Picks and Pans Review: Possessed: the True Story of An Exorcism

updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Thomas B. Allen

Demonic possession has been a sure seller since 1971, when William Peter Blatty published The Exorcist, a fictionalized tale inspired by a true case of exorcism. Allen, the author of 16 books (including War Games) and a National Geographic contributing editor, has stripped away the fiction but not the fascination surrounding the best-documented case of diabolical possession in history.

As with Blatty's work, Allen's involvement began with an article in The Washington Post: an interview with the Jesuit priest who assisted Father William S. Bowdern, the reluctant World War II veteran who was ordered by his archbishop to take on the case of Robbie Mannheim (not his real name), a teenage boy whose parents turned to the Catholic Church when the bizarre phenomena surrounding their son became a torment.

The nightmare began in 1949, with strange knockings, scratchings and flying objects in the Mannheim family's Maryland home. It ended three months later with Robbie in restraints in the security room of a St. Louis mental hospital, where bloody messages appeared on his body, "as if the blade of a razor was moving inside his skin."

With a secret diary as his main source, Allen presents a dispassionate study, all the more chilling for its lack of definitive answers, and documents not only the actual exorcism but the compassion of the Jesuits and the beauty of Catholic dogma and ritual. (Doubleday, $20)

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