Michael W. Cuneo. 2001. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: DoubleDay.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
The Exorcist, a 1973 film by William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin, came out during my freshman year in college and I saw it by myself about a year later. I remember the profanity, the projectile vomitting, the crawling around on the ceiling, and the two priests sprinkling holy water and offering incantations. I also remember the ending and the staircase in Georgetown, which still gives me the creeps every time I drive down Canal Road. After the film, I shook with fear all night—I still do not enjoy going to the theater alone.
In his book, American Exorcism, Michael Cuneo writes:
“American Exorcism is based on my personal interviews with exorcists and their clients, and my firsthand observation of more than fifty exorcisms…My primary concern is with exorcism as it’s practiced among mainstream, predominantly middle-class Christians—the white-bread sector of American society…I am concerned simply with assessing the cultural significance of exorcism-related beliefs and practices in the contemporary United States, not with passing judgment on their ultimate validity.” (xiv)
Cuneo teaches sociology and anthropology at Fordham University, a Jesuit college in New York.
The Backstory on The Exorcist
Cuneo begins his research on exorcism by summarizing the backstory on Blatty’s film. The exorcism recounted in the film took place, reported in a Washington Post article in August 1949 (Brinkely) and involved an unidentified, fourteen-year-old boy from Mount Rainer tormented by bizarre phenomena:
“There were scratchings and rappings on his bedroom walls, pieces of fruit and other objects were sent flying in his presence, and his bed mysteriously gyrated across the floor while he tried to sleep.” (5-6)
The parents took the boy to a Protestant minister, but as things worsened they brought him to the Jesuits who had him medically and psychologically evaluated and placed under around-the-clock observation. After no natural causes found, a Jesuit priest was assigned who performed more than twenty exorcisms in Washington and St. Louis. In all but the last of these, the WP reported:
“The boy broke into a violent tantrum of screaming, cursing, and voicing of Latin phrase—a language he had never studied—whenever the priest reached those climatic points of the 27-page [exorcism] ritual in which he commanded the demon to depart.” (6)
After a two-month ordeal, the symptoms disappeared and the boy’s health returned. (5-6) Blatty later sought instruction on the Catholic church’s teaching with respect to demons and tracked down a diary kept by the priest who assisted in these exorcisms, which became background for his film. (6-7)
The film itself raised awareness of the practice of exorcism within the Catholic church and, according to Cuneo, portrayed the priest in a new light as the hero-priest, who placed his own life on the line to rescue those trapped under the influence of Satan. After the reforms under the Second Vatican Council, the priesthood itself badly needed the status upgrade that exorcism provided. (4-5)
Cuneo writes in sixteen chapters, preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction and followed by conclusions, notes, and an index. These chapters are further divided into these six parts:
- The Exorcist as Hero
- Entrepreneurs of Exorcism
- Charismatic Deliverance Ministry
- The Rough-and-Ready School
- The Rise of Evangelical Deliverance
- Roman Catholic Exorcism (vii-viii)
What is interesting here is that Cuneo explores a wide-range of exorcism practices across different denominations and faith groups.To my knowledge, no one else has written this kind of comprehensive overview of exorcism practices in America through literature review, case studies, interviews, and eye-witness reporting of exorcisms.
In part one of this review, I present an overview of Cuneo’s book. In part two, I will examine key issues that he raises about the practice of exorcism.
Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism is a fascinating read. His story telling, literature review, and personal interviews surpass anything that I have read about exorcism practices. The more typical author writing in this genre focuses on their own methods and experiences, which leaves the reader wondering whether the author’s work is typical, reliable, authoritative. Practitioners may find helpful advice owning to the wide scope of Cuneo’s work. In any case, Cuneo writes from the perspective of a skeptical Jesuit with a background in sociology. And that’s okay.
Blatty, William Peter. 1974. William Peter Blatty on ‘The Exorcist’ from Novel to Film. New York: Bantam Books.
Brinkley, Bill. 1949. “Priest Frees Mt. Rainers Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Washington Post, August 20. (Cited in Blatty 1974).
Cuneo Examines Exorcism, Part 1
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
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