, but details of the exorcism are difficult to confirm or deny due to secrecy surrounding the exorcism process. But that doesn't keep urban legends from popping up around the Hilltop, adding to the occult incident's mystery.
"I heard he read the diary of one of the priests who performed the exorcist," Sankalp Gowda (SFS '15) said. "That's how he got the idea."
In 1972, The Hoya republished an Aug. 26,1949 article in The Washington Post, titled "Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil's Grip," detailing the exorcism that formed the basis of Blatty's book. According to the Post article, the "haunted boy" underwent extensive study at the Georgetown University Hospital, and some of the exorcism itself was carried out at the child's Maryland home. The priests reported paranormal events, such the boy's bed mysteriously sliding across the room while he was sleeping and an armchair tipping over by itself. The child reportedly spoke in Latin, a language he had never studied before, and exhibited unnatural physical strength. Only after exhausting psychiatric treatments that failed to cure his episodes did his devout Catholic family finally turn to exorcism as a solution.
Many students believed that beloved Jesuit Fr. Thomas King, S.J., played a part in the exorcism. When asked by inquiring students about details, King would dryly reply, "Why? Do you need one?"
Theology professor Fr. William McFadden, S.J., could not offer insight on the actual events of the exorcism but recalled the filming fondly. The Jesuit even attended a casting call for extras. "They didn't pick me!" he said.
"Campus was taken over," McFadden said. "They brought these huge fans to blow around leaves for effect. You could see the film crew everywhere, on the streets and on campus."
Tall tales about the infamous exorcism aren't the only ghost stories circulating around campus.
"There are always stories about the clock, the bell tower, the tower room and the tunnels," McFadden said.
According to both McFadden and Georgetown historian Fr. Emmett Curran, S.J., some of these legends are rooted in fact.
The tower room in Old North, for example, has been home to ghost sightings over the years. Students claim the spirit of a student who committed suicide there still haunts the room.
Erika Charleston (COL '12) passed along a story she heard from a professor about slaves being housed in Old North, which some people account for the mysterious haunting in the tower room.
"There were never slaves regularly housed on Georgetown by the Jesuits," Curran said. "But the Jesuits did have about 400 slaves out in Maryland. They would bring them in occasionally for certain projects. Some students also brought their manservants."
Another common tale is set on the "haunted floor" of Healy. The university sealed off the fifth floor for different reasons depending on the story — an exorcism gone wrong or a priest's untimely death.
"There's a lot of weird misinformation," Bryant Wolf (MSB '13) said. "The door by Gaston is all scratched up. My old roommate was convinced that is where the exorcism took place."
Curran believed the reasons for sealing off the upper floors of Healy Hall were merely practical. "[University officials sealed off to prevent] access to the clock hands, which periodically used to be stolen by enterprising undergraduates," Curran said.