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If ignorance is bliss, demon chasers must be in nirvana.

An exorcism is a religious rite for driving Satan or evil spirits out of a possessed person, place, or thing. In ancient times, many cultures had such rites. Today, the Roman Catholic Church still believes in diabolic possession and its priests still practice what is called "real exorcism," a 27-page ritual to drive out evil spirits. The ritual  involves the use of holy water, incantations, various prayers, incense, relics, and Christian symbols such as the cross. The Catholic Church has at least ten official exorcists in America today (Cuneo). The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D'Souza, says he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism on Mother Teresa shortly before she died in 1997 because he thought she was being attacked by the devil.

The Catholic Church in Germany, however, made the exorcism ritual very difficult to obtain after the 1973 death of exorcism victim Anneliese Michel, a 23-year-old who had her first psychiatric episode at the age of 16. She apparently suffered from depression, epileptic seizures, and various hallucinations. Her zealous Catholic family believed she was possessed by Satan and recruited two priests who performed the exorcism ritual 67 times on the mentally ill woman. At the time of her death Anneliese weighed about 69 pounds (31kg). The priests and her parents received only suspended jail sentences, but the Church began requiring priests to obtain permits to perform exorcisms, and the permits are not easy to get. German Catholics now go to Switzerland and Poland for their exorcisms.* The 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose is said to be based on the life of Anneliese Michel,* as is the 2006 German film Requiem.

Most Protestant sects also believe in satanic possession and exorcism. Michael Cuneo, a sociologist at Fordham University, claims "By conservative estimates, there are at least five or six hundred evangelical exorcism ministries in operation today, and quite possibly two or three times this many." Reverend Brian Connor of South Carolina says "dealing with animate evil is the single most overlooked component of the biblical mandate."* Connor was featured on NBC's "Dateline" program on exorcism (November 13, 2001). He and several friends spent an entire day trying to talk the demons out of the body of a 50-something man with a history of depression and aimlessness. The exorcists held Bibles, which they read from occasionally, and crosses. They huddled around their subject for hours, chanting prayers and ordering the demons to leave. The subject occasionally howled like an animal and grimaced at his benefactors. It was all great drama and eventually cathartic enough for the subject to vomit a little. Connor declared that he was spitting out Satan and that all the demons had left. A follow-up done two months later, however, found that the group had to repeat the exercise six more times. Now they were sure the demons were gone and the subject was sure he was fine and a new man.

Michael Cuneo watched a film of the exorcism and concluded that the group was suggesting to their subject how he should respond and that he saw no evidence of either demonic possession or of demons being exorcized. A psychiatrist was shown the same film and he announced that he couldn't evaluate what he observed as a psychiatrist but as a "believer" he thought that there might be something real going on involving demonic possession. When asked what he based his belief on, he replied tersely: faith. This man was a member of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Religion and Psychiatry. 

As a layman, I found the behavior of the exorcists at least as interesting as that of the subject. Believing in demons is one thing; believing you have the ability to call up a supernatural being with infinite power and perfection who will cause demons to move on at your behest seems certifiable. The whole coven of exorcists and exorcized are deluded. The former clearly felt great pride at their achievement and shared in a glorious victory over Satan. The latter was coddled and cuddled, hugged and loved, and eventually praised and rewarded with the good feelings of caring people when he released Satan and said "Jesus is Lord." There doesn't seem to be anything deeply complicated about what happened. The group convinced the subject he was possessed. They cued him as to how to behave and they rewarded him and themselves when he let the demon go. Communal reinforcement and self-deception will go a long way toward explaining how the group came to believe they could exorcize demons. The exorcists clearly enjoy their work and get great satisfaction out of "helping" people in this powerful way. I am sure that many evangelicals who saw the program are wondering where they can sign up to be exorcist's helpers.

traditional exorcisms

Exorcisms can be done on inanimate objects or places as well as on people. These need not be "real exorcisms" but can be "simple exorcisms" (usually thought of as baptizing the infant or "blessing" the house or place). Satan is everywhere, it seems, but the specialist in real exorcism is needed only when The Evil One starts acting up.

Most, if not all, cases of alleged demonic possession of humans probably involve either people with brain disorders ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia and Tourette's syndrome, or people whose brains are more or less healthy but who are unfortunate enough to be sucked into playing a social role with very unpleasant consequences. In any case, the behaviors of the possessed resemble very closely the behaviors of those with electrochemical, neurochemical, or other physical or emotional disorders.

A secularized version of exorcism is practiced by some therapists who specialize in unveiling and ridding their patients of "entities" which, the therapists believe, are the cause of the patient's troubles. Entity release therapists engage in this work even though there is about as much evidence for the "entities" as there is for the devils exorcised by Catholic priests and Protestant evangelicals. Many people, however, are very resistant to the idea that demonic possession is a myth, especially since they have seen or read fictional works such as The Exorcist or the Amityville Horror. They can't imagine how anyone could make such stuff up; yet, it would seem to take much more imagination to give credence to such tales.

Many people fear possession by demons, but the exorcists themselves can cause great damage.

Exorcism has caused a number of real-world tragedies over the years, including several deaths.

Pentecostal ministers in San Francisco pummeled a woman to death in 1995, as they tried to drive out her demons.

In 1997, a Korean Christian woman was stomped to death in Glendale, Calif., and in the Bronx section of New York City, a 5-year-old girl died after being forced to swallow a mixture containing ammonia and vinegar and having her mouth taped shut.

In 1998, a 17-year-old girl in Sayville, N.Y., was suffocated by her mother with a plastic bag, in an effort to destroy a demon inside her.

In 2001, a 37-year old woman, Joanna Lee, was strangled to death in an exorcism by a Korean church minister working in New Zealand. The minister, Luke Lee, was found guilty of manslaughter.

An MSNBC program on exorcists, featuring evangelicals Tom Brown and Bob Larson, warned viewers not to try this at home because they might end up being arrested for botched exorcisms such as those mentioned above. The evangelicals' game is to bring groups of troubled people together and look for demons that are causing the trouble so they can exorcize them.  Brown and Larson have never killed anyone, as far as we know, but whether they help or harm people was not possible to discern from the program, since the "reporters" did no background checks or follow-ups on the people exorcised. Larson now has his own exorcism TV show on the sci-fi channel. CNN found it interesting enough to do a short segment about it, which can be viewed on YouTube.

The exorcists' only prop is a Bible, which is held in one hand while they talk down the devil in very dramatic episodes worthy of Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones. The "possessed" could have been mentally ill, actors, mentally ill actors, drug addicts, mentally ill drug addicts, or they may have been possessed, as the exorcists claimed. All the participants shown being exorcized seem to have seen the movie "The Exorcist" or one of the sequels. They all fell into the role of husky-voiced Satan speaking from the depths, who was featured in the film. The similarities in speech and behavior among the "possessed" has led some psychologists such as Nicholas Spanos to conclude that both "exorcist" and "possessed" are engaged in learned role-playing.

What was disappointing about the MSNBC program was that no effort was made to get anyone's opinion as to what was going on except for the opinions of the televangelists and their subjects. Wouldn't a serious journalist get a third opinion? Why should we take the word of interested parties like Brown and Larson that their subjects really were possessed and that they really released Satan from all these bodies? These evangelical exorcists might be self-deceived and be guilty of confirmation bias. Even if their intentions are good, they are most probably deluded and certainly causing harm to those they exorcize who should be under psychiatric care.

See also ghost, haunted house, hypnosis, magical thinking, mesmerism, and Satan.

further reading

books and articles

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (Doubleday, 2001).

Gold, Mark S. The Good News About Depression : Cures and Treatments in the New Age of Psychiatry (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1995). This book does not deal with exorcism but it has a great deal of material on physical disorders whose symptoms mimic mental illness, as well as material on symptoms of brain disorders including schizophrenia and hypermania, as well as depression. Many of these physical illnesses have been, and still are, mistaken for demonic possession by the ignorant and superstitious.

Singer, Margaret Thaler and Janja Lalich. Crazy Therapies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1996). Review.

Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996).


The Real Story Behind The Exorcist by Benjamin Radford

Spirits, Witches, & Science: Why The Rise Of Science Encouraged Belief In The Supernatural In 17th-Century England by Richard Olson

The Haunted Boy: the Facts Behind the Story that Inspired "The Exorcist" by Mark Opsasnick

A Kinder, Gentler Satan by D. Trull

Esophagus Exorcism!

news stories

Police: Maryland women charged with killing 2 of children thought they were doing exorcism "Montgomery County Police have charged 28-year-old Zakieya Latrice Avery and 21-year-old Monifa Denise Sanford with two counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder in the deaths of two of Avery's children, 1-year-old Norell Harris, and 2-year-old Zyana Harris. Avery's other two children, identified as 5-year-old Taniya Harris and 8-year-old Martello Harris, remained hospitalized Saturday. Their condition was not immediately known. Police say the two younger children who died suffered multiple stab wounds, but did not reveal any more information about the exorcism attempt, citing the ongoing investigation." What kind of exorcism involves stabbing children?

For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism Is Revived There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.

Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.

Chief exorcist says Devil is in Vatican Father Gabriele Amorth said people who are possessed by Satan vomit shards of glass and pieces of iron.

He added that the assault on Pope Benedict XVI on Christmas Eve by a mentally unstable woman and the sex abuse scandals which have engulfed the Church in the US, Ireland, Germany, and other countries, were proof that the Anti-Christ was waging a war against the Holy See.

"The Devil resides in the Vatican and you can see the consequences," said Father Amorth, 85, who has been the Holy See's chief exorcist for 25 years.

"He can remain hidden, or speak in different languages, or even appear to be sympathetic. At times he makes fun of me. But I'm a man who is happy in his work."

Why would anyone make fun of an 85-year-old imbecile who claims he's chased away the devil 7 times a day for the past 25 years?

Exorcism chapel opened in Mexico The Church located in the central city of Queretaro is named La Capilla de las Benditas Animas del Purgatorio. The Mexican Church says that in Mexico City alone there are about 10 cases a month - and the phenomenon is on the rise but there are no figures for the whole country. Critics say that priests often mistake mental illness or epilepsy for signs of possession.

It will take some time, however, for Mexico to catch up to Poland. Some 80 priests from all over Poland recently attended the 22nd Exorcists’ Congress at the Roman Catholic sanctuary of Niepokalanow, near Warsaw. In the 1990s, there were three exorcists practicing in Poland. Today, their number has exceeded one hundred. Each is appointed by a local bishop. The congresses are held twice a year.

Fairfax teen may have died in Korean exorcism, police say Fairfax police think the fatal injuries occurred in July 2008 during a Korean exorcism, in which a spiritual shaman and family members tried to force evil spirits to leave a possessed person.

German demand for exorcisms sparks row (May 25, 2008)

German Catholics bring back exorcism

Number of exorcisms on the rise on Australia's Gold Coast

Pope's exorcist squads will wage war on Satan by Nick Pisa

According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe in possession by the devil, down from 49% at the turn of the century.

Last updated 21-Nov-2015

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