While reading about various religious phenomena—both positive and negative—one of the recurring aspects that forces itself on our attention is contagion. Going back at least to the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the idea of crowd sourcing religious frenzy can be disturbing. It involves groups of people and loss of control. Not only is the frenzy itself frightening, but also the apparent paranormal accoutrements to such enthusiasm. In more specific terms, the revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” and the mass exorcisms described by Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism both boast supernatural elements. I’m not saying there can’t be a scientific explanation, but I am saying what happens in such circumstances has been understood to be supernatural by educated, experienced people. Both demoniacs and new religious converts display superhuman strength and atavistic behaviors that one doesn’t otherwise see in a lifetime. Once they start happening, they spread.
This is one of the draws of charismatic Christianity. Speaking in tongues can be quite contagious, I’m told. According to Cuneo’s carefully anonymized accounts, so can demonic possession with its attendant paranormal activity. Some scientists have explored the idea of consciousness as a “hive mind” phenomenon. Many “minds” brought together can produce something greater than the sum of the parts. We’re used to this in the world of insects, but since humans like to be radically individual we miss the instances where it occurs among our own species. While not always so, such events are often religious in nature. People gathered together in emotionally charged settings, personal experience draws off of that of others, and suddenly a person’s doing something they formerly believed to be “impossible.” God and demons both have explanatory value here.
Despite our tendency to want to destroy each other, humans have great potential when we work together. Our petty fears and jealousies could be contained, disassembled, and repurposed, if only we possessed the will to do so. The desire to stand out in a crowd—not to blend in but to be a unique individual—runs strong in our fractured psyches. We hate being mistaken for somebody else. Religious experiences, much maligned these days, tend to be group experiences. Yes, a mystic may have a personal and highly individualized rapture, but in the presence of others the excitement may be shared. “Mass hysteria” and group hypnosis have sometimes been posited as the culprits behind such events. Those who participate, however, use other terms to describe what has transpired. They may not call it a “hive mind,” and they won’t be alone in rejecting the phrase.
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?