American Exorcism

By Michael J. Cuneo

When Wilde wrote that life imitates art he was really only stating the obvious. Life, considered as the way we choose to live our lives, is an art. The things we make instruct us (for good or ill) how to go about it.

But we should be wary of extending his epigram too far. As an example of what can happen if we do, Michael Cuneo brings us this report (from the trenches, as it were) on exorcism in America.

Before 1971, exorcism, or the casting out of demons, was an obscure Catholic ritual that few people knew anything about. That all changed with the publication of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, a book that, by itself, gives its author a persuasive claim to being the most important Catholic novelist of the twentieth century. Its presentation of a pair of relevant (nay, heroic!) Catholic priests struck a chord with a church that was feeling under siege.

The notorious film version that came out two years later only further opened the gates of hell. Almost overnight a small cottage industry in exorcism sprouted up, even spreading to various Protestant denominations (though it has been hard for the Holy Rollers and other groups to match the spiritual cachet of the full Catholic ritual). Cunoe’s explanation for why this happened is commendably clear. In the first place he blames the media: Blatty and his spawn. The exorcisms Cunoe attends play out like amateur versions of scenes from The Exorcist and other movies, albeit without any of the special effects. It seems nothing is sacred from Wilde’s mimesis in reverse:

Am I really suggesting that the popular entertainment industry, with all its dreck and drivel, is capable of manipulating – actually manipulating – religious beliefs and behavior? Indeed, this is one of the main contentions of the present study, and there seems nothing (to my mind) especially far-fetched about it. Like it or not, the products of Hollywood and the tabloid media are an inescapable fact of life in contemporary America . . . they play a crucial role in shaping public sentiment and engaging the national psyche. Why should religiously inclined Americans be less susceptible to their charms than anyone else? When Hollywood or Oprah or Madison Avenue advertises the existence of demons and satanic cults, it is hardly surprising that at least some Americans will comport themselves accordingly.

The second contributing factor has been the “therapeutic ethos of the prevailing culture.” The notion that one’s drunkenness and lust are the result of demonic infestation rather than personal weakness suits us well:

No less than any of the countless New Age nostrums or twelve-step recovery routines on the current scene, exorcism ministries offer their clients endless possibilities for personal transformation – the prospect of a thousand rebirths. With its promises of therapeutic well-being and rapid-fire emotional gratification, exorcism is oddly at home in the shopping-mall culture, the purchase-of-happiness culture, of turn-of-the-century America.

We may recall how Regan’s mother is first advised to put her possessed child on Ritalin. There is a lesson here for parents on what to do when tranquilizers just won’t work.

American Exorcism is a fascinating piece of investigative journalism that manages to be both fair-minded and skeptical. And while, as Cuneo admits, there is nothing surprising about its conclusions, they are still worth considering.

In particular, I have always felt that Wilde’s dictum requires a corollary: Life imitates bad art. American exorcism has nothing to do with church history, Latin rituals or archaeology. It is trash culture, born of a pulp bestseller, a sensational movie, tabloid journalism and talk shows. As Cuneo describes adults writhing on the floor and vomiting their demons into buckets one thinks of the children who cripple themselves pretending to be professional wrestlers. Imitation may be hazardous to your health.

Review first published online November 15, 2001.


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