[ek-sawr-siz-uhm, -ser-]
exorcism, ritual act of driving out evil demons or spirits from places, persons, or things in which they are thought to dwell. It occurs both in primitive societies and in the religions of sophisticated cultures. The term is applied to all those acts that seek to dispel or frighten away demons or spirits, as distinguished from those rites that aim at propitiating or evoking their assistance (see magic and shaman). Exorcism may be applied to a particular person or thing or may be used in a more general way. In central Europe during Walburga's night (or Walpurgishnacht, May 1), the traditional witches' sabbath, witches and demons are exorcised from the town by use of holy water, incense, and loud noises of all kinds. The scriptural justification for exorcism is found throughout the New Testament, and many instances of Jesus' ability to cast out devils are recorded.

Exorcism (from Late Latin exorcismus, from Greek exorkizein - to adjure) is the practice of evicting demons or other evil spiritual entities from a person or place which they are believed to have possessed. The practice is quite ancient and part of the belief system of many countries.

The person performing the exorcism, known as an exorcist, is often a member of the clergy, or an individual thought to be graced with special powers or skills. The exorcist may use prayers, and religious material, such as set formulas, gestures, symbols, icons, amulets, etc.. The exorcist often invokes God, Jesus and/or several different angels and archangels to intervene with the exorcism.

In general, possessed persons are not regarded as evil in themselves, nor wholly responsible for their actions. Therefore practitioners regard exorcism more as a cure than as a punishment. The mainstream rituals usually take this into account, making sure that there is no violence to the possessed, only that they be tied down if there is potential for violence.


The concept of possession by evil spirits and the practice of exorcism are very ancient and were widespread, and may have originated in prehistoric Shamanistic beliefs.

The Christian New Testament includes exorcism among the miracles performed by Jesus. Because of this precedent, demonic possession was part of the belief system of Christianity since its beginning, and exorcism is still a recognized practice of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant sects. The Church of England also has an official exorcist in each diocese.

After the enlightenment, the practice of exorcism has diminished in its importance to most religious groups and its use has decreased, especially in western society. Generally, in the 20th century its use was found mainly in Eastern Europe and Africa, with some cases gaining media coverage; Anneliese Michel is perhaps the most recent of these. This is due mainly to the study of psychology and the functioning and structure of the human mind. Many of the cases that in the past which were candidates for exorcism are often explained to be the products of mental illness, and are handled as such.

However in 1973 the motion picture The Exorcist came out, and the idea of Exorcisms became thrust into the limelight. After its release a very large response came from the public in the United States and Europe, and belief in Demon Possession and Exorcisms found a place in contemporary society. Belief in the validity of the practice became less of a radical idea, and more widespread.

Exorcism in Christianity


In Christianity, Exorcisms are performed using the "power of Christ" or "In the name of Jesus." This is founded in the belief that Jesus commanded his followers to expel evil spirits in His name(,; ; ),(). According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Exorcism: Jesus cast out demons as a sign of his Messiahship and empowered his disciples to do the same..=

The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus stated that Jesus "was devoted especially to casting out demons" and also believed that he passed this on to his followers, however he was superior to them in the Exorcisms.

In the time of Jesus, non-New Testament Jewish sources report of exorcisms done by administering drugs with poisonous root extracts or other by making sacrifices. (Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 3; Sanh. 65b). They do not report of Jesus being an exorcist, but do mention that exorcisms were done by the Essene branch of Judaism (Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran).

Roman Catholicism

The belief in Roman Catholicism is that unlike Baptism or Confession, Exorcism is one ritual that isn't a sacrament. Unlike a sacrament, exorcism's "integrity and efficacy do not depend ... on the rigid use of an unchanging formula or on the ordered sequence of prescribed actions. Its efficacy depends on two elements: authorization from valid and licit Church authorities, and the faith of the exorcist. That being said, Catholic Exorcism is still one of the most rigid and organized of all existing exorcism rituals. Solemn exorcisms, according to the Canon law of the church, can be exercised only by an ordained priest (or higher prelate), with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) enjoined: "Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite." Things listed in the Roman Ritual as being indicators of possible demonic possession include: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge; supernatural abilities and strength; knowledge of hidden or remote things which the possessed has no way of knowing, an aversion to anything holy, profuse blasphemy, or sacrilege.

The Catholic Church revised the Rite of Exorcism in January 1999, although the traditional Rite of Exorcism in Latin is allowed as an option. The act of exorcism is considered to be an incredibly dangerous spiritual task; the ritual assumes that possessed persons retain their free-will, though the demon may hold control over their physical body, and involves prayers, blessings, and invocations with the use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. Other formulas may have been used in the past, such as the Benedictine Vade retro satana. In the modern era, the Catholic Church authorizes exorcism rarely, approaching would-be cases with the presumption that mental or physical illness is in play. In mild cases the Chaplet of Saint Michael should be used.


In 1974, the Church of England set up the "Deliverance Ministry". As part of its creation every diocese in the country was equipped a team trained in both exorcism and psychiatry. According to its representatives most cases brought before it have conventional explanations and actual exorcisms are quite rare, though sometimes blessings are given to people for psychological reasons.

In The Episcopal Church the Book of Occasional Services discusses provision for exorcism; but it does not indicate any specific rite, nor does it establish an office of "exorcist". Diocesan exorcists usually continue in their role when they have retired from all other church duties. Anglican priests may not perform an exorcism without permission from the Diocesan bishop. An exorcism is not usually performed unless the bishop and his team of specialists (including a psychiatrist and physician) have approved it.

Protestant denominations

Some Protestant denominations also recognize possession and exorcism, although the practice is generally less formalized than it is in the Catholic Church. The Methodist Church also has appointed people in place for use in such circumstances. While some denominations perform exorcism very sparingly and cautiously, some may perform it almost routinely, as part of regular religious services.

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck researched exorcisms (initially in an effort to disprove demonic possession), and claims to have conducted two himself. He concluded that the Christian concept of possession was a genuine phenomenon. He derived diagnostic criteria somewhat different from those used by the Roman Catholic Church. He also claimed to see differences in exorcism procedures and progression. After his experiences and in an attempt to get his research validated, he has attempted to get the psychiatric community to add the definition of "Evil" to the DSMIV.


In the less formalized sections of Protestant denominations the ritual can take many forms and belief structures, especially in Charismatic movement. The most common of these is the Deliverance ceremony. This differs from the exorcism ceremony by the fact that the Devil may have gotten a foothold, into a persons life rather than gaining complete control if complete control has been gained a full fledged exorcism is necessary. However a "spirit filled Christian" can not be possessed based on their beliefs. Within this belief structure the reasons for the devil to get a foothold are usually explained to be some sort of deviation from theological doctrine or because of pre-conversion activities (like dealing with the occult).

The method for determining if a person needs a Deliverance is done by having someone present who has the gift of Discernments of Spirits. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit from Cor. 1:12 that allows a person to "sense" in some way an evil presence. While the initial diagnosis is usually uncontested by the congregation, when many people are endowed with this gift in a single congregation results may vary.

Fr. Gabriele Amorth references these people calling them "seers and Sensitives" and uses them on many occasions; they have the ability to detect an evil presence. He notes however that "They are not always right: their "feelings" must be checked out." In his examples they are able to detect the events that caused the Demon to enter, or are able to discover the evil object that has cursed the individual. He notes that "they are always Humble.

Exorcism in Scientology

Scientology believes that foreign beings known as Body Thetans have clustered themselves around a person and cause them confusion. It is the goal of Scientology to remove these beings from a person.

On Scientology advanced level "OT3", "body thetans" are exorcised using a complicated technique. Body thetan exorcism, with a simpler technique, is revisited on advanced level "OT5", also known as "New Era Dianetics for Operating Thetans. after these levels (which are used to accomplish other goals as well, not just an "exorcism" for Body Thetans) you are supposed to be free from the BT's influence. It should be noted that Scientologiest believe that Body thetans possess every person, except for those who have been exorcised.

Notable exorcisms

Salvador Dali is reputed to have received an exorcism from Italian friar, Gabriele Maria Berardi, while he was in France in 1947. Dali created a sculpture of Christ on the cross which he gave the friar in thanks.

Anneliese Michel was a Catholic woman from Germany who was said to be possessed by six or more demons and subsequently underwent an exorcism in 1975. Two motion pictures, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Requiem are loosely based on Anneliese's story.

A boy identified by the pseudonym "Roland Doe" was the subject of an exorcism in 1949, which became the subject of The Exorcist, a horror novel and later film written by William Peter Blatty. Blatty heard about the case while he was a student in the class of 1950 at Georgetown University. The exorcism was partially performed in both Cottage City, Maryland and Bel-Nor, Missouri by Father William S. Bowdern, S.J. and a then Jesuit scholastic Fr. Walter Halloran, S.J.

Scientific view

The Roman Ritual of exorcism cautions the priest to look for signs of mental and physical possession and the Catholic Church authorizes exorcism rarely, approaching would-be cases with the presumption that mental or physical illness is in play and employs mental health and medical professionals to rule out physical or mental causes before giving authorization. Many mental illnesses have been treated as demon possession, and show signs that are interpreted as such.

Demonic possession is not a valid psychiatric or medical diagnosis recognized by either the DSM-IV or the ICD-10. Those who profess a belief in demonic possession have sometimes ascribed the symptoms associated with mental illnesses such as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette's syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder to possession. In cases of dissociative identity disorder in which the alter personality is questioned as to its identity, 29% are reported to identify themselves as demons. Additionally, there is a form of monomania called demonomania or demonopathy in which the patient believes that he or she is possessed by one or more demons.

Medicine can explain some aspects of the "symptoms" shown by those persons allegedly possessed: it is known that "supernatural strength" is common in some cases of insanity (mania, energumens, etc.).

The fact that exorcism works on people experiencing symptoms of possession is attributed to placebo effect and the power of suggestion. Some supposedly possessed persons are actually narcissists or are suffering from low self-esteem and act a "demon possessed person" in order to gain attention.

Exorcism-related deaths and traumas

Exorcism and other forms of spiritual healing have been related to abuse and have been known to cause considerable physical harm to the exorcee, particularly when it is performed by those who believe that exorcism is necessarily a violent process. Notable cases include:

  • Anneliese Michel was a German college student who died after an exorcism. Her parents and the two Bavarian priests who carried out the exorcism were later convicted. The movies The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Requiem were based on her story.
  • Korean woman Joanna Lee died in early December 2001 during a violent and prolonged exorcism performed in Auckland, New Zealand by a Korean church minister. Her decomposing body was prayed over for several days before authorities were notified. During his subsequent trial, Luke Lee claimed that Joanna Lee would rise from the dead in a few days. Lee was imprisoned but has appealed the conviction.
  • Kyung-A Ha was beaten to death in 1995 in San Francisco, California by members of the Jesus-Amen Ministries.
  • Kyung Jae Chung died in 1996 in Glendale, California from blunt-force trauma inflicted by her husband (a reverend) and members of the Glendale Korean Methodist Church.
  • Charity Miranda was suffocated with a plastic bag in 1998 in Sayville, New York by her mother and sister during a Cuban Voodoo exorcism ritual.
  • Terrance Cottrell Jr., an eight-year-old autistic child, died of asphyxiation in 2003 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during an exorcism carried out by members of the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, in an attempt to expel the boy's demons. The coroner ruled that the boy died "due to external chest compression" as the part-time pastor lay on top of him. On July 10, 2004, the pastor was convicted of child abuse.
  • In 2007, a 3-year-old girl in Phoenix, Arizona was hospitalized after being choked by her grandfather, Ronald Marquez, during an exorcism. Police are investigating "other possible abuses" and potential criminal charges against the mother, who has not been arrested, but found bloody and naked chanting "something that was religious in nature" while the child crying, screaming, and gasping was held in a headlock, squeezed, and choked by the woman's father. The man was eventually subdued by police officers with a stun gun after a struggle and arrested. He initially appeared normal, but stopped breathing at the scene and could not be revived. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
  • In March 1992, in Oldham, UK, Kauser Bashir, a 20-year-old woman who had a history of mental illness was claimed as being possessed and beaten to death by two Muslim holy men - Mohammed Bashir (no relation) and Nourani Sayeed. With the family's consent, the exorcism performed on her lasted 8 days. She died whilst being starved of food and sleep for eight days. She was made to eat chili powder, suffered 17 broken ribs, a broken breastbone and was cut three times between her breasts. The two men were later convicted and imprisoned with life sentences. On the same date exactly 14 years later the murder victim’s father, Mohammed Bashir dosed in petrol burnt himself to death - at exactly the same location.
  • In November 2007, New Zealand woman Janet Moses died after a prolonged exorcism of a matuku (a Maori curse). Moses apparently died from waterlogging in the presence of 40 extended family members. Moses'cousin was later admitted to hospital with severe gouges to her eyes and bruising after another exorcism, when family members attacked her to remove a 'devil' which they saw in her eyes.
  • In June 2005, a a 23 year old Romanian Orthodox nun named Maricica Irina Cornici died. She had initially been treated for schizophrenia, after she heard a voice telling her she was sinful, but after she relapsed, a monk, Daniel Petre Corogeanu, and four other nuns tried exorcism. She was bound to a cross, gagged, and left this way in a convent basement for three days, where she died of dehydration and suffocation.
  • In February 2008, Odessa, Texas resident Jan David Clark was charged with the murder of his wife, Susan Kay Clark. He claimed that the devil caused her death by entering his body while he was holding her face down on a carpeted bathroom floor during an exorcism. Preliminary autopsy results showed the cause of death to be suffocation. Her body was found in their home, wrapped in a sheet with a sword and cross placed on top of it.

Exorcism in popular culture

Exorcism has been a popular subject in fiction, especially horror.

See also


Further reading

  • William Baldwin, D.D.S., Ph.D., "Spirit Releasement Therapy". ISBN 1-88-265800-0. Practitioner & Instructor of Spirit Releasement Therapy, containing an extensive biliography.
  • Shakuntala Modi, M.D., "Remarkable Healings, A Psychiatrist Discovers Unsuspected Roots of Mental and Physical Illness." ISBN 1-57174-079-1 Gives cases, and statistical summaries of the kinds of maladies remedied by this therapy.
  • Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil. ISBN 0-06-065337-X.
  • M. Scott Peck, Glimpses of the Devil : A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption. ISBN 0-7432-5467-8
  • Max Heindel, The Web of Destiny (Chapter I - Part III: "The Dweller on the Threshold"--Earth-Bound Spirits, Part IV: The "Sin Body"--Possession by Self-Made Deamons--Elementals, Part V: Obsession of Man and of Animals), ISBN 0-911274-17-0,

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