As It Happens

A couple bought their dream home. Then they learned it was The Exorcist house

When Ben Rockey-Harris and Danielle Witt first came across a charming little bungalow for sale in rural Maryland, they thought it was “picturesquely perfect.” They they discovered their dream house had inspired one of Hollywood’s greatest nightmares.

'We were a little shocked — a lot shocked. And then we realized that the house was great anyway'

Ben Rockey-Harris and Danielle Witt thought they'd found the house of their dreams in Cottage City, Md. Then they found it had inspired one of Hollywood's greatest nightmares. (Submitted by Ben Rockey-Harris)

Story Transcript

When Ben Rockey-Harris and Danielle Witt first came across a charming little bungalow for sale in suburban Maryland last year, they thought it was "picturesquely perfect."

But shortly after they sealed the deal, they found out their dream house had inspired one of Hollywood's greatest nightmares.

"We discovered that in the 1940s, a teenage boy who lived here became supposedly possessed by a demon, and an exorcism was performed," Rockey-Harris told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"That became an article in the Washington Post. It got a Georgetown University undergrad's attention, who wrote a novel. And that novel became the film The Exorcist."

A still from the movie The Exorcist, widely considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time. (Hoya Productions)

The house in Cottage City, Md., was once the home of Robbie Mannheim, better known by his pseudonym, Roland Doe. 

At the age of 14, Robbie claimed to be the victim of demonic possession. According to newspaper reports at the time, the family reported strange occurrences in the house — inexplicably cold temperatures, tapping on walls, objects moving of their own accord, etc. 

"Your standard horror film series of events," Rocky-Harris quipped.

The family later moved to St. Louis, Mo., where the boy reportedly underwent a series of exorcisms. His story generated media buzz at the time, and later inspired William Peter Blatty's 1971 paranormal novel The Exorcist, and the 1973 horror film adaptation of the same name.

The film, which swaps 14-year-old Robbie for 12-year-old Regan, was a cultural sensation and is often cited as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. 

Robbie Mannheim, the teenage boy whose alleged demonic possession inspired The Exorcist, later moved to this house in St. Louis, Mo. (Discover/Getty Images)

Since the film's debut, several psychiatrists and other skeptics have publicly speculated that Robbie was more likely a victim of undiagnosed mental illness than demonic possession.

Nevertheless, the house still holds allure for horror fans and paranormal believers. 

"Film buffs do stop by or slow roll the house to take a picture," Rockey-Harris said. "There's definitely a clique around that film."

'Demons possess people, not houses'

The couple didn't know about the house's sinister history when they bought it. They were tired of getting their hopes up in a "bonkers" housing market, so they waited until they'd sealed the deal to Google the neighbourhood. 

"We were a little shocked — a lot shocked," Rockey-Harris said. "And then we realized that the house was great anyway."

They've been living there for almost a year now, and say they haven't noticed anything spooky.

"We joke that one of our cats, when he's attacking his own reflection in the hardwood floor, might be chasing a ghost or a Babadook — but it's just him hunting his own reflection," Rockey-Harris said.

"As my wife has pointed out, demons possess people, not houses."

Rockey-Harris says they're not creeped out because they don't really believe in demonic possession. In fact, he says The Exorcist movie didn't scare him when he first saw it at age 14, anyway.

"I thought it was good. It did not personally scare the bejesus out of me," he said.

Still, you can never be too careful. When they first moved in, Witt and her friend decided to cleanse the house of any malevolent presences by burning sage.

"I drank a beer on the porch while they did it, and everything seems fine," Rockey-Harris said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson.

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