Washington Possessed

Considering it’s now seven days til All Hallow’s Eve (if you’re partying Saturday instead, it’s only five!), I thought I’d continue to do my part to freak you all out by telling a classic Wasington ghost story. Apart from President Lincoln’s haunting the White House, there is possibly no more famous local ghost story than that one that spawned the book and the movie, “The Exorcist.”

Everyone in DC is familiar with the “exorcist stairs” in Georgetown, featured in the film, and some might know that William Peter Blatty got the idea for the book from local news articles he read as a Georgetown student in the forties, about a possessed boy who lived in Mt. Rainier and had to be exorcised by a local priest. Supposedly the priest’s journal on the case was stored at the archdiocese. This journal features prominently in a story that is still told at my alma mater, Catholic University, where apparently the journal ended up being held under lock and key in a small room on campus, with a fiendish will of its own…

When I was a student at Catholic in the early nineties, I went to a house party in Mt. Rainier and was shown the empty lot where the boy’s house allegedly stood until it burned down. (Mark Opsasnick has written a fantastic in-depth article on the boy’s exorcism and the urban myth that grew up around it.) This was also the night that I first heard the enduring story about the student who stole the exorcist journal. I’m not sure when the story first came about, but it has persisted, and usually goes something like this:

Caldwell Hall is one of the oldest buildings on campus, the sort of place you really don’t like being in at night, with creaking floors and a creepy little chapel. There is a small locked room on the utmost top floor. It’s light is always on, at all times, and visible from outside. It’s rumoured that the journal of the priest who performed the exorcism is kept there, along with other secret church documents. So one night a student decides to prove whether or not this rumour is true, and he breaks into the room and steals the journal. Sneaking back to his dorm room (some versions say Spellman Hall), he settles in to read them. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. It’s shadowy, grim-faced priests. They demand the journal’s return, but somehow the student can’t seem to release it from his hands. He freaks out, and starts screaming. Clutching the journal, he backs away and flings himself out of his window, falling to the ground and shattering his ankle.

One of my co-workers is also a Catholic grad, and he has an interesting addition to this story. While a student he got hurt playing rugby and had to go to Providence Hospital for stitches. He’s tended to by an old male nurse, who scratches his head and says, “Now, the last time I treated a student from Catholic he was hurt real bad. Ankle all bashed up, bones shattered. He had some tale about hiding some old papers from the authorities. Yes, indeed, he was messed up.”

I love the fact that this DC ghost story has continued to grow, and still has the power to scare.
Got any of your own to share?

4 Comments so far

  1. hlo (unregistered) on October 25th, 2005 @ 4:22 pm

    i got my bachelors degree at gtown. every halloween they play “the exorcist” in gaston hall, which is a beautiful, old auditorium in the Healy building, which is the large old building with the clock tower in the middle of campus. and after the movie is over, students wander down to the exorcist stairs just to freak themselves out a little more. i graduated from gtown almost 10 years ago, have probably seen the movie at least 5 times in my life, and it still scares the living s$*t out of me. it’s definitely one of the scariest movies ever!


  2. hlo (unregistered) on October 25th, 2005 @ 4:26 pm

    oh…and one other thing along the lines of ‘urban myths.’ it’s funny you mention the story that keeps making its way around cua campus, because there is a similar story that floats around gtown campus about one of the top floors of healy hall being sealed off because of the supposed exorcisms that were done there. and i’m sure the two rumors are somehow related!


  3. Beth (unregistered) on October 26th, 2005 @ 1:11 am

    Also a cua alum, I remember the stories. Though, like any really juicy story, there were a few different twists. Instead of Caldwell Hall, I always heard that there was an underground crypt (under the mall on campus) where the Church kept such documents; the ‘how-to’ manuals re excorsisms. Also, as I recall, all of the houses around the now empty lot in Mt Rainier had the side of the house that faced the lot painted blue, to ward off the evil spirits.


  4. Jenn L (unregistered) on October 26th, 2005 @ 9:50 am

    I love the many variations of urban myths!

    Beth, I hadn’t heard the one about the underground vault, that’s very cool.

    And HLO, that’s also very interesting that G’town has a similar version. Considering their age and religious backgrounds, it makes sense that both G’town and CUA would have these creepy stories attached to them…



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