Too Close?

Some time back I did a Google search on something like “best novels about possession,” like one does.  I was in the midst of writing Nightmares with the Bible at the time.  One of the titles that came up was Sara Gran’s Come Closer.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I started to look out for it.  I finally found and read a copy.  It is a page-turner.  A first-person narrative, it is a story about how a woman became possessed and how her life changed because of it.  Creepy and moody, it isn’t your typical Exorcist-type story.  What it highlighted for me (I don’t want to give too many spoilers) is the dilemma of those who a) live in an era when such things are routinely dismissed, and b) who have no religious background on which to fall.

While there are some quasi-religious characters in the story, there are no priests.  There’s no Catholic Church with its reassuring, if disturbing ritual.  Nobody seems to know how to handle a powerful demon.  One of the features that fuels exorcism movies (and presumably many novels on the subject) is the uncertainty of success.  Will there be deliverance or not?  I’m not going to tell you the answer here for Gran’s novel, in keeping with the spirit of the genre, but the dilemma of where to turn is believably laid out.  Amanda, a well-employed professional, lives without religion.  She acknowledges that strange things happen, but when she gets an inkling that a demon is after her, she doesn’t know where to turn.  As the story builds the loss of personal control is convincingly portrayed.  What do you do without the church?

I often ponder the particular power of The Exorcist narrative.  The threat to a young woman (as I discuss in Nightmares) is part of the key.  Another is the knowledge that the Catholic Church has packed away a powerful ritual that is only brought out in what are clearly extreme circumstances.  Like Amanda, the MacNeils aren’t church-going individuals.  The difference is that they live near Georgetown University where help may be found.  Unveiling this ancient rite was perhaps the greatest brilliance behind the story.  We live in a different age, however.  Simultaneously both more religious and more secular.  With the old certainties now under question, people wonder what they are to do when the impossible happens.  That is the driving pathos behind Come Closer.  It is a scary story on many levels.

Coincidentally

I hope I never become too sensible not to pay attention to coincidences.  With the death of Max von Sydow falling the same week as the time change, the full moon, and Friday the thirteenth, I’m left feeling a little vulnerable.  I mean, what do we do now that the Exorcist is gone?  A couple days ago, when the moon was full—the last full moon before the vernal equinox—I awoke before 3:00 a.m.  Thinking Daylight Saving Time would have me groping for a few extra minutes abed, instead I found myself wide awake at the hour when monsters are thought to be afoot.  As I put my feet to the floor I saw the brilliant lunar light beating through the blinds like midday.  It was remarkable how very light it was.

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in congress to make Daylight Saving Time permanent.  Of course, getting any law passed without numerous riders and bickering is unlikely, but I do wish they’d get on with it.  That having been written, the time shift has been remarkably easy on me so far this year.  Perhaps those of us regularly awake in the dead of night adjust a little more quickly.  Keeping out of New York with the coronavirus lurking, I’d rather deal with my own monsters anyway.  I remember my amazement at seeing Max von Sydow unchanged from Fr. Merrin to Dr. Naehring.  Then I looked up just how much makeup the Exorcist had to have to age himself several decades.  He was a young man when The Exorcist was filmed.  At this time of day anything is believable.

Friday the thirteenth is a bit of lore grown from Christianity.  Friday was inauspicious because of Good Friday and the thirteenth lot fell on Judas, who, along with the others, made thirteen.  It was as if some demon were afoot on such Fridays.  These bits of Christian lore made their way into popular culture and then crept into horror films.  A good deal of Nightmares with the Bible revolves around The Exorcist.  So I sit here before sunrise with a bit of just-past full moon shining in, not too tired from losing an hour on Sunday.  It’s not difficult to think of scary things at this time of night.  Of course, demons traditionally come out around 3:00 a.m.  This week has been like that.  And without Max von Sydow, we want to be very cautious around demons.

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Panic at the Bookstore

Usually it works like this.  I go into a used bookstore with a list of titles I’d like to find.  Yes, I know I can look them up on Amazon and pay some price gouger more than the book’s worth, but you sometimes find things forgotten on a shelf out of the reach of technology.  When I went into a used bookstore in the vicinity of Ithaca last month I didn’t have my list with me.  When I visit such a store, especially the first time, I don’t like to walk out empty-handed.  The word “Exorcism” on both the spine and cover of Ken Olson—excuse me, Dr. Ken Olson’s book on the subject, well, how could I not?  Exorcism: Fact or Fiction? is published by Thomas Nelson.  That immediately told me something of what the book would be like.  It wouldn’t be an academic treatment, and it would be somewhat evangelical.  Still, I didn’t have my list with me.

Olson hasn’t had an easy life.  His license to practice psychology was revoked after he performed an exorcism and my sympathies are always with those who have lost jobs.  Rejection is, after all, a form of violence.  The book, however, isn’t so much about exorcism as it is about evangelical views of it.  Written around the time of the satanic panic in the 1990s, the book takes seriously the claims of the alleged victims and also the physical existence of the non-corporeal Satan.  This actually leads to a few logical brick walls.  Referring to the body parts of non-physical beings can be an exercise in metaphor, but evangelicals tend to be literalists otherwise.  This discrepancy begs for discussion but receives none here.

The history of moral panics is interesting.  We live in the midst of them pretty much constantly now.  The internet doesn’t really help.  Moral panics are times when particular concerns spread rapidly (for which the web is ideal) without having any critical questions asked.  They often lead to a mob mentality that can victimize the innocent.  Although that’s clearly not his intent, Olson’s book tends to do this too.  If a victim is female, as is often the case, conservatives blame her for such things as abortions, forgetting, it seems, that a male was involved.  Since abortion scares are another example of a moral panic, it’s not surprising Olson treats them along with other forms of spiritual warfare.  Those who turn to the book looking for The Exorcist will be disappointed.  You might find a copy of that, however, at your local used bookstore.

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Stranger and Stranger

Like many fans of the X-Files and the early years of Sleepy Hollow, I’ve fallen into the Stranger Things orbit.  While I don’t have a Netflix account, I have friends who do and they got me hooked.  If you’ve watched it you’ll know why, and if you haven’t I’ll try not to give too many spoilers away.  The reason I raise it now, when we’ve gone such a long time without a new season, is that Stranger Things 2 took on shades of The Exorcist, but without any of the attendant religion.  Secular exorcists do exist, and possession is a feature of cultures with all different kinds of belief systems.  Exorcism works based on the belief system of the possessed, it seems, and if there’s no religion there’s no problem—call a secularcist!

Spoiler alert: Will is possessed by the mind flayer.  As the authorities flail around and get eaten by demidogs, his mother figures out how the exorcism has to work.  The thing about possession is that nobody really knows what demons are.  Dungeons and Dragons, which I confess I’ve never played—my life is too complicated already, thank you—gives the analogy for the possessing entity.    No matter what the demon, however, the only way to get it out is through exorcism.  Quite apart from sci-fi and fantasy, this is also the case in real life.  Part of the appeal to Stranger Things, I suspect, is that it indulges in the mysterious without the burden of religion.  While religion makes for good horror, good horror may exist without it.  Or can it?

Contrast this with Sleepy Hollow, now defunct.  Possession was a trope there as well, but the story had obvious elements of religion embedded in it.  As I point out in Holy Horror, religion often drives the fear.  That doesn’t mean it’s the only driver.  People fear being taken over by something else.  Stranger Things knows that if nobody can really figure out what that something else is, it can be scarier still.  We know it comes from the upside down.  We know it can possess people.  And we learn that it can be exorcised.  Although the setting is completely secular, there are elements of religious thinking even here.  It’s simply part of the human psyche.  We can deny it exists.  We can try to describe it only by analogy.  We can try to exorcise it.  It is there nevertheless, even as we eagerly await the advent of the third season.

Remembrance

When reading C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, a number of things stood out in high relief.  One of them was his statement that the early years of autobiographies are often the most interesting.  Now, many people may have difficulty drawing a straight line between Lewis and William Peter Blatty, but the overlaps are there.  I’ll Tell Them I Remember You is a young man’s autobiography, so mostly it deals with early years.  Even more than that, it deals with Blatty’s mother.  Those of us who write often find a kind of inspiration in the life stories of other writers.  To hear Blatty tell it, or rather, to read him tell it, it was his mother who made him the man he became.  It’s a nice tribute.

Blatty is probably best remembered as the author of The Exorcist, but his background as a comic screenwriter comes through in his account.  (He also wrote, for example, the Pink Panther screenplay A Shot in the Dark.)  But more to the point currently, with a spoiled child wanting to try to force a wall that America doesn’t want on it, Blatty’s parents were immigrants.  From Lebanon.  It may be that since I’m writing a book about demons in movies that The Exorcist seems like an important national achievement to me, but it also seems an apt parable for the situation in which we find ourselves.  It worth thinking about—the invasion of evil and how to expel it.  Metaphorical writing is often the best.

Perhaps writers are naturally obstreperous people.  If my novels ever get published you’ll see that characters don’t do what you want them to.  And yet we like what happens when they don’t.  I would have found a bit more information about Blatty’s life an asset.  His mother certainly makes an impression, even if its third-hand.  Writers, if my own experience is anything to go by, often feel they are conduits.  Receivers.  It’s like listening to the radio when driving a car through the mountains.  Suddenly a station comes in clear, but just for a moment.  Ideas for stories are like that—they often arrive when you can’t do anything about them.  Writers carry notebooks for a reason.  I used to have a waterproof one in our shower.  You never know when the signal’s going to come in loud and clear.  And you never know when the people you’re trying to block out might be adding more value than you’d ever imagined.  You might be surprised.

Beneath the Exorcist

William Friedkin rose to fame as the director of The French Connection.  William Peter Blatty had written the screenplay for the Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark.  Now Blatty had a serious project in mind as he considered whom to pitch to direct the film of his novel, The Exorcist.  He wanted, and got, Friedkin.  The two disagreed about the final cut of the movie, with Friedkin winning out.  The movie was a tremendous success.  Several years later the cut favored by Blatty was released, again with success.  Blatty died last year.  The year before that so did Fr. Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.  Last night I watched The Devil and Father Amorth, a documentary by William Friedkin about the famed exorcist.

The Exorcist made an impact on the lives of many people, not least Friedkin.  Over four decades after making this film, the director is still mulling it over.  The Devil and Father Amorth is primarily footage shot by Friedkin of an exorcism performed by Amorth.  In general the filming of exorcisms is forbidden, but given his stature as a film-maker, Friedkin was given permission to film without crew, on a small, hand-held video camera.  Although nowhere near as violent as the fictionalized film, it is disturbing to watch.  As a documentary, it includes interviews with doctors, some from Columbia University, who agree that possession is “a thing,” but one suspects they might disagree with the director as to what that thing might be.

Although Friedkin isn’t an academic, society accepts that (at least some) film-makers are intellectuals.  Perhaps lacking subject specialization, they nevertheless read a lot and possess quite a bit of street knowledge concerning psychology.  Friedkin does.  At just over an hour, this documentary isn’t long, but it is provocative.  For me it raises once again an issue that I address in Nightmares with the Bible—the curious laity, due to lack of engagement by traditional scholars, must rely on such efforts to get information about spiritual entities.  The documentary, which deals with a heavy subject, is one that Friedkin tries to lighten a bit at the end by stating that if there are demons then angels must also exist.  This goes back to the idea, discussed more fully in my book, that demons derive from fallen angels.  The “one size fits all” approach of academia has shoehorned belief in one direction.  While The Devil and Father Amorth won’t likely convince skeptics, many who watch it will be left wondering.

Organic Experience

Holy Horror, it looks like, has been delayed until January.  That doesn’t mean that I have to wait to find some relief in the escape to film.  Over the weekend my wife surprised me by being willing to watch The Exorcist with me.  As we settled in to see it, a few things occurred to me—watching horror with someone else isn’t nearly as frightening as watching it alone.  I know this from experience, and it seems that it has something to do with the willing suspension of disbelief.  It’s harder to do when someone is with you.  Left to one’s own devices, it’s possible to believe what you’re watching, even if intellectually you know that it is merely a movie.  That tells us something about the way brains are wired.

I object to the word “wired,” really.  As organic beings, we are not computers.  What invented consciousness would watch a scary movie for pleasure?  What is the rationale for it?  It was a gray and rainy Saturday evening in late October.  In human experience that may be all that it takes.  Seeing orange and black in the stores sets a mood that computers, I strongly suspect, simply can’t feel.  They lack the human experience of childhood trick-or-treating, or throwing on another layer as the days grow chillier, or watching the leaves turn and slowly drift down from weary trees.  No, these aren’t wired experiences—they’re very organic ones, and often those that mean something even to adults as the seasons wend their way through the calendar.

The author waiting for proofs is rather like an expectant parent.  Well, that analogy’s not quite right either, but you get the point.  I know the book is coming.  It was accepted and submitted long ago.  The publication process, however, is more complex than most people might assume.  In fact, in the publishing industry it is often the main role of the editorial assistant to assure that manuscripts make it through all of the necessary hoops to move from finished manuscript to printed book.  Johannes Gutenberg likely had a simpler process worked out, although, in the early days of book-buying you could purchase the pages and have them bound by your choice of bindery.  Now cover and content are glued or stitched together in what one hopes is a seamless way.  Still, that stitching can’t help but to recall Frankenstein’s monster.  It is, however, another gray, rainy day in October.  It’s just a shame my computer can’t share the experience with me.

You’ve Never Seen

In spite of accusations of puerile voyeurism, horror is a genre containing many deep films. I have no training as a film critic, but it’s evident that among the more weighty of horror heavyweights is The Exorcist. Mark Kermode is, on the other hand, a film critic, and his book named after the movie demonstrates just how much a viewer can see. I’ve watched The Exorcist quite a few times and there were things I’ve consistently missed. I also realize that I’ve only ever seen The Version You’ve Never Seen (the 2000 theatrical re-release). Having been too young and far too skittish to have seen its debut, I’ve been happy—if that’s the right word to use with such a production—with the version I’ve seen. That’s the human condition, I guess. Kermode made me wonder what it would’ve been like to have experienced it before the spoilers became universally known.

Yes, there are striking special effects—especially for the early 1970s—but the message is what really holds the depth. The story is the classic struggle of good and evil. Demons are, after all, a form of evil personified. The fact that a young girl is the victim may be a little too true to life, but it also gives the drama considerable emotional resonance. In the end, according to the view of the writer and director, good wins. The struggle, as they portray it, is real and costly. It’s always informative to find out what those who made a film thought it was about. Even with the motive of making money, many involved in the industry still have the hearts of artists. Maybe even priests.

Having learned at the feet of post-modernists, we know that no interpretation—even that of the creators—is privileged. Just as there’s no such thing as “only reading,” no one “only watches” cinema. The acts of reading and watching inherently involve interpretation. Kermode draws that out nicely in this little book. His interpretation, as insightful as it is, is but one way of looking at it. Was The Exorcist the version originally released in 1973? Bill Blatty and Bill Friedkin disagreed to the end about what the definitive version was. The many sequels and spin-offs have reinterpreted the story in their own ways. So it is with the struggle against evil. There’s no one single way to go about it. Some make horror movies to demonstrate that point precisely. At least in my view they do.

Behind the Scenes

Although I confess to being a horror aficionado, it took many years before I could convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I finally saw it in the mid-20-aughts, and have watched it many times since. It’s a movie that I discuss in Holy Horror, and it will star in Nightmares with the Bible as well. Although younger people often don’t experience the movie as scary—certainly the increasing trust in science and growth of secularity contribute to this—there is a sincerity about it that earns it its deserved place in the pantheon of horror. Bob McCabe surely counts as a fan for his The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Sub-subtitled The Full Story of the Film, this book is a gallimaufry of anecdotes, interviews, and facts about the movie and even its sequels. It’s like of like a sustained reaction shot.

The book doesn’t lack insight and McCabe is surely right that this was one of the most influential movies of the early 1970s. It has become a frame of reference on its own and it has defined, in large measure, what people believe about demonic possession. One of the quotes from McCabe’s treatment however, uses the phrase “metaphysical unknown” to explain why the film retains its power to scare, and there’s a great deal of wisdom in that assessment. Fear of the unknown, of course, is prime real estate for horror, and one of the most interesting things about demons is how little the Bible, or other ancient texts, really says (or say) about them. They are an embodiment of the unknown that can take over a person and make her somebody else. But it’s that metaphysical that’s really scary.

As we continue into a time of less and less that remains unclaimed by scientific theory, those metaphysical unknowns continue to lurk and to frighten. Maybe it’s the concept of the metaphysical itself that scares—can there really be something larger, more intelligent than us? The human psyche bruises easily, and we don’t like to be reminded that we lack the control we suppose we have each day. The metaphysical challenges all that. Since it refuses to submit to empirical verification, it remains unknown. A great many people interpret this as the same as not believing in it. Every once in a while, however, a powerful statement such as The Exorcist comes along. Few people thought about demons before William Peter Blatty’s novel and subsequent film. Then the world was full of them again. Requests for exorcisms are on the rise, and the metaphysical unknown haunts us now as much as it ever has.

Measuring Immeasurables

Are demons getting more active, or are people just believing in them more? Quite apart from what’s happening in the District of Columbia, there’s been a surge of requests for exorcisms. This is according to a WBUR story my wife sent me. I’ve been researching demons for a few years now. Initially my concern was avoiding Hell (something I’d still like to do), but as an adult trained in rationalism, I wondered why people still believed in them. Trying to keep an open mind, I read accounts. Yes, misperception is possible. Alternative interpretations. But still…

Fundamentalists say that demons have to exist because Jesus said so. Historically speaking, people have recognized demons from the earliest writing cultures and probably before. What they thought demons were differed pretty wildly from place to place. A good case has been made that demonic possession, as we recognize it today, became popular after The Exorcist. William Peter Blatty researched the topic, and most of what he uses for Regan MacNeil’s symptoms came from medieval accounts. Although some of the descriptions are somewhat extreme, the actions themselves aren’t new to either movie or novel. In other words, according to the eyewitness accounts we have, such things do happen. And when they do, who ya’ gonna call?

Exorcists were mostly extinct by the 1960s. A decade later, after the movie’s release, reports began to increase in number. Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, which I reviewed here some time ago, was a bestseller. It reinforced the idea planted by Blatty. And the number of exorcism requests hasn’t started going down yet. Are there more demons about, or are we all imagining things? It’s a question not easily answered.

The fact is science can’t measure phenomena that don’t consist of matter or energy. Occam’s razor shaves away the whiskers of the spiritual. Perhaps nature intended for us to be a bit hairier. Spirit is something that has always resisted science and its metrics. We know it when we see it in someone. Or perhaps when it impacts a person’s actions or motivations. It doesn’t impact a scale. It has no visible spectrum. Conventional wisdom says if you can’t see it, hear it, or otherwise sense it, it must not be there. We know this to be shortsighted thinking, however. “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Shakespeare wrote, and we would do well to pay the bard his due. Are there demons? I can’t say. I do know that people have been asking for the services of exorcists more and more. For that there is ample evidence.

Movie v. Book

The debate is about as old as celluloid itself; which is better, the book or the movie? The response obviously depends on personal taste, and I suspect that many people base their answer on criteria that can’t exactly be quantified. Often it’s a matter of the specifics—which book? Which movie? In my own experience I’ve done it both ways, read the book first and watched the movie initially. I’ve even gone to movies not realizing there was a book and, of course, some movies aren’t based on books at all. You couldn’t grow up when I did, however, and not know that The Exorcist was a movie based on a book. I never saw the movie in a theater. There was a lot of buzz about it in my hometown, of course. I hadn’t been introduced to modern horror yet—still being a Fundamentalist at the time—and besides, it was rated “R” and I wasn’t.

I finally got around to reading the book. At this point in my life I’ve seen the movie several times, so I knew how the story was “supposed to go” beforehand. The fact that William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay suggested it would be close to the novel, and indeed that’s the case. Novels, by their nature, tend to have more information about the storyline than is obvious from a film. The author can take time to explain things that don’t translate visually, including scenes where one character lectures another, like this blog. Since I’m writing a book about demons in movies, I paid careful attention to this. One of the themes from the novel that didn’t make it to the movie was witches.

That surprised me a bit. I had seen the movie first and it was plenty scary just as it was. I had to remind myself that my younger years coincided with the rebirth of the fear of witches. Literal ones. I’m not an astute enough sociologist to say whether the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism led to a hypostatized fear of real witches or not, but people were afraid in those days, as I recall. The Exorcist tapped into cultural fears in a way rare for a horror movie. It spoke to the fears of the era, but it didn’t mention witches. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Rosemary’s Baby, which hit theaters shortly after The Exorcist. Rosemary believes the Satanists are witches. There’s a whole supernatural concoction of malevolent entities on the loose. Witches, ultimately in the novel, are simply one avenue the desperate Chris MacNeil explores to find out what’s wrong with Regan. The movie, wisely in my opinion, chose to leave it out. Demons are scary enough on their own, but of course even that’s debatable.

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?