Cover Image: Logo for the 1973 film (Wikimedia)
Exorcism is back. For many of us, our most vivid images of exorcism come from the 1973 movie, The Exorcist, based on the William Peter Blatty novel of the same name. Who can forget Linda Blair’s screaming, spinning head, and green projectile vomit? But the latest waves of exorcism are both make-believe and real. In the world of make-believe, there have been many sequels to the original movie, and Fox recently aired two seasons of a series, The Exorcist, that provided new chapters to the story. In addition, a new stage play based on Blatty’s novel debuted in Los Angeles and London and is scheduled to tour the UK and Ireland beginning in September.
All these scary stories are very entertaining, but for many people—perhaps for a growing number of people—devils, demons, and embodied evil are not just fantasy. Although it is difficult to get trustworthy data on the number of exorcisms conducted—in part because the Catholic Church discourages media coverage—according to a recent report in The Daily Beast, in Italy, there are 500,000 requests per year for exorcisms or prayers of the liberation of evil spirits (Nadeau 2019). In addition, Father Vincent Lampert, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis told The Atlantic that he received 1,700 phone or email requests for exorcisms in 2018 (Mariani 2018). Finally, this spring, for the first time, The Vatican opened up its course on exorcism to members of other Christian denominations, including Lutherans, Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, and Pentecostals.
Trailer for the original 1973 film “The Exorcist.” (Source: YouTube)
Exorcism has been around as long as people have believed in demons, and people have believed in demons as long as there has been religion. The ancient Mesopotamians are thought to have had a form of demonology, and the Greeks and Romans blamed the work of demons for all manner of disease and misfortune. For a fee, various beggar priests and cunning individuals would cast spells and utter incantations to send evil spirits away. In the Greek and early Roman periods, Jews, whose religious practices seemed strange and foreign, were thought to be especially talented exorcists (Janowitz 2002).
By the fourth century CE, when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the traditional gods of the Roman pantheon were redefined as demons, and those who persisted in following the “pagan” religion were said to be influenced by demons and, in some cases, possessed by them (Young 2016, 29). Furthermore, although the church engaged in a number of authorized forms of magic, the magic performed outside the church by itinerant practitioners was assumed to involve the assistance of demons. In general, priests believed in the power of the local sorcerers but denounced these magicians because their magic relied on demonic forces.
In the Middle Ages, the devil or his minions—fallen angels, incubi, and succubi—continued to be implicated whenever bad things happened, and the Christian church became a center of exorcism. The baptism ritual was an explicit form of exorcism, and many consecrated objects, such as holy water, the host, and consecrated salt, were thought to have the power to cast out the devil. In addition, the blessing used to produce holy water was itself an exorcism of the water. For example, an eleventh century English exorcism of water included the following passage:
I adjure you, creature of water, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth the Son of the living God, our king and our judge, that you may be purged for the sanctification of all things, and that you should not transmit any unclean spirit, but will give honour to the living and reigning Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to the ages of ages. (Young 2016, 84)
Following the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestants rejected many of the magical practices of the Catholic Church that highlighted the power of the priesthood, rather than a direct relationship with god—including exorcism. However, Protestants did not doubt the existence of demons. For example, witches were thought to consort with demons, and during the great European witch hysteria of 1550–1700, both Protestants and Catholics conducted witch trials and executions (Leeson and Russ 2017).
During the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, exorcism was challenged by a growing recognition that possession might be more appropriately considered a medical problem, but traditional exorcism never went away. Today, official practice of exorcism is governed by the 1999 Vatican document De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam (Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications), which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released in an English translation in 2017. The exorcism manual can only be obtained by qualified members of the Church by permission of a bishop, but the USCCB produced a separate small volume that is an English translation of an appendix of De Exorcismis called Prayers Against the Powers of Darkness (Smith 2017). The USCCB is offering this book for sale online ($6.95) to “assist the Christian faithful in their struggle against the infernal enemy.”
According to current doctrine, exorcisms can only be conducted with the approval of the local bishop, and priests who conduct exorcisms must make efforts to distinguish possession from mental illness. The accepted signs of a possible possession include: “a sudden capacity to speak unknown languages; abnormal physical strength; the disclosure of hidden occurrences or events; and a vehement aversion to God, the Virgin Mary, the saints, sacramental rites and religious images, especially the cross” (von Reisswitz n.d.). According to Vatican reports, validated cases of possession are very rare, occurring only once per five thousand reports of possession (von Reisswitz n.d.); however, given the many requests for possession received in recent years, that could amount to quite a few exorcisms.
For their part, the psychiatric community does not endorse the validity of possession by supernatural beings, but it recognizes that mental illness can take the appearance of a possession. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is the accepted catalogue of mental disorders. The fourth edition of the manual (DSM-IV), published in 1994, identified a condition called Dissociative Trance Disorder (DTD), which included “possession trance,” in which a person’s usual identity was replaced by an identity attributed to a “spirit, power, deity or other person” (During et al. 2011, 237).
Throughout history and across many cultures, people have entered into trance states, voluntarily or involuntarily. In the eighteenth century, members of the Shaker religion in Europe and the United States exhibited accepted forms of trance states, as did the mediums of the late nineteenth century spiritualist movement. Today, within several popular denominations of the Christian faith, possession trances come in two forms, one positive and one negative. The more acceptable form of trance happens when believers exhibit glossolalia or “speaking in tongues,” which they believe is a sign of possession by the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, this form of possession, which is sometimes considered a gift (i.e., the gift of tongues), is most often—though not exclusively—found in Protestant Pentecostal or Charismatic groups, whereas the negative form of possession—the kind that requires exorcism—is more strongly associated with the Catholic Church.
In the view of the psychiatric profession, mental disorders must produce some significant level of distress or dysfunction, and, because speaking in tongues is culturally acceptable, only the demonic form of Christian possession is likely to result in a clinical diagnosis. The DSM was most recently revised in 2011 (DSM-5), and in this edition, the APA eliminated DTD in favor of Possession-form Dissociative Identity Disorder, a subcategory of Dissociative Identity Disorders. The APA provides this description:
Possession-form identities in dissociative identity disorder typically manifest as behaviors that appear as if a “spirit,” supernatural being, or outside person has taken control, such that the individual begins speaking or acting in a distinctly different manner. For example, an individual’s behavior may give the appearance that her identity has been replaced by the “ghost” of a girl who committed suicide in the same community years before, speaking and acting as though she were still alive. Or an individual may be “taken over” by a demon or deity, resulting in profound impairment, and demanding that the individual or a relative be punished for a past act, followed by more subtle periods of identity alteration. (American Psychiatric Association 2013, 293)
According to the most recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans believe in the devil (Newport 2016), which is a slightly lower level than in earlier polls but slightly higher than belief in evolution (57 percent, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, Swift 2017). So why, at a time when belief in the devil is declining, should there be an apparent uptick in exorcisms? There are no good public data on exorcisms, so there is no way to know if the presumed increase is real. But the exorcists interviewed by Mike Mariani of The Atlantic reported a growing demand for exorcisms that they say is caused by an increased interest in the occult. They point to, among other things, the popularity of Harry Potter books. Although this is a highly unlikely explanation, it is in line with a theory offered by Fox News. Recently Fox News writer Caleb Parke (2019) tied the purported increase in demonic possession to The Satanic Temple, which the U.S. Internal Revenue Service recently recognized as a tax-exempt religious organization. Fox News has devoted considerable coverage to The Satanic Temple’s efforts to get various religious monuments removed from public lands, most notably a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol.
The irony of this explanation for an increase is exorcisms is that The Satanic Temple is a science-based organization that expressly does not believe in the actual Satan. According to their tenets, Satan is “symbolic of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority” (The Satanic Temple n.d.). However, The Satanic Temple is clearly a thorn in the side of traditional Christianity, and the group has grown in size and visibility. Most recently, The Satanic Temple was the subject of a very educational and entertaining feature-length documentary, Hail Satan?
The official trailer for the film “Hail Satan?” (2019) (Source: YouTube).
A much more likely explanation for any increase in demand for exorcisms is the Catholic Church’s own efforts to promote fear of the devil as a method of bolstering its own importance. The recent expansion of the Vatican exorcism course to other faiths has given additional legitimacy to the idea that the devil is living among us, but belief in demonology has also been promoted by the Pope himself. In an apostolic exhortation released in April 2018, Pope Francis described the devil as “a personal being who attacks us” (Esteve 2018). He stressed the importance of the supernatural and discouraged merely thinking of the devil as “a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea” (Esteve 2018). Pope Francis also rejected the possibility that possessions described in the Bible were cases of psychological disorder. The Catholic hierarchy appears to be determined to keep belief in evil supernatural spirits alive, and if they are successful, it is they—and not us—who will benefit.
- American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Washington (DC): American Psychiatric Press.
- During, Emmanuel H., F.M. Elahi, O. Taieb, M.R. Moro, and T. Baubet. 2011. “A Critical Review of Dissociative Trance and Possession Disorders: Etiological, Diagnostic, Therapeutic, and Nosological Issues” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Revue Canadienne de Psychiatrie 56 (4): 235–242.
- Esteves, Junno Arocho. 2018. “The Devil Is Real and Not Just a Symbol, Pope Francis Says in Exhortation.” Catholic Herald. April 09. Available at https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2018/04/09/the-devil-is-real-and-not-just-a-symbol-pope-francis-says-in-exhortation/.
- Janowitz, Naomi. 2002. Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians. Routledge.
- Leeson, Peter T., and Jacob W. Russ. 2017. “Witch Trials.” The Economic Journal 128 (613): 2066–2105.
- Mariani, Mike. 2018. “American Exorcism.” The Atlantic. November 20. Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/catholic-exorcisms-on-the-rise/573943/.
- Nadeau, Barbie Latza. 2019. “Vatican Assembles Avengers of Religion to Beat the Devil.” The Daily Beast. May 08. Available at https://www.thedailybeast.com/vatican-exorcist-convention-tries-innovative-ways-to-beat-the-devil.
- Newport, Frank. 2016 “Most Americans Still Believe in God.” Gallup.com. June 29. Available at https://news.gallup.com/poll/193271/americans-believe-god.aspx.
- Parke, Caleb. 2019. “As Satanic Groups Rise, Vatican Opens up Exorcism Summit to Non-Catholics.” Fox News. May 10. Available at https://www.foxnews.com/world/satanic-vatican-catholics-exorcism-summit.
- Smith, Jennifer. 2017. “US Bishops Publish English Translation of Exorcism Ritual.” Daily Mail Online. October 25. Available at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5017883/US-bishops-publish-English-translation-exorcism-ritual.html.
- Swift, Art. 2017. “In U.S., Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low.” Gallup.com. May 22. Available at https://news.gallup.com/poll/210956/belief-creationist-view-humans-new-low.aspx.
- The Satanic Temple. “Learn.” The Satanic Temple. Available at https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/learn.
- von Reisswitz, Crista Kramer. “Exorcism Rite Reformed.” CatholicCulture.org. Available at https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=2824.
- Young, Francis. 2016. A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. Palgrave.