A young woman lies on the floor of a candlelit room, screaming and sobbing. Surrounding her in a circle, are other members of her community, her pastor, a few of her friends, girls from her Sunday school choir. They begin chanting and praying, banging on the walls of the building. A teacher from her school approaches her, and presses a Bible to her forehead as she twitches. A collective murmur begins: “I cast you out, in the name of Jesus.”
This was one of perhaps 100 exorcisms I have witnessed. On that occasion, I was 23 and I was at work, on just another research trip into the world of apocalyptic belief—and what lies underneath it.
I fell in to my academic field purely by accident, when an old roommate lent me a novel about the Rapture, telling me, “It’s a good read, if you ignore the religious stuff.” For better or for worse, I didn’t take her advice.
Exorcisms have become something of a horror-film cliché. Usually, the story goes something like this: a young woman is possessed by an evil spirit; prostrate and disheveled in ripped nightclothes, her body convulses as she battles the spirit, usually male, now inhabiting her being. Her body is no longer her own; her very soul is in peril; only through the power of the exorcist, can the young girl’s life be saved.
But what about exorcisms in real life? They’re more common than you’d expect. Statistical evidence is inherently difficult to collect about exorcisms, although Michael Cuneo, in his book American Exorcism has suggested that as of 2001, there were five to 600 Evangelical exorcism ministries in operation in the USA alone. And of course, it’s not just an American phenomenon. Exorcisms are featured in religious practices in Nigeria, for one. In January 2014, the Telegraph reported a rise in the number of priests from Italy and Spain being trained in the performance of exorcisms.
The ritual is controversial and debated, yet it plays a role in contemporary Catholicism, and sometimes even in evangelical Christianity, although the concept of “born-again” salvation implies that a believer is physically already inhabited by Jesus, and therefore cannot be “indwelt” by a demon. In certain tribal religious practices, possession can even be used as a marker of status—a trance used to contact spirits who communicate wisdom.
Exorcisms range in their severity from “faith healing” practices to devastating ongoing cases of abuse. There have been several high-profile cases that have resulted in the death of their subjects under truly horrific circumstances. These include the appalling treatment of Anneliese Michel in Germany (67 exorcisms in nine months, leading to her eventual death by starvation), or Victoria Climbie in the United Kingdom (murdered at age eight by caregivers who believed she was possessed.)
The recent murder of E’Dena Hines, Morgan Freeman’s granddaughter, has been reported in the media as a result of an attempt to “cast out” a demon on the part of her attacker. Put another way: she was stabbed 16 on the street by her boyfriend.
This shocking and tragic crime against a young woman has been framed as part of an exorcism nonetheless, and for many so-called cases of demon indwelling, exorcism is exactly that—a framing device. It is a label that is plastered over cases of torture, abuse, and psychological manipulation. Words like “demon,” “evil,” and “witch” carry their specific religious meanings, but historically have, in essence, been used by people in positions of relative power to justify horrific acts. The fact is, with E’Dena Hines and many others: this sickening crime being called an exorcism was a simple act of human violence.
There are several possible explanations for the perceived phenomenon of possession. The afflicted person might suffer from an illness that could manifest in symptoms interpreted by onlookers as possession. For example, epilepsy, or Tourette’s syndrome.
The afflicted person might pick up on social cues drawn from their social or cultural context, and believe themselves to be possessed. This can be particularly powerful if there are fringe “benefits” to acting in the manner of one inhabited by a demon, such as the opportunity to criticize authority without fear of recriminations. In all these cases, the act of “exorcising” the demon could certainly have an effect; if all parties involved believe in the value of the ritual, then it may actually appear to work.
But it is usually the most powerless who are deemed possessed, and the exorcist becomes the ultimate symbol of patriarchal power, being able to point at vulnerable members of their community—women, children the mentally ill—and designate them as in the grip of “evil.” Spiritual warfare excuses the most terrible of crimes.
As a researcher on contemporary apocalypticism, specifically American evangelical Christian movements, I’ve not only seen exorcisms firsthand but have been subject to them myself, by virtue of simply being a woman. The most vivid encounter took place several years ago. Still relatively new to my research area; I packed my belongings and went off to work in a Pentecostal community on a tiny, remote island in Melanesia. The community in which I was living believed that all unmarried women were at risk of possession by the spirit of Satan, lurking in the jungle surrounding our little village.
A local and self-appointed cult leader led regular and gruesome exorcisms of all young and unmarried women in the chapel at the bottom of the hill, “purifying” their bodies of the evil within. This involved prayer, the “casting out” of demons through the physical application of the Bible to their skin, the “laying on of hands,” and liberal use of holy water. Locked into the chapel, I watched the girls moan as the demons inside them—or so they thought, or so the cult leader thought—railed against the power of the Holy Spirit. The exorcisms started in darkness, and the screaming, gibbering, and crying stretched on and on into the night.
Other forcible exorcisms I’ve been subjected to look a little more mundane—being approached by a circle of well-meaning Texans armed with crosses while I was minding my own business eating a cheese sandwich, for example. And while I’m presumably now “free of demons,” I can personally attest to the fact that regardless of the circumstances of the exorcism, the power balance is never in the favor of the accused.
The essential idea that a woman’s body is inherently vulnerable to the powers of a (usually male) demon that can only be defeated by a (usually male) authority figure only works to perpetuate male control over women’s bodies and women’s stories. Exorcism narratives use fear, trauma, and violence to reassert the authority of those performing the “saving.” They frequently justify acts of shocking misogynistic violence, and in many cases, that is all they are—a justification, an excuse.
E’Dena Hines was not exorcised. She was murdered, allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend. Which is much more mundane, and much more frightening.
Anbara Khalidi is a Research Associate at Wadham College, the University of Oxford. For all things apocalyptic, she can be reached on @anbaramk.
Images via Warner Bros, Lakeshore