Catholicism has a long history of belief in exorcisms, and while many people today may not believe in exorcism, for other Catholics, it is still a very real thing. Exorcisms are also a favorite trope of Hollywood horror films and TV shows, especially during the month of October. However, exorcisms have some issues in regards to ableism and sexism, and the movies rarely seem to want to explore those issues.
Trigger warning for discussions of ableism and disability below.
Many Christians believe in demonic possession. While many denominations believe in possession and exorcisms, at least in theory or as something that occurred in the past, the denomination that is probably most known for them is Catholicism. This is born from both the fact that the Catholic Church has priests specifically trained to perform exorcisms and from popular movies such as The Exorcist, which features a Catholic priest. It’s not something the Catholic Church likes to advertise, at least not in the Western world, but Catholicism does still strongly believe in demonic possession. For Catholics, demonic possession is another extreme form of spiritual warfare. It comes from the belief that the devil is constantly waging war against humanity and God, and one of the most extreme ways for the devil to do this is to possess someone. Demons or the devil himself are thought to possess human bodies and control their actions, making them hurt themselves or others. Wikipedia’s article on exorcisms and the Catholic Church lists the following as signs of possession:
Signs of demonic invasion vary depending on the type of demon and its purpose, including:
Loss or lack of appetite
Cutting, scratching, and biting of skin
A cold feeling in the room
Unnatural bodily postures and change in the person’s face and body
The possessed losing control of their normal personality and entering into a frenzy or rage, and/or attacking others
Change in the person’s voice
Supernatural physical strength not subject to the person’s build or age
Speaking or understanding another language which they had never learned before
Knowledge of things that are distant or hidden
Prediction of future events (sometimes through dreams)
Levitation and moving of objects / things
Expelling of objects / things
Intense hatred and violent reaction toward all religious objects or items
Antipathy towards entering a church, speaking Jesus’ name or hearing scripture.
As you can see from this list, while some things seem like they could be only explained through some potentially supernatural cause, others can be easily explained by some sort of mental or physical disability. Which is why, despite what some movies and TV shows will tell you, the Catholic Church actually isn’t all that likely to assume right away that someone is possessed.
Even if you are actually possessed, there is a long process of evaluation to figure out if someone is actually in need of an exorcism. This is because in the past priests could assume that someone was possessed when they really just needed medical treatment. Anneliese Michel is the most famous case of this. She was a young woman in Germany who had a variety of medical issues such as temporal lobe epilepsy and depression. Anneliese was treated in psychiatric hospitals and eventually claimed to hear voices and disliked religious objects. Despite being on medication, her symptoms never got better and she became suicidal. Her family was convinced she was possessed and, in 1975, asked two priests to perform an exorcism. The Church eventually gave them permission to do so, but sadly Anneliese died during the exorcism in 1976 in the care of her parents and the priests. Both were charged with negligent homicide and sentenced to three years probation, because Anneliese’s legitimate medical condition was left untreated in favor of doing the exorcism, which left her malnourished and dehydrated. This is not the only incident where disability was taken to be evidence of demonic possession and led to disastrous consequences.
In fact, there are theologians and doctors today who have looked at the cases of possession in the Bible and said that almost all could be explained away as some sort of disability or mental illness, whether that is epilepsy or schizophrenia. In Jesus’s time, as well as a lot of other periods of history, people didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today and often assumed that illnesses were actually the work of the devil. But the fact that this is still an issue today is troubling and highlights a variety of concerns. The fact that there is anyone in the world who is so shocked and scared by those with mental or physical disabilities that they would equate them as being demonic is really upsettingly ableist, and in cases like Anneliese Michel’s, that definitely seems to have been the case. We have another issue at play here as well and that is sexism. Fr. Gabriele Amorth was once the Vatican’s leading exorcist from 1990 until he retired in 2000. He has been famous for his statements that everything from rock music, to yoga, to reading the Harry Potter books can open a door to demonic possession. There has been “evidence” that shows women are more likely to be possessed and when asked why this was, he responded by saying:
Ah, that we do not know. They may be more vulnerable because, as a rule, more women than men are interested in the occult. Or it may be the Devil’s way of getting at men, just as he got to Adam through Eve. What we do know is that the problem is getting worse. The Devil is gaining ground. We are living in an age when faith is diminishing. If you abandon God, the Devil will take his place.
Over the years, the Catholic Church has struggled with exorcism because of all these issues. Despite this, in recent years, the world has shown more interest in exorcism. Even the current Pope, Pope Francis, has hailed the exorcists who fight against the devil, which has led to an increase in exorcists and those asking for exorcisms. Sometimes, though, beliefs about exorcism and possession override common sense and people are hurt or even simply, like Fr. Amorth, become paranoid and think that everything is a gateway to the devil. In our pop culture, we see some similar issues play out. Many people performing exorcisms don’t do it correctly. They don’t assume someone might actually have a disability and more than a few women are shown as being possessed (but I won’t talk about the second part as much here as I have already written on it before).
Shows like Supernatural are filled with exorcisms. Sam and Dean perform a Latin exorcism on demons they face. Unlike in real life, however, Sam and Dean have a foolproof way of knowing if someone is possessed or not. People who are possessed can make their eyes go black. So Sam and Dean never have the issue of just dealing with someone who has an illness; they always know it’s a demon. But there is still a major issue here and that is how they treat the person who is possessed. When Supernatural first introduced us to demons, they were very careful about trying to save the human host, but as the show progresses they seem to care much less and just start focusing on torturing or killing the demon. Sam and Dean eventually receive Ruby’s demon-killing knife and start just wholesale killing people. The whole point of exorcism is to save someone from demonic possession, but Sam and Dean never seem to care if the human host is hurt as long as they kill the demon. While it might make for good TV, it certainly perpetuates this idea that harming the person to get rid of the demon is an okay thing to do—as if fear of demons justifies murdering a human being.
One problem that Supernatural also brings up is that you can always tell that a person is possessed. There is never any question, and even when there is, the movies and TV shows that have possession as a plot device always make sure to show the audience that the devil was in fact to blame for what happened. In the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, we see the writers play with this idea a little bit. Fr. Richard Moore is taken to court for negligent homicide because of the death of Emily Rose, a young girl whom Fr. Moore believed to be possessed by the devil. The prosecution, however, believes that Emily was sick and Fr. Moore allowed the girl to die by attempting an exorcism instead of taking her to a hospital to be treated. However, the movie shows you in no uncertain terms that the devil was actually possessing Emily. Fr. Moore does have a doctor present with him who claims that Emily was not sick, but was in fact possessed, but he is killed by the devil before he can testify on the priest’s behalf. While the court case is set to figure out if Fr. Moore was negligent in his treatment of Emily by not getting her medical treatment, the movie leaves us with no doubt that Emily was possessed. Though it is nice to see a film follow, relatively anyway, the correct procedures, it still presents things as if it was obvious that Emily was possessed and that any reasonable person would have believed the same thing. This becomes much more upsetting when you realize this movie was based on what happened to Anneliese Michel, who really was just struggling with mental illness and lost her life because of neglect and religious hysteria. Creating a movie based on this story and then claiming “no it actually was the devil” is super insulting and offensive.
There is only one show I have ever seen that actually shows some of the issues that come with exorcisms. The TV show Outlander is about a woman named Claire Randall who is from the 1940s. Claire, a medical doctor during World War II, was magically transported back in time to Scotland in 1783. Even with limited medical equipment, Claire’s knowledge of medicinal herbs makes her a huge asset to the Highland warriors. During one episode she hears about a friend of hers whose son is suffering from an unexplained illness. After other treatments have failed, the priest believes that the boy is possessed and starts performing an exorcism on him with little success. Claire eventually realize that the boy ate a plant he thought was edible, but which was actually very poisonous, and makes him an antidote. The priest protests that she is interfering with God’s work and that she will kill the boy with her “nonsense”. She does manage to save the boy, which gives her more fame as a healer but makes her the enemy of the local priest. He eventually accuses her of witchcraft, because if women aren’t being attacked by the devil then they are in league with in him, it seems.
Most movies have it very cut and dry that a person is possessed and that the best thing for them is an exorcism, but even most exorcists would disagree. Unlike the pop culture examples, in real life, precautions must always be taken so as not to unintentionally harm anyone. However, things are tragically still taken too far. I have personally heard people tell me about how women are more likely to be possessed and that more Catholics these days need to take the devil seriously. And while priests are supposed to go through the proper channels and make sure someone is not ill before attempting an exorcism, that still doesn’t always happen. In fact, when the Catholic Church changed the rite of exorcism in 1999, priests like Fr. Amorth were not pleased. As he said, “They say we cannot perform an exorcism unless we know for certain that the Evil One is present. That is ridiculous. It is only through exorcism that the demons reveal themselves. An unnecessary exorcism never hurt anybody.” Unlike Fr. Amorth, I am pleased that there are more restrictions on exorcisms considering the rite’s dark history.
While the Catholic Church has had its own issues with exorcisms, a lot has changed. One of the most famous exorcists today is Fr. Gary Thomas from California. He explains how exorcists are trained to be skeptics and while he believes in the devil and possession, most people who ask for an exorcism will not have the rite performed on them:
Often they’ll begin the conversation with: ‘Father, I need an exorcism,’ and my answer is: ‘I don’t do them on demand.’ In five years I’ve probably met 100 people. I’ve performed 40 exorcisms on only about five of them.
He goes on to further clarify:
A lot of the time it is mental health, says Father Thomas. On my team I have a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist and a physician – all of whom believe in the possibility of Satan’s existence but they’re not people who say there’s a demon under every rock or chair. Then there are things that happen that we can’t explain. When people show signs of some kind of demoniacal manifestation such as foaming at the mouth or rolling of the eyes or taking on the appearance of a serpent sometimes, or speaking in a language that they have no competency in but all of a sudden do, those are the classical signs.
Incorrect depictions of exorcisms in pop culture can only increase the negative view of the Catholic Church and also might lead to bad consequences for real people undergoing exorcisms. Too many people see these movies and TV shows and believe that the devil is around every corner. Or that normal medical symptoms could be signs of possession. The Catholic Church has moved away from the beliefs of people like Fr. Amorth and more toward the beliefs of people like Fr. Thomas who have less alarmist and more practical approaches to exorcisms. It would be nice if our pop culture could make that transition as well.