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Discovery+'s "The Exorcism of Roland Doe": A Review

It's another one of Discovery's Shock Docs, aptly named, this time focusing on the story behind a movie that rocked the horror world in the early 70's. I'm only partially familiar with Roland Doe and the original account that inspired The Exorcist, so I hope to learn a little something as I watch, but I don't have my breath held. Due to a lot of conflicting reports and later investigations into the case of Roland Doe, his personality was very much in question by those who knew him as a youth. Let's watch, unpack, and get to that later.

Within the first three minutes the audience has been told not just of the heavily fearful reactions to the release of the movie The Exorcist, but told by a Catholic priest in practically no uncertain terms that the events depicted in the movie are plausible. That the pea soup spewing, skin-splitting, ceiling crawling, broken necked activity of possession as portrayed by an adolescent Linda Blair, could all happen in the claws of a demon's grip. Anyone, anywhere, is susceptible...

This is already giving me very overt 2018 Destination America vibes and we're hardly past the intro. We're being told that the movie was astounding and gut-wrenching to moviegoers and a general public who had never witnessed anything like it in cinema before. This we knew, my own parents were in their 20's when it came out, and my mom specifically told me she was far too scared to ever see it in the theater. I'm glad to see Jeff Belanger as one of the talking heads in here, since his research is reliable. The priest's talking points, however, have been cut down to the most terrifying points he could make, and his sentences cut for effect.

The 13-year-old boy called "Roland Doe" to protect his identity, was the subject of the original William Peter Blatty book, The Exorcist. Blatty had kept newspaper reports and clippings about the case which inspired the book. The 1949 case took place in Maryland to an only child in the suburbs of Washington DC. There's a lot of authors on this special, so it's based on the work of those within the context of the paranormal. The ouija board makes its appearance via Roland's aunt who introduces him to spiritual practices. And, with the ouija board comes the "opening a door" to a dark place. Immediately the "dark place" or a way for the "demon to step in" is where the cause is placed for the eventual terrible events that happen to this family. Is this the first instance of the spirit board-as-portal giving over to mainstream belief? I figured it was this movie, but I don't know for sure. This doc didn't divulge that specifically.

With the death of his beloved, witchy Aunt Tillie, the family was alone with growing paranormal activity in their home after using the ouija board. The kid was apparently 13 when this happened, ripe for influence especially if the parents were compelled by their own beliefs to react with fear. The classmates of this boy and even neighbors are said to have witnessed strange activity surrounding him. The way the doc presents it honestly reminds me of several scenes in the movie Hereditary with the son in his high school classes having an absolute possession freak-out.

Of course, we're informed how fast his normal, adolescent life fell apart due to the horrendous things happening to him and around him in the nights that followed. Unrelenting physical torture, twisting, contorting and looking or acting possessed took over the next weeks of his life. The priest does explain that psychiatric care is the first and foremost necessity for someone going through these symptoms, but it's a little late into the documentary to have this important information placed here. The lack of any medical records for this boy besides a note from a psychiatrist is also bizarre, as doctors were apparently consulted. It's clear we're in for a fanciful retelling of a religious legend.

There's a lot of flashy transition effects and b-roll that's far more dramatic than it could ever need to drive a point home. From strange behavior to the devil itself, and to why an innocent teenager would be targeted by evil, the rigors of going through the Archbishop to have an exorcism performed are explained and within two months, the first attempts at this process are undertaken. I had a feeling this was going to tell the tale, folklore and all, rather than be an open perspective look at the case in general.

The documentary mentions how this family had no plan outside the church, and to me, it's really something that a family (any, really) would upend their lives to such horrendous results based on the behavior of their son in search of a solely religious resolution. The power of belief, man. This is perhaps an example of what the farthest reaches of belief and fear can do when combined. Some relatives the family had in Bel-Nor, St. Louis then take in Roland and his parents in hopes of relief, but of course, the devil can be anywhere. Roland is once again terrified by intense poltergeist activity and the family is at a loss, and contacts a Father Raymond Bishop (he had a name MADE for his job) at St. Louis University along with Father William Bowdern. Fathers Bowdern and Bishop take on the process of exorcising Roland Doe in the house of his aunt and uncle. That family really took on a lot of drama at the behest of their in-laws and nephew. That's hardcore.

There's then a lot of back and forth about the different things that happened to the boy and the priests within the room and the house, all of which is identified as being entirely paranormal, at least within the context of this presentation. The demon in the boy is not questioned, the lack of psychological care that was mentioned to have been administered early on in his case was not continued or repeated or updated. What little mention of mental health there was in the first 10 minutes is now done, over.

I guess I didn't realize how very close the Blatty story tried to match the account from 1949. It's a little like watching the Travel Channel break down The Exorcist without using too much original movie material, and telling it like a sensational tale, not an unprecedented experience with various perspectives giving different angles to the activity. There are no angles but evil from about 20 minutes in and onward. Blatty seemed to have only needed to organize it all, move it to a new city and spice it up with an adolescent girl in Linda Blair's Regan. The entirety of the information is coming from the priests who wrote of their time treating this boy for possession, and that, being displayed as fact, is fairly biased. Any extent of truth is unknowable. These details could very well be further speculation created at the time by numerous people around the family at the same time. Most of the documentary is speculation, it seems.

At this point in the exorcisms the boy is said to have been physically out of control including punching, kicking, slapping, the whole works of combatant behavior by a slight, 13-year-old boy. While many, including this documentary, chalk that up to the superhuman strength of a possessed individual, all of that is behavior seen in many different sized teenagers of the same age - if you've ever had one or been one, this is irrefutable. Teenage boys can be terrifying, ask Jerry Springer. The unrelenting back and forth of Roland acting normal and then Roland becoming frantic again with terrifying behavior is further explained, and strange writings that needed to be interpreted by the priests manifests through the boy. Again - if all accounts are through the clergy that were involved 70 years ago, we have a lot of grains of salt to take all of this with.

More time goes by with no more help in Maryland or DC at the church, they all head back to St. Louis to a hospital, the psychiatric ward in fact, run by Catholic monks. The Alexian Brothers Hospital had a secure psychiatric facility which would keep the boy safe from the public and in secret as he went through the further steps of exorcism. Apparently a monk who was sworn to silence broke that vow at one point and spoke about the special patient in the psych ward that April of 1949. This was a monk who spoke in 2014 on his participation in the exorcism. Even in what the elderly priest spoke of, the behavior was spoken of in terms of the devil doing the action through the boy, it was never questioned as being done by the boy of his own volition. The events of 1949 are never mentioned or even hinted at in any context outside Catholicism and the work the priests believed they were doing.

The trials and tribulations of the priests, family and Roland Doe himself, (just Google the name Roland Doe and you'll be provided with the name of the real man behind the alleged possession), were expressed as though the accounts were taken as entirely true, or at least presented as though it were all factual for even those who aren't Catholic. The only way the documentary can catch itself on the overt religiosity is to ask instead of stating "could Roland have been affected by the work of Satan?" If offered as a question, the documentary can retain its innocence in providing possibilities without stating anything outright.

The case of Roland resolved by the defiance of Roland himself, apparently instructed by the Archangel Michael to say the word "Dominus" in a sudden vision, and the demon would depart his body. After a shuddering, building-shaking blast reverberates throughout the hospital, an image of the angel St. Michael was reported by other priests in the church, which was of course taken as a sign that the exorcism was truly effective. Roland went home to Maryland, and everything seemed to be fine. That was it. The Catholic church refuses to this day to confirm or deny the case's existence, and the ecclesiastical documents that the priests, (allegedly over two dozen), signed off on as witnessing are locked away in the Roman Catholic archives. The details of Roland's experience only leaked to the press later. That still leaves me to wonder how the information leaked with any truth or facts supporting it.

Was it an undisputed case of demonic possession? Well, to believers, probably. Was it actually a case of belief supporting strange behavior, with clever acting or mental illness obscuring reality? We'll never know, but Discovery will do anything to give veracity to the witnesses by making it sound evil or undeniable in a religious sense. Roland himself went on to go to college, marry, start a family and became a rocket scientist, which looks like a very good outcome for a boy formerly possessed by the devil. At the least, it is a curious and intriguing story about a boy who may or may not have defeated evil and eventually lived into his 80's, albeit he went to the grave with the real story secreted inside his mind forever. He allegedly passed away in the last 2 years, if the person identified to have been the real Roland Doe was in fact who people believe it was.

This was less a documentary and more of a retelling of the Roland Doe legend with seizure-inducing transitions and heavy b-roll. The show failed to provide alternate perspectives to any of the activity or how it could be explained in terms of medical health, mental illness or even fraud. Not that a program like this would ever do that, but there is evidence refuting the boy's first treatment at Georgetown University Hospital before being taken to the church. Roland's classmates described him as a bully and attention-seeking, along with being a spoiled kid "prone to tantrums", but instead of a well-rounded take, the show simply blames the devil. I think there were ample opportunities to examine the way these stories grow, change and alter through time to become the material for something so popular and groundbreaking as The Exorcist, but the program never took it there either. There's not much for me to do by reviewing Shock Docs outside of pointing out bias and the onesideism of Discovery choosing the portion of the story they want to sell, so if you don't mind I'll be skipping the rest of these ridiculous episodes.

Thanks for reading, only watch if you seek legend and lore,


I'm Amy L. Bennett-Bradway, a writer, multimedia artist, recovering archaeologist and YouTuber from Upstate, New York. I've been invested in all things strange and unusual since my dad gave me the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy when I was way too young. Along with my husband, Ryan, we've explored countless haunted locations in the US and abroad in search of the Weird.
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