The Exorcist IV: The Skeptical Canadian

Make text smaller Make text larger

A few years ago, Fordham sociology and anthropology professor Michael Cuneo gave himself what sounds like a fun assignment. He has since witnessed dozens of exorcisms across the U.S. as research for his new book American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (Doubleday, 314 pages, $24.95). When you ask him, however, as I did last week, how many head-spinning, bed-levitating, projectile-vomiting cases he's observed, his depressing answer is: zero. In fact, to hear it from him, exorcism sounds positively boring.

Yes, he saw some spitting up, and one girl who did a little desultory slithering on the floor like a serpent. And some people do curse like demons during the process, and some jerk around in their chairs or simulate furious masturbation. But still, Cuneo?who grew up Catholic in Toronto and says he approached the subject with "openminded skepticism"?saw nothing like what the practitioners refer to as "fireworks," nothing so spectacular as what was depicted in The Exorcist, or Poltergeist or even The Amityville Horror. Actually, most of the exorcisms he witnessed sound suspiciously like modern therapy sessions, somewhere between Rolfing, primal scream therapy and group encounter sessions, with a layer of Catholic or Christian liturgy on top.

American Exorcism is a very interesting overview of a popular culture phenomenon I was only dimly aware of: the rise of the practice of exorcism over the past quarter-century from a virtually extinct religious rite to what is indeed an extremely popular alternate form of therapy. Today, instead of working on their psychological or emotional issues with a psychotherapist, many Americans go to an exorcist to have their "demons" cast out. Drink too much? Tortured by sexual fantasies? Drug addict? Depressed? Obese? Then you've got demons. See an exorcist. They'll cast out the demons who are causing you these problems. It's much quicker and easier than years on the couch.

"As recently as the late sixties, exorcism was all but dead and forgotten" in America, Cuneo writes, and reported cases of demonic possession in this country were extremely rare. The Catholic Church in this country had exactly no official exorcists on its priestly staff, and looked on the whole business as an embarrassing reminder of a more primitive and superstitious time.

Suddenly in the mid-1970s people all over the country (and around the world) were convinced they were possessed. The Catholic Church, and then Protestant and even Jewish clerics, were inundated with urgent demands for exorcisms. Belief in demonic spirits came back with a huge bang, and through the 1980s and 90s became associated with various other religious movements, like the spread of evangelic and charismatic groups. Naturally, it also fed on the Satanic cult conspiracy scares of the 80s and 90s.

Today, all sorts of priests, clerics and even laypeople are doing landmark business in casting out demons.

Why the sudden rebirth of this once-forgotten old custom into a full-bore worldwide fad? Cuneo argues a very simple, convincing and somehow demoralizing thesis: it all starts in 1973 with the release of The Exorcist, and is then fanned into a fad by a few popular books like Malachi Martin's Hostage to the Devil ('76), The Amityville Horror ('77) and M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie in 1983. "Exorcism became a raging concern in the United States only when the popular entertainment industry jacked up the heat," he writes. The "dramatically increased market for exorcism that surfaced in the United States during the 1970s" was generated almost entirely by Hollywood and New York publishing, and "a highly suggestible public" ran with it.

Not all that surprising, Cuneo says to me. "This is our bible, what we see on the screen and in our tv room, and it has terrific authority. I don't think there's any question about it that the entertainment business was primarily responsible for galvanizing interest in exorcism at a popular level, for really stimulating the market for exorcism. And it wasn't just [The Exorcist author] William Peter Blatty, but there were so many movies that followed that. My favorite was Kung Fu Exorcist," he adds with a laugh.

The Catholic Church resisted this sudden new fad for demon-wrangling. For years, Catholic exorcisms were available only from a handful of renegade priests working in secrecy (most of them allied with those ultraconservative Roman Catholics who'd been resisting the modernization of the church since Vatican Council II). Instead, it's been various types of Protestants, interestingly, who've most enthusiastically taken up exorcism and embraced the new-old view of a world beset by demonic legions. Among both evangelicals and charismatics, a whole new exorcism industry grew up, going by the less-Catholic-sounding term "deliverance ministry." Teams of deliverance ministers?as often laypeople as clerics?operate all over the country, casting demons out of believers in schools and churches and motel rooms. Looking nothing at all like the high-church ritual depicted in The Exorcist, the average session is much more dressed-down and quiet?Cuneo describes it in the book as a "ritual package" with "elements from primitive shamanism, backwoods Pentecostalism, and middle-class psychotherapy." People come to the session tortured by, say, uncontrollable lust or "sexual perversion" (i.e., homosexual urges); the demons in them that control these urges are cast out; they go home "cured."

Not surprisingly given our puritanism, American Christians seem particularly plagued by "demons of lust, or demons of homosexuality, or demons of bisexuality," Cuneo tells me. "I would say half the exorcism rituals that I sat in on involved sexual demons. Depending upon geography, you would find the nature and the identities and the missions of the demons changing. In the United States, demons of sexuality play a huge role. It's not accidental that Monica Lewinsky became absolutely huge in the United States, whereas in Canada we wouldn't have given a shit. Can you imagine anyone in France caring?"

When I ask him how widespread this is, he replies, "If anything, I have understated [in the book] how popular exorcism is as a contemporary form of therapy. The United States is a therapy-mad society. This is perfectly in tune with the prevailing therapeutic ethos. Think of the advantages. First, it's cheap. Very rarely do exorcists charge for services. Exorcists don't turn people away. Also, it's relatively fast. A little messy, because there could be vomiting, but fast. And the best thing of all, it's morally exculpatory, so it fits in beautifully with victimization themes of our culture. 'Listen man, it's not me ultimately who's at fault, it's these damn demons! Get rid of the demons!' It is wonderfully in tune with so many impulses in our culture."

It's so easy. Do people really seem to be cured when it's done?

"I think in the short term at least a lot of people really do benefit from it, because it's such a visceral form of release," Cuneo says. "It's such a cathartic experience. A lot of the people who go for exorcisms are pretty straitlaced people. How many opportunities are they gonna have to get down and dirty and grovel and puke and sometimes masturbate, and shred their clothes? This can be a real purifying experience. They really are in a healing environment. What's the key to any kind of psychotherapy really? Being in a supportive, healing environment where there's some hope or expectancy for improvement, where they actually get the benefit of some kind of healing minister. That's what exorcism provides, a healing minister who truly believes in demons. The people going believe that they are demonized. They fully expect that the procedure will be effective. They fully expect that their hitherto intractable psychological, moral and emotional problems will be solved, that their demons will be expelled and that they will walk away cleansed and freed and liberated and ready to carry on with their lives. And very often in the short term it seems to work. A lot of this is pure bliss placebo?and I don't mean to diminish that."

He adds that "To the credit of a lot of exorcists, many do strongly recommend follow-up psychological counseling, and they'll even help set it up. See, for a lot of exorcists, they're not thinking in either-or terms?they're not saying, 'You're either demonized or you're suffering from some psychiatric syndrome.' They think that it's important to do the exorcism, but also that the person receives the professional attention...

"There's a lot of tradition in the United States of experimentation with different kinds of therapies," he continues. "Exorcism fits in beautifully with that. There's nothing dissonant about exorcism in American culture. It makes perfectly good sense."

Although there are naturally some charlatans out there preying on troubled innocents, Cuneo insists that the vast majority of practitioners he met were earnest and sincere, and operating with "real pastoral adroitness. They're not doing it for money, they're not doing it for personal glamour. They are absolutely convinced that there's an epidemic of demonization and that they are called to do battle against this. To help people out. Most of the people I saw, I walked away thinking, 'Well, if anything no harm's been done.'"

In fact, he jokes at me, "If you want I could put together a dream team of exorcists for you," because he knows I've just got to have a lot of demons.

Cuneo's been commuting between Toronto and Fordham for a decade. When he tells me he's a "working-class guy, old cab driver, born in 1954," I ask how he got from cab-driving to teaching anthropology.

"Long evolution. My dad drove a cab, one of my younger brothers drove a cab, I did it. I spent two years hopping freights and hitchhiking all around Canada, the United States and northern Mexico, and encountered much freakier and scarier stuff doing that than I ever did doing the exorcism research?oh, and also much scarier stuff driving a cab. I wound up eventually going back to the University of Toronto on a part-time basis, raising a couple of kids, put myself through and got a PhD. I'm 47 years old, got my PhD when I was 36. I wound up coming down to the Bronx. I'm really a writer masquerading as an academic."

American Exorcism is his third book. The one before it, The Smoke of Satan, was about conservative and traditionalist Catholics. "Which has nothing to do with the supernatural, evil or anything of that sort, but it was a funky, sexy title which made sense for that book." He's got two more books "in the hopper," neither of which has anything to do with Satan?although one is about a grisly murder, which almost counts.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters