When The Devils portrayed demon possession on the movie screen—and did it graphically—hardly a viewer’s eyebrow or a critic’s index finger was raised in protest or horror. That was 1971.

But for audiences, reporters, critics, priests, and theologians in 1974, the scenario seems different. The Exorcist, released just in time for the Christmas theater rush, has had more bad reviews and more publicity than any other film in recent memory. Last month it received four Golden Globe awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, among them the award for best picture of the year. Some people stand in line six to eight hours to see the film only to leave before it’s over. Ushers in the twenty-four theaters where the film is showing are said to carry smelling salts to revive those who faint. Nausea is another common occurrence. In its first week The Exorcist grossed $1.8 million (it cost $10 million to film), and some observers predict it will outgross The God-father, which brought in $105 million last year.

But the real interest in the Warner Brothers film lies not in its horror, though there’s plenty of that, but in its underlying presupposition that demon possession exists and that therefore exorcism (the expelling of an evil spirit) is necessary. Such an idea has not been widely held for many years, much less openly discussed and considered, though Protestant and Catholic groups have continued to perform exorcisms—a fact all but overlooked by the media until the release of The Exorcist.

Father Edmund G. Ryan, administrative affairs executive at Georgetown University, where the filming took place, says exorcism of a person is extremely rare in the Catholic Church. “We have no way of knowing how rare, since the records are kept secret,” he explains. The Catholic church differentiates between obsession and possession, as well. In obsession, he says, a demon enters the person’s surroundings, such as his home, but not his body. Some of the most recently publicized cases of exorcism fall into that category, he points out.

In one of those cases the home of a Daly City, California, family was exorcised (freed of a demon) last September by Karl Patzelt of the Catholic Russian Center in San Francisco. The young couple, who first noticed some unusual occurrences in 1972, moved twice during the ordeal, but without losing the demon (or demons). It (or they) set fire to chairs, towels, and wallpaper, threw objects, choked the couple, and even ate part of a sandwich, Patzelt told reporters. The only time the family experienced any relief was between 4 and 6 A.M. Patzelt, who is described by Ryan as an “arch-conservative Catholic,” performed the rite (a twenty-seven-page series of prayers and supplications for the demon to depart and never return) fourteen times in both Latin and English.

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The archdiocese of San Francisco, fearing that the publicity about the exorcism will benefit The Exorcist, a film the diocesan newspaper calls “questionable,” stated that “it is highly regrettable that the story of the Bay area exorcism ever became public.” Although Patzelt disagrees with the archdiocese’s estimation of the film, he apparently agrees that the publicity is harmful, and he refuses to discuss the case with reporters.

Many priests, Ryan among them, label the film unchristian, unrealistic, and potentially harmful. In the original case on which the story is based (see February 1 issue, page 16) Ryan claims the boy experienced no physical deterioration. (In the film the little girl undergoes a horrible metamorphosis.) “The film also gives the impression that the priest, and not God through his grace, performed the exorcism. But the priest in such a situation is only a minister,” explains the priest, adding that the most unfortunate aspect of the movie is how it “obscures the Christian message.”

Georgetown University psychologist Juan B. Cortes, who unlike Ryan denies the existence of demons, fears the film will produce an exorcism-crazed populace. Although Ryan, too, fears the publicity (he has been asked if the Jesuits produced the film for promotional purposes), he admits that so far there have been fewer than fifty telephone calls to Georgetown about exorcism.

According to the chancery office in the Washington, D. C., diocese, the Catholic Church normally receives some 500 requests a year for exorcisms. Each is referred to a local priest who then investigates the case before deciding on the validity of the request. The procedure, regulated by canon law, calls for a thorough investigation of the “patient,” both somatically and psychosomatically, before exorcism is considered. “Before the priest undertakes an exorcism he ought diligently to inquire into the life of the possessed, into his condition, reputation, health and other circumstances,” warns a 1583 statement formulated at the National Synod of Rheims in France. If the investigating priest decides an exorcism is warranted, he takes the case to his bishop, who approves and assigns the task to a priest of “profound prayer life and distinct holiness,” to quote a Los Angeles priest.

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Until December 31, 1972, all ordained Catholic priests were trained to be exorcists; four minor orders (porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte) were required steps leading to the priesthood. But Pope Paul VI eliminated two of the orders, including that of exorcist.

The Protestant wing of Christianity also has its exorcists, though the form of exorcism differs from denomination to denomination. In some charismatic circles the use of exorcism is all too common. Approximately twenty priests in the Church of England perform the rite; the vicar of St. Saviour in Hampstead says he has officiated at 2,000 exorcisms in the past five years. According to author-professor John Warwick Montgomery, an out-of-print liturgical rite of exorcism exists in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions. Montgomery, who performed an exorcism about ten years ago in Canada, used a modified form of the Roman rite, eliminating the prayers to the Virgin Mary and the saints. “In my case I was fortunate,” he said. “Once was enough. Some cases require several sessions.”

For members of non-liturgical denominations the form and method of exorcism is a matter of concern. Theology professor Roger Nicole of Gordon-Conwell seminary, a Baptist, warns against the misuse of exorcism. “Some people of charismatic persuasion,” he explains, “tend to find every theological disagreement a matter for exorcism.” Although he has never been involved with an actual case of demon possession, he thinks that some “plan” would be necessary before attempting an exorcism. “Demons are not ordinary powers to be challenged lightly.”

Montgomery agrees. Before any exorcism is performed, or even considered, a complete investigation should be made. Since mental illness and demon possession are similar, thinks Montgomery, treatments for the two conditions also have certain things in common (exorcism has been called “shock treatment” by some). Contrary to Ryan and others, Montgomery calls The Exorcist a “tremendous” film that is “very Christian” and “acutely realistic.” At the heart of the film, he explains, is the voluntary substitution of the priest for the child, “which is also the heart of the Christian faith—the substitution of God for man.”

Author and professional family counselor Tim Timmons, whose book Chains of the Spirit (Canon Press) deals with the spirit realm, likewise reacted positively to the film, though he hesitated to claim it as Christian. Timmons has been involved in fifteen exorcisms, the latest for a young Christian who until her conversion practiced Satan worship. “During the first six-hour exorcism twenty-five different demons left her body,” says Timmons, “but several more sessions were needed to free her of the remaining ones.” (He identified each demon by the number of personality changes the girl went through.) Timmons, who teaches practical theology at Dallas Seminary part time and is a member of the Christian Family Life team in that city, also stresses the seriousness of exorcism. “It should be used only as a last resort. We need to guard against the when-in-doubt-cast-it-out attitude. Some people have been messed up psychologically by exorcisms that should never have been attempted,” he emphasized.

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The harmful aspects of the film, believe some observers, have yet to be fully realized. Priests and ministers throughout the country report severe counseling problems with teen-agers who have seen the film; many claim to be possessed by Satan himself.

Timmons agrees that the film could be harmful since “it frightens people into realizing that demons are a reality.” At the same time, he adds, “if we could capitalize on the film and guide people into discussing the problems it raises, The Exorcist could be one of the best tools of evangelism we’ve ever had.” For example, groups in Dallas, Texas, and the metropolitan Washington area are handing tracts to viewers as they leave the theater. Timmons, who thinks the tracts approach doesn’t “scratch people where they itch,” plans a campaign through local talk shows, newspaper advertisements, and his book to use the film for Christ. “People leave the theater anxious to talk to someone with answers, and we’ve got to be ready.”

False Prophecy?

January has come and gone, but the United States has not. Therein lies the need for some tall explaining by “Moses” David Berg, secluded founder of the controversial Children of God sect. Berg had ordered all his followers out of America, predicting the country would experience the judgment of God before the end of the month.

Leaders of the Children were quoted by newspapers in various countries as saying that Comet Kohoutek would explode and America with it.

From a hideaway somewhere in Europe Berg sends out “Mo” (for Moses) letters. In the past year the letters have become more sexually oriented; and a number have been published and street-hawked for 25ȼ each.

In a coup of sorts the Children have won the approval if not the friendship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s back-to-the-Koran ruler. Berg wrote admiringly of him in some Mo letters last year, implying that Gaddafi may have a key role in biblical prophecy. Gaddafi has publicly commended the Children to his people several times, and the Children are apparently free to travel in the land—the only missionaries with such freedom in years. (Lebanon expelled them last year.) Also, Gaddafi reportedly invited Hosea and Faith, Berg’s son and daughter (both are in their early twenties, and both are prime visible leaders of the Children), to visit him at his home in Tripoli.

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Meanwhile, two of the Children arrived in Manila last month to open a colony there, and others were seen on streets of major cities throughout Asia. But the Children’s ranks seem to be thinning. Several colonies and a number of individual members have broken with the Children in recent months, in many cases because of disillusionment caused by the Mo letters.

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