By James Bishop| Exorcism, and the supernatural in general, has always fascinated me. This brief paper breaks down the topic of exorcism into nine digestible points, and hopefully proves a springboard for readers to engage in their own extra research.
1. What is Demonic Exorcism?
Exorcism is the religious or spiritual act of expelling demons or other spiritual entities from a person who is believed to be possessed (1). According to Christian beliefs, a person can succumb to a demon that will take over his or her body, and the only cure is an exorcism to drive the demon out.
2. The Historical Jesus Performed What Were Believed to be Exorcisms (& Miracles)
It is a widely held among professional historians that Jesus did many wonders (2). These included both miracles and exorcisms. Though many historians don’t actually comment on the supernaturalism behind these miracles, they are aware that Jesus was widely associated as being a wonder worker by his close followers and crowds that followed him. In fact, this was one of the major reasons why Jesus attracted such a following. Professor and historian Craig Keener writes “that Jesus was a miracle worker stands as the most convincing thing I know about him… that Jesus was a miracle healer who did extraordinary feats in front of massive crowds of people is historical bedrock tradition” (3).
The late Distinguished Professor of Religion Marcus Borg also penned that historically “Jesus was a healer and an exorcist… In all likelihood, he was the most remarkable healer in human history” (4). Similarly Jesus’ reputation as an exorcist is bedrock (near indisputable) tradition. Historical Jesus scholars Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz write that “Just as the kingdom of God stands at the centre of Jesus’s preaching, so healings and exorcisms form the centre of his activity” (5).
3. Exorcism & the Hollywood Entertainment Industry
Throw in a bit of drama, horror, and creativity and we end up with a script for an often thrilling blockbuster movie. Hollywood has made much use of exorcism as a premise, and while some film plots are pure fiction with the goal of providing audiences with a thrilling experience, other films are said to be based on true events (6).
The genre has proven to be hugely popular too. The film The Exorcist has become a popular franchise grossing nearly $500 million worldwide with its two sequels and two prequels (7). It is also based on the true events surrounding Rev. Gary Thomas, one of the leading exorcists in America. Other popular films include, though certainly not limited to, The Right (2011), Deliver Us From Evil (2014), The Possession (2012), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) There is also a series on the Discovery Channel called The Exorcist Files.
Diane Winston, an expert on religion and the media at the University of Southern California, explains the reason behind Hollywood’s fascination with the genre, “Exorcism,” she explains, “is Hollywood’s wet dream. It’s taking on the most fundamental questions of good versus evil and doing it in a way that’s titillating and vaguely scandalous. How could that go wrong at the box office?” (8)
4. Real Life Exorcisms Can Be Fatal
While the process of exorcism varies across many cultures, the act of restraining the patient is common. Both in history and our contemporary world many exorcisms have sadly been performed on individuals who are emotionally and mentally disturbed (9). In some cultures, the act of restraining a person believed to be possessed is common, and has led to some fatal consequences. In fact, there are 370 000 reported cases of people killed during exorcism, and another 310 000 reported injuries (10).
In 2003, an autistic boy of the age of eight was bound in sheets and held down by church members during a prayer service held to exorcise the evil spirits believed to be behind his condition. The child died and extensive bruising on his back and neck suggested he died of asphyxiation (11).
In the past 10 years, there have been a few deaths related to exorcism in America. Texas mother Andrea Yates drowned three of her children in an effort to exorcise the devil from herself in 2001 (12). More recently, a South African couple were arrested for keeping their baby daughter caged, unfed, and tied up because they believed the child was possessed (13).
However, this fact isn’t ignored by religious figures. For example, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez urges practicing exorcists to put in safeguards, “exorcism is one thing, and psychoanalysis is another. If the exorcist has any doubt about the mental health of the possessed, he should consult an expert … It often happens that simple people confuse somatic problems with diabolical influence, but not everything can be attributed to the devil” (14).
5. Exorcism’s Scope
Though westerners usually associate exorcism with Christianity and Jesus, it can be found in other religions too. In Christianity exorcism usually involves an exorcist who is believed to be blessed/gifted with special, supernatural powers (15). The exorcist often invokes God, Jesus and/or angels to intervene with the exorcism. In Catholicism it is usually an ordained priest who is the exorcist and exorcises demons in the name of Jesus Christ.
Beyond Christianity exorcism can be found in the religions of Hinduism (16), Taoism (17), Islam (18), and Judaism. In Judaism the ritual is performed by a rabbi who has mastered practical Kabbalah. In the ceremony 10 people gather in a circle around the possessed person, recite Psalm 91 three times, after which the rabbi blows the shofar (a ram’s horn) (19).
In Buddhism, exorcism involves prayer and meditation to persuade the spirit to leave the body whereas Taoists mainly use chanting, praying, and physical movements to drive away the evil spirits (20).
6. Millions of Americans Claim to Have Witnessed Exorcism
A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more than one-in-ten Americans (11%) say they have experienced or witnessed an exorcism, when the devil or evil spirits are driven out of a person (21).
That equates to roughly 35 500 000 Americans. In Christianity the highest denomination to witness exorcisms are Pentecostal Christians with some 34% claiming to be eyewitnesses (above 7% of the general Christian population).
7. Are The Demons Real?
For many readers this is the real question being asked.
The truth is that there are scholars and investigators who fall on both sides of the fence in regards to the ominous supernaturalism behind exorcism. One of the discussions is the “Psychology vs. Religion” debate. As one writer captures, “Where one person sees possession and pulls out his rite of exorcism, another sees mental illness and pulls out the DSM IV” (22).
This is particularly pertinent given that certain mental illnesses possess (is that a pun?) similar traits to what has been believed to be demonic possession. Things like, for example, Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia. Those with epilepsy can suddenly go into convulsions when having a seizure; Tourette syndrome causes involuntary movements and vocal outbursts; schizophrenia involves auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, delusions and sometimes violent behaviour.
Some results of investigations into demonic possession have been argued to favour skepticism. Michael Cuneo, for example, doubted the supernatural links with exorcisms after he attended 50 of them in order to do research for his book. Cuneo says that he never saw anything supernatural or unexplainable: No levitation or spinning heads or demonic scratch marks suddenly appearing on anyone’s faces, but many emotionally troubled people on both sides of the ritual (23).
However, to the contrary, there are the disagreeing voices of other researchers and eyewitnesses, two of which, as we will see below, have been quite prominent. In fact, one psychiatrist claims he has witnessed victims of possession suddenly speaking perfect Latin, sacred objects flying off shelves, and people displaying “hidden knowledge” or secrets about people that they could not have possibly have known (24).
Thus, to answer the question more directly, it is perhaps premature to conclude against the supernaturalism behind exorcism. One reason is because much more research needs to be done before we can be confident in our conclusions. As one investigator puts it, “In conclusion, it is difficult to come by documentation of any outcomes of official exorcisms… Exorcisms are supposed to be low-key. Although they are not necessarily a secret, exorcisms are not performed in public or in front of press representatives” (25).
Another reason is because we find the numerous conflicting views of those for and against the supernatural link behind exorcism. Where one researcher says he hasn’t seen anything supernatural (i.e. levitation, objects flying around) another says that he has.
8. Psychiatrist Richard Gallagher & Scott-Peck
There are a few prominent and vocal academic voices in favour of genuine supernatural exorcism. These individuals are undoubtedly brave given the criticism they’ve copped by their skeptical peers in the field.
One of these is psychiatrist Richard Gallagher (26). Gallagher is a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. Over the last two-and-a-half decades Gallagher has helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths. He says that he has encountered what he behooves to be the demonic, and even though he was initially “inclined to skepticism,” several convincing phenomena has convinced him.
For instance, in one striking case, explains Gallagher, a “subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training.” This woman in question “knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability.”
Gallagher talks of another case in which a woman believed to be posses “threw a Lutheran deacon who was about 200 pounds across the room” (27). Individuals “may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them.
The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation… He or she might demonstrate “hidden knowledge” of all sorts of things – like how a stranger’s loved ones died, what secret sins she has committed, even where people are at a given moment. These are skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.”
Gallagher is quite confident that he has “seen the real thing… I have personally encountered these rationally inexplicable features, along with other paranormal phenomena. My vantage is unusual: As a consulting doctor, I think I have seen more cases of possession than any other physician in the world.”
But Gallagher is quite aware of falsity and, what is know as, “pseudo-possession.” This is because it may well be the case that “individuals who think they are being attacked by malign spirits are generally experiencing nothing of the sort. Practitioners see psychotic patients all the time who claim to see or hear demons; histrionic or highly suggestible individuals, such as those suffering from dissociative identity syndromes; and patients with personality disorders who are prone to misinterpret destructive feelings.” For more on Gallagher please consult my other article entry.
Further, the late Scott-Peck was American psychiatrist who penned the thought provoking book Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist’s Personal Accounts of Possession. Initially, like Gallagher, Peck did not believe in demons. Rather, it was until he examined the cases of two female clients that he concluded their conditions did not fit any “psychiatric picture,” and he then became convinced of the demonic (28).
Peck spoke about an encounter he had with a client, Jersey, who was believed to be possessed by demons (29). He also remembered his encounter with Beccah. During an exorcism her head “started to move back and forth in a strange weaving pattern that looked remarkably like that of a cobra… [her] body sprang toward me, its mouth flared open,” and she “had close to superhuman strength and fought against us with amazing violence” (30). Peck also mentioned that one of his team members was an atheist (31).
9. Demand For Exorcism & Exorcists is Growing
Contrary to the beliefs of many exorcism has neither died out nor been limited to solely an ancient practice. In fact, there is data to suggest that the demand for exorcism is actually growing. For example, it was shown that there was a 50% increase in the number of exorcisms performed between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s (32), and today there is an increase in demand in Mexico (33), England (34), and America (35).
One American priest, Vincent Lampert, receives over 1000 annual requests (+-19 per week) (36). The Catholic Church in America has at least 10 official exorcists which is nine more than a decade ago, and the Vatican Church is struggling to recruit and train enough exorcists to meet demands (37). The total number of practicing exorcists in America is believed to number over 50 (38).
According to J. Gordon Melton, a Methodist minister who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion, exorcism “is a big phenomenon,” in America, “There is a lot of exorcism going on” (39). One prominent investigator reveals that there “are at least five or six hundred evangelical exorcism ministries in operation today, and quite possibly two or three times this many” (40).