Are They Demons or Just Delusions?

Posted Nov. 19, 2003

By John M. Powers

Terrance Cottrell Jr. was winding down his summer in Milwaukee, getting ready for a new school year at a new school. The boy did not live the untroubled life of other 8-year-old children, suffering as he did from autism, and his mother would be sending him to a school better able to deal with his condition. Then one Sunday morning in August he was made the focus of a religious ceremony of a kind that still mystifies most of the public. The Cottrell family minister, Ray Hemphill, performed an exorcism to cast out demons and thereby heal Terrance of his condition. The faithful gathered around the boy in their storefront Apostolic church and held him on the ground even as he struggled against them. Because of his diminished capacity to communicate, a result of autism, Terrance was unable to tell the pastor that he could not breathe. After two hours of prayers for exorcism, someone finally noticed the boy wasn't breathing. Hemphill was arrested, and once more the public interest was alive with debate and fascination about exorcism.

Who, after all, is performing these ceremonies? Have we not learned from modern psychiatry that mental illness is not caused by demonic possession? Or was C.S. Lewis correct in saying, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was in convincing the world he didn't exist"?

Most of what the popular culture knows about exorcism and demonic possession is gleaned from The Exorcist, a film classic that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Since its release this imaginative horror picture, based on the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, has whetted an appetite and widespread interest in exorcism that in turn has produced other films, books and broadcasts that have tended to encourage the practice.

Biblical literalists point to exorcisms performed by Jesus, citing Luke 8:26-40 and Mark 1:23-36. These accounts, as well as Ephesians 6:10-18, which are seen as a charter for spiritual warfare, gave rise to the practice of exorcism among early Christians.

As a functionary of the Christian Church, the role of exorcist as an official office is mentioned in a letter by Pope Cornelius in 253, reports John L. Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter. The practice continued within the church but became less popular following the Enlightenment, which brought with it Western rationalism and a bias toward science. The minor order of exorcism nonetheless remained a part of the regular training of priests for ordination.

This wasn't changed until 1972, when Pope Paul VI removed the order of exorcism from the training of every priest and left it to the bishop of each diocese to appoint an exorcist. The rite and rule of exorcism stayed the same until 1998, when the Vatican released a revision. The new rule acknowledges that many of the conditions that once were thought to result from demonic possession now are recognized as mental disorders. On the other hand the Vatican stated quite clearly that the devil is at work in the world and Christians must beware.

Few express concern that the devil is sending his minions out to seize and possess souls better than the Vatican's appointed exorcist, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth. At age 75 he has been a priest for 50 years and tells the London Sunday Telegraph's Gyles Brandreth, "I speak with the devil every day. I talk to him in Latin. He answers in Italian. I have been wrestling with him, day in and day out, for 14 years." In this rare interview Amorth said that in 1986 he was asked to be assistant to the only exorcist in Rome at the time, the Rev. Candido Poletti. Amorth says he quickly "realized how much work there was to be done and how few exorcists there were to do it" while in training under Poletti. Since then he claims to have performed more than 50,000 exorcisms.

According to Amorth, there are three types of exorcisms: one in which an object (such as your house or car) is exorcised, another performed at every baptism in which the devil formally is renounced, and finally the type in which demons are cast from the body of a victim. Although Amorth takes care to determine whether a victim truly is possessed or simply suffering from a mental condition he says, "An unnecessary exorcism never hurt anybody."

During the ceremony Amorth confronts the demons, asks how many have taken over the body and demands their names. There follow a series of prayers and traditional acts, such as touching the demoniac (the person who is possessed) with his stole or sprinkling holy water. After what can turn into hours or even years of regular prayers for exorcism, the demons finally are cast out and the victim freed from satanic seizure.

However, an official Catholic exorcism is very hard to obtain. It must be performed by a priest who has received the rite of exorcism and been given permission from the bishop, church authorities say. And no exorcist gets to this point without careful psychological evaluation.

However, a non-Catholic exorcism is very easy to get, according to Michael Cuneo, author of American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty and the forthcoming Almost Midnight: An American Story of Murder and Redemption. Cuneo spent two years studying and attending exorcisms and says that in doing so he discovered a secret side of American life in which exorcisms are sought in huge numbers. He says official Catholic exorcisms are only a "microscopic" part of the many exorcisms performed in the United States. Even so, a Catholic "bootleg" or "underground exorcism" is easier to come by, Cuneo says. These are "performed by maverick Catholic priests" who believe there is a massive demonization problem about which the Catholic Church is not doing enough.

Easiest to obtain, Cuneo says, are "evangelical Protestant exorcisms" performed in deliverance ceremonies by conservative ministers who believe in demonic possession and the physical presence of Satan in the world. "If you want an exorcism, you can get an exorcism," he says, adding that the cost usually is only a small donation when possible.

These practices are common in the United States, according to Cuneo, because "mystery and intrigue" still surround deliverance/exorcism - the whole of it exacerbated by Hollywood and other media exploitation. Interest oscillates, he says. In the 1970s the release of The Exorcist excited American interest. Gradually that fell away until 1983, when psychiatrist M. Scott Peck published People of the Lie, in which he claimed to have seen demonic possession in his medical practice. To this were added tabloid-TV reports of a satanic cult conspiring to infiltrate every sector of American life, according to Cuneo.

When such stories are presented uncritically, Cuneo says, they add to a general belief that demonic possession is at least possible. He says American culture tends to have a therapeutic side that seeks out solutions to problems, both real and imagined, no matter how fantastic they may seem. Not only that, it also is consumerist, he explains, so "we want fast answers and fast solutions." An exorcism can take as little as a few hours and is much cheaper than "conventional talking therapy," Cuneo says.

What did Cuneo see during the many ceremonies he monitored? During private exorcisms only a deliverance minister or priest, a support team and the demoniac are present. "There'll be the usual flailing and groaning and spitting and vomiting," Cuneo says, "and some obligatory shrieking and slithering along the floor." These will finish after a few hours, with the usual result that the demoniac will be freed from their demons. Mass exorcism or mass deliverance is done with hundreds of people in a large room, Cuneo says, adding that these produce "bedlam and pandemonium" in which those being delivered start "ripping their clothes ... pummeling their groins ... ripping their hair out and publicly masturbating," among other things.

Was it demons he saw? "Did I ever encounter indisputable demonic fireworks? The answer is no," he says. While Cuneo does not think he observed actual demonic possession he thinks exorcism is useful. "Exorcism is a form of therapy," in his opinion. "Ultimately it allows us to blame our addictions, or anger, on demons. Where else can middle-class Americans lash out at evil ... with complete impunity?" In the end, however, it may be only a temporary fix for greater problems, he says.

Joel Scheinbaum, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles, would agree that exorcism is likely to be only temporary. Scheinbaum runs a program called Exodus Recovery that deals with people suffering from more than one mental disorder. He says demonization and its cure, exorcism, are attempts by people to explain a world they do not fully understand. "Demonization is a religious issue," Scheinbaum says, in which mental disorders are seen as demon possession by those with a religious outlook. He says that to get to the root of someone's problems and to heal them one must "look at the whole person." The danger of seeking exorcism instead of psychiatric help is that it is "not really addressing the issue," he contends. Exorcism might provide a "temporary respite," but it cannot heal the entire person, according to Scheinbaum.

"We find a real need for differential diagnosis," says Francis MacNutt, director of Christian Healing Ministries, which is staffed by mental-health professionals who acknowledge the need for prayer and deliverance in helping people overcome mental disorders. Unlike Scheinbaum, MacNutt says that though "some of the symptoms [of possession] can be ambiguous," one can find that mental disorders coexist with a demonic possession. He says the key to healing a person with multiple personalities, for instance, is discerning which personalities "need to be put back together" and which are demonic and must be cast out. MacNutt reports increased interest by the mental-health community in prayer and exorcism/deliverance.

Certainly not everyone agrees. For example, parapsychologist Hans Holzer, who has a doctorate from the London College of Applied Science, tells Insight, "I don't think a minister, priest or rabbi can do a damn thing." Holzer is the author of many books, including The Supernatural: Explaining the Unexplained, in which he sets out scientifically to prove or disprove phenomena long regarded as unexplainable. As he sees it, "There is no heaven. There is no hell. There are no angels. There are no devils." He believes people sometimes are possessed or inhabited by the spirits of humans who have died but desire to be physical again. He declares, "We're talking pure science," based on accounts collected from "many trans-mediums."

Should we be afraid of being seized upon by the souls of the dead? This former professor of parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology assures Insight that "normal people," such as himself, are possessed only rarely.

Then there is Bill Niland, director of Real Deliverance Ministries in Tampa, Fla., who says he frequently has seen demonic possession, which he prefers to call "demonic dominion." Niland performs exorcisms/deliverances on a regular basis and tells Insight the devil not only exists but assuredly is present in the world. He cites disorders that are the result of demonic dominion and says helping a person with these problems involves finding the "doorway" someone has opened to allow evil the "opportunity" to enter their lives. Once that opening has been found, Niland says, he takes a compassionate yet stern approach. "Deliverance involves coming alongside, in gentleness and love, and sharing God's Word so they [the dominated] can ... respond to it by repenting," he says.

Says Niland, if one starts to see a "circus-type atmosphere" develop during an exorcism/deliverance, something has gone wrong. "When deliverance takes place, there's a sense of peace and joy that comes upon a person," he says.

This mysterious world of demons and devils brings out some colorful characters, but as someone who closely has observed many involved with exorcism, Cuneo says confidently, "These are not people, for the most part, trying to rip off poor beleaguered souls. The people who perform these ... are true believers." Startlingly, none of those interviewed for this article who said they had observed or performed exorcisms told Insight they were frightened by it. Moreover, all of those interviewed spoke with compassion and kindness of the suffering they had observed.

With the exception of Holzer, even the skeptics admitted to not knowing for sure if demons really take possession of people. They seemed to be saying that as mere mortals we may never know for certain. Apparently, "There are more things in heaven and Earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy."