— Martha Robertson as spoken to Reverend Joseph Pitkin, Boston (1741)
The beast in me / Is caged by frail and fragile bars, / Restless by day, and by night / Rants and rages at the stars, / God help the beast in me.
— Nick Lowe, The Impossible Bird (1994)
ST. PIERRE CATHEDRAL in Geneva celebrated its last Mass in 1535. Statues were toppled, stained glass was smashed, holy water was poured out, and walls were whitewashed. John Calvin made St. Pierre’s his home church, and all manner of popish superstition would be exorcized. No rosaries or saints, no relics or pilgrimages, no Latin or musical instruments. Calvin would write in Institutes of the Christian Religion that “superstition, with its false glosses, mocks God, while it tries to please him.” Out went the Eucharist and transubstantiation, confession and saintly intercession, purgatory and the Virgin Mary. Exorcism. For the righteous, the sanctified, the justified, there was no fear of the Devil if they had been predestined by the Lord. Three decades after Geneva was established as a Calvinist theocracy, and in Vervins (France), the adolescent Nicole Aubrey experienced a violent demonic possession, with her exorcist the Dominican priest Pierre de la Motte, claiming that the chief devil of the many residing within her was “Beelzebub, Prince of the Huguenots.”
As Joseph P. Laycock reminds us in the introduction to his engaging recent anthology, The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, when “people tell a story about a successful exorcism, it is usually to establish the authority of a religious figure or institution, or else to associate a rival religion or controversial social practice with the demonic.” After de la Motte had successfully exorcised Aubrey, we are told that the expelled demons had “fled to Geneva.”
What if the Devil did go to Geneva, though? Jeffrey Burton Russell writes in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World that “Protestants [were] in a painful situation.” While Catholics could repel the Devil with “holy water, the sign of the cross, the Lord's Prayer, or exorcism,” the reformers “affirmed all the traditional doctrines of demonic obsession and possession but removed the traditional antidotes.” Ironically, it was in the 16th and 17th centuries that exorcism would be most needed. The eclipse of the medieval world saw increased Satanic anxieties, and a multitude of demoniac cases. The French priest Henri Bouget records a case of demonic possession in his An Examen of Witches (1602), explaining how a few years before an eight-year-old named Loyse Maillat “was struck helpless in all her limbs so that she had to go on all fours […] she kept twisting her mouth about in a very strange manner,” claiming to be tormented by five demons “whose names were Wolf, Cat, Dog, Jolly and Griffon.”
In the case of a woman named Rollande du Vernois, Boguet explains how the Devil could “speak by the mouth of a demoniac, for then he uses the teeth, tongue and lungs of the possessed […] he grimaces with the mouth, and uses the hands to push away the Cross and Holy Water.” During her exorcism, du Vernois fell to the ground and “began to bark like a dog at the Judge, rolling her eyes in her head with a frightful and horrifying look.” All of this is recognizable to any fan of horror films — the contortions, the guttural utterances in a language known or unknown, the erratic movements, the shrieked blasphemies, and the self-declaration of possession itself.
Bouget describes how a Huguenot gentleman’s son was possessed, but that his ministers were unable to do anything about it. The Protestants sang hymns and read Bible verses over the tortured boy, but all was ineffective. Finally, the father “secretly sent for a Catholic priest, who used the accustomed exorcisms of the Roman Church with such sincerity that the possessed was soon delivered.” Not an isolated example. Within Luther’s Augsburg, the Protestant wife of the banker Johann Jakob Fugger (who was Catholic) called upon the Jesuit Peter Canisius in 1559 to perform an exorcism of several of her servants, a redemption so miraculous that she would convert to her husband’s faith. Despite the disdain in which exorcism was held by these reformed Christians, it is clear that there is a frightening phenomenon across time periods, cultures, and religions that requires a formal, ritualized response. When it comes to battling the Devil, acoustic guitar and Welch’s grape juice just won’t do.
First codified in 1614, the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism requires a priest to first receive dispensation from a bishop after all medical possibilities are exhausted. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are alleged to have administered the rite. In 2018, a course training 250 priests was held at the Pontifical Atheneum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. The solemnity of the ritual — the Latin and the Holy Water, the crucifix and the scapular — has compelled Protestants (and unbelievers) to still request priests in dire circumstances. Latoya Ammons, a child in Gary, Indiana, experienced classic symptoms, but as Friar Michael L. Maginot writes in his unclassified request of permission, “Their Baptist church […] was reluctant to get involved.”
Even the most famed of contemporary possession cases, the parents of the unnamed adolescent whose poltergeist experience in 1949 inspired William Peter Blatty in the writing of his novel The Exorcist, first inquired for assistance from their Washington, DC, Lutheran church before contacting Georgetown Jesuits. From the Counter-Reformation onward, exorcism was “an excellent propaganda tool for the Catholic Church,” writes Owen Davies in Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Yet as possession is a universal phenomenon, non-Catholic exorcism is universal as well. If Laycock’s anthology proves anything, it’s that the variety of exorcists is as diverse as possession is consistent.
Protestants have developed their own rituals of exorcism, with Laycock explaining how rites are performed among evangelicals and especially Pentecostals, who often practice what they call “deliverance ministries.” Nor is Protestant exorcism necessarily a new phenomenon: in 1788, the so-called “Yatton Demoniac,” George Lukins, underwent an exorcism at the hands of Methodist ministers, even while dismissed by more stolid Englishmen as mere “popery,” while Calvinists in sober New England engaged in recognizable exorcisms as in the case of Elizabeth Knapp in the early 1670s.
It would be a mistake to think of exorcisms as even singularly Christian, a point made admirably clear in the Penguin anthology, which includes pagan, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Indigenous accounts of exorcisms. What’s most unsettling is just how similar so many of them are, regardless of how different the cultural contexts. Inevitably, it makes an otherwise upstanding skeptical reader amenable to the suspicion that there might be something here, though what it is isn’t exactly clear. From the Jewish dybbuk to the Islamic djinn, accounts of possession follow a remarkably uniform script, from the days when an inscription in the seventh-century BCE Library of Ashurbanipal warned that the “evil Spirit hath lain in wait in the desert […] The evil Devil prowleth in the city.”
The French counselor Monsieur des Niau provides a synopsis in his 1634 The History of the Devils of Loudun. Perhaps the most infamous case of early modern mass possession, at the Ursuline convent of Loudun dozens of nuns were molested by demons, supposedly at the conjuring of the libertine priest Urban Grandier, who would be burned at the stake. Des Niau writes that
there are four principal signs, by which [possession] can be undoubtedly recognized […] the speaking or understanding of a language unknown to the person possessed; the revelation of the future, or of events happening far away; the exhibition of strength beyond the years and nature of the actor; and floating in the air for a few moments.
Like an infernal idée fixe, we see these characteristics from Mesopotamia to Minneapolis; Geneva, Switzerland, to Geneva, New York. Xenoglossy — the fluent utterance of a language which the possessed should be unfamiliar with — is the first of those signs. At Loudun, the nuns answered questions posed to them in a variety of languages, including Latin, Greek, and several Indigenous American languages that none knew. In 1906, at the Catholic St. Michael’s Mission in Natal, South Africa, Clara Germana Tele was able to speak not just English and Zulu, but also “Latin, German, Polish, and other languages.” The possessed don’t just have a fluency — they’re also conduits, puppets for some dark numinous language. “And the boy does not even retain his own voice,” writes the Greek historian Philostratus in his account of the pagan messianic figure Apollonius performing an exorcism from 210 CE, “but speaks in a deep hollow tone, as men do; and he looks at you with other eyes rather than with his own.”
Regarding the second characteristic, the demoniac often has intimate knowledge of either the people performing an exorcism, of events which they couldn’t possibly be aware of, or minor divinatory skills. In his diary of the St. Michael’s Mission case, Father Erasmus Hoerner says that Clara “always knew when I left my room to go over to the house where she was staying. She would say to her nurse and attendants: ‘Father is coming; he is just leaving his quarters,’” even though the priest’s dormitory was on the opposite end of the campus, while at Loudun the tortured nuns were able to “reply to secret thoughts, which were manifested neither in words nor by any exterior signs.”
The third mark of the energumen is prodigious bestial strength and inhuman flexibility. During an exorcism of a slight, young Midwestern woman listed only as “Mary X” in 1934, the Jesuit priest Frederick J. Bunse notes that “[a]t the beginning […] the spirit threw her upon the floor and made her so heavy that” a priest who bragged that he was “‘as strong as a bear,’ tried in vain together with three other persons to lift her.” If anything marks such horror, it’s the unnatural, mechanical, staccato, insectile movements. At Loudun, the sisters
struck their chests and backs with their heads, as if they had their neck broken, and with inconceivable rapidity; they twisted their arms at the joints of the shoulder, the elbow and wrists two or three times round; lying on their stomachs they joined their palms of their hands to the soles of their feet.
Two centuries later, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would report that, while expelling a demon from an associate that “[h]is visage and limbs distorted and twisted in every shape and appearance possible to imagine.”
Other physical stigmata also manifest. Sometimes bloody writing will appear on the body, pustules or sores will propagate, or bite marks will press into the flesh. In one peculiar incident in the Philippines in 1955, a possessed girl named Clarita Villanueva was covered in perfectly circular bite marks, every single tooth a molar. There is an avoidance of sacred objects: the possessed recoiling from Holy Water as if it burns, a hatred of crucifixes, icons, and relics. Finally, of the fourth mark — levitation — I’ll save consideration for later.
Sacrilege, heresy, blasphemy — this is the idiom in which the possessed speaks. “She threw blessed articles away, smashed crucifixes,” writes Bunse of Mary X in 1934, though previously she had gone to “Mass regularly, to frequent the Holy Sacraments, and to attend the afternoon and evening services.” It shouldn’t be surprising that the rank of demoniacs is filled with the religious; you have to believe in the devil before you’re possessed by him. There’s a reason why secular humanist conferences don’t devolve into fits of shaking and glossolalia.
While some of those possessed are hoaxing — Samuel Norman, a physician who was familiar with Lukins’s possession in 1788, noted that the afflicted often kept an eye slightly open so as to watch the reaction of his audience — Mary’s situation seems to be more a matter of psychological fracturing born from trauma, antinomian rages that are an unconscious rebellion. A similar subversion can be seen in Martha Roberson’s possession, which accompanied the First Great Awakening (hence her snarling about “conversion”), as well as a burgeoning enthusiasm for Enlightenment philosophy, and such a possession was rejection of both faith and rationalism, even if not conscious.
Revivals in the 18th century were marked by pietistic displays, the faithful would faint while George Whitefield preached or cry out during the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. In such a society, Roberson’s possession was uncomfortably familiar, a blasphemous pantomime of the revivals than burning across colonial America.
Only a few decades later, and the Spanish missionary Fray Juan José Toledo wrote in a 1764 letter to the New Mexico governor that a group of Pueblo women were possessed by their old gods, making “demonstrations with their heads that the doctrine of the Trinity was not true.” After what Toledo claims was a successful exorcism, the women in question weren’t punished, as he argues that such statements were not uttered by their own volition, but were rather from the demons that had taken up residence. If a group of subjugated Pueblo women wanted to mount a spiritual anticolonial resistance, being “possessed” would be a deft way to do so, screaming that Catholicism was false before a priest and his congregants.
One of the most fascinating aspects of possession is that it allows for the safe utterance of pronouncements that would have otherwise merited punishment. Bunse disregards the iconoclasm and sacrilege of Mary by noting that she wasn’t responsible for her actions. Had the profanities screamed by the nuns at Loudun been published in theological tracts, it would have merited inclusion on the index of forbidden books at best and execution at worst, for not only did they make “expressions so indecent as to shame the most debauched of men, while their acts, both in exposing themselves and inviting lewd behavior from those present, would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothels in the country,” they also uttered “oaths and blasphemous expressions so execrable.” Again, I don’t mean to suggest that the nuns of Loudun “really” believed what they were saying. Every living person is far more complex than that. The mind is a mansion with many rooms, and it’s impossible to ever know what's happening in all of them — the residents are often unknown even to each other. What possession offers is the possibility of atheism. That those statements of disbelief were made possible through an avowedly supernatural belief is an irony. In this circumstance, following the lead of the exorcists makes sense — it’s not who’s saying something so much as what’s being said.
What does Laycock think about his assembled brief? What should the reader think? The Penguin Book of Exorcisms is an admirable collection, displaying copious archival research, though the annotations are sparse, normally limited to a brief introduction to an often-brief excerpt. The overall tone is studiedly agnostic, with Laycock including skeptical accounts from the past (including Hippocrates and Erasmus), while also making room for the genuinely bizarre. It’s inevitable that readers will search for an etiology. Epilepsy, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, multiple personality disorder, even dementia and Alzheimer’s — all of these could be proffered as explanations. Undoubtedly many — maybe most — could be naturalistically explained.
St. Anthony in the desert, assailed by invisible demons who punched and slapped him, also suffered from “filthy and maddening thoughts, [so that] […] Saint Anthony took refuge in prayer and in abundant supplication,” as his biographer St. Athanasius wrote. A contemporary psychiatrist could very well identify similar symptoms as intrusive thoughts, and diagnose St. Anthony as having obsessive-compulsive disorder.
A century earlier, Philostratus writes of how Apollonius encountered “in his audience a young dandy who bore so evil a reputation for licentiousness that his conduct had long been the subject of coarse street-corner songs,” and how this man would drink excessively and then “laugh at things that no one else laughed at, and then would fall to weeping for no reason at all, and he would talk and sing to himself.” Pretty clear that today we’d diagnose him as an alcoholic.
Yet it’s also interesting how this man’s dipsomania was treated, for we’re told that after his exorcism by Apollonius, “he had returned to his own self.” When Bill W., the compiler of Alcoholics Anonymous and co-founder of the organization which shares that name, stopped drinking in 1934, he remarked that then “came the blazing thought, ‘You are a free man.’” Liquor is still called spirits for a reason.
Possession, and the language of possession, still supplies a potent way of thinking about the complexities of the identify and self, of agency and responsibility. Independent of the “reality” of the phenomenon (always a dodgy epistemological and metaphysical category), the metaphor of possession has great power, a mythopoeic system that had, and perhaps still has, some utility in the measurement of suffering. Psychiatrist E. Mansell Pattison argued in a case report about an exorcism he witnessed on a Yakama Indian reservation that “western psychotherapy is just as much a part of its culture as other healing systems […] can there be a psychotherapy that is not supernaturalistic?”
Part of this narrative’s popularity — think of otherwise sweet and afflicted Regan from The Exorcist in her chilled Georgetown bedroom echoing with her horrific laugh and her vile obscenities — is that it’s a dramatic enactment of the uncanny strangeness of having a human mind. We’re often split, confused, sublimated, uncertain; there are aspects of our own personality we don’t know or understand; the kindest of people will engage in uncharacteristic cruelty, and malignant souls sometimes extend charity and compassion. Tremendous changes in personality can seem like possession. If positivism smirks at the idea, that’s because for four centuries it’s embraced its own far less tenable fantasy of the unitary, rational, Cartesian subject. Our thoughts are nothing like the Cogito, however. When it comes to useful theories of mind, rather than reading analytical philosophy you’d do as well to watch The Exorcist.
More than just a language of mind, or even of affliction, what the exorcist offers is a terrifying representation of evil, or at least its experience. Notable that the afflicted are rarely themselves evil. They’re suffering, pained, and tortured, but they’re victims. Yet their experience is rebuke to those who see evil itself as a mere metaphysical rounding error. Father Erasmus writes of how the “diabolical rage, the hateful stare, that uncanny glow in the eyes of the possessed speak volumes — more than human tongue can utter or pen depict. There you learn to believe in the powers of darkness and their diabolical work,” while des Niau chillingly records how when a demon was questioned “according to the form prescribed by the ritual, as to why he had entered the body of the nun, he replied, it was from hatred.”
Rather than the evil, today we have sociopaths and aberrant personalities. But even Augustine dismissed evil as the mere absence of good, and if the experience of Father Erasmus tells us anything, it’s that evil itself exists as a tangible force. It is the consumptive logic which does everything “from hatred,” as des Niau wrote. None of this is to say we should reject natural or social scientific language. Nothing says that as a matter of metaphorical import we can’t speak of those evils as being demonic. Today, assailed by forces not under our control — algorithms and memes, Androids and Twitter — many have discovered that it is as if their loved ones are possessed, as if some malignant entity has commandeered their minds. There is utility to this idea.
I promised to return to levitation, something so patently bizarre. When Maginot writes that he wishes to “perform an exorcism on a boy witnessed by many as walking backwards up a wall,” it’s fair to swallow a bit harder. There’s a lot of sophistry in squaring possession with contemporary ways of thinking, but when the demon is literally floating above your head it stiffens the spine. Any number of rational explanations could be offered — the possessed could have been acrobatic, Maginot could be mistaken, or deluded, or lying. It’s fair to react with skepticism, but also fair to countenance an agnosticism. Possession puts us in contact with the numinous, it’s an experience of the transcendent in an otherwise disenchanted world, which is why horror remains the most operative of sacred literatures.
Several years ago, I taught a course entitled “Satan and Literature,” and assigned Blatty’s novel and William Friedkin’s adaptation. They were a good class of smart, engaged students. Being mostly from eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, they tended to be lapsed cultural Catholics like myself. By the time we got to The Exorcist, I joked to them about how terrifying they’d find the film. Most of them assured me that they couldn’t imagine that a horror movie from the ’70s would be all that scary. We’d talked about the phenomenon of moviegoers fainting during screening, of how people in the audience would bring rosaries and crucifixes, and all of them seemed to think it was evidence of the faithful’s credulity. Then they watched the movie. Perhaps there are no atheists in foxholes, but there definitely aren’t any while viewing The Exorcist. Of God, I’ve had my doubts, but as concerns the Devil, I’m always certain.
Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions.