MOUNT RAINIER, Prince George's County - Autumn leaves speckle the ground at 3210 Bunker Hill Road. Sparrows sweep across the grass. A dog barks. Children have left chalk drawings of hearts and sweet messages scrawled on posts and beams of the gazebo: JESUS RULES, PEACE & LOVE, ROSE & JEFF.
For almost 30 years, this tranquil place was known as "the devil's house," the dark portal where a fallen spirit penetrated the psyche of a fragile 13-year-old.
"I passed that house every day on the way to school," said 53-year-old Vernon Sears, a lifelong resident of Mount Rainier. "That was where the boy succumbed to whatever it was, and then the family moved closer to St. James [Catholic Church] to be near the priest. Why it was abandoned after that, I don't know, but you could speculate that no one wanted to live there."
Hard to believe this tidy lot anchoring an old neighborhood now serves as a playground for Mount Rainier Elementary School. Church people use it as an outdoor sanctuary. The town hosts concerts at the gazebo. Some remember what once loomed here - an unpainted three-story house that slowly crumbled, sporadically burned and became such a frightening spectacle that people crossed the street to avoid its influence - and they sigh with relief.
"A couple of years ago we moved our sunrise service to the gazebo," said Pastor Malcolm Smith, whose Mount Rainier Christian Church stands on the opposite corner. "A few people expressed some nervousness about it, but we had a wonderful service. The sun rose spectacularly and shone through the stained glass window across the street. I have to say that inside me there was a feeling of reclaiming the land for good and not evil."
And yet just last week, school children strolling up Bunker Hill Road walked on the other side of the road. They said they believe the house is still there, only now buried beneath the ground.
The story spreads
In 1971, a former Georgetown University student named William Peter Blatty wrote a richly disguised novel about a case of demonic possession that reportedly happened here in January 1949. His book, "The Exorcist," frightened the bejesus out of a lot of readers, became a best seller and caught the fancy of Hollywood. A few years later, the movie made a lot of money and became one of the world's most popular horror films.
A nonfiction book and meticulous descriptions of the actual incident have been published in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Holland, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, and Hong Kong.
In 1998, the BBC produced a documentary, and the British relinquished a 12-year ban on "The Exorcist" video, setting off a flurry of reports about Mount Rainier around Great Britain.
Just recently, a journalist for The Guardian in London wrote a story about the "spooky old house at 3210 Bunker Hill Road." With last week's release of an updated version of the movie, yet another documentary crew has been seen lurking around the neighborhood.
Despite 50 years of all this fervent interest, the real story of the boy's exorcism has always been a bit confused.
In the film, Georgetown, not Mount Rainier, is the setting. A 12-year-old girl is the devil's victim. The parents are divorced. The priest battles privately with a loss of faith.
None of this is factual.
In Thomas Allen's nonfiction book, "Possessed: The True Story of An Exorcism," the boy's name is Robbie. In the movie, the girl is Regan. Around Mount Rainier and in news accounts, the name comes out as Jarboe, Douglas and John. His father reportedly worked at a local bar named Bass's, or as a mechanic. People say the boy today lives in California or Minneapolis or, maybe, outside Washington, D.C.
What no one disagrees about is that priests did try to exorcise a demon.
Sometime during January 1949, the boy's mother noticed odd noises around the house, found furniture moved and saw strange marks on the boy's body. She consulted her minister, who dismissed her concern about demonic possession. But after an evening in his own home with the boy, seeing a chair lift up and toss the boy in the air, the minister sent the family to a young priest at St James Catholic Church, Father Albert Hughes.
Shortly after that, an altar boy, Winfield Kelly, noted an awful change in the priest.
"I saw him every day for Mass, and I became aware of some trauma he was going through," said Kelly, now chief executive of Dimensions Health Care in Prince George's County. "He had a handsome face, but at one point it became mottled, like he'd been hit with cigarette lighters. A very handsome dark-haired man grew gray and haggard."
Around the schoolyard kids talked about strange goings-on in the boy's house. It was said Father Hughes had become involved.
Whether the priest actually attempted an exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital is not certain. For years, Father Hughes refused to discuss it or even mention the boy's name.
But in 1980, his assistant at St. James, Father Frank Bober, had dinner with the priest and heard him talk about a failed attempt to exorcise a demon. Father Hughes died a few days later, so the full details never emerged, but Father Bober has told reporters the priest gave chilling details of his efforts - the hospital room turned very cold, the boy spoke archaic languages and slashed the priest's arm with a bed spring.
The exorcism was finally completed after a 10-week period at the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, according to Father William B. Faherty, who has written a history of the event. In his book, Father Faherty writes that the boy spit and hit the priests, spoke in Latin and appeared to change physically into the likeness of another person.
The priest who led the exorcism, Faherty said, was "psychologically strong" and managed to conclude an exorcism in early April 1949. The boy returned to Maryland, and the hospital room was locked for more than 20 years until the building was razed.
"They just felt there were sad memories here, let's lock it," Father Faherty said recently. "As far as I know, they just thought unusual events should just stay there."
The boy's family abandoned the home on Bunker Hill and, according to Father Hughes, moved into a house around the corner.
Three months later, the family's secret seeped out at a meeting of the Society of Parapsychology in Washington. Newspaper reporters competed for stories over an entire week.
Articles always identified the boy as a resident of Mount Rainier.
'Holding onto the myth'
A couple of years ago, freelance writer Mark Opsasnick came to town to research the life and times of famed blues guitarist Roy Buchanan, Mount Rainier's other celebrated ex-resident.
A couple of old-timers pulled him aside to discuss the hexed house at 3210 Bunker Hill.
"They said it didn't happen there," Opsasnick said.
Piqued by the revelation, Opsasnick investigated and discovered that no one had ever talked to the boy, to his neighbors or to childhood friends. No outsider had figured out that the boy never lived here at all.
Cottage City is another tiny town within a mile of St. James Church. There on 40th Avenue, between the fire station and town hall, Opsasnick found the little white Cape Cod-style house where the "haunted boy" actually grew up. Using public records, he tracked down old neighbors, interviewed childhood pals and even spoke briefly with the grown-up boy himself, an apparently normal, well-adjusted man who remains fiercely protective of his privacy.
In a story published in December 1998 in Strange magazine, a small publication that investigates stories about the paranormal, Opsasnick laid out his findings and concluded that the boy was not possessed, but probably an abused and distraught child. To escape a deplorable childhood, Opsasnick said, the boy played tricks on his mother by moving the furniture around, spitting, making strange noises and acting demented.
"He was 5 feet tall and weighed 80 pounds," Opsasnick said. "He was having a hard time in junior high school, and this was his only way out."
After the story was published, he sent copies to public officials in Mount Rainier but never heard from them. Told recently that some people still refuse to discuss the case, Opsasnick seemed perplexed.
"I don't understand the dynamics," he said. "I think I've done them a service, but they want to hold onto this myth. I think everybody just wants to be scared."
Avoiding the subject
But perhaps there is another story, though far more difficult to expose.
"When you were young, there were a lot of things you just didn't know," said Alvin Kagey, a 65-year-old forensic dentist from Roanoke who grew up on Bunker Hill Road and whose parents were friends of the boy's family. "Adults usually went off into another room to talk. So we heard bits and pieces, but never the whole story."
Not until 1974, after the movie came out, did Kagey's father acknowledge knowing anything at all. "He heard me talking one day to someone about the movie, and he said, 'My God, you know who that was?' "
It is much the same wherever you go. After more than 50 years, most people in these towns continue to insist the incident occurred in Mount Rainier. Old-timers refuse to discuss what they do know and people apparently avoid the subject even among themselves.
"It's like it never happened here," said Father Peter Alliata, who now serves the St. James parish. "Nobody's told me anything."
"It's not something you want to go around asking questions about," cautioned Lt. Mike Peck, the senior firefighter at the Mount Rainier Volunteer Fire Department.
"I won't say anything," said a secretary at the Cottage City Town Hall.
It is curious, admitted Cottage City's police commissioner, William Hall, who has lived near the house on 40th Avenue for more than 35 years.
"I heard that one of our secretaries went to school with him years ago," he said. "But she don't talk. And most people around here, they just don't seem to think much about it."
Could it be just this simple?
Half a century ago, in this tiny working-class community of Mount Rainier northeast of Washington, they say a lonely teen-aged boy went a little daft. Adults in town exercised restraint and tact. They protected the boy, refused to discuss the subject in front of children and rarely acknowledged it even among themselves.
Even the priest pointed to a neighboring community, throwing of the scent of reporters in pursuit of a spicey tale.
Maybe in those days, when Satan came to town, it was just one of those things people preferred not to run up the flagpole.
As for the exorcism, well, maybe they would just as soon have forgotten about that entirely.
After so much time, one would think Mount Rainier's darkest secret would be known just about everywhere by now. But stubborn silence is a small town's pride, and a power that cannot be underestimated.
Perhaps this was the power, commonplace and silently agreed upon, that made it possible for the "haunted boy" to come home after an awful ordeal.
Somehow, despite the odds, he graduated from high school here, and apparently went on to live a successful life, not far from childhood haunts and the protected memories of people who learned to practice a remarkable restraint.