Exorcism in America: A Social History of Diabolical Possessions

During a 2002 pilgrimage to the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria, Pope John Paul II spoke to a crowd of congregants of a crisis of faith among Christians, stating: “Spiritual combat … needs to be taught anew and proposed once more … It is a secret and interior art, an invisible struggle in which monks engage every day against … the evil suggestions that the demon tries to plant in their hearts”

To an outward observer, the speech reads like a clear call-to-action. It asks Christians to renew their faith and resist everyday temptations. But given the course of Christianity since then, his words have also taken on a more ominous tone. Christianity is at war once again, and reflecting John Paul’s invocation of evil and demons, this war is spiritual.

Over the last decade exorcisms have become a hot-button issue. Pastors are warning of a growth in practitioners of occult and New Age philosophies. Old hands like Satanic panic pioneer Bob Larson discovered that the Internet offered new possibilities for proselytizing, so they’ve begun to branch out on their own or pivot into hip young rebrands. And in October 2017, the Catholic Church announced it would be dropping the traditional Latin requirements on its Rite of Exorcism and begin issuing guidelines in English.

In response, the mainstream media has scrambled to deliver phantasmagorical coverage. Publications like The New York Times and Newsweek have highlighted fringe aspects of exorcism claims like the roles of cellphones and porn in summoning demons. Meanwhile, online clickbait sites have reported on spirit possessions in an uncritical manner. Under the guise of religious plurality, sites like VICE and Den of Geek have published articles looking at the practice from the opposite end of the religious spectrum. By promoting Satanic and New Age exorcisms.

Still image taken from French film L'Inferno
The Ninth Circle of Hell, taken from L’Inferno (1911)

The secular Internet’s tendency to overcompensate for alternative points of view has mirrored Catholic sites. Online news portals like CRUX, Catholic News Agency, and Catholic Philly have delivered articles distinguishing between “real” exorcists, priests authorized by a bishop to perform the rite, and frauds, or everyone else. These stories surged on or before April 2018 when the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome held its 13th annual gathering on exorcisms, titled “Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation.” Much as VICE uncritically questioned Satanic exorcists about their process, all three Catholic sites qualified endorsements of individual exorcists by pointing out there are also “fakes” in the field. These fakes operate in “black markets” to deceive and/or cheat unsuspecting Christians, according to the Catholic Philly article.

On the surface, these stories appear to be even-handed. They explore the ideas and people with genuine curiosity. However, they serve two functions in reality—they create demand for exorcisms and legitimize exorcists. First, they act as a self-fulfilling prophecy which divines renewed demand for exorcisms—one Catholic source claims “demonic possession claims have tripled in recent years [because of] increased use of fortune tellers and tarot cards”—by creating demand in communities through exposure to these stories. Second, they legitimize exorcists by publishing their testimonies uncontested. By handling the subject in this manner, reporting on exorcisms and exorcists elides the veracity of individual claims by treating the concept itself as a kind of truism. Rather than engaging critically with claims of spirit possession, writers are now likely to skip the question of legitimacy in favor of an unthinking embrace of exorcists and their claims.

This poses a much more troubling question: why has exorcism become so ingrained in American culture that its legitimacy goes unquestioned? Exorcism as a religious practice isn’t new, and this kind of coverage is in no way groundbreaking. Reporters treated the subject of exorcism as serious as far back as the 1940s and 1950s. That said, there are factors at work today which make modern exorcisms different from those of previous eras. It’s not enough to question why they have been gaining in popularity again. We must also understand where these ideas first came from and why they fell out of favor for a time. And to understand that you first have to understand how, and who, popularized exorcisms.

Still image from The Exorcist of the demon Pazuzu
The Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, taken from The Exorcist (1973)

Exorcism predates modern Catholicism—there are references to it in various religions throughout recorded history—but the modern version began gaining traction in the United States among Catholics and Protestants in the 1960s. This isn’t to say there had been no exorcisms before that. One notable example made the news in 1949, but the practice was rarely discussed among Catholics and mainline Protestants. Beginning in the 1960s, Charismatic movements within those denominations began to gain influence. These groups believed Christians should have a deeper connection with the Holy Spirit. To accomplish this, they borrowed something from Pentecostalism known as charismata. These are spiritual gifts which allow the Holy Spirit to act through a host body. Such gifts might include divine sight, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), faith-healing, and, relevant to this discussion, exorcism.

The Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Catholicism’s Charismatic offshoot, emerged sometime between late 1966 and early 1967. Duquesne professors William Storey and Ralph Keifer discovered evangelical David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, a book about Wilkerson’s experiences ministering troubled youth in New York City in the 1950s, and attended prayer meetings held by Charismatic figure Florence Dodge. Soon thereafter, they were both baptized in the Holy Spirit and began laying hands on other Catholics. According to folklorist Bill Ellis in Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, writings by earlier Charismatic figures like Edward Irving and Ronald Knox also played a role in mainstreaming spirit possession. They helped shape the contours of Catholic thought by creating a foundation for future Charismatic leaders through prolonged campaigns at forcing stories of spirit possession and exorcism into mainstream religious discourse.

The rise of Charismatic movements and mainstream acceptance of spirit possession hit its peak in the 1970s. But this wasn’t because of leaders in those movements. Instead it came from a borderline heretical source: a horror film. The influence of The Exorcist in mainstreaming spirit possession cannot be overstated. Released in 1973, The Exorcist was a brash and bold departure from what Christians would expect in a film. While epics like Cecille B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross had contained content many Christians might find objectionable, no film had combined the grotesque imagery of the horror film with concepts like spirit possession and exorcism in a way that could reach evangelical and mainline groups alike until The Exorcist’s arrival. It was more than a financial success. It kicked off a spiritual awakening. It wasn’t uncommon for church groups to rent out whole theaters for repeat screenings. American filmmakers immediately tried (and failed) to mimic its success, as in Christian filmmaker Ron Ormond’s docudrama The Burning Hell and its grisly visions of sinners burning in Hell or the various Exorcist clones released throughout the 1970s which outright stole its plot. What most didn’t get was that The Exorcist didn’t exist in a vacuum. It wasn’t a cultural phenomenon that manifested out of thin air like its antagonist Pazuzu. It came from a very specific place, and people.

The Exorcist’s writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin went to great pains to portray exorcism in as authentic a way as possible . Blatty based his source novel on a case from 1949, the exorcism of Roland Doe in Silver Spring, Maryland. His research focused on a Washington Post article published in August of that year titled “Boy ‘Freed … of Possession by the Devil,’” which chronicled the efforts of Jesuit priests to rid Doe of a spirit, and later interviews with one of the priests. But preparation for the film required knowledge of modern practices. By 1972, the Doe case was over 20 years old. So Blatty and Friedkin turned to the Catholic Church’s expert on exorcisms, Father John Nicola.

Nicola is something of a strange figure in the history of the Catholic Church. To be blunt, he was a student of the supernatural. He studied under famed parapsychologist Joseph B. Rhine while finishing his doctorate in theology. After graduating, he became the Church’s lead investigator of possessions, though he viewed himself foremost as a skeptic. In American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, a 2001 ethnography of exorcists, Nicola explained his process for investigating claims of possessions with sociologist Michael Cuneo: “The watchwords are caution and circumspection … You should never proceed with an exorcism without ruling out natural causation. When I was actively investigating cases, I operated under the assumption that exorcisms should be used only as a last resort.”

The idea that the investigator and the exorcist didn’t inhabit the same body played a crucial role in determining how (and how many) exorcisms occurred, according to Cuneo, because were an exorcist to investigate a possession claim, it’s likely he or she would find a demon—which is to say, if you go looking for something hard enough, you’re probably going to find it. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the number of exorcisms sanctioned by the Catholic Church grew because of interest spurred by The Exorcist, but Nicola controlled which cases were deemed legitimate and how many exorcisms were being conducted each year. That’s not to say Nicola didn’t contribute to the growing fear of spirit possessions in his own way.

Cover of Father John Nicola's book Diabolical Possession and Exorcism
Cover of Father John Nicola’s book Diabolical Possession and Exorcism

In 1974, Nicola released a book on exorcisms through a niche Catholic publisher, TAN Books. Diabolical Possession and Exorcism covered historical cases of possessions documented by the Catholic Church in an attempt to provide evidence that spirit possession was real. While cautioning against the ubiquity of the practice outside of Catholicism, Nicola argued that “diabolical possessions” in the Catholic understanding were authentic. He also claimed that expelling these manifestations was akin to war and those involved must engage in many smaller battles; to win, the exorcist must play the long-game and expose the possessed to Christ until the demon loses its hold over its victim and vacates the body. The book wasn’t as popular as Blatty’s novel and only had a limited pressing, but it proved influential in the field of parapsychology where it popularized ideas which were later picked up by figures like Ed and Lorraine Warren. Nicola’s book also proved influential in one other way. It provided a template for another Catholic with unusual views on the Church and its role in warding off spirits.

Malachi Martin took a more circuitous route in confronting the devil. Like Nicola, he studied to become a priest before finding his calling outside the bounds of traditional belief, but unlike his predecessor, Martin’s writing on exorcism found mainstream success. Martin was ordained in Dublin in the fifties but quickly found the work of a priest draining, so he stepped away from the Catholic Church to move to New York and become a writer. There, he began publishing under the pseudonym Michael Serafin. In the late sixties a series of Guggenheim Fellowships provided him with the time and resources necessary to begin working on a book. This wouldn’t cover traditional religious topics like the role of the Church in modern life, instead it would go someplace far darker. Martin released Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Living Americans under his given name in 1976. It was an immediate success and changed how the Catholic Church handled exorcisms. Before its release, there was little writing on the subject. In fact, so little existed Blatty had to base his novel on the account from 1949 because it was the most widely-known case. Hostage to the Devil changed that. In the book, Martin covered historical cases of exorcisms. He wrote in-depth about victims of demonic spirits and the heroic priests who saved them. Now, there was a book that included expert testimony from real exorcists and real victims. The effect was profound. It validated every Christian who believed the demons in The Exorcist existed outside of the film.

Nicola and Martin took an immediate disliking for one another. While they were among the few who could state they had seen live exorcisms conducted, Nicola’s skepticism clashed Martin’s bravado. The two sniped back-and-forth for most of the 1970s. Nicola felt Martin was a sensationalist who damaged the credibility of real exorcists. He also disputed information found in Hostage to the Devil. Nicola, it seems, was intent on pulling Catholicism back from the brink of its media frenzy. As exorcisms became more mainstream, he turned into a vocal critic of media coverage on the subject during the 1980s and 1990s.

On April 4, 1990, ABC’s 20/20 aired a segment on a young woman named Gina who claimed demons with names like “Minga” and “Zion” were possessing her body. The case forced the Church to change its internal policies governing exorcisms. In an interview with Cuneo, Father Nicola expressed regret. He stated, “She probably shouldn’t have received an exorcism at all, let alone a television one. From my vantage point, some of the priests doing exorcisms these days are too rash, too loose and easy with their investigations.”

The first change came in 1992 when the Church issued a new universal catechism, its first in four centuries, outlining sins in the then modern world—it renewed its opposition to abortion while attacking superstition. Then, in January 1999, it released new guidelines for the Rite of Exorcism. Under these new rules, the mental health of the possessed became an investigator’s primary concern. But this did little to plug the leak. Exorcists were beginning to pop up with greater frequency. In 1992, six priests formed the International Association of Exorcists. Eight years later its membership had grown to over 200. What necessitated an over 3000% growth in membership? Why were people still embracing exorcism even as the Church tried to downplay its significance?

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