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A Sociologist’s Journey into the American Heart of Darkness

Book Review

Kevin Christopher

Volume 27.1, January / February 2003

For skeptics and most other people, the word exorcism immediately evokes images of Catholic priests, holy water, and bizarre, other-worldly behavior. Most of the popular literature and media coverage focus exclusively on this Hollywood version of modern exorcism, a vicarious adventure into the dangerous side of religious experience. American Exorcism takes us beyond such cliché into the real believing subculture and the broader phenomena of demonology and ritual.

Author Michael Cuneo—who teaches anthropology and sociology at Fordham University in New York City—delves deeply into modern American beliefs in demon possession and the various practices of demon expulsion. Although his opening chapters focus mostly on exorcism as a Roman Catholic ritual, Cuneo is quick to disabuse readers of the common assumption that the task of expelling demons is limited to priests. His later chapters closely examine the history and current practice of Middle-America exorcism—the deliverance ministries of Baptist, Charismatic, and Pentecostal churches and deliverance groups. Cuneo is also careful to make sure the reader understands that although Protestant deliverance ministry and the resurgent Catholic rite of exorcism are essentially grass-roots practices, the renewed popular belief can be credited almost entirely to Hollywood.

“This conjuncture of commercialism and religious ritual, of profits and piety, should come as no surprise,” Cuneo writes. “Over the course of the twentieth century the popular cultural industry, with its endless run of movies, books, and digital delights, has gained a pervasive influence over the national consciousness. It has become part of the very air that Americans breathe and, as such, it has attained an enormous capacity for shaping everyday beliefs and behaviors. . . . When Hollywood and its allies put out the Word, somebody’s guaranteed to be listening” (p. 50). Cuneo repeatedly reminds the reader of the role of American media in the resurgence of the belief in demonic possession. Only the most willfully naïve reader could overlook the role of motion pictures, TV talk shows, book publishers, and the insatiable appetite for publicity among exorcism authors and self-styled “researchers” after reading Cuneo’s perceptive accounts of the rise of demonic awareness in the land of plenty.

American Exorcism is a remarkable synthesis of interviews, historical research, media studies, and hands-on field research. He interviews the various players in the modern exorcism revival. He offers compelling assessments of desires and motives of the exorcists and the possessed—tempered by objective evidence and judgment. He shows forbearance and sympathy to those who participate in exorcism and deliverance ministry, but he is also skeptical and frank.

Cuneo begins his book with a poignant and timely lamentation of the modern Catholic priesthood: “The past three decades haven’t been particularly kind to the Catholic priesthood. One would be hard-pressed to find another profession that has fallen harder or further from grace in so short a period of time.” He notes the dramatic thinning of the ranks beginning in the 1960s and 70s, the frantic scramble to find relevance in the modern world, and the endless sexual scandals. The image of the Catholic priest, writes Cuneo, “has more often been the priest as pious fraud, the priest as philanderer, the priest as yesterday’s man—equivocating, beleaguered, and thoroughly redundant.”

book of exorcism rites

In one exceptional area, however, the priest remains a cultural hero. “That area,” writes Cuneo, “is exorcism, and it is the priest-as-exorcist that has somehow managed, in defiance of all odds, to retain a heroic grip on the popular American imagination.” Modern Catholic liberals had hoped that exorcism would be relegated to Church history along with the other medieval trappings and customs. What such Catholics never anticipated, according to Cuneo, was the modern media’s role in breathing new life into the ancient rite of exorcism.

In the first four chapters Cuneo deftly sketches out the sundry sources of the exorcism renewal. He begins with the well-know pop Ursprung: William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, and the 1973 film of the same title that it inspired. He characterizes Blatty’s work as massive structure of fantasy resting on a flimsy foundation of a priest’s 1949 diary account of the possession of a young boy in Mount Ranier, Maryland.

Cuneo then introduces the reader to fascinating and seldom-cited sources: ex-Jesuit priest Malachi Martin, author of the 1976 book Hostage to the Devil; paranormal authors Ed and Lorraine Warren, and, surprisingly, the grandfather of pop-psychology and self-help, The Road Less Traveled author Scott M. Peck.

Malachi Martin pronounced his final vows as a Jesuit in 1960 and took a position at the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. He abruptly left his post in 1964 and the Society of Jesus in 1965, after being granted a provisional release by Pope Paul VI. Nearly forty years later, there are conflicting accounts of why Martin, such a promising scholar, left everything behind. Cuneo writes:

According to the most popular account (which is the one usually favored by Martin himself), he felt morally compelled to leave the priesthood in protest over the new, decidedly more liberal, direction the Catholic Church was taking as a result of the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately this stricken-soldier-of-conscience version of events hasn’t always squared with the facts. Far from being a tormented conservative during his years in Rome, Martin was actually a theological liberal, and while the council was in full swing, he was closely (and publicly) aligned with such leading liberal lights as Monsignor George Higgins and the eminent American Jesuit John Courtney Murray.

Digging further, Cuneo finds “fairly reliable evidence” that Martin threw away his religious career in the wake of “romantic intrigue”—an affair that occurred in 1964 while he taught theology part-time at Loyola University of Chicago’s Rome Center.

If readers are to believe Martin, Satan was hard at work in New York City in the 1970s. He claims that the possessions and exorcisms described in Hostage are true accounts. Cuneo checks with Catholic experts, including Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel, the expert Catholic officials turned to in the 1970s and 1980s when they were confronted with the “inexplicable.” Groeschel was not aware of anything on the scale Martin portrays. Furthermore Groeschel and others insist that for the mainstream Catholic Church, exorcism was the last resort; earthly explanations were preferred and pursued first.

In his 1983 book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, Peck is unequivocal about his belief in demonic possession and remains a staunch believer in supernatural demonic possession to this day. Many in the charismatic deliverance movement see People of the Lie as a mainstream validation of their beliefs. When Cuneo asked Peck in a phone interview whether he thought that exorcism would someday become the serious subject of scientific investigation, Peck expresses doubt for absolutely shocking reasons. He is not pessimistic due to the fact that there is no credible evidence for the reality of demonic possession. Instead he asserts—in the tradition of a dime-a-dozen pseudoscientist rather than a trained psychiatrist—that the “country’s intellectual and religious elites,” are to blame, including “the leadership of the American Catholic Church,” who “have seemed determined to keep the door shut.”

In Part III: “Charismatic Deliverance Ministry,” Cuneo sets Catholicism aside and begins with an account of a fifteen-minute exorcism of a young man named Paul. Paul, plagued by years of aberrant sexual fantasies and violent feelings, had driven 200 miles to Kansas City to obtain an exorcism from Protestant deliverance ministers Ellen and Felix. The rite Cuneo describes is not an all-night vigil of sweating priests dodging projectile vomit. It involved a prayer, a recitation of Psalm 37 and Luke 10:17–19, some speaking in tongues, a prayer of repentance followed by a prayer of exorcism appealing to the power of Jesus Christ, repeated six times for each demon within Paul. Cuneo remarks that “whole business” was “orderly and efficient.” He also includes a postscript stating that six months later, Paul claimed that he had not experienced any of his old symptoms and “for the first time in his life felt truly at peace with himself” (81).

Cuneo then recounts the history of the rise of modern Pentecostal and Charismatic deliverance ministry. Although it dates as far back as the very beginning of Pentecostalism on Asuza Street in Los Angeles in 1906, the modern revival can be traced to the 1960s. At that time, deliverance ministry was a sporadic guerrilla movement, led by mavericks like Disciples of Christ minister Don Basham, Pentecostal minister Derek Prince, and, among Charismatic Catholics, a Dominican priest named Francis MacNutt.

Cuneo’s historical account of the deliverance ministry from the 1960s through the 1980s is filled with quotes out of his interviews, providing an intense human portrait of what both leaders and followers in the movement felt and the role deliverance ministry played in their lives. Readers will also find a continuing interplay between Catholic and Protestant brands of exorcism. For instance, Malachi Martin’s Catholic pulp thriller Hostage to the Devil was a great influence on some of the modern Charismatic deliverance ministers Cuneo spoke with, and many Catholics turned to charismatics in their quest to infuse their faith with renewed fervor.

Cuneo spends time at the Hegewisch Baptist Church in Indiana with Pastor Mike Theirer, “the hardest working exorcist in America.” His account stands in complete contrast to the more private and peaceful affair described above. Theirer’s deliverance sessions are auditorium affairs. “Throughout the auditorium, demoniacs are paired off with exorcism ministers,” writes Cuneo, who himself rushed help wrestle down a particularly violent demoniac to prevent him from further battering Pastor Mike. People belched and (literally) vomited their demons out in an intense charismatic spectacle.

Cuneo’s close involvement with congregations practicing deliverance ministry gives him a compelling inside look and first-hand perspective on the conformist (sometimes cult-like) pressures exerted on members regarding belief and practice.

Considering also the distinctive style of so many charismatic prayer groups: the ecstatic worship the gushing emotionalism, the breathless solidarity. All of this gave rise, as often as not, to an atmosphere of suggestibility, of hothouse conformity. Individual charismatics, even relative newcomers, easily surmised what was expected of them in the way of belief and conduct, and there was no shortage of cues to help them along. Imagine a fairly new recruit to the renewal movement, impressionable, eager to please, seeing two or three, or fifteen or sixteen spiritual brethren writhing and moaning in demon-induced torment. And then seeing the performance repeated time and again. It would take an iron act of will, arguably, for such a person not to go along for the ride.

Cuneo describes how he himself was confronted by an overly zealous charismatic convinced that he was possessed at a 1997 symposium on deliverance. He also describes interview accounts of fascistic group leaders who quashed dissenters by attributing their complaints to demons of willfulness and condemning them to corrective exorcisms. He stresses, however, that such abuses are the exception rather than the rule.

Michael Cuneo’s conclusions on the actual existence of demons and the use of deliverance ministry and exorcism will almost certainly disappoint many Skeptical Inquirer readers who feel that the throat of patently unscientific nonsense should be slit wide open. Cuneo reserves judgment on many matters for which skeptics will see a clear verdict. After sitting in on fifty exorcisms, he is unequivocal about the fact that he saw nothing supernatural—certainly nothing out of The Exorcist or Malachi Martin’s salacious pulp-religion paperbacks. However, he remains equivocal about the possibility that demons exist. While his views on the efficacy of exorcism are tempered by documented tragedies of exorcists inadvertently killing their hapless subjects, Cuneo, who conducted follow-up interviews of people whose exorcism he had observed, apparently accepts that exorcism have been a useful “therapy” for some.

Cuneo does emphasize one conclusion that all skeptics will gladly embrace. The Holy Army of priests, ministers, and laity who do battle with demons vying against God for the souls of men itself benefits from the power of one subtle creature which unquestionably influences the hearts and opinions of millions: American mass media. Without Hollywood, ABC, or Malachi Martin’s publisher, the exorcism business would never have gotten off the ground. While Cuneo may in some cases be slow to condemn what is scientifically damnable, I believe that no skeptic’s library on occult or supernatural claims would be complete without American Exorcist. Cuneo has done quality research on all level and from many angles. He opens the door for readers into a strange but amazing world, where people fervently believe that Satan and his minions are at work in a struggle that is simultaneously personal and cosmic. He also does an excellent job tracking the media’s role in popular belief, and he is refreshingly scathing in pointing out those who see religious beliefs as a means to pop fame.

Kevin Christopher

Kevin Christopher was, at the time of this writing, public relations director for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal