American exorcism

Michael W Cuneo. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty.
Bantam Books, 2002.

An account of Cuneo's encounters as an 'investigative sociologist' and observer among both Protestant and Catholic exorcists in the USA. Cuneo argues that the exorcism industry has grown into the mainstream of American culture, from a nearly forgotten backwater, following the publicity surrounding the film The Exorcist. The film and subsequent best-selling books such as Malachi Martin's semi-pornographic Hostage to the Devil constructed images of what possession means and how it can be dealt with. Exorcism ministries grew up in a variety of charismatic, evangelical and theologically conservative groups across the United States.

In his searches Cuneo never actually comes across the sort of dramatic events he hears about, such as levitations and heads turning 180 degrees, though there is one occasion where everyone else present swears such a levitation takes place, but Cuneo sees nothing. One of the more rational Catholic exorcists having 'seen' such a levitation himself, now thinks that in some sense his senses were enchanted, and not by demons.

Those coming for exorcism suffer usually from a variety of anxieties; some would no doubt be diagnosed as suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder and others from depressions of various severities. Others just seem to have normal human problems. Indeed the main problem is their quite natural inability to achieve the impossible perfectionist demands of their sub-culture. In this, though it looks traditional, modern day exorcism is very much an integral part of the contemporary therapeutic culture with its presentation of everyone as a victim (it's not me guv, it's the demons), and its own perfectionism. The exorcists summon up dozens of demons to account for every human situation; the psychiatrists have ranges of diagnoses for an equal number of ordinary human situations. Behind both likes a perfectionism in which happiness is not just guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence but mandatory, and if you are not permanently happy and satisfied you have a problem which needs professional help to solve.

If there is a lacuna in this book, it is perhaps the lack of attention to the deeper sociological causes of the exorcism movement. The Exorcist was surely a child of its times; it is no coincidence that its 'victim' is a teenage girl who violates the community's sense of appropriate behaviour; she is sexually aggressive, foul mouthed and dirty, all phenomena of the 1960s youth rebellion. The Exorcist portrays the priest-hero (Cuneo's phrase) as defending traditional religious and social values against disturbing forces, of reinforcing the boundaries of culture against the wild things outside.

Cuneo shows how the image of the priest-hero was attractive to many priests who found their traditional patriarchal role threatened by theological and social liberalism. In the Protestant exorcism groups, there is the equal suspicion that what is really being exorcised is secular modernity itself.

More could have been made of the very high profile of women in many of these groups, as both victims and 'discerners of spirits'. Women also have high profiles in possession cults in other cultures. As victims they can give vent to frustrations and aggressive tendencies repressed by the culture, and blame the demons. As sniffers out of spirits (yes many discerners claim to detect the possessed by their body odour) they can gain power and status in cultures where they are usually expected to be submissive to male authority.

As a good sociologist Cuneo won't pronounce as to whether 'real' demons exist, though readers can form their own opinions. As to exorcism he is ambivalent; as a placebo it may often be of real therapeutic value, but its culture of passing the buck onto the demons and the quick fix solution make him uneasy.

Magonia readers will find many of his insights into the role of popular culture in the promotion of 'deep' beliefs and experiences, and in world view and perception building, applicable across a range of topics.

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