When you have a cold, you know the drill: Your nose runs, your head hurts, maybe some nausea. But what if something more than a simple cold virus got into your system — say, the demon Naberius, triple-dog-headed Marquess of Hell, commander of 19 legions and master of rhetoric: Would you immediately recognize the signs?
Strangely, while it may seem like something out of the dark ages, exorcisms are actually on the rise, and have been for a few decades. Father Gary Thomas of the Roman-Catholic Diocese of San Jose has been an exorcist for 12 years, and he attributes the rise in demand to practices surrounding paganism and new age medicine becoming more pervasive in the U.S. “The number of people who dabble (or perhaps more) in occult-like practices like witchcraft, tarot-card reading, palm readings, seances, black-and-white magic, crystals, reiki and a lot of other practices is increasing,” Thomas explains. And though he says that few of these people are actively looking to contact demonic entities, simply tampering with these practices can unknowingly create a doorway for dark forces to enter (so much for those regular reiki sessions, I guess).
Author Steven LaChance, who’s recent book Confrontation with Evil is based on the exorcism that inspired the classic film The Exorcist, cites another potential reason: “Thanks to films and books, mine included, exorcisms have become more prevalent in our culture; thus, there’s a greater awareness surrounding possession.” Not surprisingly, LaChance also offers that many believe we’re in the end times, and they attribute the rise to that.
Regardless of why, there are definitely more exorcisms going on and, according to our experts, some people are more vulnerable to possession than others. “Eighty percent of the people who come to us are sexual abuse victims,” Thomas says. He explains that this is because that particular kind of trauma can so profoundly affect how someone forms relationships, they’re more vulnerable to attack. “I’m not saying that those who are sexual assault victims are going to be demonically affected, but what I am saying is that it creates an opening that Satan can use,” Thomas clarifies. He further explains that this vulnerability, combined with an attraction to the occult or new age practices, can make someone especially susceptible.
Other targets may include people who suffer from addiction or those with severe mental health issues. Exorcist Bishop Bryan D. Ouellette, an exorcist under the Old Catholic Church (a separate branch of Catholicism from the Roman-Catholic Church), explains that the possessed often suffer symptoms consistent with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, among others. Ouellette — who received a degree in psychology before becoming an exorcist — explains that the mentally ill are vulnerable, and confusingly, if one is possessed, they often display similar signs of mental illness.
It’s these blurry lines that make identifying the problem so challenging. If you think it’s all about levitating and head-spinning, you’ve probably watched too many movies: In reality, exorcists look for a wide variety of symptoms to diagnose demonic possession, and the whole process takes quite a bit of time, research and a surprising amount of science to determine if a case is genuine.
LaChance explains that while many people may believe that science and religion are separate entities, when identifying a possession, exorcists (and those who assist them) must scientifically rule out more conventional causes. “They look at the psychological, medical and spiritual [to begin their process]”, LaChance explains. First, they examine a person’s medical history and check for severe psychological diagnoses (as explained earlier, having a mental illness wouldn’t rule out a possession as well, but it would be taken into consideration when they make their judgment). Then they look at the medical side of things to determine if, perhaps, someone’s medication may be causing hallucinations. As for the spiritual side, someone may simply be obsessed with the devil or demons, but may not actually suffer from any kind of possession.
Taking all that into consideration, they also see if there’s anything supernatural going on, which is where Thomas offers that there are six telltale signs of an exorcism (although you don’t need to have all six to be possessed). These symptoms are:
- An aversion to the sacred. Ouellette explains that blessed objects and holy water may be very troubling to a dark force.
- Enhanced strength. Ouellette points to a case of a 12-year-old girl overpowering four grown adult men as an example.
- Foaming at the mouth. This was reported in a 2016 case, which was attributed to the use of a Ouija board.
- Speaking a language they aren’t familiar with. Oftentimes, school records will be examined during the screening process to ensure that someone cannot or shouldn’t know whatever language they’re speaking. LaChance mentions the case of a four-year-old girl who was speaking such a rare, ancient form of Aramaic that a special interpreter had to be found to understand her.
- Knowledge of hidden things. For this, Ouellette cites a case where a victim knew what was going on with a prayer group in an adjacent building, without having any other way of knowing what was going on.
Ouellette offers up a few more symptoms, too, including a darkness in the eyes to the point where they may seem entirely black. Vivid nightmares are common, as is provocative sexual behavior toward the priest. As for those more dramatic, Hollywood-esque symptoms, like levitation, environmental disturbances or the moving of objects with one’s mind, Ouellette says they’re possible, but unlikely.
If you go through this rigorous screening process and it’s determined that you do indeed have some sort of demonic disturbance, it’s still not time for the “exorcism” that you’re familiar with from the movies. Thomas explains that, once he comes into the picture, he and his team — which consist of psychologists, a prayer group and others — are “listening for doorways” to determine how the demon became present in the first place. Once they figure that out, they can move onto trying to remove it.
Generally, all it takes to remove these dark forces is a deliverance, which is just a blessing that Thomas explains is a “mini-exorcism.” Usually these simple prayers to God will be enough to send the demon packing, but if not, then what they call a “formal exorcism” takes place.
LaChance explains that all exorcisms (Catholic ones, anyway) are pretty much the same, at least in terms of how they’re performed. “They’re very specific on how they do it. It’s always done in the same way,” he says. He continues that it’s a formal series of prayers that are laid out in the “Rite of Exorcism” (a sort of official handbook). The prayers are delivered in the same way each time, over a series of days, weeks, months or even years. LaChance says, “It generally doesn’t take an afternoon. Instead, it’s a cumulative effect where they are chipping away at the demon.”
As for the possessed, their (and/or the demon’s) reactions to this whole thing vary case-by-case. LaChance says that to get an idea of what can go on, check out the classic film The Exorcist. “While that movie may be a bit over-the-top, it does provide a good example of every possible thing that could happen.” From writhing and profanity, to bizarre singing and speaking in tongues, to urinating and throwing up, all of these things go on. “Except the head spinning,” LaChance helpfully clarifies.
Eventually, the Rite should take its toll on the evil force and it should leave, but the work doesn’t end there. Ouellette says that following an exorcism, the victim needs to do a lot of work to ensure they don’t end up in the same position again. “The demon leaves a void, and the victim needs to fill that void by changing their behavior and improving their relationship with God.” He compares it to the work needed following having a heart attack — if the patient eats junk food every day, the doctors may help him in the hospital, but the real work comes later when they need to fix their diet without medical supervision.
The same goes for the recently exorcised, although in this case, you probably wouldn’t want to have any kind of cheat day: When it comes to the Dark Lord of the Infernal Pit, it’s really best to stick to your diet.