Possession And Exorcism

The Devil made me do it. We’re looking at the long story of possession and exorcism.

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Max Von Sydow portrays Father Merrin in a scene from "The Exorcist." (AP/Warner Bros.)

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Max Von Sydow portrays Father Merrin in a scene from “The Exorcist.” (AP/Warner Bros.)

Demonic possession and exorcism can sound awfully medieval.  But their heyday, says my guest today, was in the same age as Sir Isaac Newton and the dawn of the Age of Reason.  On the one hand, science.  On the other, frothing seizures and shouting out the devil.

The second heyday of possession and exorcism, says scholar Brian Levack?  Well, our time.  Maybe or maybe not on your block.  But it’s back.  It’s out there.  It’s ritual reenactment, says Levack.  But of what?  And why?

This hour, On Point:  chasing the devil.  Exorcism.

-Tom Ashbrook


Brian Levack, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.”

Brian Levack on the Current Heyday of Exorcism

We spoke today with historian Brian Levack of the University of Texas at Austin about possession and exorcism, from past centuries right up to the present day. He’s the author of the new book, “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.”

There have been two great peaks of belief in possession and exorcism in the Christian West, Levack said: the first at the dawn of the Age of Reason, and the second we’re in the midst of right now.

Here’s Levack on the current surge in belief in demonic possession:

“It’s in communities, especially in highly religious communities, especially evangelical and charismatic religious communities, who believe in a direct relationship between demonic spirits and human beings […] and whenever you have that belief, and that is a belief that has been cultivated greatly in the late twentieth century, you’re going to get cases of demonic possession. And then you have the demand for exorcists to relieve people of these symptoms of demonic possession. You also have a number of exorcists, especially in Italy and in Latin America, and in Poland, far fewer in America – and that might help to explain why we’re not familiar with this, I don’t meet demoniacs every day! – but you have these exorcists who actually go out and drum up business. They’re celebrity exorcists. There’s one in Italy who claims to have exorcised 70,000 people!”

So what’s behind all this (if not actual demons)? Levack sees possession as a behavior based on belief that can be dispelled through the ritual and performative aspects of an exorcism.

“All possessions were sacred dramas. They were performances. The demoniacs and the exorcists, who were trying to drive out the devils, were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. And these scripts were widely known, you have some of them in the Bible, but you also have all these accounts of other possessions that people read at this time. And once it was suggested that someone might be demonically possessed, you know they had fits or something like that, they would follow that script. […] Certainly the anxiety was real, and they are responding to it.”

Excerpt: ‘The Devil Within’ by Brian P. Levack

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