Ronald Edwin Hunkeler was a NASA engineer who patented a special technology to make space shuttle panels resistant to extreme heat, helping the Apollo missions of the 1960s that put US astronauts on the moon in 1969.
But Hunkeler also had another claim to fame: He was the secret real-life inspiration for the demon-possessed kid in “The Exorcist.”
His identity has been kept under wraps since a series of exorcisms he underwent as a young teenager in Cottage City, Md., and St. Louis, Mo., in 1949.
For decades he was known only by the pseudonyms “Roland Doe” or “Robbie Mannheim.” His identity has been something of an open secret among the community of Jesuits who were close to the priests who participated in his exorcisms and a handful of academics and reporters who studied the phenomenon beginning in the mid-1970s.
But he lived in fear of more people finding out the truth.
According to a 29-year companion of Hunkeler, he was always on edge about his colleagues at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center finding out that he was the inspiration for “The Exorcist.” Hunkeler retired from NASA in 2001 after nearly 40 years with the space agency.
“On Halloween, we always left the house because he figured someone would come to his residence and know where he lived and never let him have peace,” the woman, who asked not to be named, told The Post. “He had a terrible life from worry, worry, worry.”
But Hunkeler was recently revealed in an article in “The Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason,” a bimonthly journal based in upstate New York that applies scientific rigor to explain “extraordinary” events, especially in the paranormal.
Investigator and podcast host JD Sword writes that he confirmed Hunkeler’s identity last month when he started researching a story on “The Exorcist” for his podcast, “The Devil in the Details.”
“The Exorcist” — both the movie and the 1971 novel it’s based on — was written by William Peter Blatty, who first heard about the demon possession of a 14-year-old boy around 1949, while he was a senior at Georgetown University. Eugene Gallagher, one of his professors and a priest at the Jesuit college, told Blatty, a New York native, about the extraordinary story of the boy who was believed to be in the throes of demonic possession, but had been saved through a series of exorcisms.
Hunkeler was born in 1935 and grew up in a middle-class family in Cottage City, Md. He was 14 when he heard knocking and scratching sounds coming from his bedroom walls. Objects seemingly flew across the room, and his bed somehow moved on its own — what Sword, who is a member of the Church of Satan, calls “classic poltergeist phenomena.”
In March of 1949, the family’s minister, Rev. Luther Schulze, wrote to Duke University’s Parapsychology Lab about what was going on with Hunkeler, detailing how “chairs moved with him and one threw him out [of it]. His bed shook whenever he was in it.” The reverend also cited the family’s stories of tables overturning, their floors being “scarred from the sliding of heavy furniture” and, in one, how a “picture of Christ on the wall shook” when Hunkeler was nearby.
The boy’s mother feared it was related to their recently deceased Aunt Tillie, a spiritualist who had taught Hunkeler how to use a Ouija board to communicate with the spirit world, according to Sword’s podcast. Using Ancestry.com records, Sword’s colleague Kenny Biddle found that Hunkeler had a paternal aunt named Mathilda Hendricks.
After Hunkeler underwent a series of medical and psychological tests, which failed to find anything abnormal, his family sought out religious leaders, beginning with a Protestant pastor.
“The family was Lutheran and they went through all the stages you see in the film: They went to doctors, clinics and finally went back to their own pastor in the Lutheran church, who recommended they see a priest,” the movie’s director, William Friedkin, told Entertainment Weekly in 2012.
William Bowdern was among a small group of Jesuits who helped Hunkeler, conducting more than 20 exorcisms on the teen over three months. In “Case Study by Jesuit Priests,” which was intended as a guide for future exorcisms, Bowdern described the demonic possession of a boy from the Washington, DC, suburbs identified only as “R.”
While 14 witnesses watched, Bowdern wrote in his diary on March 10, 1949, Hunkeler appeared in a trance as his mattress shook and there was a “scratching which beat out a rhythm as of marching soldiers. Second class relic of St. Margaret Mary was thrown on the floor. The safety pin was opened but no human hand had touched the relic. R. started up in fright when the relic was thrown down.”
It was decided that Hunkeler should be taken to St. Louis — where, coincidentally, his Aunt Tillie had lived — to be treated for demonic possession.
“It seems that whatever force was writing the words was in favor of making the trip to St. Louis,” wrote Bowdern, according to a copy of his diary on the Catholic Web site Sensusfidelium.com. “On one evening the word ‘Louis’ was written on the boy’s ribs in deep red [scratches]. Next, when there was some question of the time of departure, the word ‘Saturday’ was written plainly on the boy’s hip. As to the length of time the mother and boy should stay in St. Louis, another message was printed on the boy’s chest, ‘3 1/2 weeks.’ The printing always appeared without any motion on the part of the boy’s hands. The mother was keeping him under close supervision.”
On March 21, 1949, Hunkeler entered the Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis — where his violent convulsions broke a priest’s nose.
By mid-April, according to Sword’s podcast, Hunkeler claimed to be free of the devil after having visions of St. Michael holding a flaming sword.
“In what is perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history, a 14-year-old . . . boy has been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil, Catholic sources reported yesterday,” wrote Bill Brinkley in an August 1949 article in the Washington Post. The story — which was read by writer Blatty while he was a student at Georgetown — goes on to document how the boy “broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing and voicing of Latin phrases,” a language he did not know, when the Jesuit priests ordered that the devil be cast out of his body.
Although other investigators have known for years that Hunkeler was the real-life inspiration for “The Exorcist,” they did not reveal his identity while he was still alive.
Hunkeler’s female companion confirmed to The Post that he died last year, a month shy of his 86th birthday, after suffering a stroke at his home in Marriottsville, Md., a suburb northwest of Baltimore. He was cremated, she said.
Blatty’s book “The Exorcist” sold more than 13 million copies in the US alone, and the film earned him an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in 1974. It was the first horror movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
Universal Studios recently announced that it is planning a rebooted trilogy of the film, with Ellen Burstyn reprising her original role as the mother of the possessed teen, beginning in 2023.
But the man who inspired it had a sad end to his life: Hunkeler’s three children — two daughters and a son — had long been estranged from their father and did not attend the funeral, the companion said.
Sword said he reached out to author Mark Opsasnick, who was among the first to research the story in his 2016 book, “The Real Story Behind the Exorcist: A Study of the Haunted Boy and Other True-Life Horror Legends from Around the Nation’s Capital.”
Opsasnick was among the first to question the supernatural occurrences around Hunkeler and concluded that he was probably just a spoiled kid vying for attention.
In 2018’s “Diabolical Possession and the Case Behind the Exorcist: An Overview of Scientific Research with Interviews with Witnesses and Experts,” writer Sergio Rueda reported how a Hunkeler family friend explained the clan’s dynamics: The father tended to spoil Hunkeler and the mother was stricter. She was also, according to an interview with Rev. Schulze, very superstitious. The minister admitted he initially wondered if Hunkeler may have manipulated her beliefs, turning to trickery to get her to take him out of school for a while.
According to Hunkeler’s companion, the man himself never believed that he was the victim of satanic possession and he shunned religion.
“He said he wasn’t possessed, it was all concocted,” said the companion. “He said, ‘I was just a bad boy.’”
Still, there was one last thing she couldn’t explain. Shortly before Hunkeler died last year, a Catholic priest appeared at his home to perform last rites, she recalled, adding that she did not call the priest.
“I have no idea how the Father knew to come,” she said, “but he got Ron to heaven. Ron’s in heaven and he’s with God now.”