Shock waves from the sonic boom of The Exorcist are beginning to subside. Thoroughly shaken, Mr. Everyman wonders if there was “anything to it” after all. The humorous reaction sets in (whistling in the dark?). Thus the current one-liner: “What happens if you don’t pay your exorcist? You’ll be repossessed.” Or the cartoon in the March 25 New Yorker showing a stalled car at a country filling station, surrounded by mechanics; the service manager is saying to the driver, “The men feel there is an evil spirit in your clutch housing. We’ve called a priest.”

Suspicions about the reality of exorcism are by no means confined to our rationalistic era. In the delightful Table Talk of seventeenth-century English jurist and legal antiquary John Selden, the author writes of “a person of quality” who came to his chamber in the Temple, told him that he “had two devils in his head,” and asked for exorcism.

I perceiving what an opinion he had of me, and that ‘twas only melancholy that troubled him … got a card, and lapt it handsomely up in a piece of taffata, and put strings to the taffata, and … gave it to him, to hang about his neck; withal charged him, that he should not disorder himself neither with eating or drinking, but eat very little of supper, and say his prayers daily when he went to bed, and I made no question but he would be well in three or four days.

Selden’s “exorcism” was a complete success.

Is this all there is to it? Does exorcism consist, in the final analysis, of shrewd (albeit compassionate) psychosomatic techniques to get rid of the evil spirits you or someone else thinks are in your clutch housing?

Real Demons, Real Exorcists

Exorcism is a functional term; it refers to a functional activity, that of allegedly driving demons ...

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