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Ever since the 1970s, exorcism has been enjoying a renascence of sorts – from films to literature ...
2019-06-17 10:00:00

Possessed by Possession
The Compelling Allure of Exorcism

Possessed by Possession

Several hundred years later, and for the first time on this scale since the great war between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Devil is back on stage in impressive style. And in his wake, so is the Exorcist.

Read in 15 minutes

Who was Malachi Martin, and what exactly was his relationship with the Prince of Darkness? None of the available sources fully answers these questions, not even the English-language version of Wikipedia. So, without a doubt, all we can say about this Irish former Jesuit ­– released from his vows of poverty and obedience by Pope Paul VI in person in 1964 – who died 20 years ago is that he is one of the most mysterious figures in the recent history of the Catholic church.

And he’s also hugely responsible for the great renascence of interest in exorcism that we’ve been witnessing in the West for the past few decades. Right now it’s at its zenith, as the statistics unarguably confirm. But it started to gain momentum in the mid-1970s, when Malachi Martin published a book with the ominous title Hostage to the Devil.

Oh be a demon / outside all class! If you’re a woman / or even an ass / Still be a demon / beyond the mass.

At least that is the view of American historian Brian Levack, one of the most insightful scholars on the topic of possession. In his acclaimed monograph, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West, he mainly covers the period from the 15th to the 18th centuries. That was when demons and their tireless destroyers, the exorcists, first became rife on the territory of Western culture, torn as it was by conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

In analysing this phenomenon from various angles, Levack sceptically examines both the purely religious interpretations – naturally, as a genuine scholar he does not recognize the existence of invisible evil forces – and also the medical ones that categorize possession in psychiatric terms. He painstakingly interprets the considerations of theologists, official church documents, and spectacular stories of strange incidents involving the entry of evil spirits into human bodies. And the earliest contemporary newspaper articles describing battles against Satan and his cohorts. He uses them to show how deeply religious phenomena – which representatives of these religions present as objective truths, of course – reflect the cultural and social conditions in which particular institutions and world outlooks have developed. So essentially this approach involves treating these peculiar stories like the litmus paper for the social and cultural sensitivities of the era in question.

Thus we learn something essential about the state of 17th-century Europeans from the circumstance that this was the period when a belief in the possibility of demonic possession – i.e. the conviction that invisible evil beings could enter into any one of us and entirely possess us – first developed to such a vast degree. We learn something equally essential about the state of people living in the globalized world in the early 21st century from the fact that they too harbour the same conviction to an increasingly widespread extent.

But to understand exactly which elements of this condition are in evidence here, first we must examine the space in which they come into being, and which shapes their highly varied manifestations and transformations. Just as the 18th-century collective imagination was shaped by stories about Satan and his machinations persistently broadcast from the pulpit (the Catholic church used them as effective tools in the fight against Protestantism), so too in modern times the same sort of thing is being spread by popular culture.

No one has exerted as major an influence on the ever growing presence within it of notions about exorcism and possession than Malachi Martin and his Hostage to the Devil. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nothing has exerted as major an influence on it as William Friedkin’s horror film The Exorcist, released in 1973. Whereas the former Jesuit’s book, which came out three years after the film, gave the literally Dantean scenes that appear in it the value of credibility and theological depth.

Somewhere inside you / lives your own little fiend, and woe betide you / if he feels demeaned, better do him justice, / keep his path well cleaned.

The book includes five stories of possession by evil spirits, all of which the author swore were unquestionably true. In each story, with the help of the relevant rituals and not without some spectacular stuff, the spirits were sent to hell by qualified Catholic exorcists. It’s true to say that in terms of special effects – levitation, speaking in foreign tongues and spitting out strange objects such as nails – Martin’s narrative was on a par with The Exorcist. That would also explain why the book and the film instantly formed a special synergy and began to boost each other’s popularity.

But the curious explosion of demonic visitations or – as many sociologists define it – the “fashion for possession” was prompted at the time by another, truly tragic story. On 1st July 1976 – the year in which Hostage to the Devil was published – a 24-year-old German woman named Annelise Michel died. The day before, a Salvatorian named Arnold Rentz and a priest named Ernst Alt had performed the ‘Roman ritual’ on her for the 67th time in 10 months. The ‘Roman ritual’ is a procedure for driving out devils, elaborated and introduced by Pope Paul V in 1614.

Annelise, who was from a strict Catholic family, had been suffering for years from severe epileptic fits, and had also gradually been showing a pointedly manifested abhorrence of religious symbols, speaking in an altered voice and shouting out blasphemies. At her parents’ request, the then bishop of Wurzburg, Joseph Stangl, gave permission for the exorcisms to be performed. If we are to believe the accounts of the participants, they were extremely like scenes from The Exorcist and Hostage to the Devil.

The posthumous medical examination showed that Annelise died of starvation, emaciation and untreated epilepsy. The exorcists were charged with manslaughter, found guilty and given a six-month prison sentence, suspended for three years. Whereas Germany’s Catholic church banned practices of this kind with immediate effect.

When you’ve been being / too human, too long, and your demon starts lashing out / going it strong, don’t get too frightened / it’s you who’ve been wrong.

The ban is in force to this day, but the case of Annelise Michel was a turning point in the history of the religious and pop-cultural Western imagination. As Brian Levack proves, they are extremely closely connected. In 2005, a film called The Exorcism of Emily Rose appeared which was based on the story of Annelise Michel, but 30 years earlier, when The Exorcist reigned at the cinema and Hostage to the Devil reigned in the bookshops, the infamous court case into the death of the young girl made a wide audience aware that we were dealing with something much bigger than just a feature film or literary fiction – and that these things really do happen.

Or at any rate, from then on they started to happen more and more frequently. Until they reached proportions that these days are defined as epidemic.

In March 2018, the Vatican published a declaration that was widely reported in the media. The message was short and to the point: in Rome a new course of study for exorcists was going to be established. Apparently the one launched in 2005 at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum was still up and running, but the church intended to strengthen and develop its activity in the field of the fight against devils.

Setting up another course of this kind is designed to be a response to evidently rising demand – both among worshippers and among priests. It has become even more acute than a decade ago. The International Association of Exorcists, which is supervising the course and which has about 200 members worldwide, does not have all the data at its disposal, and yet apparently some countries are experiencing a great surge in cases of possession. For example, in Italy each year about half a million people approach exorcists in the belief that evil spirits have entered them. The statistics from Great Britain are equally alarming, though there it’s also happening within the context of the rising popularity of various forms of Pentecostalism. Either way, there’s plainly a need for plenty of qualified exorcists to confront this army of devils. And so the Apostolic See intends to take more dynamic action than before in this area.

In Poland, too, the demand for the services of exorcists has been systematically rising. In the early 1990s, there were only a few of them in the country, but now there are at least 120, and there’s nothing to imply that the number is going to drop in the near future. For several years, a monthly magazine called Egzorcysta [“The Exorcist”] has been available on the Polish market, and priests describing their encounters with evil spirits have been gaining record numbers of viewings on YouTube – e.g. Father Michał Olszewski of the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who became famous for announcing that Satan himself was sending him text messages (check it out if you don’t believe me) – and becoming celebrities of a special kind. Just as in other countries, movies about devils and possession are gaining record audiences; so too there are more and more television serials that exploit this theme.

At the same time, the Polish and world media are constantly reporting on the numerous incidences of mental and physical abuse that are the result of these often very cruel rituals. In January 2018, one of these cases was described by Urszula Jabłońska and Marcin Wójcik in the newspaper supplement Duży Format [“Large Format”]. Recently the publisher Krytyka Polityczna issued a book titled Kroniki opętanej [“The Diary of a Possessed Woman”] by Artur Nowak, which is based on fact. Meanwhile, statistics published two years ago by the British government show that each year about 1500 children fall victim to abuse because of witchcraft or accusations of demonic possession.

The above-mentioned case of Annelise Michel is one of the most dramatic, of course, but at the same time not all the incidents detailed by the British report are to do with exorcisms conducted by Catholic priests. Nonetheless, the Catholic church remains the main and largest promoter of this sort of activity. And its representatives – including the current chairman of the International Association of Exorcists, Father Francesco Bamonte – frequently stress that present times are exceptional, as far as the activity of the forces of evil goes. Bah, even Pope Francis is happy to refer to the figure of Satan in his homilies – recently in the context of the paedophile scandal among clerics, but earlier on in the context of various things including wars, abortion, the persecution of Christians, the excessive greed of capitalists, and the general moral degradation into which, in his view, the world has sunk.

You’re not altogether / such a human bird, you’re as mixed as the weather, / not just a good turd, so shut up pie-jaw blether, / let your demon be heard.

It is probably in this sort of diagnosis that we’ll find the key to understanding the modern “possession epidemic”; a diagnosis that’s common among representatives of other Christian churches of the charismatic and conservative kind, because it’s only in this sort of community that possessions and exorcisms ever occur. Well, exactly – isn’t it surprising that Satan and his demons only plague believers, or at any rate people who are firmly under the influence of a religious family or community? Naturally, that’s how members of those communities present their case, but the only thing we have to go on is anecdotes. Any material proof whatsoever of the actual presence of evil spirits is missing, of course. There are only statements; someone has heard about levitating bodies and people talking in strange languages, someone else claims to have seen it happen with their own eyes, and yet – in this era of digital technology, when recording devices fit on a pinhead – no one has ever recorded anything of the kind.

Indeed, there are plenty of recordings on the internet in which people behave oddly and are sure some invisible creature has entered into them. Occurrences of this kind are already perfectly well known to medical science, and since 1994 they have featured in the International Classification of Diseases as entry F44.3. Meanwhile, there is not one single recording documenting the occurrence of supernatural phenomena, although dozens of them feature in the stories told by religious believers. Surely nothing could be simpler?

The late Father Gabriele Amorth, exorcist to the Vatican and author of many books (some of which have been published in English), during numerous exorcisms allegedly witnessed the materialization by possessed people of various objects, e.g. the above-mentioned long iron nails. If so, why has none of these nails been subjected to laboratory testing? That would allow us to establish inarguably whether it came from a perfectly earthly factory – meaning that its appearance can be legitimately explained in natural terms – or is made of an alloy unknown to modern science, and has an almost invisible message carefully engraved on its head that reads: “Made in Hell”.

Either way, Brian Levack explains that, whatever the religious or psychiatric interpretations, the fact that possession only ever occurs among religious people testifies first and foremost to the religious nature of the phenomenon. It is just one of many ways of expressing religious faith. Like other kinds of practice, belief and ritual, so too the experience of possession and release from it through exorcism is part of the landscape of a defined religious model. In this sense there’s nothing unearthly about it; on the contrary, almost all religions at all periods in history and in every corner of the globe have used a form of expression of this kind.

At the same time, the universality of this phenomenon prompts us to assume that here we have something that comes from the very nature of our minds and psychology. We are now fully aware that human consciousness is a relatively minor agent operating within the broad expanse of the unconscious psyche. Our subjective experience of the ‘self’ is very often combined with the feeling that there are forces at work within us – moods or emotions – over which we have no influence and which appear to be entirely independent of our will.

In his book SuperSense, British neuroscientist Bruce Hood (who features in an interview here), ascribes the genesis of religion as such to this very kind of mental predisposition. Part of it – as Brian Levack says in his turn – is always a sort of game between believers and priests, in this instance, a game of possessed and exorcist.

But it’s neither entirely a pretence, nor entirely real. It’s simply that people who accept a defined world outlook start to interpret some of their own experiences as the result of demonic interference, because that’s what some of the models present in culture suggest to them. These examples also anticipate the figure of a person who has the means to provide a remedy for possession. Accordingly, these two elements will interact in a specific way, quite like the interaction between pupil and teacher, doctor and patient, or client and psychotherapist. Because whatever the actual ‘content’ of these relationships, they always take on a certain form, providing a basis for defined scenarios of behaviour and experience to come about.

Things are analogous in the case of possession. But in his book, Levack shows an essential change that’s characteristic of modern times. While in earlier centuries it was the common imagination that fed on descriptions of demonic visitations created by theologians and priests, nowadays religious imagination – alongside the ways in which people experience their own state of spiritual slavery – is shaped to a vast extent by pop culture. We only have to pick up Gabriele Amorth’s books, or the monthly Egzorcysta – there we’ll find articles that mirror to perfection some highly familiar pop culture clichés, the blueprints for which appear at the beginning of William Friedkin’s movie and in the book Hostage to the Devil.

Don’t look for a saviour, / you’ve had some, you know! Drop your sloppy behaviour / and start in to show your demon rump twinkling / with a hie! hop below!

But to finish we should ask a fundamental question. How can it be that in the modern world, where science and technology have reached an incredibly high level, archaic beliefs and practices still enjoy such popularity?

As ever, the answer is complicated. It’s partly provided by Brian Levack, who shows that in the days of the Reformation terrifying visions of Satan, devils and their ways of manifesting themselves in the visible world simply performed a marketing function. Thus they were also one of many proselytizing tools, in other words they served to convert non-believers, and to keep a hold on those who might potentially leave for the competition.

Analogies with the Catholic church’s present situation, and with the general crisis of religious faith are all too obvious. Referring to Satan and devils is on the one hand a convenient way to explain this crisis, and on the other a striking symbol that has a direct effect on the emotions and provides plain and simple solutions to complex problems. And finally, it offers modern man – deprived as he now is of religious sensitivity and a sense of the metaphysical (both of which have been heavily diminished by the Enlightenment and the development of science) – the opportunity to have a very intense experience of something that goes beyond his individual ‘self’.

The individual ‘self’, onto whose shoulders modern culture heaps too many burdens and responsibilities, from achieving success in one’s own life, and ultimately one’s children’s lives too, to the fate of our ever more degraded planet. This is really powerful psychological ballast that’s not at all easy to withstand.

Meanwhile, let’s grant it – the feeling that my existence is turning into a battlefield for invisible evil powers and the forces of good that are trying to save me provides an at least temporary impression of relief. At least the temporary awareness that it’s not me who’s responsible for all my failures and defeats.

It also brings a vital sense of one’s own value and importance. In an era of ever greater anonymity, when the combination of economic crisis and technological progress has caused masses of people to feel totally redundant, the belief that good and evil are fighting over me, or even that Satan and God are taking a personal interest in my soul, might in a paradoxical way be comforting.

At the same time, it all comes in packaging that we know well – from the movies, TV serials and popular literature. There’s no advanced theological speculation, no incomprehensible, dreary rituals. Quite the opposite: there are spectacular special effects and plots that the best Hollywood screenwriters would be proud of.

Well, as we can see, it’s impossible to deny that Malachi Martin had brilliant intuition, and also a superb talent for acting on the imagination. And with it, a perfect understanding of the realities of a time that was yet to come, and of which this mysterious ex-Jesuit was undoubtedly one of the architects. For whether or not we believe in the authenticity of the stories told in his book – or in the reality of the world of angels and devils in general – we can simply regard their popularity as an astute diagnosis of the modern world.

 

Translator’s note:

The section headings are from “Be A Demon!” by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), which ends:

If, poor little bleeder, / you still feel you must follow some wonderful leader / now the old ones ring hollow, then follow your demon / and hark to his holloa!

 

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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