Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Exorcism: What the Devil Is Going on? Fueled by Books, Movies, and a Therapeutic Culture, Exorcism Is Alive and Well in America. but Are We Dealing with Demons or Diversions?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Exorcism: What the Devil Is Going on? Fueled by Books, Movies, and a Therapeutic Culture, Exorcism Is Alive and Well in America. but Are We Dealing with Demons or Diversions?

Article excerpt

Over the past several years I have discovered it side of America I never knew existed. In the course of intensive and far-flung research, I have sat in on dozens of exorcisms--not Just Roman Catholic exorcisms But a wide variety of Protestant ones also. I have met with hundreds of people from various walks of life who are convinced not only that demons exist but also that they routinely cause trouble in the lives of ordinary women and men.

Standing at the back of an auditorium in suburban Chicago, I have seen several hundred impeccably groomed, middle-class Americans writhing and shrieking and groaning (some simulating masturbation) while attempting to free themselves from demons of sexual perversity. At a drab medical complex on the outskirts of Boston, I have watched an avuncular physician exorcising spirits of guilt and self-hatred from one of his patients. At several conservative Protestant churches in the Midwest, I have observed people retching and cursing and flinging themselves violently to the floor while being delivered of entire squadrons of demons.

I have received numerous invitations to undergo exorcism myself, once from two Episcopalians who wanted to shackle me to the support beams of a rural shed so my demons would depart peaceably. I have observed people at high-toned suburban churches vomiting profusely into trash containers while being purged of their evil spirits. I have heard fabulous accounts (from apparently sincere and lucid people) of gyrating heads, levitating bodies, and navel-licking tongues.

I have interviewed psychiatrists charged with the responsibility of evaluating suspected case of demonic possession for the Catholic Church in the United States. And, not least of all, I have personally encountered more varieties of Catholic exorcism--official Catholic exorcism, bootleg Catholic exorcism, you-name-it Catholic exorcism--than I ever imagined existed.

As unlikely as it may sound, exorcism is alive and well in contemporary America. It's a booming business--operating below the radar perhaps, invisible to anyone not specifically on the lookout for it, but booming nevertheless. Untold numbers of Americans, many of them staunchly middle-class--people you might chat with at the supermarket checkout counter--have undergone exorcisms of one kind or another, and many claim to have come out much the better for it.

It wasn't long ago, however, that almost nothing of this sort was going on in the United States. As recently as the late 1960s, exorcism was all but dead and forgotten--a fading ghost long past its prime. By the mid-'70s, however, the ghost had sprung miraculously back to life. Suddenly, countless people were convinced that they themselves, or perhaps a loved one, were suffering from demonic affliction, and exorcism was in hot demand.

What brought this about? A number of factors, but none more important, especially where Catholic exorcism is concerned, than the release of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist--the book in 1971 and the movie two years later--and the publication in 1976 of Malachi Martin's demon-busting pulp classic Hostage to the Devil.

As if by alchemy, the dramatic (and seductively grotesque) arrival of demons on the screen and the bestselling page resulted in demons rampaging through the bedrooms and workplaces of Middle America. The pop culture industry cast its spell, so to speak, and an obliging nation fell into line. New exorcism ministries were brought into being to deal with the sudden onslaught of demonism, and older ministries were rejuvenated and found themselves with more business than they could possibly handle.

In a sense, the real curiosity isn't that exorcism is still practiced in contemporary America, but that it isn't practiced more widely. It would be difficult, after all, to imagine a better deal. Whatever one's personal problem--depression, anxiety, substance addiction, or even a runaway sexual appetite--there are exorcism ministries available today that will happily claim expertise for dealing with it, with the significant bonus that one is not, for the most part, held personally responsible for the problem. …

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