According to the ancient Celts of Ireland when the moon rises on Samhain (sow-en), to most of the world today Halloween, the doors between the worlds – this world and the Otherworld – swing wide open. The dead and all manner of faery creatures can mingle with mortals. So the wise did not go out after moonrise on November’s Eve except in disguise. Hence the tradition of guising (dressing up) for Halloween.
Samhain (literally Summer’s End in Gaelic) marked the end of the golden time of harvest and the beginning of the dark half of the year. From ancient times this festival of the dead was celebrated with great bonfires at the cross roads. In later centuries dances, divination (telling the future) and bobbing for apples became popular as well, of course, as storytelling. And the scarier, the more dramatic the story – the better!
Ireland’s epic tale, Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) begins with the hero Cú Chulainn, riding into battle on Samhain.
In much of the world Halloween evolved into a night when children dress as the characters of their dreams and go trick-or-treating for sweets. For one magical night each year they may be whatever they wish.
October is a gorgeous month in St. Louis. Gardens, parks and street scapes burst into a riot of color even as much of nature goes dormant for the winter, appearing almost to die. Orchards are ripe with apples and patches brimming with pumpkins awaiting their transformations into the magical, the ghoulish, the delicious!
It’s great fun when October comes around, to introduce tourists from near and far, to some of The Lou’s most haunting sights – like the Campbell House Museum at 15th and Locust Streets, where someone unseen turns the furniture around at night.
Or the eeriest room in The Lou’s most haunted house, the Lemp Mansion, perched atop Arsenal Street on DeMenil Place.
But there is no story that I love telling more than that of a young teenager who was given shelter by the Jesuits at St. Louis University when no hospital in the country would accept him and his parents were at wit’s end.
A normal boy in all respects until one day he began to change – his body becoming distorted with welts and unable to digest the food that he ate. A boy who suddenly spoke foreign languages and could reveal secrets about strangers that no one outside of their families could have known.**
This anonymous boy’s story became fictionalized as one of the most chilling horror stories (later horror movies) of modern times, The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty.
How this boy made his way for treatment from his hometown of Cottage City, Maryland to St. Louis (fictionalized as Washington, DC), how a Lutheran family came to put their faith in a Catholic ritual and what the boy, when healed, was able to reveal about the triumph of good over evil, is without a doubt the best ending to any horror story I know.
The old wing of St. Alexius Hospital, where the boy was eventually admitted for medical treatment, is long gone.
And long before the building was demolished, the corridor that contained his hospital room remained so strange after his exorcism, that it had to be sealed from public use.
The corridor in the top story (that looks like an attic story) of the hallway between Verhagen and DuBourg Halls at St. Louis University is also sealed off. It was never the same after the boy, who some believed possessed by the devil, took up residence there. But you could never tell today from the tranquil little courtyard beneath the window of that third-story room, that such a disturbing presence had once permeated the area.
But he told a wondrous story: of running through an endless dark and frightening tunnel, of becoming so weary that he just wanted to lie down and rest. But that something urged him on to the glimmer of light that he could see at the end of the tunnel.
How he had somehow known that he must keep going, that he could not stop until he reached the light. How upon reaching the tunnel’s end he had stepped out into an almost blinding light where a greatly-winged creature told him that he was St. Michael the Archangel. That he had been possessed by ten demons but that they (the angels) had fought for him and won. And that he need never be afraid again.
Whether at some point an angel with the wing-span the width of the College Church choir- loft really did appear inside St. Francis Xavier Church during the rite of exorcism, as one story goes, has not been confirmed.
Whether the boy was actually possessed by demons or he suffered from a psychological phenomenon remains a mystery.
But that a child who became ill and emaciated almost to the point of death, was healed here in St. Louis, took the name Michael when he was baptized, graduated from a Jesuit high school not far from where he grew up, and went on to become an airline pilot – these are the facts.
We may never know his name. The record of his exorcism, diligently kept by the Rev. William Bowdern, SJ, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church (the College Church at St. Louis University) when he performed the rite of exorcism, was sealed for the boy’s privacy and protection. Whether the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis will make it public when the man eventually dies is unknown.
What is known, and what is important to remember, not only at Halloween when the spectres of darkness take on sometimes enormous and frightening proportions, is that at the time of this child’s greatest vulnerability and weakness, angels had his back, and guided him safely to the light. Sometimes the truth is so much better than fiction!
As a waning but still glorious moon rises this Halloween night, may you delight in the glories of autumn, raise a glass to the beloved dead who went before you, and have a merry and magical All Hallow E’en.
Here in St. Louis streets will be lighted with jack-o-lanterns and ring with the laughter of children making their way from house to house on this still, magical night.
** My source for much of the boy’s story was the Rev. John Walsh, SJ, beloved mentor and storyteller extraordinaire, whom Fr. Bowdern allowed to read his journal of the exorcism as he was recording it, and before it was sealed.
Illustration and Photographs Credits: all in the public domain, mostly at wikipedia.org with the exception of the photographs taken at St. Louis University, in the Missouri Botanical Garden and Le Petit Pierrot, which are the work of Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog. Dragon Pumpkin Carving by Tom Kavanugh, Jr., who kindly gave me permission to use the image.