Special Feature: Exorcism: An Overview Part 1

Based on the non-fiction book by Matt Baglio, the upcoming film The Rite (releasing January 28) tells the story of a disillusioned young American man (Colin O’Donoghue) who travels to the Vatican to study exorcism and finds faith through his encounters with demons. Leading up to the film’s release, Bloody-Disgusting will be putting out a series of six articles dealing with specific aspects of exorcism, a practice that has become a staple of the horror genre ever since the release of William Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster The Exorcist. In this first installment, B-D’s Chris Eggertsen gives a general overview of the exorcism phenomenon, shedding light on the legends and stories that gave rise to the practice in the first place and highlighting the real-life case that inspired The Exorcist.

Exorcism, in its most basic definition, is the act of driving out demons from a supposedly possessed person. When laypeople hear the word “exorcism” they most likely think of the Roman Catholic incarnation of the practice – holy water, crosses, priests dressed in surplice and purple stole – due to its portrayal in dozens, if not hundreds, of Hollywood films, though some form of it has been practiced at one time or another in nearly every single religion around the world. Jewish folklore tells of malevolent spirits named “dybbuks”, dead souls that possess the living in order to carry out unfinished business in the physical world. In Islam, a “jinn” is a servant of the Devil that inhabits the body of a living person and can only be cast out by reciting certain passages of the Qur’an. In Hinduism, the exorcism of evil spirits is accomplished by practices such as reading scripture, burning incense and pig feces and offering candy to the gods.

The term “exorcism” stems from the Greek word “exorkizen”, meaning “to bind by oath”, and is said to have first come to use sometime in the early second century. In Christian religions the practice stems from the New Testament of the Bible, particularly the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in which Jesus would cast out demons from possessed people as a demonstration of his Messiahship. He also granted his apostles the same power (and, to a lesser degree, his disciples), which is why those of a higher religious authority in the Christian faith (i.e. priests) are seen as qualified to exorcise demons from the bodies of possessed people. The passages that describe exorcism in the New Testament (perhaps the most famous one has the demons inside a man declaring, “My name is legion: for we are many”) are what gave rise to the practice in the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to other sects of Christianity, and it is a tradition that carries on into the 21st century.

Perhaps the most famous early case of exorcism happened in 1633/34 with what became known as the “Loudun Possessions” (the basis of Aldous Huxley’s 1952 novel The Devils of Loudun and Ken Russell’s controversial 1971 film The Devils), in the town of Loudun, France. In 1632 several Ursuline nuns at the local convent began acting strangely, engaging in bizarre behavior such as throwing themselves on the ground, going into convulsions and shouting obscenities. The nuns then began claiming that a handsome priest by the name of Urban Grandier, who’d made many political enemies during his time at a neighboring parish, had been appearing to them in dreams and seducing them. After a series of bizarre public exorcisms in which the nuns would expose themselves and contort their bodies into overtly sexual positions, Grandier was convicted of making a pact with the Devil and burned at the stake.

Another notable case occurred in the United States over 300 years later with 14-year-old Roland Doe (known alternately as Robbie Mannheim or John Hoffman, depending on your source), who was thought to be possessed by demons following a series of strange occurrences in his Maryland home. The supposed demonic manifestations included scratching sounds on the walls, levitating household objects, and furniture moving on its own across the floor. These episodes would always occur in Roland’s presence, and the boy also began exhibiting strange behaviors such as defecating on the walls and lashing out violently at those around him. After medical and psychiatric evaluations turned up nothing, priests were called in and the boy was exorcised 30 times over a period of two months, after which the “supernatural phenomena” were said to have ceased.

While doubts remain regarding the more sensational details of the Roland Doe case, it was nevertheless what inspired author William Peter Blatty to write his 1971 novel The Exorcist, which became a massive bestseller and was later adapted into the blockbuster 1973 film. It is during this period that exorcism became a bona fide pop cultural phenomenon and entered into the lexicon of ordinary Americans of all faiths and backgrounds.

The film’s success can be partially contributed to the controversy that came to surround it, including genuine outrage expressed by many in the religious community – some of who believed that an evil force capable of causing madness had been burned into the celluloid – as well as to its shocking nature, which reportedly caused vomiting, fainting, and other horrified reactions from audience members (with some even going so far as to claim that individuals had been committed to mental institutions or killed themselves after seeing it). Needless to say, the film’s enormous success led to several rip-offs, sequels and parodies and opened the door for a wave of religious horror films that has ebbed and flowed ever since.

Be sure and check out Part 2 of our exorcism overview, where we delve into how an exorcism is actually performed and the ways in which the practice endures even into the 21st century.