Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.
Louisa muskovits appeared to be having a panic attack. It was March of 2016, and Louisa, a 33-year-old with a history of alcohol abuse, was having a regular weekly session with her chemical-dependency counselor in Tacoma, Washington.
Louisa had recently separated from her husband, Steven. When the counselor asked about her marriage, she said she wasn’t ready to talk about it. The counselor pressed, and again Louisa demurred. Eventually the conversation grew tense, and Louisa started to hyperventilate, a common symptom of a panic attack.
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The counselor rushed down the hall to get Louisa’s therapist, Amy Harp. Together they moved Louisa to Harp’s office, where they felt they could better calm her. But once Louisa was there, Harp recalls, her demeanor transformed. Normally friendly and open, she started screaming and pulling out clumps of her hair. She growled and glared. Her head flailed from side to side, cocking back at odd angles. In jumbled bursts, she muttered about good and evil, God and the devil. She told the counselors that no one there could save “Louisa.”
According to Harp, Louisa seemed to vacillate between this unhinged state and her normal self. One minute she would snarl and bare her teeth, and the next she would beg for help. “It definitely had this appearance where she was fighting within herself,” Harp told me.
Harp had never seen this kind of behavior before, and wasn’t sure what to do. But she knew that Louisa had occasionally experienced episodes in which she felt something indescribably dark overtake her, and that she would read scripture to beat back these states. “You need to read Bible verses,” Harp said. Her bearing still frantic, Louisa picked up her smartphone and began looking up passages. As she read, she started to calm down. Her flailing diminished; her frenzied affect ebbed. She vomited in a trash bin, and after that she was her old self again, full of apologies, her eyes wet, her face red.
The encounter left Harp baffled about what she’d just witnessed. For Louisa it had a more profound effect, prompting a search for answers that would ultimately lead her away from modern medicine and its well-worn paths for mental-health treatment, and toward the older, more ritualized remedies of her Catholic faith.
Louisa Muskovits experienced a series of troubling episodes that her therapists couldn’t explain. These incidents led her to seek spiritual help. (Ian Allen)
The conviction that demons exist—and that they exist to harass, derange, and smite human beings—stretches back as far as religion itself. In ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonian priests performed exorcisms by casting wax figurines of demons into a fire. The Hindu Vedas, thought to have been written between 1500 and 500 b.c., refer to supernatural beings—known as asuras, but largely understood today as demons—that challenge the gods and sabotage human affairs. For the ancient Greeks, too, demonlike creatures lurked on the shadowy fringes of the human world.
But far from being confined to a past of Demiurges and evil eyes, belief in demonic possession is widespread in the United States today. Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.
The official exorcist for Indianapolis has received 1,700 requests so far in 2018.
Perhaps as a result, demand for exorcisms—the Catholic Church’s antidote to demonic possession—seems to be growing as well. Though the Church does not keep official statistics, the exorcists I interviewed for this article attest to fielding more pleas for help every year.
Father Vincent Lampert, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told me in early October that he’d received 1,700 phone or email requests for exorcisms in 2018, by far the most he’s ever gotten in one year. Father Gary Thomas—a priest whose training as an exorcist in Rome was documented in The Rite, a book published in 2009 and made into a movie in 2011—said that he gets at least a dozen requests a week. Several other priests reported that without support from church staff and volunteers, their exorcism ministries would quickly swallow up their entire weekly schedules.
The Church has been training new exorcists in Chicago, Rome, and Manila. Thomas told me that in 2011 the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists. Today, he said, there are well over 100. Other exorcists I spoke with put the number between 70 and 100. (Again, no official statistics exist, and most dioceses conceal the identity of their appointed exorcist, to avoid unwanted attention.)
In October of last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had Exorcisms and Related Supplications—a handbook containing the rite of exorcism—translated into English. The rite had been updated in 1998 and again a few years later, but this was the first time it was issued in English since it had been standardized in 1614. “There’s been a whole reclaiming of a ministry that the Church had set aside,” one exorcist from a midwestern diocese told me.
The inescapable question is: Why? Or rather: Why now? Why, in our modern age, are so many people turning to the Church for help in banishing incorporeal fiends from their body? And what does this resurgent interest tell us about the figurative demons tormenting contemporary society?
In 1921, a German psychologist named Traugott Oesterreich collected historical eyewitness accounts in his book Possession: Demoniacal and Other. One incident that crops up again and again involves a young woman named Magdalene in Orlach, Germany. Born into a family of peasant farmers, Magdalene was an industrious child, “threshing, hemp-beating, and mowing” from dawn until after dusk. Late in the winter of 1831, Magdalene began seeing strange things in the barn where she tended cows. By the following year, she was being tormented by voices, sensations of physical assault, and, according to witnesses, spontaneous outbursts of flames.
That summer, Magdalene complained of a spirit that had “flown upon her, pressed her down, and endeavored to throttle her.” Soon, she would fall victim to full possessions: An entity she referred to as the “Black One” would descend and supplant her consciousness with its own. “In the midst of her work she sees him in human form (a masculine shape in a frock, as if issuing from a dark cloud; she can never clearly describe his face) coming towards her,” a contemporary observer wrote. “Then she sees him approach, always from the left side, feels as it were a cold hand which seizes the back of her neck, and in this way he enters into her.”
One witness to Magdalene’s possessions was dumbfounded. “The transformation of personality is absolutely marvelous,” he wrote.
The girl loses consciousness, her ego disappears, or rather withdraws to make way for a fresh one. Another mind has now taken possession of this organism, of these sensory organs, of these nerves and muscles, speaks with this throat, thinks with these cerebral nerves, and that in so powerful a manner that the half of the organism is, as it were, paralyzed.
The case studies Oesterreich collected served as one of the chief inspirations for William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, which was adapted into the 1973 horror film of the same name—it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and is considered by many to be one of the most frightening films ever made.
Another inspiration for The Exorcist was the 1949 case of a teenage boy known by the pseudonym “Roland Doe.” He was an only child who developed a strong attachment to his aunt, a spiritualist who showed him how to use a Ouija board. After she died, Roland and his parents reported strange phenomena in their house—furniture moving on its own, scratching noises coming from Roland’s mattress, objects levitating. The paranormal occurrences, Roland’s parents observed, always seemed to happen around their son. According to some accounts, a priest conducted an exorcism on Roland at Georgetown University Hospital, a Jesuit institution in D.C., during which the boy managed to snap off a bedspring from underneath his mattress and use it to slash the priest’s arm.
Roland and his parents eventually left their home in Maryland to stay with extended family in St. Louis. There, priests carried out at least 20 exorcisms over the course of a month. Witnesses claimed that Roland spoke in a deep, unrecognizable voice and spouted Latin phrases he’d never learned. He reportedly vomited so profusely that the exorcist performing the rite had to wear a raincoat, and he fought so violently that 10 people were required to hold him down. One of the priests said that at a certain point he saw the word hell appear as though etched into Roland’s flesh.
In April 1949, several hours into an exorcism, Roland finally surfaced from his trancelike state. “He’s gone,” Roland told the priests. Several researchers have since cast doubt on whether anything supernatural took place during the exorcisms, but none has been able to definitively contradict the priests’ accounts.
Part of The Exorcist’s appeal may have been the faint but unmistakable sense that it was drawn from real events. One Catholic exorcist I spoke with who was around for the film’s release believes that its success revealed a latent aspect of the American character. “It confirmed something deep in the popular imagination,” the priest, who asked that I not use his name so as to keep his identity as an exorcist private, told me. “Very visceral, very irrational, beyond science, far buried underneath medicine and psychology: this huge fear that these things are true.”
Louisa’s grandmother, who was an American Indian and a devout Catholic, warned her about evil spirits. (Ian Allen)
Louisa’s troubles had started long before that late-winter session with her chemical-dependency counselor. In 2009, at age 26, she’d had an experience in the middle of the night that had left her badly shaken. She was living in Orlando with Steven, and she’d just fallen asleep. Louisa had recently given birth to their first child, a son, who was tucked between his parents in bed. At one point during the night, she awoke and found herself paralyzed. “There was something holding me down,” she remembers. “I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe, and I thought I was going to die.” She desperately wanted to wake up Steven, but her body was inert, pinned to the mattress. All she could move were her eyes, and they darted around the room in horror.
When Louisa told friends and family about the episode, most shrugged it off. Some suggested that it might have been a lingering effect of having just undergone a strenuous delivery (she had needed a cesarean section). Louisa decided they were probably right.
In 2011, she was finishing up her undergraduate degree in women’s studies at Washington State University. For a required internship that fall, she chose to travel to Kathmandu, Nepal, to work for an organization that provides aid to impoverished women and children in the region.
After a month in Kathmandu, Louisa became infected with E. coli and had to be hospitalized for two days. When she was discharged, she debated flying home right away. She’d completed her internship, but her scheduled flight wasn’t for another four weeks. She’d been looking forward to making the famous Annapurna Base Camp trek. But now she was drained and weary of her surroundings. The other interns had left the apartment complex where she was staying, and the city’s streets had been shut down because of political protests.
The night after she left the hospital, Louisa locked the door to her apartment, secured the window with a wooden bar, and went to bed. As Louisa tells it, she awoke in the darkness to the sound of someone’s breathing. It seemed close: She could feel the hot exhales on the back of her right ear and her neck. There’s no way anybody could get into the room, she thought, lying motionless in her sleeping bag. How is this possible?
Thoughts of evil spirits rushed to Louisa’s mind. Her grandmother, who was both an American Indian and a devout Catholic, had warned her about them. If Louisa ever encountered evil spirits, her grandmother had told her, she should do her best to ignore them, because they feed on attention. Louisa tried, but the breathing continued, a heavy, rhythmic rasp. Then, after a minute or so, she felt a hand brush against her collarbone.
At that sensation, which to this day she cannot account for, Louisa leapt out of her sleeping bag and ran to turn on the light. She swears that as soon as she flipped the switch, she heard a pack of stray dogs break out in wild yelps. By dawn Louisa had cleared out, walking several miles to the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu. She took the next flight back to Orlando.
Louisa had yet another incident in 2013, just after giving birth to her second child, a daughter. This episode was more like the first—she woke up abruptly, only to find her body locked in place—but with the added shock of what seemed to be visual hallucinations, including one of a giant spider crawling into her bedroom. Louisa was so jolted that she barely ate or slept for three days. “I didn’t feel safe,” she said. “I felt violated.”
She’d been seeing a psychiatrist in Orlando. “This is the third time this has happened,” Louisa remembers telling her. “Am I crazy?” The doctor flashed a look of surprise but offered no satisfying insights. So Louisa turned to the internet.
Sleep paralysis seemed like a promising explanation. A phenomenon in which sufferers move too quickly in and out of rem sleep for the body to keep up, sleep paralysis causes a person’s mind to wake up before the body can shake off the effects of sleep. Hovering near full consciousness, the person can experience paralysis and hallucinations.
But Louisa didn’t think this could account for the hand on her collarbone, which she swore she’d felt while she was completely awake. She started to wonder whether something was pursuing her. Amid consuming fear, she waded into some darker internet waters: elaborate descriptions and YouTube testimonials of people who claimed that a demon or some other evil entity had dragged them down to hell. She pored over artists’ renderings of hell—naked bodies writhing like snakes, being consumed by orange flames. “I became obsessed with this topic,” she told me.
On the Sunday after her third incident, in the grips of these new fears, Louisa attended Mass in Orlando, at Saint James Cathedral. After the service, she recounted all three of her experiences to the priest, who immediately asked whether she’d ever dabbled in the occult. When she told him that she had used a Ouija board after her grandfather had passed away a couple of years earlier, he told her to get rid of it, along with anything else that could be construed as occult: tarot cards, amulets, pagan symbols, even healing crystals and birthstones. Any of these things, he told her, could serve as a doorway for a demon.
It may surprise some Catholics to learn just how literally the modern Church interprets Satan and his army of demons. While many people today understand the devil as a metaphor for sin, temptation, and unresolvable evil in the world, the pope consistently repudiates such allegorical readings.
In sermons, interviews, and occasionally in tweets, Pope Francis has declared that Satan—whom he has referred to as Beelzebub, the Seducer, and the Great Dragon—is a literal being devoted to deceiving and debasing humans. In an apostolic exhortation released in April, he wrote, “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” but rather as a “personal being who assails us.”
Exorcisms also occur in some Protestant and nondenominational Churches, but the Catholic Church has the most formal, rigorous, and long-standing tradition. The Church sees the influence that demons and their leader, the devil, can have on human beings as existing on a spectrum. Demonic oppression—in which a demon pressures a person to accept evil—lies on one end. Demonic possession—in which one or more demons seize control of a person’s body and speak through that person—lies on the other end.
Catholic priests use a process called discernment to determine whether they’re dealing with a genuine case of possession. In a crucial step, the person requesting an exorcism must undergo a psychiatric evaluation with a mental-health professional. The vast majority of cases end there, as many of the individuals claiming possession are found to be suffering from psychiatric issues such as schizophrenia or a dissociative disorder, or to have recently gone off psychotropic medication.
Father Thomas said that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors.
For some, being told they do not suffer from demonic possession can be a letdown. Father Vincent Lampert, the exorcist from Indianapolis, remembered a young man who came to him seeking an exorcism but was told he was experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. “You can tell me that I’m schizophrenic, but you can’t tell me why,” Lampert recalled the young man saying. “If it’s demonic, at least I have my why.”
If neither the mental-health evaluation nor a subsequent physical exam turns up a standard explanation for the person’s affliction, the priest starts to take the case more seriously. At this point he may begin looking for what the Church considers the classic signs of demonic possession: facility in a language the person has never learned; physical strength beyond his or her age or condition; access to secret knowledge; and a vehement aversion to God and sacred objects, including crucifixes and holy water.
FROM OUR DECEMBER 2018 ISSUE
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Only a very small number of exorcism requests make it through the discernment process. The Catholic exorcists I interviewed—each with more than a decade of experience in the role—had worked on only a handful of cases deemed to be true possession. “The Church wants to tread lightly and be skeptical” when examining possible cases of demonic possession, Lampert said, and thus treats exorcism “like a nuclear weapon”—a countermeasure that is important to have in the arsenal but that should be used only when no other explanation can be found.
The ritual begins with the exorcist, who is typically assisted by several people, sprinkling holy water on the possessed person. The exorcist makes the sign of the cross and kneels to recite the Litany of the Saints, followed by several readings of scripture. He then addresses the demon or demons, establishing the ground rules they must abide by: to reveal themselves when called, give their names when asked to identify themselves, and leave when dismissed. Because the exorcist is working with the full authority of God and Jesus Christ, Catholic doctrine stipulates, the demons have no choice but to obey.
At the rite’s climax, sometimes an hour or more into the ritual, the exorcist calls on the devil directly: “I cast you out, unclean spirit, along with every Satanic power of the enemy, every specter from hell, and all your fell companions.” Sessions typically end with a closing prayer and a plan to continue. For those few people the Church believes are truly possessed, a half-dozen or more exorcisms may be carried out before the priest is confident that the demons have been fully expelled.
According to catholic doctrine, in order to take possession of a person in the first place, demons rely on doorways—what the priest in Orlando warned Louisa about. These can include things like habitual sin and family curses—in which an act of violence or iniquity committed by one generation manifests itself in subsequent generations. But the priests I spoke with kept coming back, over and over, to two particular doorways.
Nearly every Catholic exorcist I spoke with cited a history of abuse—in particular, sexual abuse—as a major doorway for demons. Thomas said that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors. According to these priests, sexual abuse is so traumatic that it creates a kind of “soul wound,” as Thomas put it, that makes a person more vulnerable to demons.
The exorcists—to be clear—aren’t saying sexual abuse torments people to such an extent that they come to believe they’re possessed; the exorcists contend that abuse fosters the conditions for actual demonic possession to take hold. But from a secular standpoint, the link to sexual abuse helps explain why someone might become convinced that he or she is being menaced by something sinister and overpowering.
The correlation with abuse struck me as eerie, given the scandals that have rocked the Church. But it doesn’t seem to answer the “why now?” question behind exorcism’s comeback; no evidence exists to suggest that child abuse has increased. The second doorway—an interest in the occult—might offer at least a partial explanation.
Most of the exorcists I interviewed said they believed that demonic possession was becoming more common—and they cited a resurgence in magic, divination, witchcraft, and attempts to communicate with the dead as a primary cause. According to Catholic teaching, engaging with the occult involves accessing parts of the spiritual realm that may be inhabited by demonic forces. “Those practices become the engine that allows the demon to come in,” Thomas said.
In recent years, journalists and academics have documented a renewed interest in magic, astrology, and witchcraft, primarily among Millennials. “The occult is a substitution for God,” Thomas said. “People want to take shortcuts, and the occult is all about power and knowledge.” One exorcist pointed to Harry Potter. The books and films “disarmed Americans from thinking that all magic is darkness,” he said.
After listening to the priests and poring over news articles, I started to wonder whether the two trends—belief in the occult and the rising demand for Catholic exorcisms—might have the same underlying cause. So many modern social ills feel dark and menacing and beyond human control: the opioid epidemic, the permanent loss of blue-collar jobs, blighted communities that breed alienation and dread. Maybe these crises have led people to believe that other, more preternatural, forces are at work.
But when I floated this theory with historians of religion, they offered different explanations. A few mentioned Pope Francis’s influence, as well as that of Pope John Paul II, who brought renewed attention to the exorcism rite when he had it updated in 1998. But more described how, during periods when the influence of organized religions ebbs, people seek spiritual fulfillment through the occult. “As people’s participation in orthodox Christianity declines,” said Carlos Eire, a historian at Yale specializing in the early modern period, “there’s always been a surge in interest in the occult and the demonic.” He said that today we’re seeing a “hunger for contact with the supernatural.”
Adam Jortner, an expert on American religious history at Auburn University, agreed. “When the influence of the major institutional Churches is curbed,” he said, people “begin to look for their own answers.” And at the same time that there has been a rebirth in magical thinking, Jortner added, American culture has become steeped in movies, TV shows, and other media about demons and demonic possession.
Today’s increased willingness to believe in the paranormal, then, seems to have begun as a response to secularization before spreading through the culture and landing back on the Church’s doorstep—in the form of people seeking salvation from demons through the Catholic faith’s most mystical ritual.