The Devil's playthings

An author who traveled across the U.S. observing exorcisms talks about the strange things he's seen and the likelihood of demonic possession.

Published October 16, 2001 3:52PM (EDT)

In 1971, William Peter Blatty published the bestselling book "The Exorcist," based on a 1949 newspaper story about a Washington, D.C., 14-year-old. After being tortured by mysterious scratchings and rappings on his bedroom walls, the seemingly incurable teenager was exorcised by a Jesuit priest. Blatty's version, however, concocted the much more romantic and outlandish story of Regan, a young girl unforgettably played on screen by Linda Blair, who would make her mark spewing vomit and masturbating with a crucifix while being exorcised by dashing and charismatic priest heroes.

Michael W. Cuneo, a Canadian-born professor of sociology and anthropology at Fordham University in New York, knew that "The Exorcist" took the world by storm, but he never imagined how many Americans might take it as a hint to sign up for exorcisms themselves. His latest book, "American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty," is a wild exploration of the spookier and more fantastical side of Middle America. After two years of attending exorcisms across the country, Cuneo judiciously details how popular entertainment has fed Americans' thirst for demon expulsion, what really goes down at a legitimate Roman Catholic ritual and what leads people to believe that they have succumbed to demons.

Salon spoke to Cuneo at his home in Toronto.

How did the 50 exorcisms that you saw affect you?

There wasn't any time when I thought, My goodness! There really are demons in here and there's a chance that when they're liberated from one person, they're going to invade me! Lots of people that I interviewed during the research were concerned about that.

What, that you had demons?

Oh, yes. And quite understandably. They would say, "Look, Michael, you've been doing this very dangerous research. You've been exposing yourself to preternatural evil, a supernatural whore. It only stands to reason that you yourself would have succumbed to some kind of demonic contamination." Sometimes I would be the only person in the room who didn't see it. People would say that that was because I'm a writer. Satan doesn't want to blow his cover.

Did they offer to exorcise you?

Many people wanted to exorcise me. They claimed to know that I was infected by demons, and other people, the very next day, would just as confidently give me a clean bill of health. But for all of my human frailty and the personal evil I'm capable of, I felt that demons had nothing to do with it.

Was this frightening at all?

They wanted to exorcise me out of good will. They thought that I'd put myself in harm's way and that demons had found an opening in me. There were times when I was involved in scary situations. During one public or mass exorcism, the exorcist, Pastor Mike, was exorcising a really big dude. He started thrashing and punching and spinning people around.

Where were you?

I had just had lunch with Pastor Mike in the Chicago area. I really liked him and thought he was a cool, unpretentious, humble guy. Then, at the exorcism, at the front of the auditorium, the guy who Pastor Mike was exorcising let loose horrible shrieks of impassioned rage. He picked up Pastor Mike and started spinning him around. Pastor Mike's glasses flew off. The exorcisee seemed capable of inflicting horrible violence on Pastor Mike. A couple other guys tried to subdue him and he was punching and kicking them.

So I slowly took my jacket and my glasses off and very gingerly walked to the front, all the while hoping that things would resolve themselves by the time I got there. I wasn't up for any kinds of heroics. I put a headlock on the guy and he spun me around as well. Eventually, about five of us got him to the floor. For the next hour, I was lying there on the floor just pinning one of his arms down in the sweltering heat and humidity.

What was wrong with this guy? What demons did he have?

Demons of rage.

Surprise. Rage demons.

Rage and frustration. Pastor Mike identified a whole slew of them. At one point, Pastor Mike started arguing with the demons -- while we were all lying on the floor holding this fellow down -- saying, "You're sorry excuses for demons! You're weak! You're useless! Come out, you demons. You're the most useless demons I've ever encountered."

Did they scream back?

Yes, they were screaming back, "You're a fucking faggot, Pastor Mike! We're going to kill you!" There's some real violence there.

Rage sounds interesting, but isn't sexual appetite the most commonly exorcised demon?

It's among the leaders. I would say it's top 10 in the hit parade. Sexual infidelities, demons of sexual perversion, demons of runaway sexual appetites. I ran into that a lot.

Is it assumed that these demons are the devil?

They're working for the devil. They're in league with the devil. They're the devil's assistants. Where else do you get a more vivid and intense supernatural drama, where the mythical forces of good and righteousness are lined up against the mythical forces of perfidy and evil? Where else is this more dramatically occasioned than during an exorcism?

Were the faces of the people being exorcised disturbing?

Yeah, yeah ...

But not quite like Linda Blair?

No, I've never seen anything like that.

No spinning heads?



Lots of vomiting. Regurgitating. Shredding of clothes. Yanking of hair.

Did they masturbate with crucifixes?

Mostly, it's simulated masturbation or pounding at the groin or gouging at the groin. And screaming and howling. People throwing themselves on the floor and slithering like snakes. I thought many of them were playing to the occasion. The exorcist is up there sweating and working so hard. A team of people are praying for you. At some point during this whole dramaturgy, you want to do your part.

Are the exorcists reciting prayers?

Yes. In the Roman Catholic case, sometimes they are pressing a relic against the person's forehead or splashing the person with holy water. People will engage in highly dramatic manifestations. I absolutely didn't see anything that left me sheet-white and palpitating in fear. I never saw levitating bodies. I never saw navel-licking tongues. I never saw the perfect, classical Latin speeches. I never saw the preternatural strength. I never saw things that could not be accounted for in rational, secular terms.

Did you go into all of this with skepticism?

Yes, but I am Canadian. I told people that I was going to approach it with an open-minded Canadian skepticism. Canadians are a circumspect, prudent people. I told myself to take this stuff seriously, try to be respectful, do not preclude any possibilities whatsoever and be prepared for anything. After all, what do I know? But when people are telling me that they'd just been raped by succubi and incubi the night before or that they were inhabited by 1,001 demons, I knew not to take it at face value.

The people in your book are mostly Americans. Did you immediately choose to focus on America? Do these things go on in Canada?

We have some exorcisms in Canada, but it doesn't go on to nearly the same extent. Religion in the United States does have a more feverish, highly sexualized and raw component to it. Also, I wanted to focus on the United States because very early on it occurred to me that a lot of the stuff I'd been witnessing had been deeply influenced by the American popular entertainment industry. So many of the people claiming to be demonized would not have done so had it not been for William Peter Blatty's book "The Exorcist" and William Friedkin's movie of the same name and Malachi Martin's "Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Americans" and M. Scott Peck's "People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil."

What was it like after the movie "The Exorcist" came out in 1973?

The chronology seems pretty clear-cut to me. By the mid-'60s, exorcisms had been a dead issue. Who the hell talked about exorcism? It was practiced in certain backwater cultural pockets in the United States but it wasn't all the rage. Then, William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel "The Exorcist" was published in 1971. There was a real explosion right after that. Satanism scares blossomed in the early 1980s and 1990s to the point where people couldn't turn on the television without all this glitz-and-gloom coverage of satanic ritual abuse.

What happened was that the popular entertainment industry wound up generating tremendous popular fascination with exorcism. We're impressionable and we're gullible and we're so highly suggestible. It's this rock 'n' roll phenomenon. Priest exorcists become celebrities. They are like the last of the lonesome gunfighters.

Still: demons? Why would anyone want to believe they had demons inside them?

Imagine someone sitting in front of their television screen, being bombarded by images of demons. They might be experiencing some intractable disappointment of life or some deep-seated psychological problem. They may have tried conventional psychotherapy. Yet, the thing has not gone away. They see these images of demonization and think that maybe that's their problem. And in the tradition of good old Yankee experimentalism and pragmatism and perfectionism, they say, "I'll give it a shot and see if it does the trick."

There's another factor. The United States is a therapy-mad culture. Exorcism might be the crazy uncle of therapy, but dammit, it's therapy. It's wondrously in tune with the therapeutic ethos of the prevailing culture in the United States. It's really cheap. It's relatively fast. Most of all, it's morally exculpatory. We live in a culture of victimization where the whole point is to blame someone else for our shortcomings. Here, the demons are to blame. It takes place everywhere else, but in the United States it just makes so much more sense.

Did people know when the movie came out that it was based on the book and that the book was based on a true story?

Yes, most people were aware of that. That's what gave the movie so much mystique and panache and cultural prestige. There was so much publicity surrounding that case. People thought that what they were seeing on-screen might not literally be true, but still thought that something like this had taken place. And if it has taken place in the United States of America, the most advanced, industrialized, technocratized place, then it could take place again and probably is.

"The Amityville Horror" was based on a true story too. That's another kind of exorcism -- expelling demons from a house. Is that common too?

It is very, very common. And that was Ed and Lorraine Warren's claim to fame. They were the first self-professed psychic sleuths on the scene who really claimed to have diagnosed everything that was taking place there. The house is still there -- 112 Ocean Avenue. A friend of mine took me out to Long Island to see it, on a rainy day with the mists blowing in off the water ...

Does anyone live there now?

There were people walking in and out. You can clearly identify it.

What did the people who originally lived there claim was going on with their house?

This young couple, the Lutzes, purchased the house and claimed that they witnessed all kinds of bizarre and frightening and hideous phenomena -- shriekings and so forth. They eventually discovered that the previous occupants had experienced a horrible tragedy. Just a year previously, Ronald DeFeo, one of the sons, shot to death his parents and four younger siblings. When the Lutzes moved in with their three kids, there were these bizarre, unexplainable knockings and rancid odors. Slime oozing from the walls and flies swarming on the bedroom windows. It freaked them out to the point where they broke and ran. Then the Warrens arrived on the scene and took care of business.

Did they take pictures of this? You said you saw some of the Warrens' videos. What did you see in the videos?

With so much of this stuff I have a real problem. I have so much affection for Lorraine and Ed Warren. They're marvelous people and real showmen. But everything about them does strike me as suspicious. I don't want to say that anything in the videos was doctored. I don't have the authority to say that. But I would be very suspicious.

Didn't they deal with a man who claimed that he woke up to demons having sex with him?

Right. That was a guy who claimed that night after night, he was being ravaged by some gorgeous demon while he was sleeping beside his wife in their marital bed. This gorgeous demon was performing sexual acrobatics on him while he was numb. Then he'd have to shower to wash her gelatinous sexual deposits off of him. It's just too beautiful.

Were most of these people that you met very religious to start out with? Who are they?

The biggest market for exorcism is in Middle America, white bread America. Indiana's big. Ohio's big. Then again, I saw a lot of stuff out on the West Coast and a lot of stuff on the Eastern seaboard. And a lot of stuff in New Orleans that I don't even get into.

New Orleans gets its own book, huh?

New York and New Orleans don't even belong in the republic. Yes, the majority of the people who were going for exorcisms were religious. They were Christians. But there are people who are self-professedly agnostic and who do not have strong religious commitments who also seek them.

Can you break down what the differences are between the types of exorcisms? What's the difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant exorcisms?

There are strong similarities. First of all, the kind of exorcism in the United States that has the most prestige by far is the official Roman Catholic exorcism, which is performed by an officially appointed Roman Catholic priest exorcist. That's what the media wants.

Does the Roman Catholic church have an official stance on this?

The official Roman Catholic position is that full-scale diabolical possession can take place but is so unlikely and so far-fetched that never, never under any circumstances should anyone assume that demons are present in any particular case. Rule out all other possibilities: psychopathology, neurological disorder, paranormal possibilities and fraud. And once you've ruled them out, rule them out again.

Not all priests can do this then?

You're supposed to be officially appointed to that role by the bishop. No one else is supposed to do it. Up until the mid-1990s, there were only one or two officially appointed priests in the United States. As of 1994, my best sources tell me there was only one. Now there are a dozen closing in on 15. There was a tremendous demand for official exorcisms, yet people couldn't get them. What happened then was that a flourishing underground exorcism movement arose within Roman Catholicism where maverick priests would wind up doing bootleg exorcisms. It was the second best thing.

What is the Roman Catholic ritual like?

It's a beautifully written 400-year-old ritual. The first one I attended most moved me. It took my breath away and sent shivers up my spine.

Where was it?

I can't say. To get into those exorcisms took unbelievable maneuvering. For months I was seeking out officially appointed Roman Catholic priest exorcists. I had all these sources and was digging and digging and finally wound up in a diner with this guy. I just knew it. I said, "Wait, you're an officially appointed priest exorcist aren't you?" And he just smiled. I said, "Can we talk about that?" I wound up going to some of his exorcisms and some others. But to get in I had to assure confidentiality.

How many of them happen a year?

I attended six of them in one year. I would say that's a big number. Normally, it would be no more than two or three.

Do the priests or ministers charge money for this?

No. Donations are welcome. There isn't a fee schedule like $200 dollars for demons of sexual infidelity, $500 for demons of depression. Some people are doing it out of sheer power-tripping. You can imagine what a heavy thing it is to sit someone down and tell them they're demonized. Not only that, but being able to tell someone, "I can ascertain the precise names and identities of your demons, the number of them, their ranks and their purposes. I have an infallible gift of spiritual discernment." How the hell do you disagree with that person? It's all nonfalsifiable stuff!

Is one person exorcised at a time?

The priest exorcist, with certain assistance, will exorcise one person at a time. One of the things that really astonished me was the presiding psychiatrist; the ones I met were Ivy League-trained people. They weren't cranks and misfits.

Do they believe in demonization?

The psychiatrist says that they're pretty sure there's no demonization and the priest exorcist agrees. They attend for strictly pastoral reasons. The exorcisee is so absolutely convinced that they've become demonized that their life has become paralyzed. They're not able to carry on. Their family is falling apart. They have been fired because of dereliction to duty. Not only that, but they're so convinced that they refuse to entertain the possibility of receiving other kinds of treatment. The priest gives these people an exorcism so he can satisfy this in their mind and say, "Now you've had your exorcism. If there were demons present, the demons should have been routed. If your problems are continuing, then it's something else." And very responsibly, they set them up with counseling.

So some people didn't feel cured afterward?

One person thought that he needed more exorcisms. The exorcist said no and set him up with psychiatric treatment.

That's pretty nice and responsible of them.

Sometimes, yes. At Protestant exorcisms, there's more of a presumption of demonization. There isn't the same screening. The very rich ritual doesn't tend to go with it. But let me say this: I found some of the evangelical Protestant exorcisms -- they use the term "deliverance" -- very impressive. The exorcist asked such probing spiritual and personal questions at the start, then very sensitively performed the deliverance. At some of these, I thought that even if there were not demons present there, something good has happened. It could just be the placebo effect. They're the center of attention. All these well-meaning, earnest people want to see them heal. They can talk in very intimate terms about whatever they perceive their problem to be. There's a powerful expectation of getting better.

But people have died during exorcisms.

Yes, there have been some horrible tragedies. The worst involved the 17-year-old girl in Long Island. They were Pentecostal. In this case, an older daughter and a younger daughter were helping the mother perform the exorcism on a third daughter. Then the mother apparently threw her arms up and said that this was not their sister anymore. The demon had fully taken her over. She asked the younger daughter to leave the room and when she returned, the middle daughter was dead. She had been suffocated.

That's the exception. There have been five or six exorcism-related deaths, but most take place in a responsible atmosphere.

I'm sure you're going to get phone calls now. What would you say if I called you up and asked you for one? Where would you recommend I go?

I'm just a writer. And I happened to write a book on exorcism. The last thing I want to be is a broker for exorcisms. That would be irresponsible of me. I'm not arguing that people should or shouldn't be going to them.

A woman phoned me and said, "Michael, you have to help me. They're in my eyes. The demons. They're in my eyes. I can't get them out." Then she goes on to tell me that she teaches piano to young children and that these lessons were her only source of livelihood but the demons in her eyes were driving her to despair. Then I heard the doorbell ring. I could hear her greeting a young child. She invites the child in and they come closer to the phone and she says, gently and sweetly, "Now practice your scales." I heard the clunk, clunk, clunk of piano keys, a young child practicing. Then she gets back on the phone and, "Michael, please help me, they're in my eyes, please help me."

Those are the kind of situations that drive you crazy. What is my responsibility there? Now I'm concerned about the kids. I asked her to promise me that she would phone her doctor. I never heard back from her again.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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