4/19/10

Spooky surroundings Rolling Hills backdrop for SyFy cable channel documentary on true story behind 'The Exorcist'

Spooky surroundings, Clouds loom over Rolling Hills Asylum in Bethany. The former county poorhouse this week was the filming site for a documentary about the true story behind ''The Exorcist'' to air this fall on the SyFy cable channel. (Rocco Laurienzo/Daily News) Rolling Hills backdrop for SyFy cable channel documentary on true story behind 'The Exorcist', THE HAUNTED BOT, THE SECRET DIARY OF THE EXCORCIST. (October 2010)

BETHANY -- Christopher Booth wears a bandanna, several large rings on his fingers and his hair at shoulder length.
And so even here -- in the long-vacant, third-floor headmaster's room at the Old County Home -- you might mistake him for a touring rock musician on hiatus. Except, of course, for the setting. And the stories of demonic possession and exorcism he shares in the soft accent of his native Yorkshire, England. Then, you might try to ignore the chill in the air, and the wind that whistles through the open bullseye window on a gusty Thursday afternoon. Booth is, in fact, one of the twin Booth Brothers, paranormal investigators and filmmakers behind California-based Spooked TV. Christopher Booth and his twin brother, Philip, are familiar to fans of the paranormal through their documentaries broadcast on the SyFy Channel, and bearing titles like "Children of the Grave" and "Possessed."

The brothers have been called "rock stars of indie horror and the paranormal." This week, they were leading a team at Rolling Hills -- the former County Home at East Bethany and Raymond roads. They are filming parts of a documentary about what Booth says is the true story behind one of the most famous paranormal stories of all time. Due on SyFy this Halloween is "The Haunted Boy: The Secret Diary Of The Exorcist." The Booths are also filming for a planned "official" documentary about the Bethany facility, recently renamed Rolling Hills Asylum. "The Exorcist" is a bestselling 1971 novel by William Blatty, about the demonic possession and exorcism of a teenage girl. The book later became what many consider the most frightening movie ever made.

Blatty based the novel on a 1949 exorcism of a 14-year-old Maryland boy. "The Haunted Boy" is based on the diary allegedly kept by the Jesuit priests who performed that exorcism. The diary is 26 pages long, and covers a four- or five-month period, Booth said. And it's terrifying, he said. "It makes the "Exorcist" movie look like kindergarten," Christopher Booth said Thursday.
"The boy," he said, "was disturbed." That nature of his disturbance -- whether it was a genuine case of demonic possession or psychological -- is among the questions explored in the documentary.

Despite the lurid nature of the tale, Booth said, his goal is neither to sensationalize nor exploit those involved in the 1949 exorcism or their families.

The brothers have interviewed the remaining survivors, and have conducted paranormal investigations at each of the sites involved in the exorcism.

"This really is the truest documented retelling of what happened," Booth said. "We want to learn the truth and we want to tell people what we found out."

Rolling Hills is a long way from St. Louis, Mo., where the 1949 exorcism took place.

The Booths were drawn to Bethany through their acquaintance with Sharon Coyle, who bought Rolling Hills at an auction last year. Coyle is an associate producer with Spooked TV.

Rolling Hills Asylum, Booth said, is also a convincing stand-in for the former Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis. That facility was razed during the 1970s.

The headmaster's room in the old, west wing of Rolling Hills is identical to the hospital room where the 1949 exorcism took place, Booth said.

On Thursday, the room was occupied by a cast-iron hospital bed original to the facility. It's mattress is long gone, and it is mottled with rust. Actors would be playing the parts of the young boy, and the priest involved with the exorcism.

The details and the haunting atmosphere of an old asylum would be difficult, and pricey, to duplicate in a studio, Booth said.

"They're pulling them all down," Booth said. "All the asylums and poor houses are all gone."

"Actually, it's amazing the shape that it's in," Booth said.

Rolling Hills was established in 1827 as the county poorhouse, and has been much expanded over the years. It's been the county orphanage and nursing home, and host to a succession of businesses.

For years it has also been the site of ghost hunts that continue to attract thrill-seekers, paranormal investigators and filmmakers.

It was a ghost hunt that brought Coyle to Rolling Hills a few years ago. She fell in love with the facility, and jumped at the chance to purchase it at auction last year.

"If I could wrap my arms around this building and give it a big old squeeze, I would," Coyle said. "I just love it."

Coyle and her husband, Jerry, live in Huntington Beach, Calif. But Bethany, she said, reminds her of the one-stoplight town in New Hampshire where she was raised.

Coyle acknowledged that she probably cannot hope to fully restore the 11-acre property, which includes the 54,000-square-foot main facility and a handful of outbuildings and a residence.

Her aim, she said, is to "arrest the decay" and promote Rolling Hills Asylum for a variety of uses beyond the paranormal.

She's full of enthusiasm and ideas -- classic car shows, history tours, even weddings. Perhaps even a demonstration site for "green" energy.

"It's a beautiful property," she said, looking south toward the hills and Genesee County Park. "I want other people to come, not just the nighttime people."

"We have some plans, but it's going to take a long time," she said. "Baby steps. It's best to do things one at a time."

Coyle said she feels destined to have purchased Rolling Hills. She brings to the venture a dozen years of experience as a location manager in television production. She was also involved in trade-show marketing for as many years.

"Everything kind of comes together here," Coyle said. "I feel like I'm supposed to be here, to take care of this place."

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