Hollywood loves exorcisms. The head-spinning! The pea soup! The drama! Its latest foray into demonic possession is The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died during her exorcism in 1976 (see box). But Hollywood isn't the only place where exorcisms are a hot topic. Worldwide, exorcisms are on the rise, and the Vatican recently sanctioned its first course to teach about exorcism. Anticipating the market, the Vatican also has a new set of exorcism guidelines—the first since 1614.

WHY ARE EXORCISMS BECOMING MORE COMMON?
Exorcisms aren't just for Catholics. Rev. Bob Larson, an evangelical minister based in the U.S. who says he conducts hundreds of exorcisms annually, has noticed a significant increase in the last half-decade. The reason? "Moral decay," he says. "The violence, drugs and sex abuse. You don't have to look further than BTK, who says he has demons." In Italy, some 500,000 people are seeking out exorcists each year, according to the Association of Italian Catholic Psychiatrists and Psychologists. Carlo Climati, a representative for the Regina Apostolorum, Rome's pontifical university, blames the country's growing fascination with the occult. The church accepts only a small percentage of those claims as legitimate; nonetheless, Rome's chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, is booked months in advance. Says Amorth: "People come to me saying, 'You are my last hope.'"

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF POSSESSION?
According to Father Thomas Weinandy, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, if you or a loved one has an aversion to sacred objects (like holy water and the cross), displays superhuman strength or has the sudden ability to speak in foreign languages never studied, then an exorcism may be in order. The new course in Rome teaches priests to use psychiatric evaluation to distinguish between mental illness and possession.

WHAT ABOUT HEAD-SPINNING?
"I don't know if the head-spinning is an actual historical case but there is some very bizarre behavior, like people climbing the walls," says Father Weinandy. On two occasions, Father Amorth says, he has had glass, keys and nails spat at him. "The objects materialize the instant they come out of the mouth," he says. Amorth also claims that one man "rose 40 centimeters [about a foot and a half] off the ground."

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY?
"Every one of these cases can be attributed to a mental disorder, most often schizophrenia," says Dr. Bernard Vittone, director of the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression. "In schizophrenia, the cardinal symptom is the delusion of being controlled." Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry, who has investigated cases of possession for over 30 years, says bluntly: "There is no scientific evidence in any of these cases that anyone showed supernatural strength."

HOW DO YOU PERFORM AN EXORCISM?
During the Catholic ritual, the exorcist sprinkles the possessed with holy water, reads a litany of saints and Biblical passages, then those in the room recite the Our Father. After showing the cross, the priest recites a gentle formula ("God please take care of this person and dismiss the demon"). If that doesn't work, the priest resorts to stronger commands. "Usually that is when things get going," says Father Herbert Ryan, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University. "It is very frightening, let me assure you."

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE POSSESSED?
"Since I was a child I was aware of the presence of entities tormenting me," says a 37-year-old Italian woman who wishes to remain anonymous. "My parents thought I was crazy." She says after seeking help for depression and stomach pains, "I realized I had problems mainstream medicine could not cure." She has since sought help from a half-dozen exorcists. During numerous exorcisms, she suffered stiff limbs, abdominal and head pains and shortness of breath. She was also aware of speaking gibberish in a childish voice. Today she feels better and no longer undergoes the rite, but "If I don't drink the exorcised water," she says, "the stomach pains come back."

CAN EXORCISM BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH?
Anneliese Michel, who died of malnourishment, "is the only case I have ever heard of this happening," says Father Ryan. However, "people helping in the exorcism can get tossed around like volleyballs," he says. "Black and blue, ribs broken. It is a mess. But the priest, he is holding the cross and that is great protection."

Ericka Sóuter. Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin, Silvia Sansoni in Rome and Rose Ellen O'Connor in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Silvia Sansoni,
  • Rose Ellen O'Connor.