The Devil and the Details

Facts and fantasies about exorcism

With two major studio movies about exorcisms released in the past year (The Exorcist: The Beginning and The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and the re-release of the original version of The Exorcist on DVD it’s safe to say that Hollywood seems to have a bit of a fixation with the Devil lately. The most recent offering, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, had the third highest September opening in history and has grossed 73.9 million dollars at the box office thus far. Because Emily Rose was “based on a true story” its release also inspired a flurry of television specials on the subject of possession. Why is it that this dark, mysterious and unexplainable aspect of belief, particularly of Catholicism seems to strike a chord in the American psyche?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Exorcism is “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 roots of exorcisms extend far past the founding of the church itself. The act of casting out demons was recorded in early Jewish literature as early as 5 B.C.E. and tales of demons or evil spirits controlling someone are found in Babylonian folklore.

The most obvious Christian roots for the rite of exorcism come from the gospels where Jesus and his disciples cast out demons. Interestingly, the word for exorcism, exorkizo, is not biblical. Christ was never described as “exorcising demons.” Rather he cast them out or ekballein which was often coupled with therapedo, which means to heal or cure. Exorcism means roughly “to adjure” or command.

As chronicled in Acts of the Apostles, members of the early church cast out demons in the name of Christ but the early Christian writer Tertullian documented that the practice was not confined to clerics. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Origen even wrote that “even the simplest and rudest of the faithful sometimes cast out demons, by a mere prayer or adjuration.”

Exorcism became a minor order of the church (a stage of priestly ordination along with acolyte, porter, and lector) but was later removed in 1971 with the revisions of ordination made by Vatican II. The rite of exorcism became standardized by the Church in 1641.

Running with the devil
Fr. Richard Woods O.P. is all too familiar with the phrase “The devil made me do it.” Woods (pictured right), the chair of the Theology Department at Dominican University in Illinois, had been doing extensive work in youth ministry when The Exorcist came out in 1973. At the time, there had been a rise in gothic culture and satanism, particularly among teens in Chicago. To better aid his ministry, Woods began to study the occult in order to determine why it was appealing to young Catholics as an alternative to faith. “I guess I became sort of the hip man for this kind of thing,” says Woods. “I was just curious to see what sort of appeal it had to people.”

After over thirty years of pastoral ministry and study, Woods–who was also an adjunct associate professor of Psychiatry at Loyola University of Chicago Medical School– believes an out of date understanding of both mental illness and exorcisms is often spread by movies like The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. He has seen more than his share of people who believe themselves or others to be possessed. In each case he has dealt with, however, the person has turned out to be suffering from mental illness or psychological trauma.

During the time of Christ, exorcisms were common on people who had mysterious illnesses. Today, many of these illnesses would be identified as epilepsy and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder or mental disabilities. “We understand more about these illnesses and to treat them as ‘demons’ seems to say that religious therapy for them has not advanced at all in the last 200 years” says Woods

Fr. Woods has seen more than his share of people who believe themselves or others to be possessed. In each case he has dealt with, however, the person has turned out to be suffering from mental illness or psychological trauma.

In early church communities, disturbed members of the church were placed under the care of minor clerics during services. These people were called exorcists. “[These afflicted Christians] were called the energumens which means the energized,” said Woods. “They were recognized as part of the church community and given their own section during mass so that they could worship without being bothered. The ‘exorcists’ watched over them and settled them down if they got out of hand…It was really just a position that affirmed human dignity and equality of people in the Body of Christ,” says Woods.

The Neglect of Emily Rose
Woods believes that the misdiagnosis of mental illness as demonic possession has lead people to perform exorcisms that often offers no help and sometimes does damage to the person it is being performed on. “In that sense I’m sort of the anti-exorcist,” says Woods.

The case of Anneliese Michel—upon which the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose was based—illustrates Woods’ point. Her gruesome death in 1976 from starvation at the age of 23 in West Germany was due to just this type of misdiagnosis. “Medical records make it very clear that girl was severely mentally ill,” says Woods, “but the priest and her parents’ insistence that it was a demonic possession were ultimately fatal.”

Her gruesome death and the ensuing court case led Pope Benedict XVI, then Archbishop Ratzinger of Munich to tell Time magazine that “the rite [of exorcism] must be thoroughly revised.” Along with the German bishops conference he later ruled that no more exorcisms would be permitted unless a doctor was called in.

The dangers of an improper understanding of mental illness and demonic possession can sometimes be seen in many healing and deliverance ministries Woods says. In some faith traditions, people who are suffering from severe addiction will at times have an exorcism performed on them with the intent to cast out the demon of their addiction, which is supposedly causing the problem. After the ritual, when the person goes out and drinks or uses again, they often believe that they have been repossessed.

People seeking an exorcism tend to do so as a last resort so the “failure” of an exorcism can cause a person to despair. Woods says it is essential to thoroughly study the case and then think about what the long-term effects would be if an exorcism was performed.

“The more the ritual is performed and fails, the more hopeless the person becomes,” says Woods. “What is important is that a person receives relief from their suffering, but if you go through the rite and it fails, things can become much worse,” he cautions.