The Real Story Behind ‘The Exorcist’: A Q&A with Henry Ansgar Kelly

October 19, 2023
By Joanthan Riggs | UCLA

Turning 50 this year — and looking not a day over diabolical — “The Exorcist” is one of the most influential, critically acclaimed and financially successful horror films of all time. (Based on a 1971 novel, the film even inspired a 2023 sequel, as well as some silly questions.)

While its sensationalized depiction of demonic possession has all but defined this type of narrative in the popular imagination, the material itself is loosely based on a real-life case from 1949, where Father William Bowdern performed a series of exorcisms on a 14-year-old boy.

“I was the only one to whom he ever gave an interview,” says Henry Ansgar Kelly, the distinguished research professor of English who wrote it up in the 1974 edition of his book, “The Devil, Demonology, and Witchcraft.” (Read what he wrote in scanned pages here.)

Associated with UCLA for 56 years thus far, Kelly was initially drawn to the university for the interdisciplinary approach of its new Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, now known as the UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies.

“It allowed for interesting sidelines,” he says, “as long as one’s main field was not neglected. I may have published four books on the devil and a few more on assorted other topics, but I’ve also written four books on Chaucer, three on the genre of tragedy and one on Shakespeare.”

Read the UCLA Newsroom interview.