In “Part I: The Exorcist as Hero”, Cuneo describes America's surprisingly widespread fascination with exorcism. He points out two major contributing factors: the influence of the mainstream entertainment industry and the impact of contemporary cultural attitudes on society.
He discusses the novel and film of The Exorcist, claiming that its instant media attention sparked an avid interest in the healing power of faith. Since Blatty created the narrative from a supposed exorcism case, audiences across the nation had difficulty in separating reality from fantasy. Cuneo believes there was an overwhelming consensus regarding the image of the two Fathers who performed the exorcism--that of self-sacrificing heroes who commanded respect for the Church. It was not their scientific expertise that helped them wage the battle against evil, but rather their faith and knowledge of mysterious powers that saved Regan.
Consequently, from the mid to late-1970s, almost every media outlet concerned itself with exorcism and its validity. Newspapers, radio casts, talk shows, and even a series of related films were released (Devil Times Five, The Possessed, Good Against Evil, etc.). Furthermore, possibly because the entertainment industry is known to shape public opinion and capture the national psyche, there was a sudden increase in possession cases reported to Catholic rectories.
Throughout the rest of the section, he argues that modern US culture supports the use of exorcism. It is apparently readily available, cheap and fast; it does not require a lot of time and investment like many other treatments. Exorcism practices are also morally exculpatory, in that they place the blame of one’s problems outside of the self—it is essentially a guilt-free process. These are all precisely American values. In addition, it can even be seen as an alternative therapy. Since the current biomedical system is often unfeeling, heavily bureaucratic, and too technical, such therapies are seen as comforting and supportive. In line with Cuneo’s ideas, instead of seeing the problem as cholesterol or genes, many Americans actually think of it as a demon. Exorcism offers the possibility of a fresh start—a rebirth of sorts.
However, he acknowledges the fact that not everyone is equally influenced by the media nor our current cultural ideals. He maintains that exorcism is a “ritualized placebo”—those who want it to work, will believe it to work, and will actually feel changes as a result.
In continuation, though Cuneo watched hundreds of exorcisms, he never witnessed any strange happenings. He attributed many conditions to sound medical, social, or psychological causes. Since people report its efficacy though, he concludes that the practice has the potential to be advantageous, but not in the ways as advertised by the media. One can only judge its effectiveness on a personal level. Overall, American exorcism tests the limits of traditional religious values, pop culture, and current beliefs in psycho-spiritual healing practices, thus shaping the face of modern religion.
Al-Krenawi, Alean and Graham, John. "Spirit Possession and Exorcism in the Treatment of a Bedouin Psychiatric Patient." Clinical Social Work Journal 25.2 (1997).
10 May 2008 .
This study investigated the diagnostic decisions regarding the case of a Bedouin psychiatric patient, called “M”, who underwent sudden and severe behavioral changes. He felt angrily towards his mother’s disrespect for his wife, eventually instigating several arguments, and nearly physically attacked her.
He was referred to the nearest biomedical hospital, where he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with auditory and visual hallucinations that were themed around demonic images. The psychiatrist also gave him anti-psychotics in order to alleviate the hallucinations. Though the drugs calmed him, they did not eliminate these intrusive images. M failed to improve until he received guidance from a social worker, who arranged treatment with a traditional healer upon consideration of his Muslim background. (Because they highly regard the Mother figure, any wrongdoing towards her is considered sinful. Thus, M believed that God inflicted punishment by imbuing him with evil spirits.)
The healer, or Dervish, functions as a Bedouin version of an exorcist, working to treat mental and physical illness through the use of ritual and prayer. He diagnosed M as being possessed by demons, and went on to perform Tazeem, which is a dialogue with spirits—much like Western exorcism. The Dervish overpowered the evil spirits and managed to quickly relieve M of both his hallucinations and pent-up anger.
He continued seeing both biomedical and traditional practitioners until he felt fully restored. The psychiatrist admitted his initial diagnosis was incorrect, since the medications were not appropriate for M’s condition as he should have been classified as neurotic. Understanding his cultural framework, which insists on an external locus of control, was crucial for offering him effective treatment. Thus, the modern, scientific system would have been futile without the integration of traditional, religious-inspired practices. The authors posit that both realms should be seen on the same level, as complementary structures enriching one another.
In terms of the film, The Exorcist presented the ritual as outrageous and dramatic. However, this actually promoted the curiosity of many viewers, compelling them to explore the possibility of exorcism as a real phenomena with tangible benefits. People began to entertain ideas relating to practices of the occult, which involve superstition and supernatural powers; many took an interest in studying foreign cultures and understanding their belief systems for healing. As addressed in this article, it turned out that the synthesis of both science and religion proved to give the best outcome.
Hence, the film was influential in shaping America’s modern day religious scene. Many fans started to explore what they initially feared, opening up their minds to a new world in which otherwise ‘strange’ and seemingly ‘uncultivated’ practices were discovered to be actually useful towards mental health. In essence, people began to realize that biomedicine, alone, does not always provide the best answers.
Ferracuti, Stefano and Sacco, Roberto. "Dissociative Trance Disorder: Clinical and Rorscharch Findings." Journal of Personality Assessment. 66.3 (1996). 10 May 2008. .
Ferracuti and Sacco, two psychiatrists, conducted a study on non-psychiatric individuals who believed they were possessed by the devil. From a biomedical perspective, the purpose of their research was to better understand and potentially classify their unique behaviors. After receiving permission from the official exorcist of the Rome diocese, subjects were recruited from weekly exorcisms. Participants, who all strongly followed the Roman Catholic faith, were administered the Dissociative Disorders Diagnostic Schedule, Roscharch Test, and clinical interviews.
Findings suggest that DTD is a distinct clinical manifestation on a dissociative continuum. It shares many personality features with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), such as altered states of consciousness with a foreign identity, problems in control, psychological complexity, and feelings of guilt. However, those specifically with DTD use extreme dissociation for regenerative purposes, only performing the ‘possessed’ behaviors in a socially accepted, safe, and controlled environment. Otherwise known as an exorcism in the Catholic Church, this setting allows people to reorganize their inner conscious state around an image of “evilness”, thus allowing the expression of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviors. The belief in a state of possession functions as an external control for the low capacity for ego integration and reality distortion manifested by these individuals. In other words, the Church provides coping devices that work as effective therapeutic mechanisms, in which possession serves to fulfill various needs by giving people a chance to let out repressed feelings and develop a more organized ego framework. The exorcist works as a guide in this endeavor, eventually helping people control their socially denied impulses while simultaneously replenishing their faith.
Had the authors not known about the individuals’ religious beliefs, the diagnosis would have been high-functioning neurotic with DID, instead of DTD. They consider the major differences between DTD and DID attributable to traditional cultural attitudes, which influence the belief in possession. Claims of ‘possession’ signify an effort towards ego integration, giving people a sense of security and thus revealing the importance of exorcism as a valuable religious practice.
Their study directly relates to an issue in The Exorcist: if possession is a ‘real’ phenomenon, what does it look like? Also, where does one draw the line between mental illness, where science is most useful, and possession, in which religion offers the best treatment? Ferracuti and Sacco emphasize how DTD can be understood as a psychiatric condition with problems in ego dissociation, potentially treatable through psychotherapy and other biomedical means. However, they also acknowledge the importance of cultural beliefs in shaping its outcome. The possession state exists to those who believe in it, and consequently, many fans were curious enough to reconsider their religious commitment, as well as their views on the causes and remedies of mental psychopathology. This once taboo issue quickly became the center of attention for some time.