“Your mother sucks cocks in Hell!” The infamous line from The Exorcist (1973) brings many vivid images to mind. A girl possessed by the devil, maiming herself and others, crawling upside down, you know the one. For those who don’t know, the movie is about a twelve-year-old girl who, after being possessed by the devil, has to have an exorcism. When the ritual starts, a battle between good and evil and begins. In many ways, so does a battle between the traditional and the modern.
The real Catholic Rite of Exorcism was almost forgotten by the time author, screenwriter, and director William Peter Blatty summoned it back into the public consciousness with his novel, The Exorcist, in 1971.
The Rite of Exorcism
Before then, exorcism was an obscure rite of Catholic prayer, meant to relieve a sufferer from demonic possession or affliction. The full ritual can last hours and can only be performed by a vetted Catholic priest, usually in the company of witnesses of similar repute. According to the book of catholic rites, the “Roman Ritual”, there are six stages in the process, with specific rules on how each one is to be carried out. The ritual is even performed differently when a woman is being exorcised. Roman Ritual states, “while performing the exorcism over a woman, he ought always to have assisting him several women of good repute… for the sake of decency the exorcist will avoid saying or doing anything which might prove an occasion of evil thoughts to himself or to the others,” (Weller and Church, 2017). Make of that what you will.
The priest recites a series of prayers and invokes the names of saints, in between requests to God to cast the demon or “unclean spirit(s)” out of the subject, using holy water and “other sacraments” like blessed salt and crucifixes.
“A Great Sobriety”
Pop culture remembers the movie, The Exorcist, as shocking, grotesque, and highly dramatic. In the movie, our victim of possession, Regan, levitates herself and the bed she has been bound to off the floor by several inches,spins her head around on her neck, and vomits green slime.
According to the editor of the newest edition of the Roman Ritual, real exorcisms are, “characterized by great sobriety”. The priest is warned to proceed with caution, stating, “He should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit; but he ought to ascertain the signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from some illness, especially one of a psychological nature.”
Should the rite be performed, the exorcist is encouraged not to engage in anything else but prayer and direct interrogation of “the unclean spirit”.
This careful approach ensures the subject’s safety and health, as exorcism is exhausting and dangerously serious, sometimes lasing last days at a time. It can make an already frail subject much worse in mind and body. However, after The Exorcist hit theaters, dozens of people were calling up actors from the film, seeking an exorcism.
The Exorcism Boom
Two Jesuit priests acted as consultants on the film and had minor appearances on screen. One of whom was Father Thomas Birmingham, a man hounded by film-goers all seeking an exorcism. In the book, American Exorcism, he recalls that “For quite a while dozens of people were trying to contact me every week… they all believed that they themselves or someone close to them might be demonically possessed,” (Cuneo 2001). Father Birmingham explained to many his doubt of possession, to which victims of ailments felt discouraged. He states, “I arranged psychological counseling for some people, but this was sometimes a big disappointment for them. They assumed, because of my association with the movie, that I’d be able to resolve the various difficulties with an exorcism. The funny thing is I wouldn’t have been able to do this, even if they were possessed.”
Exorcism was in such high demand that priests were leading the ritual without proper ordainment. A kind of industry cropped up around these ‘under the table’ exorcisms. Os high, in fact, that other forms of exorcism would be taken up by other religious denominations, such as Protestantism, and would publish material decrying the Catholic rite as false. Out of this continued demand, the International Association of Exorcists was founded by six Roman priests in 1990, which is still active.
An Advertisement for Exorcisms
Somehow, The Exorcist served not as a story of a young girl being taken over by demons, but as an advertisement for exorcisms. It may be hard to imagine seeing the events of The Exorcist and wishing that we were in Regan’s shoes. Restrained, emaciated, tortured by demons, and having holy water and blessed salt tossed in her face. Why would hundreds of people call a man that they only knew from a few seconds of a movie to carry this out? There’s no way to know for sure, but we may be able to shed some light on the issue by going back to the past. Let’s go back to where it all started in 1962, nine years before the publication of Blatty’s original novel.
From 1962-1965, in Vatican City, thousands of Catholic officials convened at four major conferences. During these meetings, they would lay out a series of reforms and updated practices for the Church. The results would become known as Vatican II, a new set of guides meant to merge the modern world with the Catholic one. Following these reforms, many Catholics’ lives changed. Nuns were permitted to drive, Mass was performed in the local language rather than in Latin (as it had been for almost two thousand years), and Catholics were freer to participate in the secular world.
These changes excited many within the church. Nuns, in particular, enjoyed contraception, access to ordinary neighborhood life, and the freedom to wear their own clothes instead of the usual habit and bonnet. Vatican II also had many detractors, those who claimed that it opened Catholics to spiritual attack. They felt that the mortal world was sinful by nature and shouldn’t be influencing the Church’s way of life. Vatican II, along with other significant changes would make the 60s and 70s a period of revolution, for better or worse. The world was faster, busier, more freeing, and more demanding than ever. Coupled with the responses to Vatican II was the fear that more people were trying non-Christian practices, relying more on science and alternative religions.
Messages of Traditionalism in The Exorcist
We can see this tension come up over and over in the film. The inciting incident of Regan’s possession is her playing with a Ouija Board. The doctors who attempt to treat Regan’s symptoms can’t find anything wrong with Regan. Regan’s mother, Chris, is an actor filming at a local shooting site. One of the opening scenes shows her playing a character who breaks up a student protest against the Vietnam War. We see her perform, shouting the lines, “If you wanna effect any change, you have to do it within the system!”
The call for the audience to return to the old and familiar is everywhere. The message to give up radicalism and embrace faith.
The people talking to Father Birmingham heard this call, completely uninterested in the advice he gave them. Today, we might see this as ignorant, but two things are good to keep in mind here. Psychiatric medication was mostly unavailable at this time and alternatives included hours of talk therapy and, disturbingly, electroshock therapy. Two, medicine and therapy failed to tap into the sense of pure good that saves Regan. It doesn’t have the same ability to manipulate and guide our emotions that ritual does.
Why Did People Want an Exorcism?
“We’re very responsive to ceremony, I think… it’s hard to shake that even if we don’t actively believe in it at all,” says writer Sarah Marshall on her podcast You’re Wrong About. The clear sense of good and evil in the movie allows us to handwave any concerns about the ethics of exorcism away. The Devil is clearly evil and Regan is clearly a victim. There is no question that he needs to go, no matter what. Her mother and the dozens of doctors she sees are all clueless about what is medically wrong with her. Father Karras and Merrin wield total faith in the face of this uncertainty, however. Indeed, this total faith is the only thing that ends up being able to save Regan’s soul. Regan’s exorcism is an end to the characters’ uncomfortable doubt.
Those suffering from forces they can’t control may find comfort in the idea of possession. Those suffering from disease, mental illness, addiction, can instead blame the ‘unclean spirit’. The subject is no longer responsible for their own actions. Through exorcism, the victim can feel redeemed, no doctor required.
Sarah’s co-host, Michael Hobbes, a reporter for the Huffington Post, sums it up well. He describes, “You sit there in a chair and somebody else does all this incantation around you and then you’re better. Whereas the other options at the time were much more onerous…”
I visited my local Catholic church recently as part of my research for this article and watched their daily Mass. I was raised as a Christian Methodist and the level of order on display was striking to me. The people in attendance performed the sign of the cross and the recitations with practiced confidence. They kneeled before the pews both before and after the service. A special box held gold chalices and cups for the Eucharist. It struck me that, just as Sarah said, the ritualistic nature of the Catholic Church was key to its authority. I’m not a Catholic, and I’m pretty skeptical of Catholic values. I understand why these people are seen as experts in battling demons, though.
I think it’s important that, no matter what we believe, we approach the idea of ritual with compassion. It’s easy to scoff at people seeking exorcisms after watching The Exorcist, but the reality is complicated. Exorcisms can cause death and injury, but there are still those who are comforted by them.
I encourage anyone looking into an exorcism for themselves or a loved one to approach it with “great sobriety”. The Roman Ritual encourages taking an initial stance of disbelief, which I think is best. I also encourage anyone who might know someone who engages in rituals you don’t personally believe in to be supportive. We shouldn’t let anyone endanger themselves, but we also should allow people to seek the comfort they need.
In any case, we can all feel fortunate that no one has ever had an exorcism like Regan Macneil’s. I don’t think there will ever be one like hers again.
Cuneo, Michael W. 2001. American Exorcism : Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday.
Sarah Marshall, Michael Hobbes. “Exorcism.” You’re Wrong About, March 2019. Podcast, website, 41:30. https://rottenindenmark.org/2019/05/28/exorcism/
Weller, Philip T, and Catholic Church. 2017. The Roman Ritual : In Latin and English with Rubrics and Planechant Notation. Volume I, the Sacraments and Processions. Caritas Publishing.