The National Catholic Review

Slowly over the past 25 years in the United States, the old belief in free will has been replaced by a pseudo-scientific belief in determinism. Faulty genes, bad brain chemistry, neurotransmitters gone bonkersthese are some of our postmodern excuses.

In American Exorcism, however, Michael Cuneo does us the great service of informing us that for a significant minority of Americans, another traditional, anti-scientific excuse is readily at handthat old devil, Satan himself, together with his henchmen. And while the belief in demonic possession may be old and therefore seemingly at odds with modern explanations for behavior, Cuneo’s work is highly significant for the way he shows how the resurrection of Satan and the concomitant need for exorcism is ironically more in tune with the Zeitgeist than one might imagine. It is, he persuasively argues, part and parcel of the white, middle-class, entertainment, therapeutic, alternative-medical, consumer culture in which many Americans, desperate for relief from their problems, have come to believe in psychosalvation by gimmickry, a paint by numbers approach to transforming the self. Where millions see unbalanced brain chemicals, genetic predisposition or toxic particles as the source of their troubles, it is oddly fitting that others see little demons. And for both groups there is therapy, a technique, promising liberation for the addicted, hope for the forlorn, solace for the brokenhearted. In a climate where the pursuit of possessions has become a national obsession, it is apt that the business of possessionand its remedyhas become a booming business.

Cuneo maintains that the demon-expulsion is a widespread and growing phenomenon among all types of Protestants and Roman Catholics. Exorcisms, he writes, are readily available, and large numbers of Americans have undergone them. In fact, he wonders why exorcism isn’t practiced far more widely, since it’s such a great deal. All one’s personal problems can be engineered through demon-expulsion: a bit messy perhaps, but relatively fast and cheap, and morally exculpatorya thoroughly American arrangement.

One of American Exorcism’s main contentions is that the exorcism rage developed as a direct result of the 1973 release of William Peter Blatty’s sensational movie The Exorcist and the publication of Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, which allegedly documented the exorcisms of five Americans. Cuneo argues persuasively that the entertainment industry has manipulated Americans’ religious beliefs and behaviors. Up until the early 70’s, exorcism and demonic possession remained in obscurity. Then Blatty, Martin and the popular culture industry created titillating spectacles that captured the religious imagination of many Americans anxious for some evidence, no matter how nonsensical, that the supernatural was still a potent force in the modern world. Afterwards, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera and other media luminaries had a field day exposing Satan’s terrifying hold on so many hopeless victims. Exorcism as a pop sensation was born.

Cuneo, a sociologist who teaches at Fordham University, personally witnessed more than 50 exorcisms, both Catholic and Protestant, official, bootleg, you-name-it. He provides excellent descriptions of some of these and demonstrates how this burgeoning exorcism phenomenon must be seen within a larger social context. As weird as exorcism may seem, he rightly shows how it is congruous with American culture as a whole, a place where free will and personal responsibility are ancient relics and the search for someone or something to blame for one’s life is pandemic.

Ironically, however, Cuneo, who can be scathingly funny about those who see real glowering, hell-bent-on-evil demons as the major scourge of our time, is himself conflicted over the issue. He is a sociologist who does not trust his own observations, a failing that places him within the Zeitgeist he skewers. For although he reports that during all the exorcisms he observed he never encountered a demon or anything startling or unusual, he maintains he isn’t sure if demons were present, if they literally exist, if people can be so possessed. He says he has no idea and wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility.

But why not? For he calls exorcism a ritualized placebo for those who want to avoid responsibility for their own shortcomings by blaming them on demons. When asked by one participant if he had not seen the body of the possessed person levitating two or three feet off the chair, he writes, No, I didn’t see it, and the reason I didn’t? There was nothing to be seen. Throughout American Exorcism he passes judgment; yet at many other points, he withdraws judgment. He wants it both ways.

This vacillation mars an excellent study. For if he really has no idea about the existence of demons and their ability to possess people, then his conclusions are meaningless. If the believers in demonic possession are rightdespite Cuneo’s own empirical observationsthen all his cultural analysis is beside the point. Satan, not Hollywood or social forces, would be the cause of this phenomenon.

Ironically, Cuneo’s conflict over passing judgment reflects a culture deeply confused over the very basis for deciding the truth. His fear of judging is the same fear of freedom and responsibility that drives the exorcism craze and suffuses American culture.

Edward Curtin is a professor of sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass.