Tag Archives: demons

Exorcising Theology

Among those curious about exorcism, the name Fr. Gabriele Amorth requires no introduction. As “the Vatican’s chief exorcist” (a claim the book makes), Fr. Amorth was known for conducting many deliverances and for teaching a new generation of exorcists. Looking for an entryway into his perspective, I read An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels. That a priest in Rome should be conservative was no surprise. What was truly astounding about this account was how unquestioningly the exorcist accepted nearly everything to do with Roman Catholicism. His reading of the Bible is quite literal. His understanding of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God offers no nuance. Demons are fallen angels and, somewhat surprisingly, he uses “Devil” and “demon” interchangeably. For a hierarchy so thoroughly parsed, this was a bit unexpected. Encountering these explanations, much of what I’d recently read in Matt Baglio’s The Rite made sense. Baglio’s protagonist studied in Rome when Fr. Amorth was still active.

Much of the book felt like a lecture from the 1950s. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll can all lead to demonic possession. And it turns out to be quite pervasive. Many people, saints and sinners alike, are possessed and don’t even know it. This is truly, according to the priest, a “world with devils filled.” The book begins with a Catholic, if literal, interpretation of Jesus’ role in the salvation of humankind (although the masculine pronoun is preferred throughout). Not only that, there’s no question that women can or should be exorcists. This is something that priests alone can handle. And he even goes far as to point to Eve (who literally existed, one gets the impression) as an example of how women are more easily tempted than men. Reading this brief tractate was like stepping back into a world that even antedates that of the Republican Party. Not decrying science, however, Fr. Amorth suggests medical explanations can account for some of what sufferers deem as possession. Those who think they are in trouble with demons should first go to a psychiatrist. If the problem can’t be solved, it’s time to call in the men in black.

Another area of concern is his outlook on other religions. African and East and South Asian belief systems are coded as possibly satanic. This universe is a strictly Catholic one. Having noted that, a strong undercurrent of love pervades the book. It’s clear that Fr. Amorth was a priest motivated by care for others. His theology may have been hopelessly medieval, but his heart was in the right place. And, if the accounts are to be believed, he was quite good at expelling literal demons. Some of the metaphorical ones, however, seem to have remained firmly in place.

Re-reading the Rite

I’ve written on The Rite before. My current book project, however, led me to reread this account after watching the movie based on it a couple of times. The film dramatizes, of course, the somewhat understated demonic activity in the book. The protagonist loses about 30 years in age and isn’t yet a priest. As is usual, the book is better than the movie. Matt Baglio’s story follows Fr. Gary Thomas from parish ministry in California to his discovery of possession and appointment as an exorcist. As part of the Vatican initiative to have an exorcist appointed in every diocese, Fr. Thomas was sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. His experience was all academic until he began to attend actual exorcisms with an unconventional Capuchin monk. Very little described in the book is difficult to believe.

This time around the curses nabbed my attention. Among exorcists of the Roman Catholic stripe, there is a strong belief in the reality of curses. Not only the reality of curses, but the belief that curses can lead to demonic possession. Knowing that Catholicism has struggled with accusations of being unsophisticated and behind the times, the fact that this isn’t more widely known is pretty self-explanatory. Growing up Protestant, I was always taught that curses are make-believe. They don’t really have any influence on a person’s life. The world of demons, however, is a supernatural one and the concept of curses still holds sway in this universe, as the book shows.

Another arcane aspect that resurfaced when I reread this book is just how elaborate the Catholic backstory is. Many Catholics, it’s clear, distance themselves from such topics as the Devil and demons, but there’s no escaping the Virgin Mary and the drama of Jesus versus the powers of evil, as well as the intercession of saints. The problem is that many of the players are personified in the Bible. It’s pretty hard to say the Good Book got it wrong. That worldview lends itself to belief in supernatural impingement on this sphere. Not that that’s a bad thing. Many people, however, would rather believe in a materialist world with physical cause and effect being the main operating paradigm. Demons complicate all that. But then, so does the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin, and even the patrilineal heritage of Jesus himself. The Rite brings to the light something many would perhaps prefer to be kept under a bushel. Strange things do happen in this world, and they do tend to respond to the backstory that’s been told. That makes such books difficult to classify, even with the backstory.

Belief Matters

What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.

An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.

We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.

Exercising Exorcism

About the last people, ironically, that you’ll find researching demons are religion scholars. That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but there’s an embarrassment to the topic that serious academics just can’t shake. Nobody wants to be thought truly believing in that stuff. Michael W. Cuneo, who teaches sociology and anthropology at Fordham University, isn’t afraid to look. His American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty is a user-friendly, often witty look at what is an amazing phenomenon. Exorcism had pretty much gone extinct by the middle of the twentieth century. Then The Exorcist happened. Cuneo makes no bones about it—Hollywood wrote the script on what was to become a somewhat bustling business through the end of the millennium and beyond. And it wasn’t limited to Catholics. Protestants, mainly of Evangelical stripe, cottoned onto Deliverance ministry and joined the fray against the demonic.

American Exorcism reflects Cuneo’s personal account of attending exorcisms. As he puts it at the end, no fireworks occurred. In fact, he’s skeptical that demons exist and he strongly suspects exorcisms work in the same way that a placebo does. He’s well aware that the majority of people he met and talked with in the making of this book disagree on that point. Cuneo himself attended at least fifty exorcisms, both Catholic and Protestant, and shysters among the exorcists were rare. Most were sincere, devoted people who are helping others in distress for no fees, no glory, and no promotion. They see a need, believe they know the diabolical cause, and take the devil by the horns (metaphorically speaking).

There is a solid mistrust between academics with their studied skepticism and exorcists with their eyewitness accounts that defy belief. Cuneo suggests that even what they think they see may not really be happening in the real world. My question, coming down to the end of the fascinating book, revolves around what exactly this real world is. There can be no doubt that present day concepts of exorcism are largely based on “the movie.” Cuneo seems just a bit reluctant to say what I also declared in my forthcoming book—pop culture, the movies, dictate reality for many people. At least in the realm of religion. Sacred institutions have lost their authority to make ex cathedra pronouncements about what is real and what is not. Few bother to, or can, delve into the tedious work of reading academic studies on the subject. It’s far easier to let the unseen presences behind the camera take over. Isn’t that what possession is about, after all?

Exiting Amityville

Okay, I confess. I watched Amityville 3-D. One of the standard features of horror, you see, is the sequel. As a rule the members of the franchise degenerate until they don’t earn enough money to keep Hollywood’s attention. In the case of The Amityville Horror, the story only made it three deep. I’m no film critic, but with missteps at almost every turn, Amityville 3-D almost made a farce of itself and horror fans take that as an insult. (Good horror comedy is an exception, of course.) The original story is well known: the Lutz family moved into the DeFeo murder house and moved out again just over a month and a half later. The tale has been considered both a hoax and a legitimate haunting, but subsequent families haven’t reported supernatural happenings on the property.

I had some hopes for this installment, as it was also known as Amityville III: The Demon. The second feature film was part of my viewing late last year, and it was okay. I never thought the original was that good, in any case. As I watched III I realized something was missing. Religion. Any sign of it. No priests were involved—this was the fear vector for the first two films of the series. Although John Baxter moves into the house knowing the history, he’s a skeptic and seems not even to believe as the house blows up in a silly finale before his very eyes. When the flies start buzzing around everywhere he thinks they’re just pests, not making the connection with the original account. The entire series is, of course, an extension of the Beelzebub—“Lord of the flies”—myth. That’s what gives it its demonic thrust.

When it finally comes time to wrap things up, and no priest has been called, and no religious imagery has been shown, there’s nothing here to scare but cheap startles. Eliot West, the leader of the cadre of paranormal investigators, attempts to free Baxter’s drowned daughter from the turquoise, boiling well that was dubbed “the gate to Hell,” a demon pops up and grabs him. There’s no explanation of who or what the demon is. Like everything else here it’s secular to a fault. And though it may startle, it can’t scare.

Not all horror uses religion, of course. Even some movies about demons avoid it and manage to be scary. If the premise, however, rests on religion gone awry—as in the first two films of the franchise—exorcising it completely is asking for trouble. Even if the telephone number for the realtor at the start of the film does begin with a secular 666.

Middle Age Demons

One of the consequences of watching horror movies is the interest in the origins of various monsters. Since many such films feature demons, their backgrounds and origin stories have always been a point of curiosity. Time is always an issue and Juanita Feros Ruys obliges that hurried sense by packing a lot of information into her short book Demons in the Middle Ages. Covering the basics in the introduction, she moves on to discuss demons in the desert—the bane of the early monastic, and demons in the monasteries of populous Europe. A chapter on the Scholastics describes how early science was applied to incorporeal beings, and a final chapter on learned magic, i.e., raising demons via magic books, finishes off this brief study.

What is particularly striking here is that the Bible says surprisingly little on the topic. It says, however, just enough to kickstart the Late Antique and Medieval interest in the subject. Vast amounts of speculation were raised in the Middle Ages concerning what exactly demons were and what they were made of and what they could or couldn’t do. Ruys points out the trajectory of the male necromancer giving way to the female witch just as early modernity was getting started. The results, we all know, were horrific. Throughout it is remarkably clear that belief in demons was strong. People took them very seriously—the Bible says they’re there, so there. Belief, as always, has consequences. Beginning with the Scholastics, however, a reasoned understanding of the spiritual world was deeply desired.

Reason and faith aren’t really the strangers they’re often portrayed to be. Medieval monks could be quite clever and scientific in their outlook. Human mental faculties, created, as they believed, by God, were necessarily good. Something I’d never considered, but which Ruys explores, is the belief that God cannot experience emotions. Being an “unmoved mover” meant not experiencing emotion (which, she points out, includes a noun of movement). This also meant that demons, according to some, had no feelings. This is a very cold spiritual world, particularly when it’s put into conflict with the human one. Spiritual, rational beings subjected to emotions, we’re the ones at the mercy of supernatural beings more powerful than us, yet incapable of the warmth we crave. About a millennium and a half of shifting beliefs in demons crowd this tiny book. Although not intended to be especially profound, it gives the reader plenty to ponder. Including why some of us watch horror movies at all when religion can do the trick all by itself.

Anneliese or Emily?

If it weren’t for the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the name of Anneliese Michel would undoubtedly be less recognized than it is. Probably the first exorcism movie since The Exorcist to move the genre in a new direction, Emily Rose was based on the real life case of Anneliese Michel. There were significant differences between film and reality, however. Michel was from Bavaria, and she died at the age of 23 rather than being an American teenager like Emily. The story caught media attention because it was discovered that Michel had died after an extensive, months-long exorcism. Charges were made and the priests and Anneliese’s parents were found guilty of negligent homicide. The movie plays the whole thing out in the courtroom with flashbacks of the possession.

The book which led to the film was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas D. Goodman. Goodman, who died in 2005, was a rare academic who wasn’t afraid to address the supernatural. Trained as a linguist, she had years of anthropological fieldwork experience and a medical background. She was also not dismissive of religious experiences. Naturally, this makes her suspect among academics, but her treatment of Michel’s case is both sympathetic and masterful. After narrating events pieced together from court records, diaries, tapes of the exorcism, and information supplied by some of those involved, she offers her own hypothesis of what actually happened. Anneliese Michel was a religious girl caught up in a religious altered state of consciousness that was treated scientifically by drugs. The result was fatal.

Throughout history, and even today, shamanistic persons exist. Whereas in tribal cultures they tend to become prominent, in the “developed world” they are often quite hidden. They experience what Goodman calls religious states of altered consciousness, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as requiring chemical healing. There have been many thoroughly documented cases where such individuals do “impossible” things. The rationalistic world has no place for them, however, for like capitalism, materialism takes no prisoners. Religion is part of who we are. Human beings do have spiritual needs. Such needs can be placated by other means at times, and we can continue to believe that everything in this universe is made of atoms, or super-strings, or quarks. Or we can perhaps admit that theres’s much we do not know. Goodman admits that her solution is an educated guess, but it does put all the pieces together rather nicely. And she doesn’t declare unilaterally whether demons are physical or not. In the case of Anneliese Michel, however, they were undeniably real.