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American Exorcism

Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty

American Exorcism by Michael W. Cuneo
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A guided tour through the burgeoning business of exorcism and the darker side of American life.
There is no other religious ritual more fascinating, or more disturbing, than exorcism. This is particularly true in America today, where the ancient rite has a surprisingly strong hold on our imagination, and on our popular entertainment industry. We’ve all heard of exorcism, seen the movies and read the books, but few of us have ever experienced it firsthand.
Conducted by exorcists officially appointed by Catholic archdioceses and by maverick priests sidestepping Church sanctions, by evangelical ministers and Episcopal charismatics, exorcism is alive and well in the new millennium. Oprah, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters have featured exorcists on their shows. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Time, and other publications have charted the proliferation of exorcisms across the United States. Last year, the Archdiocese of Chicago appointed its first full-time exorcist in its 160-year history; in New York, four priests have officially investigated about forty cases of suspected possession every year since 1995.

American Exorcism is an inside look at this burgeoning phenomenon, written with objectivity, insight, and just the right touch of irony. Michael W. Cuneo attended more than fifty exorcisms and interviewed many of the participants–both the exorcists who performed the rituals and the people from all walks of life who believed they were possessed by the devil. He brings vividly to life the ceremonies themselves, conjuring up memories of Linda Blair’s astonishing performance in the 1973 movie The Exorcist and other bizarre (and sometimes stomach-churning) images. Cuneo dissects, as well, the arguments of such well-known exorcism advocates as Malachi Martin, author of the controversial Hostage to the Devil, self-help guru M. Scott Peck, and self-professed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren of Amityville Horror fame.

As he explores this netherworld of American life, Cuneo reflects on the meaning of exorcism in the twenty-first century and on the relationship between religious ritual and popular culture. Touching on such provocative topics as the “satanic panics” of the 1980s, repressed memory, and ritual abuse, American Exorcism is a remarkably revealing, consistently entertaining work of cultural commentary.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; Read online
Title: American Exorcism
Author: Michael W. Cuneo

The Blatty Factor

The past three decades haven't been particularly kind to the Catholic priesthood in America. One would be hard-pressed to find another profession that has fallen harder or further from grace in so short a period of time. To begin with, there was the mad rush for the exits that took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as thousands of priests decided that being married, or sexually eligible, or almost anything else, was preferable to sticking it out in religious life. And then, for many of those who did try to stick it out, there was the frantic scramble for relevance. No longer confident in the legitimacy of a strictly priestly vocation, they became priest-social workers or priest-psychologists or priest-politicians--hyphenated men with sometimes conflicting allegiances to two separate worlds. And before long there was also the scandal. Endless scandal. Reports of priests engaging in secret (or not so secret) sexual affairs with female parishioners. Of priests cruising gay bars and adopting gay lifestyles. Priests sexually assaulting altar boys and then trying, sometimes with the connivance of their local bishops, to cover up their crimes. All things considered, the story hasn't been a happy one, and there's little indication matters stand to improve much in the near future.

It isn't easy, in all of this, to spell out what precisely has gone wrong. For starters, one could point to the Second Vatican Council, that great transformative event in the life of the modern Catholic Church that ran from 1962 to 1965. In calling for a detente between Catholicism and the modern world, and in bestowing full ecclesiastical blessing upon such straightforwardly secular pursuits as science and politics, the council made the priestly vocation seem somehow less prestigious and its benefits less clear-cut. What was the point, after all, of enduring the burdens of priestly celibacy and obedience when the secular world was now also acknowledged to be bristling with grace and redemptive possibility? The sexual revolution, which was in full bloom in the years following the council, and the more general cultural volatility of the late 1960s and early 1970s should also be counted as significant factors. In a cultural climate relentlessly hostile to traditional authority and to restraint of virtually any kind, the strictures of the priestly role increasingly came to be seen as not only unreasonable but also as downright bizarre.

As time went on, moreover, the growing volume of negative publicity concerning the priesthood became a significant factor in its own right. Endless talk of the priestly crisis--of defections and despair and dereliction--lowered priestly morale even further and made the ordained ministry seem increasingly less desirable, increasingly less feasible. And throughout all of this, of course, the Vatican steadfastly refused to renew (or to redefine) the priesthood by permitting the ordination of women and married men.

Throughout these tough times, needless to say, there have always been individual priests who have comported themselves with dignity and quietly heroic faith, administering the sacraments, tending the sick, consoling the grief-stricken, and sometimes challenging the pathology-inducing structures of the broader society. For the most part, however, their labors have been overshadowed by the distressed public image of the priestly profession as a whole. The priest as hero? Perhaps in another place and another time the image may have worked, but over the past thirty years in America it has more often been the priest as pious fraud, the priest as philanderer, the priest as yesterday's man--equivocating, beleaguered, and thoroughly redundant.

But not entirely. In American popular culture over the past thirty years or so, there is at least one area, one capacity, in which the Catholic priest has consistently been depicted in nothing less than heroic terms. This is an area, revealingly enough, that most liberal-minded Catholics find utterly distasteful and that the leadership of the American church would just as soon banish from public view. Indeed, it is highly doubtful that anything more than a smattering of priests themselves would care to be associated with it. The area is exorcism, and it is the priest-as-exorcist that has somehow managed, in defiance of all odds, to retain a heroic grip on the popular American imagination.

This clearly isn't the way things were supposed to work out. After the Second Vatican Council, one of the great hopes of Catholic liberals in America, including a good many priests, was that their church would finally succeed in throwing off its medieval trappings and become more fully engaged with the intellectual and cultural life of the modern world. In the newly relevant, streamlined, and culturally respectable Catholicism envisioned by liberals, there was hardly room for belief in the Virgin Mary or the saints, let alone spooky spirits and demons and exorcisms.

What Catholic liberals couldn't have anticipated, however, was the intervention of Hollywood and, more specifically, of a Hollywood-based writer named William Peter Blatty. Blatty's story, by this point, is well known. In August 1949, while still an undergraduate at Georgetown University, he came across an article in the Washington Post that described, in mesmerizing detail, an exorcism that had recently been carried out on a fourteen-year-old Mount Rainier boy. For some time prior to the exorcism, the article reported, the unidentified boy had been tormented by a battery of bizarre phenomena: There were scratchings and rappings on his bedroom walls, pieces of fruit and other objects were sent flying in his presence, and his bed mysteriously gyrated across the floor while he tried to sleep. The boy's family had initially sought help from a Protestant minister who was a self-professed student of the paranormal, but as the situation grew increasingly more desperate, they called on the Jesuit communities of Washington, D.C., and St. Louis for emergency assistance. With the Jesuits now on the scene, the boy was subjected to intensive medical and psychiatric examination at two Catholic hospitals and placed under round-the-clock observation. When a natural cure wasn't found for his affliction, however, and the bizarre symptoms threatened to rage completely out of control, it was decided to pursue a more drastic course of action. A Jesuit priest in his fifties was assigned to the case, and over the next several weeks (rotating between Washington and St. Louis) he performed more than twenty exorcisms on the boy. In all but the last of these, according to the Post article, "the boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing and voicing of Latin phrases--a language he had never studied--whenever the priest reached those climactic points of the 27-page [exorcism] ritual in which he commanded the demon to depart."1 It was the last of the exorcisms, after two nerve-jangling months, that finally did the trick. Following its completion, the strange symptoms disappeared entirely, and the boy was restored to full health.

Blatty was entranced. As a Jesuit-educated Catholic who had once entertained thoughts of joining the priesthood, he found the theological implications of the Post story fascinating. Here was tangible evidence (or so it seemed) of the supernatural at work in the capital city of the world's most advanced industrial nation. If the story were true, it meant that Catholicism still possessed relevance far beyond what almost anyone would have thought possible. As the years passed, moreover, and Blatty settled into a career as a writer, the story retained a hold on his imagination. He occasionally tracked down snatches of information on demonic possession and flirted with the idea of someday writing a novel on the topic. Finally, in 1969, he decided to take the plunge, and under the informal tutelage of Father Thomas Bermingham, a Jesuit priest and longtime friend from Blatty's high school days in Brooklyn, he undertook a crash course in Catholic demonology.

Blatty wanted his novel to be rooted to an actual instance of demonic possession, and the 1949 Mount Rainier case seemed the most obvious candidate.

With the help of his Jesuit connections he was able to locate the priest who had presided over the 1949 exorcisms, and their brief correspondence convinced him that something mind-numbingly extraordinary truly had taken place in Washington and St. Louis twenty years earlier. He also managed to obtain a copy of a diary that had been kept by a second Jesuit who had assisted with the 1949 exorcisms. As a meticulous, blow-by-blow account of the entire two-month-long procedure, the diary proved absolutely spellbinding. It told of mysterious inflammations--or "brandings"--that spontaneously materialized on the fourteen-year-old boy's skin at various points throughout the ordeal. The brandings sometimes appeared as actual words, such as spite, and sometimes as pictorial representations, including (most terrifyingly) a hideous satanic visage. It told of furniture shaking and crashing in the boy's presence and of one especially memorable incident in which a hospital nightstand levitated rapidly from floor to ceiling.2 And most important of all, at least from Blatty's perspective, it also told of the enormous spiritual fortitude that was consistently demonstrated by the Jesuits entrusted with curing the boy.

With this background in hand, and his studies in Catholic demonology fairly well advanced, Blatty went to work, and in 1971 he published The Exorcist, his novelistic recasting of the 1949 Mount Rainier possession case. And what a recasting! In Blatty's heavily fictionalized treatment, the fourteen-year-old working-class boy became a twelve-year-old girl named Regan whose mother was a flamboyant and hugely successful actress, the action was moved from the relatively unglamorous precincts of Mount Rainier and St. Louis to a swanky townhouse in Georgetown, and the two Jesuit priests charged with performing the exorcism were both struck down in the line of duty.3 And then there were Blatty's rather more lurid flourishes. During her possession spells, Regan spewed prodigious volumes of vomit (the boy in the original case seems to have shown a talent mainly for spitting), she violently masturbated with a crucifix, and, for particularly ghoulish effect, she occasionally rotated her head 180 degrees.

This mixture of fact and fancy, human tragedy and diabolic spectacle proved immensely appealing, and The Exorcist rapidly rose to the top of the bestseller lists. One reason for its appeal, in all likelihood, was Blatty's talent for keeping his readers guessing. Was this really a case of demonic possession, or was Regan suffering instead from some mysterious (but ultimately explainable) psychological affliction? And if it was possession, who was the demon and what was the point of the whole ordeal?

In at least one crucial respect, however, there was no need for guessing. From their first appearance in the novel to their climactic deaths, it was clear that Blatty's two Jesuit exorcists were meant to be regarded, for all their human frailty, as mythically heroic figures. Father Damien Karras, the younger of the two, is a priest-psychiatrist plagued by doubt and misgiving. In his early forties, darkly handsome, and a former Golden Gloves boxer, Karras no longer feels assured of his priestly vocation, and he is guilt-ridden over his failure to provide more generously for his impoverished mother during her dying days. When, out of desperation, Regan's mother, Chris MacNeil, asks him to perform an exorcism on her daughter, Karras is initially nonplussed. As a thoroughly modern priest and Harvard-trained psychiatrist, he finds the very notion of demonic possession hopelessly benighted. As the reader expects all along, however, Karras eventually performs the exorcism anyway, and in the process he is brought into direct conflict with an otherworldly force of leering malevolence. In the battle with Regan's demon, Karras's psychiatric training and professional scruples count for nothing; all that matters, as he soon discovers, is supernatural faith, priestly virtue, and the transcendent authority of his church.

Father Lancaster Merrin, a Jesuit-paleontologist and Karras's senior partner in the exorcism, is even more emphatically heroic in stature.4 Merrin is a longtime veteran of demonic trench warfare, and when the detective who is investigating a possible homicide related to Regan's possession spots him arriving on the scene, the reader feels an almost palpable sense of relief and gratitude.

From the cab stepped a tall old man. Black raincoat and hat and a battered valise. He paid the driver, then turned and stood motionless, staring at the house. The cab pulled away and rounded the corner of Thirty-sixth Street. [Detective] Kinderman quickly pulled out to follow. As he turned the corner, he noticed that the tall old man hadn't moved, but was standing under street-light glow, in mist, like a melancholy traveler frozen in time. The detective blinked his lights at the taxi.5

After quickly assessing the situation, Merrin sets the exorcism in motion, and during a brief interlude outside Regan's bedroom he lends Karras valuable insight into the dynamics of demonic possession. For all of the torment experienced by the direct victim of possession, he says, it is frequently friends and family and onlookers who are even more acutely vulnerable. By virtue of their exposure to the grotesque, sometimes bestial, transformations of the victim, they are at risk of losing faith not only in their own humanity but also in the very possibility of a loving, beneficent God. It is precisely this, Merrin says, the temptation to doubt and despair, that constitutes the most insidious component of possession, and all those involved in trying to help the victim must do everything possible to avoid succumbing to it.6

In the end both Merrin and Karras succeed in warding off doubt and despair--but not without enormous personal cost. Merrin is felled by a fatal heart attack while valiantly attempting to expel Regan's demon; shortly afterward Karras offers himself to the demon as a sacrificial substitute for Regan, and when the offer is taken, he hurls himself to certain death from Regan's bedroom window.

Melodramatic? Contrived? Heavy-handed? Undoubtedly so, but very rarely in recent decades have priests come across so well. And this was still only a warm-up. In the winter of 1973 The Exorcist was released as a movie under the same title, and Blatty's Jesuit exorcists proved every bit as commanding on film as they had in print. Not that this, by any stretch, was the exclusive reason for the movie's spectacular commercial success. With William Friedkin as director, and Blatty himself as producer and screenwriter, The Exorcist missed very few opportunities to shock and titillate. The crowds that lined up for hours at the nation's theaters to see it were treated to scenes in which Linda Blair, as the twelve-year-old Regan, sexually mutilates herself with a crucifix, levitates horrifically four feet above her bed, and verbally assails the anguished Karras with such zingers as "Your mother sucks cocks in hell!"

Behind all the grotesquerie and gruesome special effects, however, Blatty's theological message played loud and clear. As much as contemporary men and women might want to deny it, there was still a force of supernatural evil active in the world, and both science and reason were powerless against it. It was only through the transcendent authority of the Catholic Church that such evil could be effectively dealt with, and the special agents of the church in this regard were priest-exorcists. The priest was still potentially a heroic figure, in other words, but heroic first and foremost by virtue of his expressly supernatural faculties. It wasn't because they were men of science that Karras and Merrin were able to wage teeth-clenching battle against Regan's demon. In this primordial conflict between good and evil, professional or secular competency was of absolutely no consequence. Karras and Merrin became full-fledged heroes only when they entered the diabolic pit armed with nothing but faith and love and the mysterious powers conferred on them by priestly ordination.

From the Hardcover edition.

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