Exorcism: The Devil’s in the Details

December 30, 2008

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A new television series,   The Real Exorcist , has debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel, whose executives and producers continue to promote pseudoscience and worse. The show features fundamentalist minister Bob Larson,   whose Web site pleads for help in fighting demonic evil with “prayer and financial help.” Jesus, Larson claims, has actually “chosen” him for this work.

I was invited by CNN to study Larson’s televised “exorcisms” and debate him on an afternoon show hosted by Kyra Phillips—on Halloween 2008 no less. (The segment may be viewed on YouTube.) I began by suggesting that we “exorcise the nonsense” out of Reverend Larson.

Larson employs an approach similar to that used by many faith-healing hucksters. Just as Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff supposedly are catalysts for “miracle” cures, prompting the recipients to “speak in tongues” and “go under the Power” (of the Holy Spirit), Larson provokes similar theatrics. As he stares into the eyes of someone he suggests is “possessed,” the individual typically responds, perhaps speaking in a guttural, “demonic” voice, falling down, thrashing about, or the like. It is a process well known to professional stage hypnotists, depending on the selection (usually self-selection) of credulous persons, utilizing suggestion, and resulting in role-playing.

The respondents are predisposed to act out the drama of being “possessed,” prompted by their desire to engage in potentially cathartic behavior and by the potent power of suggestion. Even those less suggestible may be motivated to comply when they are surrounded by others expecting them to act a certain way.

It is ironic that, in the twenty-first century, fear mongers like Larson are harking back to medieval ignorance and superstition. With the recognition of brain disorders like epilepsy, and mental conditions such as schizophrenia and hysteria, there has been a consequent decline in reports of demonic activity. (For more, see my book,   The Mystery Chronicles , University Press of Kentucky, 2004, pp. 14—27, 261—270.)

However, the less enlightened still manage to be possessed—not by demons, but by belief in them, aided by exorcists and predatory television executives.