When I got a call recently to see a real live exorcism, I jumped at the chance. The movie The Exorcist came out in 1973 when I was a kid, and I still remember hearing stories about all the vomiting – and I’m talking about audience members vomiting in the theaters. (That movie scared the hell out of the Catholics I knew back then.)
In one scene Father Karras – the exorcist – throws some holy water on Regan, the possessed little girl. Have a listen here.
Ok I knew I wasn’t going to see any spinning heads or projected streams of pea soup (I did ask one of our crew if I should wear a raincoat), but it was hard to imagine modern day people taking exorcism seriously. But they do! Nowadays there are actually people who believe that evil spirits can invade a person and cause illness, pain, and even psychological problems. When these folks talk about battling their demons, they mean it literally, not metaphorically. They also believe that an exorcist can rid them of all that.
Well, we’ll just see about that.
I drove from Hollywood to a non-denominational Christian church in an industrial park in Sacramento, CA. The church was in the same kind of commercial space as the fiberglass shop a few doors down. Inside, a fifteen foot crucifix hung in front of a roll-up steel garage door. I sat with a dozen or so people on stackable chairs in this makeshift chapel waiting to see demons chased out of some poor woman’s body.
The woman to be exorcised – I’ll call her Mary – had lost a child, was fighting a drug problem and had been abused when she was younger. She saw her depression and unhappiness as the manifestation of evil spirits inside her. Evil spirits, apparently, can wreak all kinds of havoc in a person.
Enter the exorcist, a big South American I’ll call Brother Pablo, a self-styled preacher untrained by the church. But his lack of official sanction had no effect on his confidence that he could help this woman.
He called Mary over to sit down and told her to look him in the eye. He asked her why she was here. When she told him about her hard times, I felt bad for her — she’s having a tough life — but when Brother Pablo started reading bible verses over her and chanting to the evil spirits “I command you to come out!”, I just took notes, snapped a few pictures, and thought about how she should be getting some real drug counseling and seeing a professional shrink. I had wondered if I would get caught up in the emotion immediately before me.
Pablo knelt bible in-hand next to Mary as she writhed on the floor screaming one minute and dry heaving the next. (People being exorcised really do dry heave, burp, cough and vomit, by the way. Who knew?)
Pablo chanted and urged the spirits to leave Mary, but it looked to me like Mary was taking subtle cues from him. Pablo would say something like “Demons be gone from her neck!”, and Mary would stiffen her neck. Pablo mentioned her dead son and she began to cry. I’m not saying they were pretending, but the power of his suggestion was clearly steering her behavior. He spoke and she reacted.
This went on for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, and by the time it all ended, Mary was calmer and seemed relieved. Brother Pablo’s power of suggestion made Mary believe that the demons she thought were in her had now been exorcised.
So if Mary felt like she was cured – whether by suggestion or not – what’s the problem with exorcisms?
People suffer from real illnesses all the time. They get appendicitis, bladder infections and countless other treatable problems. But exorcisms are no substitute for appendectomies. You may get a few minutes of relief, but real cause of the problem may still be there.
If a guy is hearing voices he thinks are evil spirits, he might in fact have a treatable form of schizophrenia. But Brother Pablo doesn’t treat schizophrenia. Brother Pablo is unqualified to diagnose or treat any physical or mental illness. He has no medical or psychiatric training. Pablo might bring some temporary belief to the believers who seek him out, but he’s not curing people in any sense of the word.
In fact, a guy Pablo exorcised later that day had been hearing voices since he was in his 20s. When I asked him if he’d ever been to a psychiatrist or psychologist, he said no. I told him that I was morally obligated to strongly suggest that he seek professional help. His symptoms sounded like schizophrenia – not that I am qualified to diagnose him, but no one around him seemed to be steering him toward at least getting looked at by a professional.
Did I mention that this guy was on his 5th exorcism?
Oh, and let’s not forget that the very concept of demons and evil spirits is primitive as hell and not based in fact. Before you try to flush an imp out of some frightened woman, you ought to be able to detect the imp in the first place.
Science has never seen an imp.
Finally, blaming bad behavior on a demon is just skating past the responsibility for your actions. “The devil made me do it?” Ha. Tell it to the judge. If I see one more crying televangelist blaming his unethical or illegal behavior on Satan, I might be the one throwing up.
Exorcisms on the silver screen are great scary fun. But in real life, they’re a sad blast from our distant past.