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.

Deep Web Religion

The bases of truth are ever shifting, it seems. What was once decided by spiritual tests now finds technological solutions. A friend sent me a story from IFL Science (which, surprisingly, often focuses on religion) concerning a nun in seventeenth-century Italy. What makes this nun stand out is less than she had a mental disorder but more that she wrote that it came from the Devil. Her letter, however, was written in an indecipherable script and has only just been decoded. How? By using decoding software on the Deep Web. As someone who’s still lost on the surface web, I’m not sure whether diabolical possession or this mysterious sub-web is scarier. An even more profound question is why someone in this scientific age would resort to the Deep Web to diagnose the illness of a sequestered religious long dead.

Like Manhattan, which, I’m told, has many layers underground, the web has places you shouldn’t go. Computers linked promiscuously together have an amazing power, and apart from those of us who can while away hours looking at photos and videos of cats, there is a darker, more sinister area that can’t be accessed with Google. Down there, according to IFL Science, resides powerful code-cracking software that might be profitably turned to Linear A or Hurrian, but is used to decipher the centuries’ old note of a woman who believed she was possessed. I’m not knocking the achievement. Decades of research have apparently solved the conundrum of the Voynich Manuscript—we can’t stand having the ancient talk behind our backs—and yet try to get funding to hire an Assyriologist at your school. The vast majority of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets remain untranslated in cellars as dark as the Deep Web.

There seems to be little doubt that Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione suffered from some form of mental illness. Even today some psychologists are starting to suggest that “possession” should be considered a viable option for diagnosing some cases that otherwise defy satisfactory resolution. This isn’t medieval superstition, but it is our understanding of a materialistic universe shoved up against a wall. We can’t stand not to know. Mental illness is as old as mentality. We can’t comprehend the vastness of this world, let alone this galaxy or this universe. Even very interesting stuff gets lost on the world-wide web. I don’t even want to think about what goes on in the infernal regions below it.

Prophetic Shaman

Lewis EcstaticDon’t complain. So I’m told. Work with the system (i.e., the privileged), do your part, and most of all, don’t complain. What would Jeremiah do? Or any of the prophets? It seems to me that prophets had the job of calling out where society had gone wrong and doing so with a healthy dose of complaint. If you don’t call out evil, it only grows. Prophets come to mind because I’ve just finished reading I. M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. Spirit possession is chic, at least in the horror movie industry, but if you get beyond the stereotypes, you soon learn that inspired, or ecstatic, religion is largely based on good possession. The gods can temporarily inhabit the shaman, and, as Lewis points out, there is often an element of the underprivileged being those who are visited by the gods. Interestingly enough, indigenous cultures that feature shamans—or shaman-like practitioners—accept the rebuke of the gods, even when it may be a thinly veiled attempt to right an obvious wrong.

Shamanism is a bit of a misnomer. Not really a religion, but a set of spiritual practices originating among the Tungus of Siberia, shamanism is now conveniently applied to native peoples around the world. In our love of easy classification, we like to say this belief is similar to that belief, so they must be a type of religion. In fact, however, “religion” is much more integrated into the daily lives of indigenous peoples and specific beliefs vary widely. Nevertheless, we understand possession and shamanism, and we apply them as categories to try to make sense of it all. Lewis does so with an anthropologist’s eye, finally in the last chapter addressing the psychological questions. It is often claimed, for instance, that shamanism is a form of mental illness. What seems clear to me is that shamans are responsible for preventing injustice from getting too far established.

And that brings me back to prophets. Prophets, particularly among those who study the Bible, are often seen as religious authorities. It seems to me that prophets, as opposed to priests, grew out of the untamed concern for justice typically exhibited by shamans. Priests are establishment religionists. They support the government and the government supports them. Temples are built. Religion is regularized. Prophets, however, can come from anywhere. They are liminal figures, complaining, in God’s name, when injustice appears. They don’t support the status quo just because it makes people comfortable. In other words, complaint is often the only way to make the divine will known. They are the heirs of the shamans. One thing that’s pretty obvious—whether you live in Siberia, Israel, or America—shamans are still sorely needed.

Loving Haiti

MomaLola Few religions are as routinely maligned as Vodou. I have to admit that my own interest was originally spurred in an uncouth manner—a combination of Live and Let Die and a sleepless night after watching The Believers. (I know, I know, The Believers was about Santeria, and not Vodou proper.) These sensationalist treatments nevertheless incubated a curiosity that broke the surface when I started to notice a book entitled, Moma Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn in university bookstores. The author, Karen McCarthy Brown, took Moma Lola on as an anthropology research project and ultimately became friends with her subject. I was immediately chagrined to learn that much of the distaste towards Vodou (this is my own observation, not Brown’s) seems laced with, if not based upon, overt racism. Vodou is the faith of the descendants of African slaves living in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Those who adhere to it often live an existence that few would accept in a world awash in riches. The people in Moma Lola’s story are poor and deprived, and their nation is kept that way by complications of a past tied too intimately with slavery.

Although Brown is not a scholar of religion, her account is a very accessible introduction to the belief system of Vodou. Most adherents, it becomes clear, think of themselves as Catholic. They see no contradiction between the teachings of Rome and the activities of spirits (the “gods” of Vodou are in reality spirits that operate in a world where God is too busy to pay attention to everyone) who must be propitiated. The rituals associated with Vodou are common among peoples who believe in connections between things as they seem and things as they are. In fact, reading the accounts of possession that Brown provides, I was reminded very much of charismatic Protestant experiences of being “slain in the spirit.” Ironically, both traditions believe in the same god. Why anyone should fear Vodou, unless it is because they secretly harbor a deep-seated fear in the efficacy of magic, is baffling. Like most religions, it is moral and concerned with upholding good over evil.

Haiti has a unique history that has put it at the creative epicenter of religions forced into collision while being economically exploited by nations that putatively support democracy. Religion, as Karl Marx noted, is for the poor. Brown takes her readers through her own experiences with a religion few outsiders really know, introducing the “gods” of this intricate religion along the way. Moma Lola, a healer, tries to survive in New York City after a difficult life in Haiti, and rather than make her escape, she returns on occasion to help others. Even in the spiritual circus that the Big Apple represents, people are suspicious of Vodou (and Santeria), despite their common cause with other religions of the developed world. You can read the 400 pages of Brown’s Moma Lola with nary a mention of “voodoo dolls” or zombies. Instead you’ll find people—often women—working to survive in a hostile world. Untested attitudes toward other religions often bear their own dark secrets, and Vodou, as lived by Moma Lola, belies and exposes many hidden prejudices on the part of the affluent world.

No Play-Thing

Childs_PlayPossession. It’s one of the scariest concepts in the religious arsenal. The idea that a person could be taken over by a different entity and surrender his or her selfhood to a malevolent saboteur is frightening indeed. Horror films have been deft at exploiting this. As a college student I was slow to watch the latest horror flicks. Some I’m only now beginning to find. Over the weekend I watched Child’s Play for the first time. Like most people who have some sense of popular culture I knew that Chucky was an evil doll, but I never really knew the backstory. Despite the utterly untenable hypothesis of the movie, it still manages to be scary in our CGI world, despite the bogus lightning. The frightening part comes from what is an admittedly creepy doll in the first place becoming possessed by a religious serial killer. Charles Lee Ray, named after three infamous assassins, displays facility with a religion that some identify as voodou, although that association comes primarily from the voodoo doll that Chucky uses to dispatch his mentor.

At least Child’s Play makes the effort to explain what forces exist that might bring plastic and stuffing to life. In true horror fashion, it is not the Christian god, but forces that are somehow more powerful, more malevolent. It would hardly behoove the maker of all the universe to inhabit a Cabbage Patch knockoff. The Lakeshore Strangler has been in training to cheat death and remain alive forever. He takes lessons from a mystical character whose religion is referred to only obliquely, yet whose efficacy is obvious in the malevolent toy. Willful suspension of belief is necessary to make this resurrection story plausible, but that disbelief must include belief in religious powers. The horns of this self-same dilemma hoist all religious believers in a scientific world.

Chucky is participating in one of the oldest of all religious traditions—death avoidance. Some of the earliest evidence that we have showing that hominids were developing religious sensibilities is the burial of the dead. There is really no reason to bury if we are only carrion like every other meat-based product. Whether it is out of fear or reverence, we turn to religion to assure us that there’s something more. It may not be scientific, but that’s largely the point. For many even today, a concluding scientific postscript leaves a body cold. Time for a leap of faith. Horror films are often decried as lowbrow and unsophisticated. Chucky, however, like many mythic monsters, is rapping his inhuman fingers on the door of religion. Specifically resurrection. Although in this case, it might be best to keep that door firmly closed.