The belief that a person can be possessed by a spirit, ghost, demon, or deity is as old as civilization itself. Such great minds as Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plutarch taught that demons or evil spirits could enter human bodies, causing disease.
In Jewish tradition a doomed soul or evil spirit, called a dybbuk, can enter a person’s body, causing anguish and torment. Stories of possession and exorcism in the Holy Bible’s Old Testament include that of Saul, who was exorcised by David’s playing of his harp (1 Samuel 16: 14 – 23). Early on, people believed dybbuks could only enter the bodies of the sick. By the 16th century, this had evolved to include the bodies of sinners. The Kabbalah (Jewish mystical school of thought) contains instructions for exorcising dybbuks, some of which are still practiced today.
The New Testament relates many cases of possession that were exorcised by Jesus Christ, including:
“Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind and dumb: and he healed him. . .” (Matthew 12: 22)
“And devils also came out of many, crying out, and saying, Thou art Christ the Son of God. And he rebuking them suffered them not to speak . . .” (Luke 4:41)
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes signs of possession such as superhuman strength, ability to understand and speak languages unknown to the victim, levitating, knowledge of the future or other occult information, and revulsion toward sacred texts or objects. In 1614 the Church created a formal rite of exorcism, called the Rituale Romanum. Specially ordained priests cast out demons from their victims by adhering to certain rituals and pronouncing the prescribed words and prayers. This is not medieval superstition. In 1992 Roman Catholic priest and official exorcist of Vatican City, Father Gabriele Amorth, founded the International Association of Exorcists, which now boasts some 250 members from 30 countries. Its statutes were approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy on June 13, 2014.
Tales of demon possession and exorcism have spawned many books and films:
The Exorcist: William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel was inspired by the 1949 case of an anonymous St. Louis, Missouri boy who exhibited signs of possession: shaking bed, bloody welts and scratches on his body, and violent behavior. When two Jesuit priests arrived to exorcise him, he physically attacked them, exhibiting amazing strength. After violent exorcisms lasting several weeks, the intervention was deemed a success. The 1973 movie starring Linda Blair as the victim and Max Von Sydow as the priest determined to save her is an Academy award winner, and one of the great horror classics.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose: This 2005 film starring Jennifer Carpenter and Tom Wilkinson has Father Moore (Wilkinson) performing an exorcism on Emily (Carpenter), after which the girl dies. The story mirrors the case of Anneliese Michel, a teenaged German girl who in 1975 began hearing strange voices, and experiencing seizures and demonic visions. Two Catholic priests spent 11 months exorcising Anneliese, who died of starvation and dehydration during the ordeal. The priests were found guilty of manslaughter and given suspended sentences.
The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist: In his revealing book, journalist Matt Baglio documents the training of a genuine exorcist, Father Gary of Los Altos, California, in Italy in 2005, and his subsequent early experiences with cases of possession. The book inspired a disturbing film starring Colin O’Donoghue as Michael Kovak, a young seminary student taking a course in exorcism, and Anthony Hopkins as his Jesuit mentor.