There’s an absolutely fascinating conversation taking place over at the Website for the noted interreligious Christian journal First Things about the ontological status of demons and other supernatural beings and their place within contemporary Christianity and secular-scientific society at large. Starting from an article about this very subject, the comments section has evolved into a rich dialogue about supernaturalism, religion, materialism, and the signs and wonders that many inhabitants of modern technological societies have seen and experienced when living and interacting with more traditional and primitive peoples.
Here are a couple of chunks from the seed article itself, which opens with the recent and sensational reports of Pope Francis apparently performing an ad hoc exorcism:
On Pentecost Sunday all hell broke loose in Rome. Following Mass that day, the unpredictable Pope Francis laid hands on a demon-possessed man from Mexico and prayed for him. The YouTube video of this encounter was flashed around the world, and the story caught fire: Is Pope Francis an exorcist? The Holy Father’s Vatican handlers were quick to deny such. The pope simply offered a prayer of deliverance for the distraught man, it was said. Exorcism in the Catholic Church is a sacramental, a sacred act producing a spiritual effect, which must be done according to the officially prescribed Rite of Exorcism. And yet what the pope did on Pentecost Sunday in St. Peter’s Square was more than a simple prayer for someone to get better. It looked for all the world like a real act of spiritual warfare.
. . . The downplaying of the miraculous, the supernatural, and a fortiori the demonic has long been a staple in mainline Protestant culture and takes its toll among some progressive Catholics and evangelicals as well. Perhaps this is why Pope Francis devoted the second chapter of his book, Heaven and Earth, to “The Devil” and warned against the ultra-modernist idea “that everything can be traced to a purely human plan.”
. . . It is worth noting that Pope Francis came from the global South to the heart of Europe to confront demons, whereas [the more skeptical and secular-minded] Bishop [Katharine Jefferts] Schori [presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church] traveled from North America to Venezuela to cast the demons from the [biblical] text — without the benefit of an exorcism. There is some irony in this: a prominent representative of the rarified, Enlightenment-based religion of the North peddling a domesticated version of the Gospel in the global South. As we know, the Christianity thriving there is increasingly Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Pope Franciscan-Catholic. Like the robust faith of the New Testament, this kind of affective Christianity embraces the charismatic, the visionary, and the apocalyptic. These are all held in deep suspicion by those who still find spiritual warmth in the dying embers of rationalist religion. As Kenya’s Musimbi Kanyoro wrote, “Those cultures which are far removed from biblical culture risk reading the Bible as fiction.”
— Timothy George, “A Tale of Two Demons,” First Things, June 3, 2013
For context, here’s more information about the Pope Francis incident:
According to TV2000, a Catholic television channel, the act was carried out in St Peter’s Square after Mass on Sunday. Smiling broadly, the Pope initially shook the man’s hand, but the South American pontiff’s expression changed dramatically after a priest from the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order, leaned in close and spoke a few words to him. With a more serious expression on his face, Francis placed both hands on the man’s head for 15 seconds. The pilgrim, said to be a 43-year old married man from Mexico called Angelo, then convulsed briefly and emitted a long sigh. His body went limp and his mouth dropped open.
“Exorcists who have seen the footage have no doubt — this was a prayer for liberation from Evil, an actual exorcism,” said TV2000, which is owned by the Italian Bishops Conference.
. . . The Vatican downplayed the incident, although it used ambiguous language that did not deny altogether that Francis had tried to rid the man of evil. “The Holy Father did not intend to carry out any exorcism,” said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “Instead, as he often does for sick and suffering people, he simply intended to pray for a person who was presented to him.”
Leading exorcists insisted that the Pope had indeed taken on the forces of evil. “The Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, and like any bishop he is also an exorcist,” Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic Church’s best known exorcist and the head of the International Association of Exorcists, told La Repubblica newspaper. “It was a real exorcism,” he said. “If the Vatican has denied this, it shows that they understand nothing”, said Father Amorth who claimed that the Mexican was “possessed by four demons”.
. . . There was now, more than ever, a need for exorcists to combat people possessed by “sorcerers” and “Satanists”, Father Amorth said. “We live in an age in which God has been forgotten. And wherever God is not present, the Devil reigns.” He acknowledged that many people, even Catholics, regarded exorcism as mumbo-jumbo but insisted they were mistaken. “Those who don’t believe should read the Gospels. Jesus continually performed exorcisms. “Today, unfortunately, bishops appoint too few exorcists. We need many more. I hope that Rome will send out directives to bishops around the world calling on them to appoint more exorcists.”
— Nick Squires, “Pope Francis ‘Performs First Exorcism,’ The Telegraph, May 21, 2013
FYI, anybody who has a general interest in these things combined with at least a mild scholarly bent is strongly encouraged to pay attention to Paranthropology, editor Jack Hunter’s marvelous “free on-line journal devoted to the promotion of social-scientific approaches to the study of paranormal experiences, beliefs and phenomena in all of their varied guises.” The material published in the journal, including my own piece in last October’s issue, “In Search of Higher Intelligence,” about the interlinked experiences of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson with inspiration and communication from daemonic muses, focuses regularly on the question of anomalies, the paranormal, the supernatural, and their ontological status and cultural standing.
This new documentary titled The Exorcist in the 21st Century, is slated to be released this month. Judging by the trailer, it looks to be truly interesting:
The film’s website shows that it’s from the Swedish production company Gammaglimt AS. They offer this description:
The Exorcist in the 21st Century takes the viewer into the unknown and sinister world of exorcism in the Catholic Church. We meet one of the few exorcists in Europe, the Vatican approved José Antonio Fortea. He travels around the world on a mission to enlighten the masses about demonic possession. Constanza, a Colombian woman, is desperately looking for Fr. Forteas help. She claims to have been possessed by demons for nearly 15 years and she goes through a ritual of exorcism before she sees the Spanish exorcist as a last hope for spiritual liberation. The film follows both their journeys and gives a unique insight into one of the world most secret and mystical rites — the catholic ritual of exorcism.
You’ll recall that last year I wrote a bit about the surge of real-life interest in exorcisms that has become a kind of cultural phenomenon lately (see “The Devil Went Down to Texas“). This documentary appears to be right in line with that trend.
This month, the second annual installment of The Dark Mirror, the horror film festival that I created in Waco, Texas, will culminate with a screening of The Exorcist. (See the article I published about it just two days ago at the festival’s blog: “‘The Exorcist’ and the modern Western zeitgeist.”) So it’s entirely appropriate that 2011 happens to be the 40th anniversary of the publication of the novel itself.
The Huffington Post has just published an interview with Blatty in which he takes a look back at the whole phenomenon and explains his motivations for making some changes for a new edition. “In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post conducted via email,” the site tells us, “we asked Mr Blatty about 40-year-old rewrites, why ‘The Exorcist’ became so popular, and what truly makes him feel scared.” One of the signal moments in the interview comes early on when Blatty reveals that the version of the novel published in 1971 was in fact a first draft, and that when he reread it for the first time only 12 years ago, he was appalled at its stylistic clumsiness.
Here’s an excerpt that shows him musing on the reasons for The Exorcist‘s enduring cultural power and popularity. He also takes the opportunity to set the record straight regarding the book’s famous (notorious) basis in a real-life incident. What’s more, he talks a bit of theology.
Why do you think the story of “The Exorcist,” in its many forms, has resonated so much for so many people?
I can only guess based on what has been written by others. Obviously, of course, a popular novel has to be a page-turning read. Second, everyone likes a good scare, so long as we know we’re not really threatened. And third — and most importantly, I think — because this novel is an affirmation that there is a final justice in the universe; that man is something more than a neuron net; that there is a high degree of probability — let’s not beat around the bush — that there is an intelligence, a creator whom C.S. Lewis famously alluded to as “the love that made the worlds.”
But I suspect that there might have been a somewhat less luminous basis for the power of “The Exorcist”’s argument for faith, which was the widespread and apparently rampant perception that the novel was based on a true story, the so-called “1949 case” of demonic possession of a young boy in Cottage City, Maryland. That perception was – and is – totally false. While writing the novel, the only facts that I had at hand were the classic symptoms of possession that had somehow remained an identical constant in every culture and in every part of the world going back to ancient Egyptian times.
The 1949 case was the novel’s inspiration, the jump-starting electrical jolt being the last line of my first letter from the exorcist in that case, the Jesuit priest Fr. William Bowdern. After informing me that he was bound by the boy’s family to total confidentiality, he ended: “I can tell you this. The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubt about it now.” The words charged me with the confidence to write about possession with the heat of conviction.
Full story at The Huffington Post: “‘The Exorcist’ Author William Peter Blatty on Revisiting His Most Famous Work”
Also of great interest, here’s a “Note from the Author” that accompanies the official press release for the 40th anniversary edition. In it, Blatty explains something about the actual process and locale that were involved in the writing of the novel:
In January 1968, I rented a cabin in Lake Tahoe to start writing a novel about demonic possession that I’d been thinking about for many years. I‘d been driven to it, actually: I was a writer of comic novels and farcical screenplays such as A Shot in the Dark with almost all of my income derived from films; but because the season for “funny” had abruptly turned dry and no studio would hire me for anything non-comedic, I had reached James Thurber’s stage of desperation when, as he wrote in a “Preface to His Life,” comedy writers sometimes take to “calling their home from their office, or their office from their home, asking for themselves, and then hanging up in hard-breathing relief upon being told they “weren’t in.’” My breaking point came, I suppose, when at the Van Nuys, California, unemployment office I spotted my movie agent in a line three down from mine. And so the cabin in Tahoe where I was destined to become the caretaker in Stephen King’s terrifying The Shining, typing my version of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” hour after hour, day after day, for over six weeks as I kept changing the date in my opening paragraph from “April 1” to April something else, because each time I would read the page aloud, the rhythm of the lines seemed to change, a maddening cycle of emptiness and insecurity –- magnified, I suppose, by the fact that I had no clear plot for the novel in mind — that continued until I at last gave up the cabin and hoped for better luck back “home,” a clapboard raccoon-surrounded guest house in the hills of Encino owned by a former Hungarian opera star who had purchased the property from the luminous film actress, Angela Lansbury, and where I finally overcame the block by realizing that I was starting the novel in the wrong place, namely the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., as opposed to northern Iraq. Almost a year later I completed a first draft of the novel. At the request of my editors at Harper and Row, I did make two quick changes: cleaning up Chris MacNeil’s potty mouth, and making the ending “less obvious.” But because of a dire financial circumstance, I had not another day to devote to the manuscript, so that when I received a life-saving offer to adapt Calder Willingham’s novel Providence Island for the screen for Paul Newman’s film company, I instantly accepted and left my novel to find its fate. For most of these past forty years I have rued not having done a thorough second draft and careful polish of the dialogue and prose. But now, like an answer to a prayer, this fortieth anniversary of the novel has given me not only the opportunity to do another draft, but to do it at a time in my life — I will be 84 this coming January — when it might not be totally unreasonable to hope that my abilities, such as they are, have at least somewhat improved, and for all of this I say, Deo gratias!
— From “The Exorcist – The Version You Have Never Read,” Dread Central, Sept. 23, 2011
Personally, as a writer about the intersection of religion, psychology, and spirituality with horror and the paranormal, I’ve long been fascinated and gratified by the fact that what is arguably the best-known horror novel, and what is undoubtedly the single most iconic horror movie — a movie that launched the era of the modern “blockbuster” and thus changed the history of cinema — tells a story that explicitly mingles horror with religion for the purpose of finding or eliciting an experience or intimation of transcendence for a jaded secular society. What’s most significant about the literary-cinematic phenomenon that is The Exorcist is the fact that, in our modern technological society, this story of spiritual horror and redemption still remains, after 40 years, a phenomenon.
The Devil Went Down to Texas: A supposed surge in “diabolical cults” and demonic possession in the Lone Star State (and across America)
I still feel like a new Texan even though next month will mark three years since I moved here from my home state of Missouri. But given my personal and authorial focus on religion and horror, maybe I’ll begin to feel more fully at home now that serious talk of demonic possession and official Roman Catholic-sponsored exorcisms has started erupting out of the San Angelo area. It’s a city and a region that I’ve visited many times. In fact, my family and I almost settled there. But nothing led me to expect that it would become a mini-Ground Zero for talk about a nationwide epidemic of supernatural evil.
I first caught wind of the whole thing last month, when the CBS television affiliate in Odessa ran a story with the eye-catching title “West Texas Exorcisms” and a dateline of San Angelo, June 21:
You’ve seen exorcisms in movies and read about possessions in books, but Bishop Michael Pfeifer of the San Angelo Diocese says demon influence is very real and spiritual warfare is happening right here in west Texas. . . . In the past year Pfeifer says he has seen more demonic possessions in the area. “There are possessions I’ve had to work on, which were very frightening, I can’t really talk about it,” he explained. “There are diabolical cults in West Texas most people don’t know about, its secretive and underground, but exists.” He says these frightening cases pushed him to call for the help of Father/exorcist Dennis McManus, from the Archdiocese of New York to speak to hundreds from across west Texas and local priests.
After that, a little digging easily turned up more info, including article from the Midland Reporter-Telegram titled “Exorcism seminar draws in crowd of hundreds.” Note the repeated emphasis by Bishop Pfeifer on a “demonic influence in West Texas”:
A conference on evil and the unknown compelled hundreds to gather at a weekday presentation offered by the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo. About 700 individuals from all over West Texas traveled to San Angelo Monday for a seminar on exorcism and diabolical influence. “It’s one of the best presentations we’ve ever had,” said Bishop Michael Pfeifer with the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo. “It’s something very, very unique. The people were enthralled, and they had so many questions to ask”. . . . The seminar was led by the Rev. Dennis McManus, whose appointed ministry with the Archdiocese of New York is exorcism. Priests, deacons and lay people attended the free and public presentation Monday; the seminar then was extended for clergy throughout Tuesday and Wednesday morning. . . . “It’s a very frightening and difficult experience,” Pfeifer said. Though he said he has participated in exorcisms in West Texas, he would not disclose the number of cases or details about the experiences. Ritual prayers and sacraments such as holy water are used, he said. Pfeifer said he believes there is demonic influence in West Texas manifested through cults and Satan worship, but more so through secular things in the world that can be used for good, such as the Internet.
San Angelo’s Standard-Times carried an especially informative report: “‘I cast you out’: Exorcism expert elucidates demonic possession.” I found the following parts particularly striking:
McManus warned of fascinations with the occult that can hook someone with special, supernatural knowledge — Ouija boards included. He also said groups may slowly and subtly drag people into covens, which McManus called groups of usually 12 affluent and powerful people dedicated to a single demon in exchange for power and influence. He told of one priest in California who kept up with covens and said they were becoming more numerous than all of the missions, parishes and some other Catholic ministries combined. The same is true of the city where he is based out of, McManus said. “People say, ‘That’s the movies.’ No, that’s New York,” McManus said.
Pfeifer said movies, however, are one reason his diocese had chosen to invite McManus. He said he has seen more demonic activity in recent years, that there are diabolic cults throughout West Texas and that the issue of demonic possession has been in the mainstream media more often, as he recently saw in “The Rite”. . . .
Another attendee was struck by McManus’ encouragement of having strong, active families to keep youth away from the fascinations of the occult. “The first thing is to help our children,” William Tarn said. He said he wanted to return regular prayer to schools. . . .
Pfeifer said he may assign a few priests to the ministry of exorcism. Only a bishop can make that assignment, Pfeifer said. “It was a tremendous teaching experience for our priests,” Pfeifer said. “Our priests were thrilled with the information he [sic] received, about how to deal with a creature from another world.” Pfeifer said priests from around the diocese came and were taught the specifics of exorcisms. Demon possessions are very rare, although they do happen, Pfeifer said. He said he couldn’t give the number of exorcisms that have happened in his diocese because of confidentiality.
If anybody actually needed more evidence for the profound, inextricable linkage in today’s society between mass entertainment and “real life,” then this surely fits the bill. Pfeifer isn’t the first or the only Catholic priest who has linked the resurgence of exorcism as a popular topic in Hollywood to a real-world resurgence of interest in it, and even to the actual practice of it and the reported increase in cases of demonic possession. It seems we’re now living inside a Hollywood version of America and planet earth.
I also find it fascinating to observe how the possession-and-exorcism phenomenon has come to serve as a kind of fulcrum or focal point for the epic, shocking, collective reversal in modern-day attitudes toward religion that’s taken place over the past 40 years. As I discuss in my “Angel and Demon’ essay (published in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural and then in my Dark Awakenings), in the early 1970s The Exorcist splashed down into a culture where secular attitudes were warring with supernatural or religious ones, even inside the Roman Catholic church. Many priests were embarrassed by Pope Paul VI’s frank affirmation of the reality of supernatural evil in a 1972 speech, because their attitudes were more in tune with the secularist, demythologized tenor of the time than with what they viewed as the mythological belief system of pre-Enlightenment Christianity. By contrast, in the last decade and two we’ve seen an increasing number of reports about the revival of exorcism as a mainstream practice within the Church. For just two recent and prominent examples, see The Telegraph, March 30, 2011: “Surge in Satanism Sparks Rise in Demand for Exorcists, Says Catholic Church,” and The New York Times, November 12, 2010: “For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism is Revived.”
In a less exalted but no less revealing vein, Bishop Pfeifer of the San Angelo Diocese is now making headlines again because of his entirely supernaturalistic call for a collective, public, ecumenical prayer for rain: “Church congregations, prayer groups and individuals in West Texas have been praying for rain now for months. With the need for rain reaching critical levels, Bishop of San Angelo Michael Pfeifer, OMI, believes a larger, more public and inclusive demonstration of prayer is in order. . . . ‘We will gather together as a community, regardless of your religious affiliation or your social standing,’ he said. ‘The whole community needs rain. Jesus said whatever you ask our Heavenly Father in my name will be granted. We take Jesus at his Word. We will go out and ask God to send the rains.'” (The prayer gathering was held last Saturday.)
For people like me who are veritably consumed by an interest in supernaturalism, religion, and horror — both individually and collectively — this certainly is an interesting time to be alive.
- “West Texas Exorcisms” — Jennifer Samp, CBS 7, June 21, 2011
- “Exorcism seminar draws in crowd of hundreds” — Sara Higgins, Midland Reporter-Telegram, June 23, 2011
- “‘I cast you out’: Exorcism expert elucidates demonic possession” — Matthew Waller, San Angelo Standard-Times, June 24, 2011
- “Praying for rain: Prayer group to ask for rain” — Denise Morris, Standard-Times, July 14, 2011
Photo credit: “The Last Exorcism” by Walt Jabsco, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)