Real-life exorcisms do occur, and can even happen in Berkshires

Sunday October 14, 2012

The word "exorcism" can cause a flurry of disturbing images: a young girl's head spinning around; profanity too vulgar to be uttered by anyone, let alone a 12-year-old; two priests dying during the ritual.

But those iconic images surrounding a possessed girl named Regan (Linda Blair) and her eventual exorcism in the 1973 film "The Exorcist" are "highly inaccurate" compared to the real-life ritual of casting out demons or spirits, according to Glenn Shuck, an assistant professor of religion at Williams College.

"It's not done so haphazardly," he said. "Priests should focus on driving the demon out, not engaging in the sensational activities depicted in ‘The Exorcist.' Sometimes the individual has to be restrained, preferably by a family member, but that's very, very rare. The film has to play up every possible exaggeration."

Hollywood dramatizations notwithstanding, exorcisms under several different names and religions still occur today, and they might even be on the rise.

According to the Episcopal Rite of Exorcism, the ritual is "the practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas [and] derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts of his messiaship."

Just as in the church's earlier days, exorcism is reserved only for the bishop, who can delegate the rite to others deemed competent.

After his production team in the upcoming documentary "The Exorcist in the 21st Century" spent "hours and hours" speaking with exorcists, priests and bishops, producer Christian Falch told The Eagle he's under "the strong opinion that exorcisms in the Catholic Church are on the rise again, and I do not think we have seen the end of it."

As of January of last year, about 30 Roman Catholic priests were qualified to perform exorcisms, said Thomas John Paprocki, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Ill., in an interview with "The Atlantic" magazine.

In February of 2011, Catholic dioceses were increasing the number of those trained in the rite, according to the National Catholic Register.

And at least one exorcism has been performed this year in the Berkshires -- on a house.

From room to room

There was holy water in the priest's one hand and a crucifix in the other as the congregation moved from room to room during the January exorcism.

"It's important to have a crucifix with you. The holy water, you sprinkle around," the local priest said, recalling the ritual.

(The priest requested anonymity so that there would be no ties to the negative connotations of exorcisms.)

The house merited an exorcism after the tenant cited a deep sense of unease. According to the priest, exorcisms in the Episcopal faith are administered by the bishop to cast out "an entity of ill will."

"It lodges in a place or person," the priest said. "It was successful. They felt a greater ease in their own home [afterward]."

The exorcism is the only one reported by this parish in at least seven years. The priest was calm in recalling the ritual, which had none of the theatrics that characterize demonic-possession movies.

"It's for people who are of strong faith and a commitment to prayer," the priest said. "We gather with the bishop in celebrating the holy communion. It was so simple. In many ways, it was a house blessing. We moved from room to room, praying."

The calm report of the exorcism was in stark contrast to the reports of a 1981 exorcism on a Lee house that made national headlines.

According to reports in The Eagle at the time, Dale and Lui Passetto started experiencing a mean-spirited demon in their house that April. The demon would fling their furniture, destroy religious artifacts and even manifest itself and attack.

After the Passetto family contested doctors' theories that they were hallucinating the terrors, an exorcism was performed by two Roman Catholic priests on Sept. 24, 1981. The floors shook and the basement filled with smoke during the ritual, according to The Associated Press.

The exorcism evidently wasn't successful, because further reports showed the Passetto family encountered more supernatural manifestations the following summer.

The Eagle contacted the Passetto family, now living in Florida, but they declined to comment.

The exorcism was arranged by Connecticut natives Ed and Lorraine Warren, who founded the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952. Their previous experiences with the supernatural were the basis of the 1979 film "The Amityville Horror."

The Warrens are the subject of the upcoming movie "The Conjuring," which will hit theaters in July.

Last resort

Exorcisms in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches are done as a last resort, and are performed after intense medical and psychological evaluations to rule out underlying mental issues.

"If it's done, it's done very, very carefully," said Shuck, the Williams College religion professor.

In her 12-page lecture from 2010, titled "Exorcism and Possession in the Gospels," Denise Buell, chairman of the religion department at Williams, cited an exorcism performed by Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark.

"A lot of healings contributed to Jesus are actually exorcisms," Buell said. "Many of my students are surprised when I call attention to them."

Historically, an exorcism was performed on a person just before he or she was baptized to ensure that no evil spirits would be sealed in through the baptism.

"They wanted to make sure the good spiritual power isn't going to compete with the bad spiritual power," Buell said. "The logic is to get out all of the bad stuff, and then the human is ready."


Though he's left his Pentecostal roots behind, Shuck recalls living just outside of Houston and attending a Pentecostal high school. He cited his time there as the reason he became a theologian.

In the Pentecostal faith, the ritual is more commonly referred to as a deliverance rather than an exorcism.

"There are few shades of gray in the Pentecostal church," Shuck said. "What is evil is very well defined, and what is holy is very well defined."

The act of delivering out a spirit in the Pentecostal faith will theoretically rid the vessel of a demon that causes drug or alcohol addiction, or even a physical sickness caused by a virus.

Shuck witnessed both in his family.

"I saw [the family member] was convulsing," Shuck said. "As I looked up stories on exorcisms, I saw that it's not uncommon to experience convulsions. It could have been the scotch, but who knows."

Church members also would frequent Shuck's high school to deliver some students from the demons that caused substance abuse.

"In some cases, they wouldn't even mention demons, but it was intensely emotional," he said. "The last two weeks of school, students would come forward to talk about their deliverance from issues and confess how it's been driven out of their lives."

Classic horror

Released on Dec. 26, 1973, as counter-programming to the usual cheery holiday fare, the William Friedkin film "The Exorcist" remains the champion of demonic-possession films and perhaps horror films altogether. It's usually near the top of the requisite "scariest movies of all time" lists released around Halloween.

Possession and exorcism films have been on the spread ever since. "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "Drag Me to Hell," "The Last Exorcism," "The Rite," "Insidious," and the ongoing "Paranormal Activity" franchise are some of the better-known recent properties dealing with the subject.

One of the first movies of this year was the demonic-possession film "The Devil Inside," which was the third-biggest movie to ever open in January and grossed more than $100 million worldwide, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

At the end of August, the movie "The Possession" topped the box office for two weekends in a row. It has made more than $70 million worldwide, according to the website.

National interest in possession films isn't indicative of the business that Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema receives, according to John Valente, the cinema's general manager.

"They're not what I call general-interest films," he said. "Hard-core fans come out the first weekend, then business drops off. There's not much word-of-mouth unless it happens to be a film that's really special and unique."

Those words surely describe "The Exorcist," which was the highest-grossing film released in 1973, bringing in about $193 million in the United States, an amount nearly unheard of for its time. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won two -- for sound and best adapted screenplay -- and was the first horror film to be up for best picture.

"I saw ‘The Exorcist' when it was first released, and at the time, it was pretty frightening," said the priest who participated in the January 2012 exorcism on the Berkshire house. "I haven't watched any since. I have no interest."

Adjusted for inflation, "The Exorcist" would garner more than $887 million in box-office receipts and be the ninth-biggest movie ever and the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, according to Box Office Mojo.

"['The Exorcist'] did increase the rate of people requesting exorcisms," Shuck said. "It actually refreshed people that it's still done."

Looking on his own experience with "The Exorcist," Steve Lawson, executive director of the Williamstown Film Festival, remembers the film's stellar cast of Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, and how those in the theater with him would go from being genuinely startled to laughing it off in an attempt to kill the tension.

"You have the human interest story. That's what lifted it out of the realm of low-rent horror and into more of a souped-up melodrama," Lawson said. "It tried to go deeper and further than most horror films, and that's why it's still with us and thought so highly of today."

To reach Adam Poulisse:,
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse

Exorcism factoids

n Only two or three of the 400 exorcism inquiries received by the Catholic Church each year require the ritual.

n The International Association of Exorcists was founded in 1991 with 12 members but grew to 79 a few years later. Today there are about 200 members.

n Exorcism is protected by the First Amendment, as ruled by a Texas high court in 2008. A North Texas Pentecostal church was not held liable for the subsequent emotional trauma that a parishioner sustained while church members physically restrained her during two exorcism attempts in 1996.

Sources: Eagle news services


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