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There Are Hundreds of Practicing Exorcists in the U.S.

A recent survey of modern exorcists reveals a surprising lack of drama in the business of casting out demons.
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This Halloween, just shy of the 40th anniversary of the movie The Exorcist, has seen the novel’s author and the movie’s producer, William Peter Blatty, get an extra dollop of the attention he sees around this holiday. Not that people aren’t already obsessed by the subject—The Exorcist remains, in inflation adjusted box office, the most popular R-rated film ever.

At my own Catholic high school, the Christian Brother teachers (yeah, the brandy guys) could be remarkably post-Vatican II flip and modern about most things doctrinal, but they got sober really fast about not messing around with demon-y things. Their sudden seriousness always made me wonder if they knew something. Every once in a while, I still wonder about that.

I’m not the only one. Writing last year in The Journal of Christian Ministry, University of Kentucky psychometrician Kenneth D. Royal described his survey of modern American exorcists.

Those last three words, outside of Hollywood, might sound like an oxymoron. Beside the odd story about some loony parents whose child dies while the ham-handed cast out demons, surely any instance of demonic possession is just a certain kind of psychological malady, and exorcism just a ridiculous exercise. If somebody’s better after an exorcism, light a candle to Saint Placebo. Plus, garden-variety evil seems to be doing a damned good job without extra-curricular shenanigans.

Graham H. Twelftree, himself a biblical scholar of no mean repute, wrote in his 2007 book, In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism Among Early Christians: “For the vast majority of biblical scholars and theologians [belief in physical possession by evil spirits] is tantamount to belief in such entities as elves, dragons, or a flat earth.”

So thought a team of Spanish psychiatrists who recently encountered a patient they diagnosed as schizophrenic. Officials of the Roman Catholic Church, however, weren’t so sure. As the shrinks wrote two years ago in British Medical Journal Case Reports:

In such cases good communication with priests is recommended, but we are surprised that in 21st century and in Europe, there are still experts and clerics who believe that some types of schizophrenia are due to demonic possession. Our intention was to ask an expert cleric from the Madrid archdiocese to try to convince the patient that her symptoms were due to a mental disorder, in an effort to improve her insight. To our surprise, clerics assumed that the patient's psychotic symptoms were due to a malign presence.

The cleric’s response may be a minority review, Royal suggests, but he sees it as the correct one. “Instead of pretending spiritual sicknesses are always psychological in nature,” he writes, ”considering the possibility of demonization and offering deliverance ministry may potentially benefit a number of demonized persons. ... Not only is exorcism a common practice, this study shows the number of commonalities among practitioners indicates that it is a fairly well-developed art.”

In the U.S., exorcism takes on a mostly Christian cast, although evennon-Abrahamic religions recognize the practice. The bias here is probably because culturally we’re mostly Christian and the New Testament is chock full of demons being cast out, usually by Jesus but sometimes by his followers in his name. But there are demons in the Old Testament, too, and in Jesus’ day casting them out was a recognized job in the Jewish community. Professional exorcists also were acknowledged in the early days of the Christian church.

Two millennia later, in 1972, Pope Paul VI abolished the minor order of exorcist, but that was more of a human resources reshuffling of roles (porter and catechist also got the papal boot) than a statement that exorcism was passé. Nonetheless, in 1999 the Vatican updated its 300-plus-year-old exorcism regulations and said an allegedly possessed person should be given a thorough medical and psychological exam before phoning the Jesuit hotline.

Exorcism is a way of ridding someone of their demons, and Royal breaks down demonization to three gradually more involved states—influence, oppression (outside the body), and/or possession. Possession, or course, with or without pea-soup projectile vomiting, spinning heads, and speaking in strange voices, offers a delicious patina for filmmakers. The latest edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia defines exorcism as “the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice.” (The Encyclopedia is put out by a private company and not the church of the same name.)

Probably thanks to Hollywood and Blatty’s own influence, exorcism often appears as a peculiarly Catholic pastime, loaded with secret and arcane rites (drawn from the Rituale Romanum of 1614) and lots of holy water and holy oil splashing around singeing the unclean. In his paper, Royal identifies that as a “sacramental” exorcism, and contrasts it with “word” and “spiritual” models more in vogue with Protestant traditions. Nonetheless, he writes, modern exorcisms do have many similar traits: “These include prayer, commands, love, preparation for the exorcism team, preparation for the person needing the exorcism, and follow-up.”

Between talking with Christian leaders, authors of texts on exorcism, and an Internet posting, Royal was able to reach out to 316 (!) American exorcists. Some 170 answered his survey. Fifteen of these 170 took part in an additional personal interview. Most of the larger set were men, most were Protestant (all the big denominations, including the so-called mainline ones, were represented), and most had “set demonized people free” between 11 and 1,000 times.

One of the big messages from Royal’s study is implied in that last finding—if you’re doing 1,000 exorcisms, they can’t all be the kind of knock-down, drag-out struggles you see on the big screen. “Instead, demons typically obey the command of the exorcist when Jesus’ name is used” and depart more-or-less peaceably; “rarely are water, oil, crucifixes, and other objects used, unless otherwise directed by the Holy Spirit.” (Nor, he notes, are consent forms generally obtained.)

Furthermore, most practicing exorcists (but not Catholic ones) believe that “any mature Christian” has the necessary authority to cast out demons.

Nonetheless, fasting, along with being patient and humble, were seen as necessary or at least useful preparations for the casting out. “Satan," One interviewee told Royal, "has no equipment to fight humility.” That might be a useful prescription for fighting any sort of devil these days.