Thursday, March 8, 2012

Exorcism and Possession

Scene from ' The Exorcist '
The movies all have the same images: swirling, mysterious fog, a lone figure in silhouette in front of a foreboding house, ready to do battle with the evil that awaits within. As the viewing public, these images have been ingrained into our subconsciousness, along with those of a little girl who's pretty face has been contorted into a hideous visage, her head spinning inhumanly 360 degrees on her shoulders and spewing green acidic vomit at a noble man of the cloth who she has bombarded with every blasphemously verbal expletive known in the English language.

Somewhere a currently-unheard-of screenwriter is sipping the dregs of a  mega-vente coffee from Starbucks, or perhaps the last few drops of something a little more potent, as he finishes the scene where the innocent child  is taken over by demons in his next celluloid opus. The writing is vivid enough for the scene to jump off the page into Technicolor. It is over-the-top and contains every deviant act our screenwriter can think of, going for the coveted 'R' rating.  It will inspire the creative juices of the director and actors will contort themselves inhumanly while shrieking and cursing in  choppy  Latin. Public Relations for the movie will 'just happen' to slip a story to the tabloids with great detail about spooky happenings occurring on the set during the filming, and perhaps one of the actors will confess to a secret religious conversion. All in all, it is sensational...because the audience doesn't simply expect to  view a movie, they want to experience it.

... And it all springs straight from the Hollywood sound stage to a theater near you. Every last bit of it.

Remember M.Scott Peck, the author of the New Age feel-good book The Road Less Traveled? Dr.Peck was at the forefront of the self-help movement and his books were adored in certain 12-Step Programs. He graduated from Harvard and trained at Case Western Reserve University as a physician, then spent 10 years in the Army as a psychiatrist prior to making a name for himself as a New York Times best-selling author. He was raised in secular home but was baptized a non-denominational Christian in his 40s after exploring Eastern religions for many years. He established himself as a credible resource with the public.His book People of the Lie: Hope for Healing Human Evil explores the concept of evil as a malignant type of self-righteousness sin which ultimately leads to the projection of evil into specifically selected individuals. While gathering material for this book, Dr. Peck became a exorcist and participated in numerous religious rites involving clients. Even more frighten than the case histories Dr. Peck cites is his apparently escalating zealotry and fundamentalism. By the end of the book this respected psychiatrist has become so obsessed with his self-perceived mission of exorcising demons in the name of his god that he has relinquished any scientific credibility.

Concerning the rites of exorcism in the Christian Church, there are three types: the binding and banishment of Satan during the Sacrament of Baptism; the simple blessing of a person or thing to protect it from negative influence; and Extreme Exorcism, which is the rite that rids persons and places of diabolical or evil possession. It is the last item mentioned that is most often portrayed by Hollywood and that which we associate with the word. ( Technically, a place is not possessed but haunted; the rite of banishment is basically the same with a few minor adjustments to the language).
The Anglican Church, of which the Protestant Episcopal Church in America is heavily influenced, provides a exorcism within the context of the Rite of Holy Baptism ( Book of Common Prayer, page 302). The Celebrant begins by asking the candidates or sponsors of a child who has not reached the age of reason- usually 12 years of age-" Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that revel against God?" After several versions of the same question, and to his or her satisfaction, the Celebrant then turns to those assembled and asks the questions over again...Just to be sure everyone is literally on the same page. The message is: No Devils allowed, and the service continues. The Lutherans aren't quite as inhospitable, as the Lutheran Book of Worship (page 123) merely requests that all present that they"... renounce forces of evil, the Devil and all his empty promises." When the ritual has been performed, the individual is anointed and "...sealed by the Holy Spirit as one of God's own". You would think this would be enough to keep any self-respecting demon at bay, but we shall later see that it is not. At least not in the Roman Catholic Church, where the Rituale Romanum dedicates the entirety of Chapter 13 to the subject of Exorcism (Does any one reading this besides me grasp the irony?  Did the church fathers mean this as an insider joke or is it just an unfortunate coincidence? Actually, it was done by design to reflect the Church's superstition surrounding the number 13 and to purposely make the subconscious association with evil. It seems the Church was concerned with marketing even then. Although the rite has fallen out of favor in many modern day churches-who mostly prefer to handle a claim of possession as a mental health issue- so much so that the Roman Catholic Church became alarmed by the recent rise in requests for exorcism and held a conference in Baltimore two years ago to address the subject (

There are two highly celebrated cases of exorcism which have garnered  public  attention and fueled its fascination with  malevolent beings which stand out to me. The the one that most easily comes to mind is The Exorcist which was translated to film from the 1971 book by William Peter Blatty; the other is  The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a 2005 release based on the case of  Anneliese Michel. Both films are quick to say they are based on actual possessions, but neither tell the entire story are a quick to ramp up the phantasmagorical factor.

From a psychological and spiritual standpoint the actual case histories on which the films are based are much more interesting than the 'movie magic' (at least to me). Take away the special effects, and you have the stories of  two very troubled young people and how the adults surrounding them turn to the religiosity of the Dark Ages to handle what is unknown to all of them.

The Exorcist
For The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty drew heavily upon a 1949 story about a young boy from suburban Washington, DC that he read about while in college and through further research contacts one of the priests involved in the event who has kept a diary of the proceedings and this becomes the basis for the book and movie. My own research into the back story took me to a riveting and richly  detailed article written by Mark Opsasnick for Strange Magazine titled The Haunted Boy of Cottage City ( In the article Opsanick does extensive footwork that leads him to the cover-up surrounding the boy's identity and details of the case by going through archived news articles and finding the house where the events purportedly took place. Predictably, a lot of the details have been covered up over the years, including that 'Robbie Doe' under went exorcisms by ministers of three different faiths-Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic- and that the rite was repeated 20 to 30 times before it took effect. Most of the religious proceedings happened in hospitals under the auspices of trained psychiatrists. Information that also came to light during Opsanick's investigation also alleged that those who knew the boy and family refereed to him as a loner who was prone to violent tantrums and cruelty toward school mates and animals. His mother and grandmother were painted as being "excessively religious" and deeply interested in Spiritualism and Ouija Boards. ( )

Mark Opsanick's article in Strange Magazine makes mention that other than the bed shaking and some spitting ( the reporter was later told by some boyhood friends of Robbie's that he was an 'accomplished spitter') nothing like the extraordinary events portrayed in The Exorcist ever took place. When pressed about the glossolalia (speaking in other than the individuals native tongue), one of the priests involved replied, " He was mimicking us." 

The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Anneliese Michel was a German teenager who had been diagnosed with Grand Mal epilepsy. Shortly thereafter she began experiencing demonic hallucinations, and hearing voices that told her she was damned. Her parents withdrew her from medical treatment. She was accused of being possessed while on a pilgrimage because she refused to drink water from a sacred spring and went out of her way to avoid a particular picture of Jesus. A local priest agreed, and this began a series of sessions of the rite of exorcism-67 in all over the course of 10 months, some lasting as long as four hours. During these sessions she would genuflect repeatedly, tear off her clothing, urinate on the floor, bark like a dog and eat flies and other insects. She spoke in an unnatural tone of voice eerily similar to the one used by Linda Blair for her character in The Exorcist. The release of the movie had caused a fearsome occult panic, and this fact left some connected to Anneliese's case to wonder if she was simply imitating dialog from the film. She began to refuse food and became emaciated and dehydrated, and combined with the stress of the sometimes twice weekly exorcisms, this is what finally killed her. Both of the exorcists involved,and her parents, were tried - and- convicted of  negligent homicide ( ).

Today, nearly anyone without any medical training who heard of Anneliese's case would suspect that she was exhibiting the symptoms of schizophrenia ( Dissociative Identity Disorder). In cases where the alter personalities have developed enough to manifest as a separate entity, nearly a quarter of them identify as demons.( There exists to a lesser extent psychoses where the feeling that one is harassed by demons is considered a fixated idea rather than DID.In it's extreme it is a hysterical trance state. It is mandated in today's seminaries that those seeking ordination take courses in psychology and sociology. A person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness. Sometimes all the minister must do is provide specialized pastoral care to help the individual back to a state of sound mind and spiritual comfort.(

Exorcism in Other Spiritual Traditions
It should be noted that exorcism is not the sole providence of the Christian Church; many indigenous religions recognize spiritual possession and consider the presence of a malevolent  spirit or demon to be the cause of  physical disease. These 'demons' often appear more often as ghosts of people wronged by the individual and the exorcism consists of making some sort of offering to satisfy the demon, who then departs on its own. This is particularly true in shamanic cultures.( ) In yet other cultures ( mostly Eastern) the possession is considered as a kind of gateway to the Other World, as when a seeker on a vision quest meets his/her spirit guide or totem animal. In Wicca, during the ritual knows as Drawing Down the Moon, the individual ( usually a High Priestess) becomes a conduit for the Goddess to speak through. The possession resolves its self after the Goddess has delivered her message. The similar ritual of Drawing Down the Sun invokes the God ( usually a High Priest) for the same purpose. (Margo Adler, Drawing Down the Moon)

The Buddhist form of exorcism employs prayer and meditation which searches for a peaceful resolution to the possession. The intention is only to mediate the situation with the possessing entity, not to bind or banish it. The aim is to make the spirit leave, and that is all. Taoists use chanting and movement to fight the demon. It is believed that since there is both good and evil equally in the world, that purity of heart and goodness alone will cause the evil spirit to leave on it's own accord.

Demonic possession is not universally accepted by all Muslims; for those who believe, there is the seen and unseen, such as the Jinn ( a form of spirit). Among those Muslims who do believe in the unseen, it is believed that everything of a paranormal nature that occurs is not related to demons. Rather, they believe that a weakness in the spiritual self is the cause of many such disturbances and the solution is to strengthen one's own belief in righteousness. For those who do believe in the possibility of demonic possession, there are specially trained healers who employ prayer and readings prescribed by the Koran to rid the individual of such influence.

As a Spiritual Director, I hold my own personal view of the subject of exorcism and possession, which has been formed over the years through study and experience. When I was first ordained I had the opinion that there were many subjects of a religious/spiritual nature I should learn more about. Seminary is meant as a training ground for the priesthood.  Much of the actual training happens as extemporaneous experience, that is to say as the opportunity presents its self. You stumble across a lot of things, and my witnessing an extreme exorcism falls under that category. I was invited to witness the rite because of my background in Jungian physiology more than my credentials as a minister. It was at once fascinating and frightening-both because of the histrionics of the subject and the fanaticism of the  exorcist. There was the expected spitting, swearing and thrashing around- the individual was restrained to the bed with padded leather straps; when he was released by hospital security on advice of the accompanying physician, he proceeded to jump up and down on the bed and sing. The exorcist, a nun who was the hospital's chief chaplain, was also a mental health nurse. She introduced a series of questions to the subject concerning his identity ( experience being that if you start the rite with the usual Get-behind-me-Satan rhetoric, and you are dealing with someone with dissociative identity disorder, it just exacerbates the problem). I personally doubted the existence of a possessing spiritual entity in this case. Shouting invectives in Latin, spitting on those in the room and urinating on the bed you are jumping on doesn't especially mean someone is  possessed. It could mean he's psychotic, having some sort of seizure, having a bad reaction to a medication-or simply be an asshole acting out and trying to see how much attention he can get from the experts. (These types of tantrums happen more often than you think). After two hours of questioning and the insertion of prayers the subject got tired, sat down and stopped shouting. I honestly don't know if he got tired of maintaining a ruse, if the psychotic episode resolved it's self, or if the supposed possessing entity figured it was getting nowhere fast and left...maybe all three.

Even though I believe this particular demoniac was a case of psychodrama, I still do believe that possession is possible. It's why I strongly hold to the old saying of ceremonial magicians, " You don't call up what you can't put down." Know who and what you're working with before you get into a cast circle with them ( or placed into a separate triangle) because not all of them are going to be white-light and full of warm fuzzies- and don't believe that you are such a great magician that your magic will protect you from everything. Believe me, it won't. Not every spirit, angel or daemon is going to be thrilled to be summoned. There are situations where it takes the will of several individuals together-who have gone through the proper preparation and purification-to set the correct harmonics to keep a particular manifestation  under control. My personal feeling is that there are entities from the lower realms of reality just looking for trouble that could be drawn to your rites like a  moth to a flame. It's one of the reasons I am an advocate for zero tolerance of the use of drugs or alcohol during ritual. Despite knowing that several Native American ceremonies do incorporate the use of hallucinogenics, not many of us are trained in their use.( I strongly eschew the use of indigenous ceremonies for ethical reasons).  Leaving yourself wide open and unprotected is just inviting disaster.

Negative thought forms aren't exactly demons, but they can manifest and react in the same way. Any form of malevolence  can turn into something malignant.  Using the theory that like attracts like, it only takes a kernel of negativity to draw enough energy to  become something so strong that it becomes bold enough to take on self-awareness or a life of its own.( Konstantinos, Nocturnicon, pg.114) Creation of something of this sort is going to take more than a simple binding and banishing to rid it. You don't want that to happen.

This blog is meant to hold only a limited discussion of exorcism and possession and is not meant as a scholarly treatise. It is meant for introductory information only as a part of the Pagan Blog Project 2012. For further reading, you can explore the subject at your local library or online.

Last year I blogged on a purported increase of demon possession in the Philippines which you might like to also read:


  1. Incredibly well done post. I really enjoyed reading how different cultures and spiritual paths deal the with the concept of possession and exorcism. The message of practicing safely was also very good. Quite often in modern Pagan belief people have an attitude that "nothing wrong can happen" which is simply not the case at all.

    Andrew Lore

  2. Thank you,Andrew...I love exploring other traditions and learning about them.

  3. A very well-written post. I read and liked the post and have also bookmarked you. All the best for future endeavors
    IT Company India


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