The Real Exorcists
Channel 4’s The Real Exorcists investigates the true story that inspired William Peter Blatty’s best-selling book, The Exorcist, which, in 1973, was made into a film of the same name. The film caused a sensation: people queued round the block to buy tickets, only to vomit or faint once they were in their seats watching the movie. Cinemas had ambulances standing by to deal with the hysteria, and Catholic churches reported an increased demand for confessions.
Blatty’s story was based on a newspaper report of the exorcism in 1949 of Richard, a teenager who lived with his parents in St Louis, Missouri. Richard was devastated when his beloved Aunt Milly died suddenly. Shortly before her death, she had given him a ouija board and they had used it together.
Strange signs After her death, strange things started happening. At night the family heard water dripping from no discernable source; there was mysterious knocking and Richard’s bed shook violently. There were similar disruptions at school and unexplained scratches appeared on Richard’s body. At home, Richard and his parents consulted the ouija board believing that aunt Milly was trying to contact them from beyond the grave.
The family were Lutherans, who have no tradition of exorcism. Their minister referred them to a Roman Catholic priest who, in turn, recommended Father Bowden. Exorcism is an acknowledged, though rarely performed, rite in the Catholic church. Fr Bowden asked his Archbishop for permission to recite the Latin prayers for exorcism, set out in the Rituale Romanum. Father Halloran, a trainee priest, was appointed to assist.
A case for treatment Both priests prayed together through the night. Richard said he felt the demon in his chest, asking to leave his body, so they opened the window to let it out. But as soon as the priests left, the screams and shaking returned.
A doctor said that Richard’s symptoms were consistent with temporal lobe seizure, a malfunction in the brain’s electrical activity which causes delusions and hallucinations. Still attended by Fr Halloran and Fr Bowden, Richard was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where he swore, fought, punched and even urinated on the priests.
At this point he agreed to be baptised and, in doing so, to renounce Satan. After a vision of the Archangel Michael, and four more weeks of nightly ritual exorcism, Richard was pronounced well enough to go home.
Demons or disease?
Some people think that this is not a case of possession but of a prank or even an undiagnosed condition such as epilepsy. Richard was an adolescent with all the confusion of his age. Others wonder if Richard was acting out a fantasy, fuelled by the attention he received. The psychiatrist questions the behaviour of Richard’s family who dabbled with spiritualism while seeking Christian guidance, believing that the ritual itself may have reinforced some of his behaviour. Blatty, though, has no doubts that the events are true.
The film provoked a surge of interest in exorcisms – one Catholic church in Washington received 40 requests for exorcisms after it was released. In 1999 the Vatican updated the Rituale Romanum. It now carries a warning: priests must be sure that they are not dealing with physical or mental illness when embarking on exorcisms.
As an adult, Richard became a scientist and converted to Catholicism. He claims to have no recollection of the events of 1949.
Christianity and exorcism The idea that people can be possessed by spirits originated long before Christianity and continues to exist in many cultures and religions across the world. The Christian tradition came from Babylon, modern day Iraq, where the Jews were exiled in Biblical times. Jesus, like other Jews of his time, used exorcism to cure sickness. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke describe Christ struggling with and overcoming the Devil, and Mark describes how Jesus’s fame spread as the result of his ability to exorcise evil spirits.
Over the next few centuries, as Christianity spread beyond Palestine, so did the practice of exorcism. Pope Cornelius (251-253) claimed to have 52 exorcists under his command. Monks were also regarded as miracle workers and were asked to lay hands on people thought to be afflicted with evil spirits.
The sin within By the early Middle Ages in Europe, blessings were used to protect crops, houses and possessions, while exorcism was seen as a kind of ritual purification. Large crowds would go to watch public exorcisms, which often employed torture to ‘drive out the devils’ of the victims. The subjects of this terrible treatment were branded as witches. In reality, some were mentally ill, some did not conform to the norms of their society, while others were simply not Christians – the Inquisition, for example, tortured, murdered and finally expelled all the Jews of Spain and Portugal.
Baptism itself is performed to drive out original sin which, according to the Catholic church, all human beings are born with. Immersion in water during baptism symbolises descent into the Devil’s domain and re-emergence into the light of Christ’s presence. It was only much later, after the Reformation, that baptism came to signify celebration of a new person joining the family of Christ.
The Catholic church, meanwhile, was developing the Rituale Romanum, which was first written in 1614 under Pope Paul V. This is a priest’s service manual containing the only formal exorcism rite sanctioned by the Catholic church. It laid down strict guidelines about when exorcism could be performed and on whom. The Rituale Romanum remained almost unchanged until January 1999, when Cardinal Jorge Artura Medina introduced an updated exorcism ritual for the church.
My brother’s keeper Not as common as it used to be, you still hear people occasionally ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” when they are asked the whereabouts of someone else. This is a reference to Gen 4:9. Cain, who had murdered his brother Abel, was asked by God where Abel was. Cain, rather than confessing, tried to cover up his sin by answering in the form of the question–“Am I my brother’s keeper?”.