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Exorcism as a Modern Practice

Essay By: Student and Scholar
Religion and spirituality



This is a research paper I put together on the subject of exorcism. It contains information from a variety of sources including an interview with an exorcist and an interview with a psychologist. The original essay contains pictures which I am unable to place on here, if anyone is interested let me know and I can try to get you the full version.


Submitted:Sep 2, 2011    Reads: 986    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Exorcism as a Modern Practice

The idea that an individual can become possessed by a demon, or another type spirit, has been around since the beginning of recorded history. Many religions have a method of relieving people of these spirits, ranging from shamanistic rituals of early cultures to the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism (Wyrostok 397). Western society provides alternative explanations for apparent possessions in the form of psychology. Modern psychology and psychiatry offer explanations such as "a type of psychosis, schizophrenia, manic episodes within a bipolar disorder, or a delusion disorder" instead of demonic influence (Hamilton).

However, exorcism has not left Western civilization. In a period of five years, Father Gary Thomas, an exorcist in California, has met with over one hundred people seeking an exorcism. Of them, only five have received an exorcism (Thomas). Exorcism is alive and well in Western civilization, including the United States. As in the time of Galileo, science and religion find themselves at odds. Psychologists maintain "people in that kind of condition [mentally or emotionally distressed]…if they are not getting the proper treatment, could kill themselves" (Nightline). However, exorcism is an ethically acceptable option for an individual who does not have an existing psychological disorder.

Exorcism came to the forefront of society's mind with the release of the American film The Exorcist in 1973. This film, and others like it, provides most people with a concept of how possessed individuals behave and what an exorcism is like, but these ideas are not accurate. Often, when people think about exorcism they think of movies, and people like Linda Blair, rather than an exorcism with a normal looking person. When Father Gary Thomas first arrived for his apprenticeship and saw the people waiting to visit the exorcist, Father Carmine, "he looked for signs of 'trauma,' anything that might indicate these people were suffering from demonic possession, but found nothing" (Baglio 99). The signs of possession do not include looking like a corpse. The corpse-like features of possessed individuals are a misconception created and perpetuated by Hollywood, but are not based on fact.

The common signs of possession include "beyond belief strength, a serpentine facial and body look, speaking in languages that the person has no competency in" (Thomas) (sic). The Roman Ritual gives similar signs that indicate a possible possession, but adds "the knowledge of hidden things" (Baglio 110). "The knowledge of hidden things" involves the possessed being able to know the identity of an object hidden from their view, or something to that effect. Abnormal strength can sometimes be explained by the side-effects of some illegal drugs (i.e. cocaine, LSD) (Hamilton). Exorcists commonly ask a medical professional to examine a potentially possessed person before an exorcism is performed. Therefore, abnormal strength being caused by drugs is extremely unlikely. Psychology does not appear to have an apparent explanation for "the knowledge of hidden things" or "speaking in languages that the person had no competency in."

Hollywood perpetuates a second misconception about exorcism. Exorcism is not a one-shot cure. Father Gary Thomas says he has "exorcised five [people] a total of forty times in five years" (Thomas). Father Carmine, the exorcist Father Thomas apprenticed with, had been performing exorcisms on a nun, Sister Janica, for nine years (Baglio 133). Each exorcism "takes between forty-five minutes to two hours depending on how difficult the demon is to deliver, the energy of the person, and the energy of the priest" (Thomas). The ritual is not the most important part of deliverance from possession, though. In order to remain protected from possession people must "maintain a faithful life, sacramental life, prayer life, and moral life" (Thomas). The psychological argument for a placebo effect, presented later, is weakened by the fact that an exorcism is but a small part of the healing process. Hollywood has greatly misrepresented exorcism, but Hollywood does correctly portray the "tools" of an exorcist's trade.

"'It's not easy to distinguish mental illness from demonic possession,' says the Rev. Pedro Barrajon, a professor of theology. Only 10 percent or 20 percent of cases are real, he says, 'but there are phenomena that can't be explained in purely psychological terms'" (Bollag 1) (sic). Many psychologists argue exorcism never works, at least not in the way the clergy believes. However, many psychologists often do not have a firm grasp on the arguments for and against exorcism. A study of twenty textbooks of abnormal psychology showed that only fifteen mentioned possession and all fifteen endorsed the idea of the possessed being mentally ill, but provided no refute (Schoneman 304). Psychologists are generally against a practice they know and learn almost nothing about.

Some psychologists claim, "at its simplest, the ritual provides a specific, tangible intervention for the client: a placebo effect" (Wyrostok 400). A placebo effect is when an individual believes something will have a particular effect on them and it does because of that belief. Not everyone agrees with the idea of an exorcism providing a placebo effect. Licensed psychological examiner Brandi Hamilton says, "If they [the possessed] have symptoms consistent with something like schizophrenia the exorcism would have no effect, because that is caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry." However, a placebo effect seems to be the primary explanation for those opposed to the idea of possession. "Most people who seek out an exorcism are suffering from some psychological or emotional problem that they're convinced has been caused by demons. They believe that only through an exorcism will their problem be eliminated and their circumstances improved" (Cuneo 5). The concept of exorcism causing a placebo effect seems plausible, but it does not account for the previously mentioned signs of possession indicated by Father Gary Thomas and The Roman Ritual, nor does it explain how a placebo effect corrects "an imbalance in brain chemistry.

Exorcism is not without risk. One of the most popularized stories of an exorcism gone wrong is the story of Anneliese Michel. Anneliese Michel was a Bavarian girl who, in 1968, was diagnosed with epilepsy. In 1970, after being plagued by demonic visions and voices while she prayed, Anneliese began to believe she was possessed. She began eating spiders, biting the heads off of birds, and drinking her own urine. The Catholic Church refused to sanction an exorcism, and she was instructed to continue her psychological treatment. Finally, in September of 1975, the Bishop of Wurzburg gave permission for an exorcism to occur. From then until July 1976, roughly two exorcisms a week were performed. During this period, she was able to return to her normal life. Eventually, she began to starve herself, claiming the demons would not allow her to eat. On July 1, 1976, Anneliese Michel died. The cause of death was determined to be malnourishment and dehydration. Both the priest who performed the exorcism and her parents were found guilty of negligent homicide and sentenced to six months in jail. The Catholic Church released a statement, following the guilty verdict, stating Anneliese was never possessed, and an exorcism should not have been performed ("The Real Emily Rose").

Cases such as Anneliese Michel's, although tragic, are rare. Exorcists regularly involve psychiatrists in their work. They are aware that an exorcism can cause "great psychological harm" to someone who has a mental illness (Thomas). Exorcists are not involved in telling individuals whether they should or should not continue their psychiatric treatment. As Father Gary Thomas put it, "I am not a psychiatrist so I would not give out that kind of direction without involving our psychiatrist." He even refers some people "to a medical doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist for further diagnosis" (Thomas). Often, the exorcist has a team with them during an exorcism, one of whom may be a medical professional. The ritual is designed to not be performed by a priest alone, but instead by several people to give responses to the priest's prayers ("Rite of Exorcism"). This concept of a team placed inside the ritual gives a basis for the use of medical professional, rather than the judgment of the priest alone.

Exorcists are also on the lookout for "pseudo-possession." These people are seeking attention and are not truly possessed. The exorcist will attempt to elicit a response from the "possessed" using regular water as opposed to holy water, and will read Latin prose as opposed to an actual prayer. If the individual responds to these actions they are faking. A truly possessed individual would have no aversion to these non-sacred objects. This practice is a sort of "fail-safe" against unnecessary and unneeded exorcisms (Baglio 113).

Exorcism is alive and doing well in modern Western civilization. It remains at odds with psychology in many respects, but there are some things psychology cannot yet explain. Although some in the field of psychology claim the rite of exorcism's results are a "placebo effect," a placebo effect cannot account for the signs indicative of possession. "Exorcism involves the invocation of Christ and so exorcism is intrinsically linked to God and religion. You cannot separate the two" (Thomas). Like most things in religion, exorcism is based almost entirely on an individual's faith in God making it a difficult subject to judge from a scientific standpoint. Exorcism, with all the protection provided by exorcists, is an acceptable practice to be used on those without an existing psychological condition.

Works Cited

Baglio, Matt. The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. New York: Doubleday, 2009. Print.

Bollag, Burton. "A Course Guides Students Through the Legal, Medical, and Pastoral Aspects of Demonic Possession." The Chronicle of Higher Education 2 June 2006: A.8. ProQuest. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Cuneo, Michael. "Exorcism: What the Devil is Going On?". U.S. Catholic Oct. 2002: 33-38. ProQuest. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Family Photo. Anneliese Michel Pre-Exorcism. N.d. Flickr, Germany. Flickr. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Hamilton, Brandi. Personal interview. 23 Feb. 2011.

Nightline. Condon, Jeanmarie. ABC. 27 Jan. 2011. Television.

Renz, Arnold. Anneliese Michel Exorcsim. N.d. The 5 Most Notable Examples of Possession and Exorcism, Germany. Magazindo. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

"Rite of Exorcism - Prayers - Catholic Online." Catholic Online. Catholic Online, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2011. <http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=683>.

Sacred Heart Parish Staff. Father Gary Thomas. N.d. Staff Photos, Saratoga, California. Sacred Heart Parish. Web. 26 Mar. 2011.

Schoeneman, Thomas. "The Mentally Ill Witch in Textbooks of Abnormal Psychology: Current Status and Implications of a Fallacy." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 15.3 (1984): 299-314. Print.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose - Unrated (Special Edition). Dir. Scott Derrickson. Perf. Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo. Screen Gems, 2005. DVD.

The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. Perf. Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair. Warner Home Video, 1973. Film.

"The Real Emily Rose." Godscare Refuge. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <http://www.godscare.net/Skeptic/exorcisms/Emily.htm>.

The Rite. Dir. Mikael. Perf. Anthony Hopkins, Colin O'Donoghue. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011. Film.

Thomas, Gary. Email interview. 25 Feb. 2011.

Wyrostok, Nina. "The Ritual as a Psychotheraputic Intervention." Psychotherapy 32.3 (1995): 397-404. Print.


[1] This is only a reference to the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism found in The Roman Ritual. No other forms of exorcism will be considered.





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