We are living through a golden age of exorcism. Since the 1990s, when the famous Italian exorcist Gabriele Amorth revived the rite, the number of exorcists in the Roman Catholic Church has exploded, with training courses running in Rome forced to turn would-be exorcists away.
The pope himself has endorsed the practice, as a growing number of Protestant churches promote “deliverance ministries” and other exorcisms as a central part of worship. And Hollywood has embraced it as a plot device, pouring cash into endless feature films, one tragically canceled TV series (and another critically acclaimed show that’s still ticking), and spending $400 million on a forthcoming Exorcist trilogy, inspired by the 1973 classic.
But what exorcists actually do is still, in many places, shrouded in secrecy. Long suspicious of depictions of their work in popular culture, exorcists are a notoriously cagey bunch, and hard to pin down for an interview. In 2015, Giuseppe Giordan, an Italian sociology professor, received a rare window into the daily life of a working exorcist in the form of a 200,000-word diary—a daily record, in a Microsoft Word document, of every exorcism this anonymous person undertook, documenting more than 1,000 cases over 10 years in meticulous detail.
Two years later, Giordan, a professor at the University of Padua, and his co-researcher at Western Sydney University, Adam Possamai, detailed their findings in a paper in the journal Current Sociology titled “Mastering the Devil: A Sociological Analysis of the Practice of a Catholic Exorcist.” The paper offers a level of detail on real-life modern exorcism not before seen. The unnamed exorcist, who is skeptical of most cases of possession, works closely with a psychiatrist to identify “true” cases, while also employing a “heavy metal chair,” reciting “vulgar” Latin to beat back the devil, and calling on several helpers to contain the convulsing bodies of the possessed.
But beyond describing the specifics of the rite, Possamai and Giordan take their tools of analysis to the exorcist’s practice, dissecting the identities of the “possessed” and describing for the first time the incredible diversity of people who seek the professional services of an exorcist.
This week, I sat down with Giordan at a café in the shadow of Padua’s Basilica of St. Anthony to talk about what this rare document reveals and to ask why exorcisms are so popular right now. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
John Last: Tell me about how you obtained this exorcist’s document. It’s quite rare to get something like this, no?
Giuseppe Giordan: I knew the exorcist from when we both taught in Rome. … He was a professor of philosophy in a famous university, a Catholic university. His approach to life was very, how could I say, scientific—not superstitious. I reconnected with him after many years, and we went out for lunch, and as we were just talking—you know, what are you doing now?—he told me that the bishop of Padova told him to be the exorcist of the diocese, which is quite a big diocese in Italy. I was surprised because I knew him as a very, I would say, rational person. So I said, “Listen, you’ve changed, you’ve shifted completely!” And he said, “No, no, no. I don’t believe in the devil. I see the devil every day.”
He told me, “You can’t imagine how people come to me for help.” He called it “spiritual disease.” So after a while, I said, “Why don’t we talk a little more,” because this is an interesting field of research. From then on, we met once or twice a week for two years.
He was very scientific in his approach. He made a document where he wrote everything, very organized—personal data, why they went to him, their jobs, age. It was a perfect document for a sociologist to analyze.
It was really unbelievable. First of all, it was quite rare for an exorcist to keep a document like that. Secondly, it was impossible that an exorcist gives that document to someone other than a priest or a bishop. But we had known each other forever.
Before we published our paper, the last issue was, will you allow us to attend an exorcism? He said that’s difficult, but when the person, the possessed, said yes, we attended an exorcism and wrote down what happened.
How did this particular exorcist approach the rite of exorcism?
We could write an encyclopedia on what we saw. The way exorcisms are performed, I don’t think it depends on the possessed, I think it depends much more on the exorcist.
If you read the rite of exorcism, he followed exactly what is written. This exorcist is convinced that the Latin is much more effective with the devil than Italian, because Latin—you know, VADE RETRO SATANA [“go back, Satan”]—is much more explicit.
Tell me about some of the cases that he dealt with. How did they challenge common assumptions about exorcisms?
From the sociological point of view, we were interested in understanding why people believe this. Because we assume that the more people are educated, the less they should believe in this kind of stuff. But we discover the opposite.
In this document there are 1,100 cases over 10 years. He worked a lot. First, only 5 percent really were possessed, according to the exorcist, which means around 50 people, out of 1,000. Out of the general group, around half were not very educated. But the other half, they were very educated. And among the 50 [he decided were] possessed, they were really educated.
Second, they were on average middle-aged—between 40 and 50. Third, there were more men than women. Also, while for a certain percentage it was enough, just one or two rituals, in other cases there are ongoing rituals for years.
Another unexpected thing—but again, the character of the exorcist is the fundamental key to understand this—the exorcist worked with a psychiatric doctor. They worked together.
To triage cases.
Exactly. It is clear that when a person goes to the exorcist, they are expecting something. They perceive something bad. They don’t know how to name it. And probably, the easiest way is to call it Satan, or I don’t know what. So the exorcist, the first thing he does is say, let’s try to talk with a psychiatrist, and let’s see the reaction.
Of course, the psychiatrist must also believe there is something beyond, in order to work with an exorcist. But it shows that science and belief, they sustain each other. It’s not a zero-sum proposition: more science, less superstition. Not at all.
Exorcisms are usually depicted in films and TV as quite brutal and harsh, even violent. Is that what it’s like in real life?
No. Not to that extent. Father Gabriele Amorth (a famous exorcist from Rome), if you read his books, describes all kinds of strange things, which are not in the experience of this exorcist.
OK, so, speaking in tongues, speaking in different languages, yes. He experienced three or four times people speaking in perfect Latin, without any reason to know it. Thrashing, moving hands and legs so that it’s a little bit dangerous—three or four times. Yelling, much more.
To be honest, it is not so exciting. The tension was much more before the rite. The wife of my co-author Adam (Possamai) and my wife were nervous—they said, “What are you doing??”
It feels dangerous.
Si! It was something, but not so … [Shrugs.]
But in 1,000 cases, he has just a few where there is inexplicable illness. But he was really cautious in practicing exorcism. Some people use a “diagnostic exorcism” to see if you’re possessed or not. He didn’t use that because he said it was dangerous. If you perform the exorcism, a person could act as though they’re possessed, even become convinced.
So, nothing so exceptional. For us, it is more interesting to see the people who believe they are possessed. People who have degrees, who have a position—university professors, high-level positions. They really do believe they are possessed.
Your paper describes one person who received 354 exorcisms over the course of 10 years. What was happening there?
Yes, that is a kind of illness which is not explainable by medicine. The psychiatrist and exorcist, both of them agreed after going to different doctors. Nobody was able to explain what was going on, so they said, yeah, this person needs exorcism. And why? They are very pragmatic. Does it work? Yes? Then keep doing it. The 300-times possessed, he is convinced it helps a lot. Because it gives him the strength to go on another week.
In your work you talk about a growing cultural interest in exorcism and an increasing belief in the power of the devil. What do you think is driving that?
Even within the church, there is debate—does the church believe that the devil exists? If you talk about God, probably nobody cares. If you talk about the devil—I spoke at a university, we presented the book, and we had to say to people, “Enough! We have no more seats!” If you do something about God, it’s maybe two, three people. This is the discussion within the Catholic Church.
Now today, exorcism is spread over all religions. Every religion has blessings, delivery rites. But in Catholicism, it really grew in the late 1990s. Amorth, the exorcist in Rome, he was the one who pushed to rediscover this. And he succeeded, by the way. He started a group of exorcists in Rome, and now they are hundreds—800, 900 people in the association. They give courses, training exorcists, and they have to refuse people.
Why do people believe in possession? I think that the more science is able to reply to how, more people ask themselves about why. And you know, probably the traditional churches are not able to give credible answers anymore. So people go to folk religion, which has always been a little bit dismissed or put aside from the official churches. So there is coming out in us the tribal aspect of everyday life. We are not that much different from people who lived 2,000 years ago. There is a strong interest in this based on what we do not understand of life.
I don’t know if we are satisfied with the replies of science. But again, once we know how things work, there is always room to ask why things happen.