Exorcisms are on the rise among middle-class Americans and Hollywood and the pop entertainment culture is the driving force, says Sociology Professor Michael Cuneo, Ph.D. Cuneo has attended at least 50 exorcisms across the country and says they have become an acceptable alternative to therapy for many desperate people.
“There is an unbelievable variety of exorcism ministries catering to middle-class Americans who are resorting to exorcisms at an unprecedented rate,” he said. “Hollywood and the pop entertainment industry has done a lot to advertise exorcisms in the last 30 years and it has really made it very real and acceptable to many people. We underestimate the potential impact the popular entertainment industry has on our everyday beliefs.”
Cuneo’s research will be published this fall in American Exorcism (Doubleday). He says he approached this book the same way he does every topic – with a scientific eye, a healthy dose of Canadian skepticism and an open mind. What he found was that nothing he witnessed was inexplicable. “Sometimes I was the only one in the room who didn’t see a body levitate or see a head turn around,” he said. “My goal was to try to account for things in cultural, sociological or psychological terms, and I could explain everything I saw.” However, for the people who believed they were possessed and for those who were trying to cast evil out, the process seemed to work.
Cuneo said that the exorcisms that he witnessed seemed to act as a salve for emotionally exhausted or ill people who had made little progress with traditional therapy. “These people are the center of attention, receiving the compassionate care and administration of an exorcist team,” he said. “This itself can have healing capabilities and is very similar to the care and attention people seek from a therapist.” Exorcism is also perceived as a “quick fix” in our fast-paced society, with the wondrous added benefit of being exculpatory.
This gives it a tremendous edge over traditional psychotherapy. “We live in a therapy-mad culture and so many Americans are looking for quick solutions to their problems and exorcisms fit into that pattern beautifully,” he said. “Exorcism is a therapy. It may be a bit messy, but it is relatively fast, cleansing and inexpensive. And, at least in the short term, the people seem to get better. I don’t know how long that lasts because I didn’t follow these people for a long period of time. But, in the short term, it seemed to work.”
As far as the process goes, exorcisms come in all shapes and sizes and occur in nearly every state in the union. Community exorcisms can include 100 to 300 people in a theater, basement or auditorium, while private exorcisms can be done in a home or office. “I’ve sat in on all different exorcisms,” Cuneo said. “I’ve been in auditoriums filled with 300 people with delirious symptoms, ripping their hair out, howling, throwing up … It’s really quite amazing. I’ve also been to private exorcisms where there are one or two people.”
While Cuneo believes society’s embracement of this seemingly exotic practice is tied to Hollywood and is American as apple pie, those who expel the devil from the “inflicted” believe it is a serious business. “Some will tell you American society has lost its religious traditions and some will say that because of mysterious reasons, Satan and the devil are more active today,” Cuneo said. “They all have their theories and all believe, very strongly, in what they do.” What Cuneo took away from his research is the belief that “even seemingly outlandish and exotic rituals still have the capacity to deliver therapeutic benefits,” he said. “We are impressionable as a people and as a culture.” Cuneo’s last book, The Smoke of Satan, was reviewed by dozens of publications, including The New York Times and The New York Review of Books.
Cuneo’s next book takes him to the Missouri Ozarks and promises to be a wild ride. It will tell the story of Darrell Mease, who, after committing a triple homicide, took off on a raucous road trip with his girlfriend, was caught, imprisoned, found God, then was found by Pope John Paul II, who saved Mease from the electric chair. The book will be out in 2002.