ByTom Chapman, writer at
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Tom Chapman

In the media-savvy world of 2016, the Vatican's ideals on exorcism may seem a little outdated from its first publication of the Rite of Exorcism in 1614. This year's film bridges the gap between the worlds of demonic possession and science, so forget what you think you know about the casting out of evil spirits. Incarnate merges with the Vatican's new stance on how to conduct and sees Aaron Eckhart's Dr. Seth Ember enter the psyche of the possessed.

In 1999 a new era of demonic possession was ushered in, and the Vatican republished its guidelines with a shiny new dossier on how to deal with exorcism in the new millennium. Focusing on the science behind the evil, and with the Rite of Exorcism 2.0 ready to go, how do we now battle the evil within?

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A New Era

Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez presents the new rite to exorcism.
Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez presents the new rite to exorcism.

The 90-page rite, dubbed "Exorcism for Dummies," aimed to make the rituals undertaken in exorcism more accessible for the modern-day exorcists — for whom, by the way, business is booming. Hardly surprising, given that Pope Francis frequently throws references to an actual devil into his speeches and is seen as personally responsible for the rise in actual exorcisms — known as the "Pope Francis effect."

But the current pope isn't the only bishop of Rome who has danced with the devil. According to the memoirs of Cardinal Jacques Martin, Pope John Paul II performed an exorcism in 1982. While it may be an idea that many modern Catholics reject, the updated exorcism guidelines refer to the devil as taking a physical form:

"The Devil goes around like a roaring lion looking for souls to devour."

So now that you know what to look for, how do you go about spotting it?

The Signs Of A Demon

"Psychosis" by Amber Christian Osterhout.
"Psychosis" by Amber Christian Osterhout.

The 1999 rite demands that medical help should be sought before an exorcism can go ahead. The new guidelines state that exorcism should only be tried:

"After diligent inquiry and after having consulted experts in spiritual matters and, if felt appropriate, experts in medical and psychiatric science who have a sense of spiritual reality."

To be classed as "officially" possessed, the following signs must be present:

  • The ability to speak in foreign tongues previously unknown to the person.
  • Strength that the person should not be capable of demonstrating.
  • All other possible causes for distress have been eliminated.

Doctors have long tried to play down the idea of exorcism, with historians blaming demonic convulsions on everything from fever to ergot poisoning. Today, LSD is the go-to excuse for a victim's convulsions, hallucinations or ability to speak in tongues. A modern exorcist will maintain that no chemical substances can be found in the bloodstream of your typical exorcism victim.

Then there is that "deep voice" often heard emanating from the victim — too convincing to be explained as an actor throwing their voice — or the victim's knowledge of a priest's personal details, or other things the victim couldn't possibly know. Most importantly, the Vatican guidelines are very clear that the priest must take into account that these symptoms could be faked, and the updated rite embraces science rather than casts it away.

Pseudo Possession

Jesus Restores Two Demon-Possessed Men: Matthew 8:28-34.
Jesus Restores Two Demon-Possessed Men: Matthew 8:28-34.

With every religious symptom of possession, there usually comes a scientific explanation, and for every explanation, there comes a religious response. Both science and religion draw a distinction between human evil and demonic evil, but it is ultimately a professional call on behalf of the exorcist.

A modern exorcist's hardest job is distinguishing between possession and illnesses like epilepsy and schizophrenia. In 2015, Dr. Neil Martin, chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center, was shown a video of the apparent exorcism of a woman in Rome, and seemed unable to explain what he had seen:

“Absolutely amazing. There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it. She’s not separated from the environment. She’s not in a catatonic state. She’s responding to the priest and is aware of the context. The energy she shows is amazing. The priest on the right is struggling to control her. He’s holding her down, as are the others, and the sweat is dripping off his face at a time when she’s not sweating. This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations. She appears to be engaged in the process but resisting. You can see she has no ability to pull herself back.”

Psychologist Robert A. Baker noted that some nuns would feign possession as a way to lash out at sexual frustration, or to just get out of doing chores. Here you should also note that the majority of possession in historical Europe came from women in repressed parts of society. So what is the excuse nowadays? Whether real or just an act to jump on the hype of "real" possessions, exorcism is no laughing matter. Anyone involved in exorcism (real or fake) is in need of some form of help.

Faking It

ABC's televised exorcism in 1991.
ABC's televised exorcism in 1991.

The Vatican's new guidelines are also clear that an exorcism should not be a media circus — something that should have been kept in mind during ABC's televised possession in 1991. During the show, many viewers said it was difficult to distinguish between bad acting, and the girl often stole glances at the camera before her "convulsions" began. Check it out below.

Even with various doctors and scientists throwing proof that exorcism doesn't exist, a YouGov poll from 2013 reveals that more than half of those in the US surveyed still believe in exorcism. While some were unsure, only 11 percent categorically deny any existence of possession.

As Martin said, it is the strength coming from within the afflicted that suggests something more than your standard schizophrenia or delirium. While we are often quick to conclude that it isn't a possession by Satan, we aren't so quick to come up with an explanation of what we see.

The Dangers Of Exorcism

Famously possessed German girl Anneliese Michel.
Famously possessed German girl Anneliese Michel.

There is a fine line between what is classed as safe exorcism and risky exorcism, so after diagnosis, a modern rite usually takes place with a number of clergy present, the lead exorcist, and a physician. The media relishes so-called stories of exorcisms gone wrong — such as in 1978, when the parents of 23-year-old Anneliese Michel and two priests who performed her exorcism were convicted of Michel's 1976 murder in Bavaria, Germany. Then there was the 2000 case of Victoria Climbié in London, in which her guardians cited that there was an evil spirit inside the eight-year-old. The Vatican guidelines offer a safety-first approach to anyone performing an exorcism, as the mental state of all involved is paramount.

Exorcism is frequently linked to dissociative identity disorder, but even that explanation can be shot down. However, those who have experienced dissociative identity disorder normally say that part of them is linked with a demonic entity — and is that in itself not still a form of possession? Whatever may be the cause, possession can neither be proven or disproven by science, and the Vatican is there to offer its support. Even if the explanation is based in science, nine times out of 10 the afflicted lay the blame upon religion; clearly there is a darker power afoot, and the work of your modern exorcist is never done.

Hats off to — his is not a role I would be taking on lightly.

Incarnate is out in cinemas on December 2 — check out the trailer below.

[Source: The Guardian; Vanity Fair; Latin Mass Magazine; People]


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