WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 3, 2005
EXORICSM: THE COMEBACK
JOHN J. MILLER
It was a little more than eight years ago that a priest performed an exorcism on me. Don’t be alarmed: My head wasn’t spinning in circles, nor was I howling epithets in dead languages. The rite of exorcism happens to be an ordinary feature of Catholic baptism, and I was converting at a Mass on the night before Easter.
Most exorcisms are tame. In my case, the priest spoke a few words and puffed his breath into my face, and that was that. The house blessing, another common practice among devout Catholics, is in fact a minor exorcism.
In the popular mind, of course, exorcisms are something else entirely — high-stakes spiritual warfare with demonic entities. We owe this image almost entirely to “The Exorcist,” the 1973 film based on William Peter Blatty’s novel. The movie has become one of Hollywood’s great brand names in horror. Recently “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” hit selected theaters, apparently because last summer’s alternative prequel, called “Exorcist: The Beginning,” went on to commercial success (but also critical damnation).
Anything having to do with deviltry fascinates people, of course. Last month, a British professor studying ancient manuscripts with new photographic technology announced that “the number of the beast” divulged in the Book of Revelation may not be 666 but rather 616. He made headlines around the world — and probably disturbed a few anxious souls in Grand Rapids, Mich., home of the 616 area code. (Unfortunately, the kitschy town of Hell, Mich., lies a bit to the east.)
Exorcisms occupy a significant place in Christian theology because the Bible describes Jesus expelling fiends from the possessed. In the hands of skilled storytellers, the modern renditions portray humble priests locked in epic struggles against Satan.
C.S. Lewis commented in “The Screwtape Letters” that people tend to make two mistakes with respect to demons. The first is not to believe in them at all. The second is to believe in them too much.
In January, M. Scott Peck, the author of the personal-growth blockbuster “The Road Less Traveled” (1977), published what he has said will be his last book, “Glimpses of the Devil.” It describes his role in two exorcisms. Like Malachi Martin’s “Hostage to the Devil,” which became a best seller following the box-office success of “The Exorcist,” Mr. Peck’s new book uses pseudonyms to hide identities.
Yet in promoting “Glimpses of the Devil,” Mr. Peck has not shied away from naming names. “I think that the group of people around Hitler was probably likely a possessed group,” he told Salon.com. Then came the humdinger: “I have wondered specifically about the Supreme Court in the case of Bush v. Gore where, astonishingly, I believe that the majority — five out of nine justices — were engaged in an evil act. And I wonder how that could happen without Satan hanging around.” Astonishingly, indeed. (Imagine the gnashing of teeth if Tom DeLay were to say that the Supreme Court needs a house blessing.)
For a long time, many Catholics worried about appearing as ridiculous as Mr. Peck sounds. They considered exorcism an embarrassment. Even amid their church’s medieval trappings — bells, holy water, icons and incense — formalized confrontations with evil spirits seemed to whiff of superstition. Nobody wanted to be accused of believing in the devil too much.
In recent years, however, there has been something of a revival movement. Pope John Paul II is said to have performed a handful of exorcisms during his papacy. In 1999, the Vatican revised the rite of exorcism, updating a version that had been in use for centuries. There is now an International Association of Exorcists, and its conference last year in Mexico City drew more than 500 participants.
Some of this resurgence comes from Catholicism’s growth in developing countries, where exorcisms don’t seem nearly so exotic. But Western traditionalists are fueling it as well. It is perhaps worth noting that “The Exorcist” in its original form is an expression of orthodox belief — its greatest apologists aren’t movie buffs who watch slasher flicks into the wee hours of Saturday night but pious believers who kneel in pews on Sunday morning.
At the root of it all is the age-old hope that God will deliver us from evil.
Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.