What an Excellent Day for an Exorcism

ExorcistStepsThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the movie version of The Exorcist so around Halloween news articles about the book, the movie, and the actual events that inspired both began to pop up all over. I would like to take this fortieth anniversary to reflect a little on the role of gender in the understanding of possession, both as it is portrayed in popular culture (The Exorcist) and through history. My interest in this topic comes from my love affair with the movie. Having been an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I saw the movie five times in my four years there – once every Halloween when the university would show the film in Gaston Hall and once in theaters when “the version you’ve never seen” was released. I also have a vivid memory of reading the whole book one Saturday my sophomore year because although I started it in the morning, it took me into the evening to finish it and I remember coming downstairs to see my roommates saying, “I couldn’t be up there by myself anymore.” Scary stuff.

Since the exorcism that inspired the book took place primarily in St. Louis with Jesuits from Saint Louis University, this year the SLU Library and Office of Mission and Ministry hosted a panel discussion with University Archivist John Waide, Jesuit historian John Padberg, SJ, and Thomas Allen, author of Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism. The original exorcism involved a young boy from Maryland who eventually came to St. Louis where the ritual took place. I attended the immensely popular panel to hear about Allen’s research into the events. Allen’s talk highlighted the different evaluations of the events – whether or not it was considered a true form of demonic possession – coming from both the Jesuit who evaluated the events for the archdiocese and those who took part in it (though those who took part in the exorcism ultimately came to differing conclusions as well).

But what struck me about the whole event was a distinction that Fr. Padberg made between different types of demonic attacks, which he mentioned before talking at length about the seventeenth-century demonic possession at Loudun. The exorcist in that case was another Jesuit, Jean-Joseph Surin, SJ, who I’ve done some research into in other contexts, and who, according to Fr. Padberg, in the end successfully drove the demon out of the Ursuline nun by calling the demon to come into himself (which should be familiar to anyone who knows The Exorcist).

In my dissertation research, I recently finished reading Being Interior: Autobiography and the Contradictions of Modernity in Seventeenth-Century France by Nicholas Paige which discusses (among other texts) Fr. Surin’s autobiographical writing about the possession and the demon’s attack on himself.[i] Now, what caught my eye was a claim that Paige makes about Fr. Surin, of which I was reminded by Fr. Padberg’s talk. Paige states that according to Fr. Surin’s autobiographical account, he underwent a form of demonic obsession, not possession (which had been the case of the nun). The overall point that Paige makes here is the difference between possession (in which the subject is entirely passive) and obsession (in which the subject is involved wholly). Paige explains:

To seventeenth-century demonologists, obsession was the flip side of possession. Furetière, in his 1690 dictionary, defines it as a state in which “les demons, sans entrer dans le corps d’une personne, le tourmentent et l’affligent au-dehors” (demons, without entering the body, torment and afflict the person externally). Furetière’s definition is in one sense an accurate rendering of a distinction new to seventeenth-century demonology, and seems to fit the events of Loudun well. Unlike the case of the possessed Jeanne des Anges, demons did not speak through Surin’s body. But it is equally true that in Surin’s own somewhat idiosyncratic view, obsession was a much more serious perturbation than possession. Devils are inside the possessed, but only in bodily terms, not in terms of spiritual interiority; the possessed is invaded, but her identity itself is not destabilized.[ii]

Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the Italian exorcist, makes similar distinctions. He describes possession as “when Satan takes full possession of the body (not the soul); he speaks and acts without the knowledge or consent of the victim, who therefore is morally blameless.”[iii] Obsession, in contrast, he describes as having symptoms of “sudden attacks, at times ongoing, of obsessive thoughts, sometimes even rationally absurd, but of such nature that the victim is unable to free himself. Therefore the obsessed person lives in a perpetual state of prostration, desperation, and attempts at suicide. Almost always obsession influences dreams.”[iv] Although he doesn’t make the distinction about the involvement of the mind and the will as explicit as Paige does in his text, the distinction is there. Obsession involves thoughts entering one’s mind; possession involves the body, but not the mind. And, as Paige explains, Fr. Surin himself thought obsession the more dangerous spiritual attack. In a note, he quotes Surin’s account as saying:

Obsession is much more damaging to the soul than possession. The demon makes use of the body of the possessed in order to carry out many unruly actions, and of her tongue in order to utter blasphemies and horrors; and [yet] while he carries on in this way, the soul is most often united with God, [and] enjoys and possesses him in a profound peace. … In obsession the demon acts on the powers of the soul through the mind, the imagination, and all the faculties, using a thousand temptations, and makes every effort to lead the soul into sin.[v]

What is particularly interesting in Paige’s analysis is the gender distinction in Fr. Surin’s case. Jeanne des Anges was possessed. She had no agency in the attack and though her body was used by the demon, her mind, will, and soul were unaffected. Fr. Surin, in contrast, was attacked through his mind and will, an attack much more perilous for his soul. As Paige explains further:

Thus, if the possessed’s body is a docile instrument, her mind remains steady, and her interiority intact, whereas obsession qualifies as a true spiritual crisis. From a gendered perspective, such a distinction is important, for the possessed woman is denied agency; her body is the theater on which male exorcists prove their power, and the privileges of successful spiritual combat do not accrue to her. The obsessed man, on the other hand, engages in precisely the valiant inner combat denied to the possessed woman.[vi]

Thus, in this case of the possession at Loudun, we have an interesting separation between what happens to the (female) Ursuline nun (possession) and what happens to (the male) Fr. Surin after he calls the demon into himself (obsession). The nun is passive, both during the demonic attack and Fr. Surin’s exorcism[vii], while Fr. Surin is the agent in both the exorcism, his own attack from the demon (calling the demon into himself), and in the subsequent obsession.

All this made me wonder about the history of possession. Were women seen generally more susceptible to possession than men? [viii] Before the modern era, were the majority of exorcisms performed on women instead of men? Did the – what we would now call – misogynistic views about women influence the way in which the Catholic Church approached spiritual combat? Interestingly, Fr. Amorth comments, “Several times I have been told that I exorcise more women than men. This is true for all exorcists. It is not a mistake to think that women are more exposed to evil attacks than men. Men and women are not exposed in the same manner. It is also true that women are much more inclined than men to turn to an exorcist for a ‘blessing’.”[ix]

This gender distinction I find particularly interesting in light of William Peter Blatty’s adaptation of the story of the 1949 exorcism that took place in St. Louis into the book and the film. The 1949 exorcism was on a boy; Blatty adapted this story and switched the gender to that of a girl. Thus, although originally inspired by the story of the St. Louis exorcism, what occurs in The Exorcist mirrors the gender distinctions of the possession at Loudun in which a young girl is the passive instrument of both the possession and the exorcism while two Jesuit priests are the active forces of the exorcism, ultimately freeing the young girl only when one of them calls the demon into himself.


[i] Paige examines the development of the autobiographic mentality in early modern France, which he finds mostly in the form of religious autobiography. Interestingly, he notes that the development of the genre was very gendered, in that it was women religious primarily who were initially developing this form of writing (along with their spiritual directors/confessors).

[ii] Nicholas D. Paige, Being Interior: Autobiography and the Contradictions of Modernity in Seventeenth-Century France, New Cultural Studies (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 185-6.

[iii] Gabriele Amorth, An Exorcist Tells His Story, trans. Nicoletta V. MacKenzie (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999), 33.

[iv] Ibid., 34.

[v] As cited in Paige, Being Interior, 279n14.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Though, Paige does note that Fr. Surin promoted an interior exorcism in which Jeanne des Anges had some agency.

[viii] I recognize that the possessed woman and obsessed man distinction is not universal. As a colleague from SLU pointed out to me, most of the biblical examples of the exorcisms by Jesus appear to be on men. The only examples of women that I can think of is the reference in Luke’s Gospel to there being among the followers of Jesus “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” (Luke 8:2) and of the Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Interestingly, in contrast to the men Jesus exorcised, who are all present and through which the demons speak to Jesus, we do not get the story of the women who had been cured of evil spirits and the Canaanite woman’s daughter is not actually present when she pleads with Jesus to heal her. But perhaps someone who is a biblical scholar would know more than I about the gender distinctions of biblical possession. Additionally, Foucault references the example of the “obsessed woman” in discussing possession, but his lack of citations of actual historical evidence make it next to impossible to follow up on any of his claims (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990), 117).

[ix] Amorth, An Exorcist Tells His Story, 114.

4 thoughts on “What an Excellent Day for an Exorcism

  1. Thanks Elissa, I really enjoyed this, especially because of my shared love for The Exorcist and Georgetown. I have two questions:

    (1) do you know if/how, in the original exorcism that inspired Blatty, the boy was active in some sense or had agency in the process? I’m wondering also if a further dimension might be child/adult

    (2) do you think moments in the film (like when it says “Help Me” on Regan’s skin) that Blatty might have been trying to show some agency on her part?

    • In response to your first question, I don’t know. I read the diary kept by the exorcist when it was posted online a while back (see: http://www.ksdk.com/news/article/345307/3/Witness-to-evil-Priests-diary-of-SLU-exorcism), but I don’t remember anything in there that would suggest agency on the part of the boy in the process of the exorcism. The point with possession, as the descriptions I’ve included in the post indicate, is that you precisely lose your agency in that your body is taken over by the demon.

      (In terms of the child/adult distinction that you’re making, are you comparing the children from the St. Louis exorcism and The Exorcist with the nun in the possession of Loudun?)

      For the second, maybe. Though ultimately she’s not doing anything to exorcise the demon so I wouldn’t say it’s agency in relation to the exorcism. It’s also illustrating the separation between her soul and what’s going on with her body — she’s trapped in there while the demon has control over her body.

  2. Enjoyed the post — so interesting the concept of obsession and possession.
    I was in high school when the movie came out and my parents did not allow me to see it. :)
    In reading the title of your post, I thought it was going to be about the bishop in Illinois who has decided to exorcise the demonic gay people now that the state has opted for legalizing gay marriage.
    Probably not worth the “ink.”

  3. Hi Elissa.

    Excellent first post. I said on facebook that this post reminded me of the tv show Supernatural, where the two male protagonists regularly used the Latin Rite of Exorcism the first three seasons at least. I will try to write out my thoughts on a blog post.

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