TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

The Devil’s in the Details
Written by Denis Faye


WHERE TO LOOK

Not surprisingly, the topic of exorcism attracts some, ahem, “special” people, so you need to be careful in your research. The Wild West nature of the Internet makes it less than ideal, although you can find some fairly objective reporting on the topic at sites such as CatholicCulture.org.  

You also need to be mindful when you’re searching in the print world. “Most books on exorcism are either written by true believers or out-and-out skeptics, so I definitely recommend being selective,” suggests Baglio, who looked to the works of historian Jeffrey Burton Russell in researching his own book. “(He) has written some great books on Satan and the Devil.”  

Another good starting point would be An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories, both written by Father Gabriele Amorth, an Italian Roman Catholic priest and the closest thing the demonic possession world has to a rock star, with over 70,000 exorcisms performed and counting.  

To learn more about angels and demons, Baglio recommends The Angels, by Father Pascal P. Parente. On the scientific side, he suggests Multiple Identities & False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective, by Nicholas P. Spanos, and Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence, edited by Etzel Cardeña, Steven Jay Lynn, and Stanley Krippner.  

And, of course, Baglio’s book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist is a great resource, including the theological and historical aspects of exorcism but focusing more on what it’s like to be an exorcist and actually perform the ritual. It also contains a fantastic bibliography.  

Matt Baglio wrote the book on exorcism.

Okay, so technically, he wrote a book on exorcism, but it’s an impressive one. A few years ago, as a freelance journalist living in Rome, Baglio got wind of a Vatican-affiliated university that purported to train exorcists. He decided to check it out.

“Right away I had many of my preconceptions reversed about the reality of exorcism,” Baglio explains. “I met an American Catholic priest who had come to Rome to become an exorcist, and he agreed to allow me to follow him through this training.”

The experience resulted in The Rite, in which Baglio attempted to, as he puts it, “express the reality of exorcism as it is seen today in the Catholic Church, but through the eyes of this journey of a priest just getting started who is not sure what to believe himself.”

And he succeeded, particularly in Hollywood’s eyes, given the book was quickly optioned and produced into the current film starring Anthony Hopkins, from a script written by Michael Petroni.

Baglio spoke recently with Technically Speaking about some the better known exorcism films, as well as what he’d like to see more of on-screen. His biggest note? If you’re working on an exorcism script, you should never underestimate the intelligence of the exorcist and – more importantly – the intelligence of the demon. It’s not all about head spinning and pea soup.

What does Hollywood get right about exorcisms?  

Surprisingly a lot, it’s just that they ramp up the action and take those rare “once in a lifetime cases” and offer them as the norm. I asked many exorcists about the accuracy of Hollywood films like The Exorcist [Written by William Peter Blatty]. Most of them told me that the film is accurate, however it’s clear that certain things have been embellished. Real-life exorcists have seen some pretty harrowing things (one saw a woman vomit up a live toad), but they almost never all happen in one case, and certainly not to the extent that Hollywood portrays. Most exorcisms are quite mundane and can last a very short time, sometimes only 20 minutes, with the person then going on about their day as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I talked with several people that claimed to be possessed and to me they were all quite normal; none of them looked “possessed” in the way you would expect to see in films like The Exorcist.

What do that they get wrong?  

One thing is that exorcism is a one shot deal that if the demon isn’t cast out right away then the exorcism is a failure. Real exorcism is more of a journey and can last months, even years. Usually the people undergoing exorcism (especially here in Italy) will be prayed over for only 20 to 30 minutes at a time. The exorcist is also very calm in the way he goes about praying. He isn’t shouting or yelling for dramatic effect. Instead many pray the ritual under their breath with their eyes down. Occasionally they will use holy water or their stole, but most of the time they simply pray the ritual straight through and ignore the person.

Another thing that pop culture and especially the media gets wrong is the idea that these Catholic exorcists are fundamentalist types who are trying to convince people that they are possessed. In reality the opposite is usually true, especially in Italy. Many exorcists have doctorates, speak several languages and all of them believe in the benefits of modern medicine. The ritual requires that the exorcist work with psychiatrists and psychologists to screen people before he is allowed to perform an exorcism. In addition, many use little tricks of their own, such as using unblessed holy water to see if the person will react and thereby prove they are faking. As one exorcist told me when a person comes to see him and says right away that they are suffering from a demonic possession then he knows it’s not the case. So they are not looking to find a possession and certainly don’t see the devil as a cause of every problem.

What are your favorite exorcism movies?  

I have to admit that I haven’t seen many. I wasn’t fascinated by this topic before I began the book, and I certainly didn’t watch any movies as a part of my research. I did see the Exorcism of Emily Rose [Written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson] and really liked it. The Exorcist is a classic. I have very high hopes for the film adaptation of my book, which I think will really help to reinvent the genre. I was on set for the production and the performances by the actors really blew me away. Some people will be surprised to see exorcism presented the way that it is in our film.

Which ones didn't sit well with you?  

Movies that don’t deal with the deeper and intellectual side of evil will always fall short. When you read the theology behind the fallen angels, demons are said to be intellectual spirits that know our weaknesses and how to exploit them. During exorcisms the more powerful demons are said to be able to confound the exorcist in a variety of ways that deal with their superior knowledge of human nature. If you take that element out of the equation then all you have are mindless monsters and you lose a lot of the spiritual significance.

What would you like to see in an exorcism movie?  

I’d like to see a film that shows the broader and more modern side of exorcism. Most films about exorcism deal with a single case involving a girl, but the reality is that many different types of people come to see an exorcist. One of the things that surprised me about my research was that exorcisms don’t take place in these out of the way Gothic monasteries, but instead right in the heart of the city, oftentimes in churches visited by tourists. In addition exorcists can be pretty savvy and urbane. It would be nice to see this sophistication reflected in a film as well.

Is accuracy all that important in making a movie about exorcism?  

That depends on the impact you’d like to have. For me accuracy is very important. There are certain “rules” to the world of exorcism, and it is important to know what those are if you are going to try to portray it in a film or book. The more accurate you can be with everything the more people will believe in the reality of the world you are reporting on. To me this was paramount when I wrote the book because the topic itself is so sensational that when you can ground it in real world facts, it makes it all the more jarring.

What advice do you have for a writer embarking on an exorcism script?  

When it comes to exorcism, truth is definitely stranger than fiction so try to get out and interview as many people as you can. There is no substitute for going to the places where exorcisms are performed or sitting down with real exorcists to ask them what they’ve seen. The theology behind exorcism is also important so as to understand the context. Exorcisms don’t happen in a vacuum. There is a rich history behind the ritual, and the more you know it, the more confidence you’ll have when it comes to writing about it.

Do you believe in demon possession?  

I was able to interview victims and see about 30 exorcisms. I didn’t see anything that convinced me that the problems these people were having were caused by demons, but I talked to enough people (including skeptics and physicians) to realize that there are still a few cases where something real is going on that defies current scientific explanation. These would be cases that go beyond a priest confusing schizophrenia with demonic possession and involve real paranormal events – a person being able to read the exorcist’s mind or respond to mental questions, or objects disappearing or levitating in front of several witnesses. Being the curious person I am I would dearly love if science could explain what is going on, but until then, it would be premature to write off the phenomena entirely.