A (Brief) Lecture On Exorcism

I wrote the following essay in 2003 for THE PRS HANDBOOK.  Our handbook is our go-to bible, similar to how journalists use The AP Style Handbook or psychologists use the DSM-IV.  In light of renewed and heightened interest in demonic possession, I thought I'd share some words regarding the demonic. 

A word of caution.  Lately, news reports across the world have reported on terrible incidents regarding lay people performing their own interpretive versions of an exorcism.  From parks in the U.S., to the recent mass exorcism/witchcraft hysteria in the Congo, the dangers of performing this rite is dangerous.  I'm not referring to the paranormal element.  There is a deep need for psychological and medical oversight when one receives an exorcism, which is a requirement the Roman Catholic Church implements.  Performing exorcisms (or, more accurately, deliverance work) without formal training is dangerous on so many levels. 

The renewed interest in the demonic and exorcism can be traced back to our very own TV show, Paranormal State, which is the first of the modern paranormal shows to tackle that subject in a serious manner.  We were clear to point out that the priests or pastors coming in were not performing exorcisms, but rather, deliverances.  For example, Catholic priest Bob Bailey is one of the few priests to be open about his work to the public, and he assisted in several of our investigations.  Now, the interest has moved into shows dedicated solely to demonic encounters, including fictional films and TV (including the recent announcement that The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman is creating a show around the concept).


by Ryan D Buell (2003)

PART 1 – Origins of Demons and Exorcists

Exorcism comes from the Greek word, exousia, which translates as adjuro in Latin or “adjure” in English.  Roman Catholic exorcism rituals begin with the following Latin words, Adjure te, spiritus nequissime, per Deum omnipotentem (translates to “I adjure thee, most evil spirit, by Almighty God!”).

According to the New Testament, Jesus cast out many devils, but he did not need to exorcise them because he had no need to call on any higher authority than Himself.  On many accounts, Jesus’ disciples attempt to exorcise demons but fail because they do not invoke his name.  It is heavily argued whether or not Jesus was, in fact, the first exorcist.  It is my belief that He was not, because Jesus was the key authority.  Exorcists call upon authority of Jesus Christ, and compel the unclean spirits in the name of Jesus and God.

However, Jesus recognized the expulsion of demons and even gave the gift to His disciples.  By recognizing Jesus Christ and invoking Jesus to proclaim their faith, they will draw from Jesus’ power to expel demons, who are themselves compelled by Jesus.

The Catholic Church has performed exorcisms for hundreds of years.  The first mention of any order of exorcists came about with the Council of Antioch held in 341 C.E.[1], however no formal rite of how to perform an exorcism came about until 1614 with the Rituale Romanum, which was a 1,300 page volume of instruction.  Before these established procedures, exorcists relied on prayer, beating, starvation, electric shock and salt.


Although no source officially spells out what causes a person to become possessed, there are many theories.  One is dabbling in to the occult.  This can refer to swinging pendulums, holding séances, to Ouija Boards.  The famous 1949 Mount Rainer case involving a teenage boy started out with dabbling in spiritualism.  The boy was introduced to spiritualism by his aunt[2].  The boy, “Robbie,” was an only child and therefore relied on himself to be entertained.  After his aunt died, his parents found him actively playing with the Ouija Board in his room alone.  Soon after, sounds began to erupt from their house.  Robbie complained that his bed would shake.  He heard voices.  The activity started off as that of a typical poltergeist case.  The process was slow, but eventually, Robbie became possessed.  The Catholic Church was called in to perform at the time.  This case later went on to inspire the popular William Peter Blatty novel, The Exorcist.

Some demons, while being interrogated by the priest, claim that the person was “chosen before they were born.”  It has also been said that those who are uniquely blessed by God or by some divine power, are attracted by evil, and are therefore tormented by the demons that inhabit them.

Although the above generally describes the point of contact, there is a lengthier process on how possession usually happens.  It’s a very slow process that can range from many months to many years.

The general testimony from those possessed is that it starts out with a growing temptation inside.  A source from within that offers to help.  The victims later said that they knew this entity was neither human nor coming from any religious deity.  The entity will usually strike during the victim’s most desperate hour, forming a symbiosis.  The entity then alienates them from those close to them, especially those who are religious figures or those blessed with the grace of God. 

According to the victims, the alien entity promises good things in return of forming a symbiosis.  Almost always, the victim never thinks that the alien entity is a demon or something malevolent; they simply treat it as another part of their inner self – and new and improved conscience, if you will.

At some point during this early stage, there arrives a delicate moment when the person chooses the particular offer made to them.[3]  If the victim chooses, then the demon achieves partial possession.  They will then be presented with an increasing and final unremitting pressure to “let go,” thus giving more power to this entity.  This pressure is not at all physical.  It is all a battle of minds.


Because the victim is in a certain trance as they go through this process, they are also unaware of the other signs that surround them.  These signs can be found in the victim’s home.  Poltergeist activity is infamous for being the first signs of demonic activity.  In fact, at times it is mistaken for a poltergeist case.  Some argue that the Enfield Poltergeist case is that of possession.[4]

Strange smells will manifest, and these smells are very strong and distinct.  They will smell like feces, urine, and other unpleasant odors.

Unexplained noises will frequently occur.  They may start as knock but then change to voices such as growling, scratching, barking, etc.  They will not remain in one precise area, however.  They will travel around and vary in volume.


There are indeed natural causes to explain what appears to be demonic possession.  People suffering from dementia, hysteria, epilepsy, melancholia, shell shock, religious and suicidal mania, amnesia, psychic individualism, immorality, schizophrenia, and even sonambulaform possession have been mistaken for actual possession.  This is why the Catholic Church performs a thorough investigation before giving the go-ahead for a priest to perform an exorcism.

In the 1600s, the Roman Catholic Church published its own manual on dealing with the demonic.  The manual, in English, is generally called The Roman Rituals (Rituale Romanum).  Today, many people who feel that they are possessed or harassed by a demon turn to the Catholic Church because of their well-known expulsion ritual, known as an exorcism.

There are three main signs to look for when trying to determine if an individual is possessed: does the individual(s) in question speak in languages that they could not have known?  Does the individual(s) in question demonstrate abnormal strength far beyond the ability and capacity of their body?  Does the individual(s) in question have the ability to know things that are hidden to them (in other words, are they very psychic?)?

On top of this, there are other questions one can ask.  Does the person react violently to religious objects?  Are they unable to pray?  Are they unable to say the name Jesus Christ?

If indeed the possessed show signs of the above, then the priest sends in for a specialist such as a psychologist or medical doctor.  These specialists are usually those that the priest trusts and have worked with before. 

If the priest or investigator believes that it meets the requirements to perform an exorcism, then the Bishop of the diocese is contacted for permission.  Usually, or at least, in major diocese, there is an appointed exorcist. 


There is no typical exorcist.  Generally, their ages range from 50s to 60s.  They do not have to be intellectually brilliant or creative.  All have to be sensitive men with solid minds.  They are usually chosen based on their moral judgment, personal behavior, and of course, religious beliefs.

The exorcist will choose assistants, laymen or those with strong religious faith, and then doctors, psychologists or other specialists.

Right before an exorcism, they will agree on a room to perform the ritual.  Sometimes it can be in the possessed’s house, but it is not required.  When the room is chosen, it is stripped completely of its belongings such as toys, furniture other than the bed, clothes, decorations, etc.  Windows are taped or boarded shut because the demons often attempt to throw them out.  Usually the possessed is restrained to the bed.

Before the exorcism, the exorcist makes sure that their assistants are clear of their conscience of personal sins.  Any sin can be used as a weapon.  They should be prepared to have their deepest and darkest sins revealed by the demon during the exorcism, however.

[1] Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology 5th Edition

[2] For more information on this case: Possessed, Thomas B. Allen, 1993.

[3] Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin, 1976, page 437.

[4] This House is Haunted, Guy Lyon Playfair.


For anyone who wants to do serious research on this subject, one of the major contributors to the study of demonology is former Catholic priest and author, Malachi Martin.  His book, Hostage to the Devil is considered far and wide to be one of the most definitive readings on the subject.  He talks about two types of possession.  Perfect and imperfect possession.  The majority of possession cases are imperfect, meaning that, even once the possession takes over, there is still a struggle between the victim and the invader.  This is why the possibility of spirit/demonic removal is possible through the rite of exorcism.  Because the individual wants to be released.  Perfect possession, however, is much more complex, despite its simple definition: the individual completely accepts the symbiosis and submits to it and does not want help.  Martin argues that an exorcism will not work on those who are perfectly possessed.  They are essentially lost/damned souls who are still alive and accept their fate (for whatever reason). 

Martin breaks down the stages of possession, which he stresses is mostly a psychological and spiritual breakdown.

Regression - backsliding in spiritual progress.

Repression - loses ability to express feelings.

Suppression - victim starts hiding information

Depression - extreme and consistent sadness/despair.

Oppression - external force, weighing down on the individual(s).

Obsession - idea or habit to the point of damage.

Possession - full control of the victim, partial or complete.