The practice of exorcism in the sense of expelling evil spirits has origins lost in antiquity. The most ancient civilisations resorted to the rite whenever it was thought to be needed by their priests. By Jesus’ time, driving out of devils (or demons) was commonly practised by itinerant “holy men” who gained considerable kudos among the people by so doing. So in some senses Jesus was not unique, but he WAS different and remarkable insofar as he was able to: a) heal from a distance; b) drive away possessing entities “by a word”, that is, with a complete absence of an external ceremony or formal expression. The exorcistic rituals we are concerned with in this study however are those arising from the Judeo-Christian tradition since Christ was a Jew and naturally the first Christian. The adoption by subsequent western religions of a practice seemingly thoroughly believed in by Jesus and the efficacy of which was clearly endorsed by him, is this book’s theme. I therefore write about the rite mainly, but not exclusively, from a Christian perspective seen through the eyes of a Catholic priest. Naturally, the attitudes to exorcism/possession have changed over time as the thinking of races and nations has mutated and evolved. Perhaps more than anything, what has remained immutable, so to say, are the “signs” of entity possession which have been accepted virtually by all nations throughout the centuries. We shall discuss these in the concluding section of this chapter.


          Instances in the Bible of Jesus’ healing by expulsion of evil spirits are well known and numerous. Demonic possession became an obsession (no pun intended!) with the Catholic Church for centuries and was in many ways the raison d’etre for the existence of the Inquisition. We have already mentioned that priests were appointed expressly to perform the rite of exorcism – as early as the fourth century at the Council of Antioch.

          It can be stated with conviction that demon possession was firmly believed in by virtually everybody until quite recently. In fact, some modern day pronouncements by the Popes and the creation within the last few years of exorcists by Catholic archbishops indicate quite clearly that belief in possession by evil spirits is by no means dead. Modern viewpoints however hold that possession is not by the Devil or demons but by unclean spirits of once incarnate beings – i.e. those now dead. However, nobody can say for sure. There is much anecdotal evidence which we can (or cannot) believe in. From my own experience I can but reiterate that there IS an unexplainable five per cent and a very puzzling ten per cent in cases which present very strange behaviour. I agree with Maurey where he writes that “It is conceivable that there may be entities of a lower evolutionary order, invisible to the human eye, that could be classified as demons”. (p.36, EXORCISM)

          As we have said, modern advancements in medical science, especially those in psychiatry, are often accepted as “explanations” for what in other times would have been seen as diabolical possession. Research into the subconcious has given many useful insights into the involved workings of the human mind. If on the other hand, possessing spirits do exist who have the ability to enter the mind of a living person, they must be dispossessed by exorcism before they can further control the activities of the victim. Here we come up against a problem: diffentiation between an earthbound entity whose fundamental desire is to be freed from his “bound” state and between a malevolent being whose desire is to degrade humans and in the process revile God – whose natural element is Hell, the burden of the exorcist imprecations uttered in the course of the ritual. Basically, an exorcist seeks to direct an entity – correctly!


          From devils to disease! In a way, this encapsulates how very disturbing human behaviour (in our context), has been viewed down the centuries. In a sense, the process of exorcising has undergone both an upgrading in the eyes of the Christian Churches insofar as the ritual in the present day needs the presence of a “team” of “assistants”: clerical, lay, medical, psychiatric, and a recognition that mistakes can be (and have been) made by single or duets of exorcists working alone. The process of “healing” (as distinct from mere expulsion) has nowadays greater emphasis in the Churches, RC and Anglican). It is all a far cry (seemingly) from the earliest days of exorcistic ritual which grew out of such biblical accounts of the summary expelling of evil spirits as seen in Jesus’ confrontation with the wild man of Gadarene. It will be remembered that the expelled demons entered into a herd of swine who promptly ran off a cliff edge into the sea and were drowned. Knowing these and other accounts of spirit expulsion from a reading of the Gospels, the early Church developed its own exorcism rituals embellished by certain procedures such as prayers, recitations, signs of the cross and personal preparation by fasting. It has to be said though that much of the intent of this elaboration was to impress; that is to say to garner new recruits to the new religion (of Christanity) for many self-styled clergy saw the new religion as a gateway to control of others – and to gain power for themselves. All the early adherents of Christianity were not brave, self-sacrificing saints; though some were! Related to this concept of the efficacy of exorcism was the indoctrinated belief anew in the Devil and demons (though as we have said it was already an ancient belief); what was new was the attachment of this belief as strongly as possible to the new religion with the aim of inculcating universal belief in possession and its concomitant, the power of the clergy to free the unfortunate from oppression. In this the Church was supremely successful for centuries, throughout Europe. Soon, charismatic churchmen acquired tremendous reputations as exorcists. Whether these reputations were always deserved is open to debate. Many people were subsequently canonised for their (supposed) expertise as exorcists.

          Cases of strange, aberrant or anti-social behaviour were not only in the view of clegy but also of laity, occasioned by demon possession. That physical or mental conditions were to blame was not considered – or not regarded as newsworthy as successful resort to exorcistic ritual. The image of baptism as a form of exorcism submitted to by Jesus himself was always in the forefront of Christian thinking. Baptism is a sort of initiation ceremony into the bosom of Christianity and is seen as a washing away of all diabolic contamination. Belief in invading spirits led directly to the insane witchcraft persecutions of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Protestantism took a hold in parts of Europe, an enmity developed between this movement and Catholicism often based on differing attitudes to exorcism. As the importance of exorcism as a ritual and possession as a danger grew, there were unfortunate contemporaneous developments such as fraudulent possession and imposture on the part of clergy; all with the purpose of enhancing reputations. Such was the mushroom growth of exorcistic activity that even in the first years of the seventeenth century the Catholic Church saw fit to forbid the practice of exorcism by ministers without the express permission of the diocesan bishop.


          By the second decade of the seventeenth century, the Holy Father himself authorized strict procedures for exorcism in the famous RITUALE ROMAN (The Roman Catholic Ritual) where rules for performing the rite had to be observed scrupulously. Although undergoing a major revision (or update) in 1952 (and others since) it has not been fundamentally changed: it still remains basically as it was when first promulgated. Significantly the RITUAL attempted to distinguish between physical and mental ailments on the one hand and what was considered to be true possession. Another important injunction was that strongly recommending that the ritual should take place in church (if at all possible) rather than elsewhere where curious crowds might gather. Outward show: prayers, rites, holy objects, laying on of hands, signs of the cross, holy water and salt, etc., was established – an aspect that did not dominate Anglican procedures. It has however to be said that abuses did continue, such as impostures and fraud on the part of “victims” and clergy alike. Many an account of exorcisms or attempts thereof, are to be found in the myriad books on the subject, often detailing either resounding success (i.e. expulsion) or failure. The question must be posed: who exactly wrote or told of these incidents, and why. Are these accounts always trustworthy? Are they spurious or simply embellished? Was there a special motive behind the relation of these accounts? Forgive me if I sound a little sceptical. It is wise to be so, I believe.


          Up to the nineteenth century it would be true to say that the two major Christian Churches differed in their attitude to demon possession: the Catholic Church believed implicitly in it, while the Protestant Church did not. Belief in diabolical possession was not of course confined to western Europe but was seen among nations all over the world, in Christian and non-Christian countries alike. No matter where they took place, exorcisms were till quite recently manifestations of disorders seen in human beings; exorcism of places is a comparatively modern phenomenon. Why this area of exorcistic activity should have emerged and indeed in my opinion come to the fore in recent time is not clear, although the burgeoning interest and activity in the occult has some part to play in it.

          Today the views of the two major Christian Churches still differ, insofar as the Catholic stance is that the Devil and demons have a real existence, especially in the possession of mankind. The opposing viewpoint holds that the devil should not be named but that a belief in forces of evil should be adhered to. We have mentioned the Exeter Commission which attempted to introduce a rational approach to the subject. The Report did reiterate belief in “non-human power of evil” and emphasised that “demonic interference” was possible. For the Protestant Church, exorcism is the “binding of evil powers” rather than as with the Roman Catholic Church the expelling of diabolic influences, i.e. infestation by the Devil or his demons.


          As belief in all things devilish took hold without abatement among the people over the centuries, the role of the exorcist increased in importance in overcoming disease, and in a thousand and one cases, so much so that the exorcist was regarded as possessed of magical powers, even over the phenomena of nature. Incantations and rituals having their origin in the mists of time were all part of the exorcist’s stock in trade. Babylonian, Greek and Roman influences were strong upon the exorcistic ritual of the early and medieval Church. Exorcism began to be seen as an aspect of the healing arts; healing not only of minds but of bodies. Various cultures round the world had/have their own version of, and belief in, exorcism. It must be said at this juncture that the belief in demonic terrors was to a large extent fomented by the priests or “holy men” of the various nations expressly to put the fear of God into the ordinary people – and thus control them. Exorcists could repell demons; they could also expel them from the human body. As such they were important, almost unique individuals, who held the power of normal life in their hands – a gift moreover handed down from Christ himself.

          The history of possession is characterized not only by individual instances but by mass possession of which the Loudon and Salem episodes are possibly the best known. There are many more. Mass possession often occurred within religious or at least devout communities, nunneries being a favourite venue. Also it does appear that it was mostly in Catholic countries that the phenomenon was encountered. It may be that the Protestant countries reflected a less credulous attitude to demon possession (as they still do). Cases of alleged demonic possession did abate somewhat as the nineteenth century wore on, but there has been a revival of interest in exorcism in the twentieth century, particularly in the second half, partially fuelled by the media, especially film. As Baker remarks (in BINDING THE DEVIL) exorcism to the Christian represents the one sure weapon with which to fight the occult. It may be true to say that the present “age of reason” has banished the demons but when “medicine and psychiatry fail, then exorcism raises its head once more – a new improved version maybe, but still medieval in its principle.” (p. 101)


          Exorcism seen in the context of its historical development needs to be viewed from the angle of Christian ritual and the angle of non-Christian practice. To,say, the Catholic priest exorcism is part of his ministry, though he may have little or no active experience of it; his “powers” are God given and He is invoked. To the non-Christian, exorcism is a display of his (the exorcist’s) personal ability, binding the Devil without invoking the help of God. Another difference I would allege is that the Christian exorcist endeavours not to “restore” an individual to his erswhile “normality” but to redirect him to a different life (in many cases) whereby he avoids courses that gave rise to the sense of possession in the first place. Baker has an apposite word here, speaking of the dual function of the exorcist to get rid of evil and to secure good, “the good being consonant with the particular religion of the time and place.” (p. 109)

          We have mentioned within the context of this chapter some of the differences subsisting between Catholic and Anglican Churches. A major one is the basic and initial importance given to the subject of exorcism by the R.C. Church in its ordination ceremonies. The office, as it is called, of exorcist is one of the four “minor” orders conferred on the ordinand and indicates the belief in its possible (maybe probable) use in a priest’s career. On the other hand, exorcism in the Anglican Churches seems to be regarded as an “add-on” activity which may or may not arise in a career and if and when it does the minister may or may not feel he should get involved, employing a ceremony, form of words, as the occasion and personal predeliction suggest. In other words he is not bound to a rigid formula from which he should not deviate.


          For many forward looking clergy, exorcism is not only not alluded to in so many words, if possible, but is, as we have seen earlier, regarded as more a deliverance ministry which itself leads into the concept of exorcism as a “healing” activity. This definition is too restrictive for the Catholic priest as the previous paragraphs emphasise, since deliverance from evil is considered as only part of the process – redirection or guidance towards a more worthwhile mode of living being the ultimate aim. Deliverance from diabolical influence is always an innate concern of the Catholic priest – and of the devout Catholic lay person. It was taken as axiomatic, especially in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that the spirit voice emanating from the possessed person was always that of a devil. “In modern times” says Oesterreich (writing in 1921), “this is not so. In [modern instances of] possession, it is the spirits of the dead who speak in the possessed.” (DEMONIACAL POSSESSION p. 186) Not always, would be my retort. But certainly there is something of a corroboration of Oesterreich’s opinion in present day thinking. Lessening of belief in the reality of Satan of course contributes greatly to this change. The point is made in POSSESSION that nowadays it is only in spiritual establishments that the spirits which speak by the mouth of the possessed are still in the majority of cases demons. Again I would disagree: “in the majority” is a key (and nebulous) phrase. But Oesterreich is making a general point.


          Much, as we have said, is offered by way of “explanations” of ancient cases of possession. There is a whole catalogue of them; diseases of the body, maladies of the mind; schizophrenia, MPD, hysteria, lunacy and so on. In some ways, hysteria is the outward manifestation of deep-seated malaise, bodily and/or mental or emotional which has been often cited as the true cause of alleged possession. With Oesterreich we may pose the question whether all victims of possession in the past have been hysterical; it appears unlikely. And the evidence for making the statement is scant. Often the “hysteria” before the event was not the same kind of hysteria exhibited after the onset of possession. “The mere fact that a person is attacked by a spiritual epidemic does not show he is mentally unsound” (POSSESSION, p. 190). In a paragraph of some significance, Oesterreich may be paraphrased, in his statement for example where he states that psychically normal subjects may succumb to psychic infection when placed in a sufficiently favourable environment. The tension produced in an individual by the continual vision of possession phenomena and the fear of being possessed by the Devil may produce an autosuggestive state…His conclusion is that acute suggestibility due to abnormal conditions is the soil on which possession springs up, “for it would be difficult to maintain that the possessed become hysterical at the moment when they are psychically contaminated and remain so until exorcism has been successfully accomplished”. (p. 190) In the main, the writer is talking about instances of mass possession, but it is not without relevance to individual cases. As will be surmised, my experience does not always vindicate Oesterreich’s point of view. But my point of view is not the only, or necessarily the “right”, one.


          The order of exorcist or at least its significance has itself altered over the years. As mentioned, the order (of exorcist) was always one of the four minor orders conferred on the ordinand, but with the decline in instances of application of the ritual in modern times there has been a concomitant decline in the Roman Church’s observance of the importance of exorcist orders at least where clergy on the bottom rung of the ecclesiatical ladder were concerned. In other words, with permission to exorcise increasingly having to be sought from higher authority, in effect the power of exorcism is now exercised only by senior orders of the clergy. This present attitude contrasts strongly with that prevailing in the early years of the Church when it was thought that any true Christian could exorcise demons. Of course, this thinking was in an age when belief in demons was universal (at least in the Christian world) and it follows that belief in exorcism having the power to remove demons by threats was also universal. However, on a somewhat different, but related tack, belief in, and fear of, ghosts has remained pretty constant, the latter having taken over as it were, from demons as entities to be feared. Stories of haunted houses where inexplicable activity seems to occur are many; often poltergeist phenomena are adduced as a reason. Once the strange sights and sounds would be believed to be demonic in origin, that is, actually due to the presence of demons. Now it is more likely that ghostly presence is thought to be the cause. Certainly, there are more cases of “haunted” houses or other buildings, than of personal possession encountered by a minister now, than there used to be. People clearly feel more comfortable (if this is the correct word!) speaking of ghosts than of demons. Calls to exorcise places often seem to mean ghost hunting rather than demon removal.


          I suppose the basic question which perpetually springs to mind is: why? To an extent we have considered this. Fundamentally we all must believe, Christians or not, that it is only by taking up abode in (certain) human bodies that demons feel they can wreak their full evil. The Devil has kept pace with man’s evolution throughout the ages. Underlying the exorcist’s faith in what he is doing is the ever-present thought that all mankind are contaminated with original sin (arising from Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden) and that notwithstanding Christ’s death on the cross (whereby he redeemed all Men) humanity has been weakened from the start and as such can succumb to demonic attack – especially if the “victim” has not been baptized. Sybil Leek in DRIVING OUT THE DEVILS has a very pertinent summing-up of the exorcist’s position: “By acknowledging the fact that demons have power to direct material forces to their own evil ways, half the battle is assured.” (p. 156) The Liberal branch of the Catholic Church in its performance of exorcistic ritual follows the Roman Ritual in the main but allows itself deviations from it, pinning everything on the belief that evil is not demonic in origin (where this is basically suspected) but is rather a type of, as Leek puts it, “misdirected energy”.


          There IS a danger in the discharge of an enthusiastic exorcistic ritual that the minister in concentrating on the spiritual needs of the disturbed person may ignore his/her psychological or physical needs. The necessity to fight evil may be overlooked in this concentration on personal possession. It is an awareness that must never be forgotten. I do not subscribe to the view that, as in past centuries, the perception of evil should automatically entail exorcism. Indeed, with many people, Christian lay and clergy alike, I believe that exorcism is not a universal remedy – but that IT IS IN SOME CASES. A person’s sense of oppression may be so great that he believes himself to be under some evil influence or on the other hand he actually is a survivor of some form of abuse. This state is often accompanied by depression leading to feelings of guilt or despair, and the belief that they (the sufferers) have been taken over by a living or dead spirit. It is diffentiating between cases of the above and “true” possession that the real difficulty lies. As Robert Petitpierre says in EXORCISING DEVILS, “To apply exorcism to people whose trouble is not caused by demons but lies within their own personalities, caused by either physical or mental abnormalities, is demonstrably wrong and dangerous”. (p.30)

          Psychiatrists get referrals whose problems arise not from one cause but from several. In these cases it is possible that demonic influence is at work and that therefore exorcism should help. Often such cases require “major” exorcism (about which I shall have more to say later); the criterion being whether one believes one is dealing with the demonic – or not. RC dogma lays down very clear guidelines for the exorcist to follow. We may here mention in distinction the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Church where a distinct order of exorcist has never been created, and the belief prevails that someone sufficiently charismatic to discharge the office (of exorcism) be so recognised. However in the Roman Catholic view, every priest could be called upon to perform exorcism. In practice, this seldom happens. The Christian exorcist is concerned with the Christian concept of the devil of course. It is a Christian devil the western Churches fight against. There are other ideas and images of devils in other cultures and in other parts of the world. In exorcism, therefore, this Christian Devil bows in submission to the superior power of the Christian God and obeys the Christian priest’s orders who acts on the authority of the Church and of God.


          of 1720, originally written in Spanish, by an unknown author, we have stated is one of the most important seminal books on exorcism upon which most other books on the subject are based. The translation by Beyersdorf and Brady is faithful in both phraseology and spirit to the original. The MANUAL is required reading by anyone who aspires to the power of deliverance. Its wording and gravity remain in the memory even though the matter is typical of an age of great credulity and as such cannot command total present-day credence. It is still so important that some of its flavour and its injunctions must be presented to readers if they are to apprehend any sense of the historicity of exorcism. Certain passages are salient whose import has not changed to the present day. (The page references are to the edition of 1975, published by the Hispanic Society of America.)

          “Many symptoms of people who are possessed by the Devil, or bewitched, are also typical of natural illnesses. [Notice the reference to ‘bewitched’ – symptomatic of the age!] The Devil often avails himself of them, the better to conceal his wickedness, and so that the person, because of his great trouble and pain, will fall into despair and hatred of God. In this case the exorcist should consider the matter carefully…weighing and examing the reasons why it is thought the Devil has entered the victim. Although sometimes Our Lord may permit it for His greater honour and glory and to make the human being more worthy, sins are usually the cause of such hardship.” (p. 29) Not much to quibble with there!

          The MANUAL has pertinent words to say on the commands and orders of the exorcist. ” I say that the exorcist does not curse the Devil as a being and out of hatred, but out of love for God, against whom he is rebelling, and out of love for the human being to whom he is causing such serious pain. It has been observed that the commands …only have as much force as God bestows on them. God leaves the exorcist at liberty to exercise his free will, as He sends sicknesses, hardship and secret warnings to men so they will obey His divine commands.”

          As true now as it ever was. (p.42)

          We may cite another passage which though being typical of its time, now is received with something less than credence. It is taken from the beginning of section six, page 55.

“Often the Devil pretends that he is not in the body of the possessed person, for even though the priest exorcises him, he does not tremble, inasmuch as trembling of the possessed person is usually the first sign of his presence. The reason is wanting to avoid the exorcism for a time and also to show how brave he is and thus make clear that the exorcist should not hope for victory in this spiritual battle. Sometimes at the beginning of the exorcism he trembles all over and with frightening voices and howls tries to drown it out, perhaps with ridiculous and indecent sayings or by revealing the faults and sins of others …” (p.55)

          And now some judicious words on the exorcist himself!

“The exorcist is not only a minister of the Church, but he is also a doctor of souls; therefore he ought to know both how to apply the remedies to the possessed person and how to remove the obstructions, whether they be from within or without, which can delay the success of his labours. For this reason he should advise the possessed person to practise assiduously the three theological virtues, which are so pleasing to God, giving Him thanks and receiving this hardship from the hand of the lord as Saint Job did…” (p. 63)

          Naturally the age old question of why possession is permitted by a beneficent Deity is discussed.

“The saints give various answers to this question. They say that at the time of the arrival of His son in the world, God allowed many people to be possessed by the Devil in order to strengthen man’s faith in who He was, because upon invoking His name, the demons left the bodies they were inhabiting. The reason God permits them to exist in our time is because He wants to show the power that He has communicated to his ministers in order to convince the heretics who deny exorcism. Others say that seeing a body possessed with the Devil in this life is a description of what happens in the other life…” (p. 84)


          It often seems as if one aspect of the presentations that possession exhibits be it of persons or places (but more frequently of places) that has not changed much over the years is poltergeist phenomena. These phenomena can be/are vanquished ultimately, but they can be a disturbing not to say frightening aspect of the exorcism scene. The difficulty is that one is not by any means certain of their cause: psycho-kinetic energy (emanating from the sufferer) MAY be the reason as is commonly thought nowadays; but it may be demonic in origin. Being in its (the phenomenon’s presence) is mystifying – to say the least! Poltergeist activity is accepted by some as proof of diabolical presence. It can be one of the “signs” of possession, about which we shall say more in the concluding paragraphs of this chapter.

          Disturbances of some nature are often a feature of exorcistic situations. These disturbances do differ in their virulence and variety from the physical violent movement of objects to the comparatively gentle motion imparted to books or pictures. Either way they are unsettling of course. There appears from observation to be two main kinds of “movement”: that thought to be created by poltergeist activity and that caused by departed spirits. Richards in his book, BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL, sums it up nicely when he speaks of the dead who are “confined to a sort of charade to make themselves and their needs known, whereas the poltergeist activity is random, chaotic and mischievous although rarely is a person injured by it”. (p. 201)

          Knockings and rappings seemingly on walls are a common feature of poltergeist activity, usually interpreted as attempts to communicate with the living – but who really knows? These may be and are generally thought to be caused (if not by psycho-kinetic energy) by departed spirits as although bewildering they are not violent. In the same category are the inexplicable resitings of small objects: parcels, plates and so forth. Often these weird motions take place in open view of victim and bystanders; sometimes the movements have ostensibly happened when nobody was present.

          It does appear that “disturbances” shall we call them, happen at or in places where disharmony or worse has occurred in the past – or even at the moment. Houses can be vulnerable to these tensions when domestic or social upheaval is or was present; so too can churches (disused or not) and other erstwhile revered places. As a clergyman I believed that sin…meaning? lay behind many instances of disturbed behaviour. As the “Report” on exorcism says, “Human sin opens the door for other [diabolic] forces to enter in”. Devotion to occult practices we have mentioned frequently lead to situations where matters have got out of control. In such cases the occult has become a substitute religion, but the human mind or emotion has not the capacity to deal with it. Sites of pagan worship in ancient times, or other religious places that have been desecrated are not infrequently plagued by psychic or spiritual disturbance. I agree with the summary given by Richards where he speaks of there being three different types of force in a disturbed place. There is, he says, the impersonal – place memories; the demonic – invited by spiritist actions; human influence – maybe poltergeist, and maybe the whole spectrum of sin and greed to which humanity is prone.

          “Exorcism alone cannot control poltergeist activity generated by human beings” – a succinct summary of the situation an exorcist often finds himself in. However, as Petitpierre states in EXORCISING DEVILS, because of its bizarre nature, poltergeist activity often needs the ministrations of the Church’s deliverance and healing activity (See his chapter ten, “Poltergeist Phenomena”). A direct quote from this chapter of Petitpierre, is illuminating: “Poltergeist phenomena …are not due to external influence from the unseeen world. They are the manifestations of paranormal powers NOT possessed by the majority of human beings but are, nevertheless, fairly common.” (p. 107). It may be so; this is the opinion of one very experienced in our field of study. It contrasts with mine though as I do think that ON OCCASION poltergeist phenomena ARE due to unseen world influences. Consensus on this subject is difficult of attainment!


          Perhaps an account of a famous case of (presumed) poltergeist activity would at this juncture prove illuminating. This is concerned with the celebrated events occurring in the early eighteenth century at the home of the family of the young John Wesley, later to become famous as the founder of Methodism. John was one of the sons of the vicar of Epworth. Some background to the story is given in Rossell Robbins monumental work, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WITCHCRAFT AND DEMONOLOGY, under the entry “Epworth Poltergeist”. An outline of the story, elaborated by many writers, is given by Richards, but the story is typical of very many accounts of poltergeist activity.

          The story although bizarre, is well-attested, evidence being provided by letters from the Wesley mother, from the sisters of the family, and from the accounts of Samuel Wesley, John’s father and later from John himself. Written testimony is also seen in the accounts of the phenomena by a local clergyman called upon by John’s father, the vicar.

          The first mysterious happening was experienced by the family’s servant late one evening in December, when he heard a knock at the front door. On opening the door, no-one was there. Retiring for the night, he saw a handmill turning as if by itself and strange sounds as of someone stumbling. The maid next day heard unaccountable knockings, but where they emanated from, she was unable to surmise. A few days later Molly (Mrs) Wesley was sitting in her room when the door opened and subsequent sounds indicated that someone or something had walked round her. The family appeared to treat these phenomena with some insouciance although they did refer to “the Devil” and his antics. The children of the family were however more disturbed, especially in their sleep. Samuel, no doubt bolstered by his strong faith, spoke to the deaf and dumb devil (as he called it) and asked it why it did not cease disturbing the family and why it did not come into his study. Apparently the “spirit” did so only to occasion discomfort and some buffeting to Samuel.

          It seems as if the poltergeist, if so it was, was particularly active during the saying of family prayers, making a sound seemingly of bottles being broken. The strange disturbances at the Wesley house were not only heard but seen. Frequently the door latch would rise as if by itself and the door would open – but of course, no-one was ever there. The vicar testified to the fact that answering knocks would be given to his own knocks as he attempted to communicate. Fortunately the disturbances faded away after about a year. Whether the house was haunted in the conventional sense, that is, it had been the scene of some abnormal death, is not clear. It does seem as if the entity was not malicious but rather bent on creating consternation and as such was not maybe typical of threatening poltergeist activity. It also seems that the eldest daughter, Hetty, was in some way the focus of the strange activities insofar as she more often than the rest of the family was the centre of disturbances caused by the “ghost”. Perhaps, as Richards points out, Hetty was the source of the energy, but only subconsciously. The fact that things were moved, sometimes violently, does suggest poltergeist pnenomena. Evidence reveals that there were tensions in the family, emotional, religious and indeed political. Maybe therein lies the key to the mysterious happenings at Epworth. It may be too, that such a devout household as the Wesleys would be just the sort of place for an entity to enter who wished to weaken Christian faith, especially that of the younger members of the family. As we have said, it is possible (but not certain) that the activity was not demonic in origin. To this day, like many similar cases, no convincing explanation is forthcoming. Like these however, the testimony of those involved cannot be dismissed.


          In nearly all instances of supposed demonic attack there can be discerned some “reasons”, generally accepted as applicable, whereby the unfortunate person becomes a “victim”. We have mentioned some of them, earlier on in our study. A sinful background, a deep interest in occult pursuits, membership of satanic or “black magic” cults, an overwhelming obsession with material gain or mania for some (forbidden) object or goal – are some of them.


          The “signs” exhibited by such persons have been described for hundreds of years, and codified by the Catholic Church as infallible guides to cases of true possession. All exorcists have them in the forefront of their minds. They are important and by no means fanciful even though most of them (as signs) originated in antiquity. According to ancient authority an evil spirit was in possession if it departed at the sign of the cross or was confronted by anything holy; execrated the Church; affected the mind of the victim to such an extent that he displayed exaggerated emotion, especially that of pride or vanity; avoided the subject of the devil or possession when a priest was trying to help him; appeared with a loathsome expression or departed accompanied by noise or smell; left the victim desolate and disconsolate. These guides to detection of possession were originally written when the witchcraft mania ravaged Europe, that is to say about the fifteenth century so it is not surprising that sufferers were alluded to as “bewitched”. Such people for example cannot retain food; they vomit constantly; they experience internal pains; the body becomes visibly weaker and their limbs seem constricted; they experience the greatest difficulty in communicating by speech; they have an unnatural skin colour; they experience extreme fears and terrors; they are not responsive to medications. With this as a basis, various other “signs” were added right up to modern times: indifference to spiritual influence; anti-Christian ideas; continuous lying; depression; a feeling that they are possessed. Perry in his chapter on “Possession” gives a very comprehensive list of signs of demonic possession. I mention some of them. The victim: will burst into sudden fits of fury and defiance; will curse aloud and seems always to be motivated by spite and enmity; will lash out at bystanders including the exorcising minister; will exhibit sexual behaviour or longings for intoxicants or drugs; will try to (and often does) mutilate his own body; will find it impossible to say the word “Jesus” but may frequently call upon Satan. He will be unable to pray and on the contrary is blasphemous; he will switch the tenor of talk which apparently troubles him; he can develop abnormal powers: of strength, of linguistic ability; of extra-sensory perception or clairvoyance; he feels unable to repent or show remorse; he appears uncomfortable in the presence of Christian objects or people; unable to enter a church without a show of irreverence; he is unable to maintain any form of concentration; if conscious of his inner distortion he will be utterly bewildered as to why he is exhibiting such behaviour.

          One of the most obvious signs of serious malaise is of course the appearance of the afflicted, an evil or frightening expression being adopted. I have seen it frequently. Facial distortions are par for the course. The voice itself is frequently unnatural, generally gruff and harsh. This applies to female victims as well, when the phenomenon is more mystifying than ever. It is possible in some cases (for the exorcist) to speak in a foreign tongue, say Latin and apparently to be understood by the sufferer and REPLIED TO in that tongue in which he/he has never been schooled. At the point of exorcism, the person often experiences (it seems) visions or impressions of some threatening figure or figures. All of this may be accompanied by poltergeist activity of the type adumbrated above.

          These are “conventional” lists of “signs” all of which are rarely present in one situation involving one person. My own experience reflects the reality of the list, however, and a greater insight into possession pnenomena will be gained from some personal cases I describe in later chapters.

An exorcist is always conscious of the fact that if the ceremony “fails” the victim may be left worse off than before.           This salutary caution has haunted the practitioners down the years; but is unfortunately as true now as it ever was. The afflicted person may be left with an overwhelming sense of disappointment, distress even which may be injurious to whatever faith (in religion, God, Jesus) he has. Therefore is the discharge of the ritual doubly hazardous.

          The schizophrenic patient is particularly hard to deal with, notwithstanding the fact that there are symptoms (signs) which are intended to guide the exorcist. Howell-Everson in his HANDBOOK FOR CHRISTIAN EXORCISTS gives a succinct list (p.53) I do not quibble with any of them but it would not in my experience be true to say that ALL the following symptoms are exhibited. The list is as follows:

The “patient” exists in a different world from ours and tends to have little consciousness of his own condition.

He is subject to strange mood swings, often very inappropriate to the circumstance.

His behaviour is in all respects very puzzling.

His thinking is in all respects very puzzling.

His attempts at converse are jumbled and mostly incoherent; it appears as if he does not comprehend even the simplest of matters.

He hallucinates and has delusions.


          Differentiating between the above symptoms and those shown by the “possessed” is not easy. There are differences in the manifestation, however, as I hope may be deduced from my preceding list. In a case of possession, it is as Oesterreich puts it in his book, POSSESSION, as if another soul “had entered into the body and subsisted there, in place of or side by side with the normal subject”. This generally produces the illusion of a double personality manifested most visibly in appearance, tone of voice and of course in speech. There are many descriptions of possessed people transformed out of all recognition. Some of the most vivid tell of the victims in the celebrated Loudon epidemic.

“Asmodeus [a demon] shook the girl backwards and forwards a number of times…her face became completely unrecognizable, her glance furious, her tongue prodigiously large, long, and hanging down out of her mouth, livid and dry…the demons came come into her face making it very hideous…” (Eschenmayer, KONFLIKT. (p. 18)

          With regard to voice, it often seemed to me, though not always, that the voice, as Oesterreich observes, did not speak according to the spirit of the normal personality but that of the new one. Eschenmayer in his study of possession, KONFLIKT, in describing one of his patients, writes of “insults” being spoken, “abuse” being hurled, “threats” and “outbursts” – from a person who from all accounts was polite and moderate. Sudden and rapid movement was almost always a sign of deep malaise. This could have been feigned but as Oesterreich points out so appositely, “contortions…in the most impossible directions – the body bent back like a bow…they [the movements] are not due to simulation or voluntary action as the contortions cannot be executed voluntarily”. (p. 23)

          However, it is important to state that the Catholic Church holds that sickness does not exclude demonic action, as Jean Vichon in his perceptive article “Aspects of Possession” points out (in the SATAN compendium, p. 205) This of course adds to the difficulties! An aspect of possession mentioned by Vichon but not so far by me, is that of a feeling of cold which is typical of the ritual involving both person and place. With this statement I concur, but whether it really is so or whether it is the oppressive atmosphere of fear and danger, I confess I am not sure. In this context must be mentioned the oft mentioned and oft depicted phenomenon of levitation. Much has been written on this subject from the angle of the mystery of the giant constructions of the ancient world, to present day “levitations” occurring in seances and the like. It is possible to imagine this phenomenon in highly charged situations such as in exorcistic rituals, especially when the officiant is familiar with the theory as he must be, from his reading and exchange of conversation with others. What I am trying to say is that imagination, as we all know, can play tricks. But ARE they tricks?


          Vichon has a paragraph of importance with whose sentiments I whole-heartedly concur and about which I shall have more to say in a later chapter. I shall quote the paragraph almost in its entirety.

“We can distinguish two fundamental obsessions of the possessed. There is the obsession of moral solitude to which is joined the obsession of inferiority, frequent with [the unmarried] with widows, with people who live on the fringe of life, having neither family or home; with certain religious ill-adapted to the religious life, who have entered not by vocation but as a result of some disappointment. Obsessions of solitude and inferiority prepare the ground for possession. Obsessions of guilt often determine it…” (p. 208)

          The story of Pere Surin, one of the protagonists in the Loudon episode, is an example of the obsession of guilt. From his own writings it is clear that Surin’s guilt feelings (misplaced) led him to think he was damned which itself led on to attempts at self-punishment, and attempted suicide. Periods of frenzy alternated with periods of calm. Surin came to the Ursuline convent of Loudon to exorcise the Prioress, a Sister (or Soeur) Jeanne des Ange, who was guilt obsessed, considering herself to be possessed by devils.

          Pere Surin’s “impulsions arose from obsessions of contrariety which forced him into actions entirely against his will…” as Vichon so accurately states in his article. In his summing-up of the Surin and des Ange cases, he writes of the two as representing types of possession “which …are found to have the same orgin in guilt-obsessions, split personality, spirit of contrariety and [emotional] ambivalence”. (p.210)

          I believe the demons which haunt Man and always have, represent a dangerous form of evil; they appear to be comfortable with the estate of Man and as such will be formidable opponents for the foreseeable future of humanity.

          In the foregoing we have examined exorcism mainly from a Roman Catholic perspective, emphasising the Judeo-Christian origin of the ritual. That there have been influences on the ceremony through the centuries which have left their mark, modifying here and consolidating there, is accepted, while the essentials of the ritual codified later in the “Ritual Romanum” remained unchanged. Not only have these influences emanated from separate Christian Churches but also from various cultures and nations. Of course, the thinking of theologians has evolved over time which has inevitably impacted on the rite and its “rules” – and the efficacy in which the ceremony was held. The final sections of the chapter examined some aspects of the subject, including the puzzling poltergeist phenomenon and the accepted “signs” of ( true) possession vis a vis mental or emotional sickness.

          In the next chapter we shall look in some detail at the “rules” (not mere guidance!) set down in the Roman Ritual and how it remains valid to this day after some four hundred years. Forms of the ceremony have evolved to embrace Solemn and Ordinary forms (Major and Minor are alternative expressions), Short and long versions of the ritual are however practised (depending on the situation and the predilection of the officiant). Is there such a thing as a “type” of sufferer? The female “victim”. The importance of a team of committed Christians and medical members who might not be Christian – or convinced! The composition of the back-up team is very important, containing a balance of expertise and of genders (if possible).

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D