Hostage to the Devil
Michael Strong – Part I
A Brief Handbook of Exorcism
When the search party reached the disused grain store known locally as Puh-Chi (One Window), the bombing of Nanking was at its height. The night sky was bright with incandescent flares and filled with explosions. Japanese incendiaries were wreaking havoc on Nanking’s wooden buildings. It was December 11, 1937, about 10:00 P.M. The Yangtze delta all the way down to the sea was in Japanese hands. From Shanghai on the coast to within two miles of Nanking was a devastated area on which death had settled like a permanent atmosphere. Nanking was next on the invaders’ list. And defenseless. December 13 was to be its death date.
For one week the police of a southern Nanking city precinct had been looking for Thomas Wu. The charge: murder of at least five women and two men in the most horrible circumstances: Thomas Wu, the story was, had lolled his victims and eaten their bodies. At the end of one week’s fruitless searching, Father Michael Strong, the missionary parish priest of the district, who had baptized Thomas Wu, sent word unexpectedly that he had found the wanted man in the barnlike Puh-Chi. But the police captain did not understand the message Father Michael had sent him: “I am conducting an exorcism. Please give me some time.” *
* This Is the only exorcism reported in this book for which I have no transcript and could not conduct extensive interviews. My sole source was Father Michael himself, who recounted these events to me and allowed me to read his diaries.
The main door of Puh-Chi was ajar when the police chief arrived. A small knot of men and women stood watching. They could see Father Michael standing in the middle of the floor. Over in one corner there was another figure, a young, naked man, suddenly ravished by an unnatural look of great age, a long knife in his hands. On the shelves around the inner walls of the storehouse lay rows and rows of naked corpses in various stages of mutilation and putrefaction.
“YOU!!” the naked man was screaming as the police captain elbowed his way to the door, “YOU want to know MY name!” The words “you” and “my” hit the captain like two clenched fists across the ears. He saw the priest visibly wilt and stagger backward. But, even so, it was the voice that made the captain wonder. He had known Thomas Wu. Never had he heard him speak with such a voice.
“In the name of Jesus,” Michael began weakly, “you are commanded . . .”
“Get outta here! Get the hell outta here, you filthy old eunuch!”
“You will release Thomas Wu, evil spirit, and …”
“I’m taking him with me, pigmy,” came the voice from Thomas Wu. “I’m taking him. And no power anywhere, anywhere, you hear, can stop us. We are as strong as death. No one stronger! And he wants to come! You hear? He wants to!”
“Tell me your name …”
The priest was interrupted by a sudden roaring. No one there could say later how the fire started. An incendiary? A spark carried by the wind from burning Nanking? It was like a sudden, noisy ambush sprung by a silent signal. In a flash the fire had jumped up, a living red weed running around the sides of the storehouse, along the curved roof, and across the wooden floor by the walls.
The police captain was already inside, and he gripped Father Michael by the arm, pulling him outside.
The voice of Wu pursued them over the noise: “It’s all one. Fool! We’re all the same. Always were. Always.”
Michael and the captain were outside by then and turned around to listen.
“There’s only one of us. One . . .”
The rest of the sentence was drowned in a sudden outburst of flaming timbers.
Now, the glass rectangle of the single window was darkening over with smoke and grime. In a few minutes it would be impossible to see anything. Michael lurched over and peered in. Against the window he could see Thomas’ face plastered for an instant of fixed, grinning agony a horrible picture, a Bosch nightmare come alive.
Long, quickly lashing tongues of flame were licking at Thomas’ temples, neck, and hair. Through the hissing and crackling of the fire, Michael could hear Thomas laughing, but very dimly, almost lost to I lie ear. Between the flames he could see the shelves with their gray-white load of corpses. Some were melting. Some were burning. Eyes oozing out of sockets like broken eggs. Hair burning in little tufts. First, fingers and toes and noses and ears, then whole limbs and torsos melting and blackening. And the smell. God! That smell!
Then the fixity of Thomas’ grin broke; his face seemed to be replaced by another face with a similar grin. At the top speed of a kaleidoscope, a long succession of faces came and went, one flickering after the other. All grinning. All with “Cain’s thumbprint on the chin,” as Michael described the mark that haunted him for the rest of his life. Every pair of lips was rounded into the grinning shape of Thomas’ last word: “one!” Faces and expressions Michael never had known. Some he imagined he knew. Some he knew he imagined. Some he had seen in history books, in paintings, in churches, in newspapers, in nightmares. Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, Korean, British, Slavic. Old, young, bearded, clean-shaven.
Black, white, yellow. Male, female. Faster. Faster. All grinning with the same grin. More and more and more. Michael felt himself hurtling down an unending lane of faces, decades and centuries and millennia ticking by him, until the speed slowed finally, and the last grinning face appeared, wreathed in hate, its chin just one big thumbprint.
Now the window was completely black Michael could see nothing. “Cain . . .” he began to say weakly to himself. But a stablike realization stopped the word in his throat, just as if someone had hissed into his inner ear: “Wrong again, fool! Cain’s father. I. The cosmic Father of Lies and the cosmic Lord of Death. From the beginning of the beginning. I … I … I … I … I …”
Michael felt a sharp pain in his chest. A strong hand was around his heart stifling its movement, and an unbearable weight lay on his chest, bending him over. He heard the blood thumping in his head and then loud, roaring winds. A dazzling flash of light burst across his eyes. He slumped to the ground.
Strong hands plucked Michael away from the window just in time.
The storehouse was now an inferno. With a tearing crash, the roof caved in. The flames shot up triumphantly and licked the outside walls, burning and consuming ravenously.
“Get the old man away from here!” screamed the captain through the smoke and the smell. They all drew back. Michael, slung over the shoulder of one man, was babbling and sobbing incoherently. The captain could barely make his words out:
“I failed … I failed … I must go back. Please . . . Please . . . must go back . . . not later .. . please . . .”
When they got Michael to the hospital, his condition was critical. Apart from burns and smoke inhalation, he had suffered a minor heart attack. And until the following evening, he continued in a delirium.
Before the fall of Nanking, he was smuggled out by the faithful police captain and a few parishioners. They made their way northwestwards, barely escaping the tightening Japanese net.
On December 14, the Japanese High Command let loose 50,000 of their soldiers on the city with orders to kill every living person. The city became a slaughterhouse. Whole groups of men and women were used for bayonet and machine-gun practice. Others were burned alive or slowly cut to pieces. Rows of children were beheaded by samurai-swinging officers competing to see who could take off the most heads with one sweep of the sword. Women were raped by squads, then killed. Fetuses were torn alive from wombs, carved up, and fed to the dogs.
All told, over 42,000 were murdered. Death enveloped Nanking as it had the entire Yangtze delta. Animals and crops died and rotted in the fields.
It was as though the spirit that Michael had tangled with in the microcosm of Thomas Wu’s grisly charnel house in the suburbs of Nanking -“the Cosmic Lord of Death”- had been let loose over all the lands. In the world-shaking events of the war years, some special viciousness had been given free rein, had impressed itself on hundreds of thousands with the sting of absolute and irresistible authority. Death was the strongest weapon. It settled all disputes over who was master. And eventually it claimed all as its victims, putting everyone on an equal level. In war, where death was the victor, you tried to have it on your side.
Back in Hong Kong, where Michael was finally brought in the late summer of 1938 after a considerably roundabout journey, the realists knew it was a matter of time before the Japanese winners took all.
On Christmas Day 1941, Hong Kong became a Japanese possession. During the years of occupation Michael lived quietly at Kowloon, teaching a little in the schools, doing some pastoral work. He was slow in recuperating.
During that time, everyone was under a strain. Food was scarce. Harassment by the occupying Japanese was extreme. And all lived with the sure knowledge that, barring miracles, if the Japanese had to evacuate the city, they would massacre everyone; and if they stayed on, they would eventually kill all they could not enslave.
Still, Michael took all the physical hardship with greater ease than those around him. He suffered two more heart attacks during the Japanese occupation, but they did not diminish his spirit in any way. He did not feel, as his colleagues did, the intolerable uncertainty, the strain of waiting for death at Japanese hands or for liberation by the Allies. As some of his acquaintances noticed, his sufferings were not chiefly in his body or his mind or his imagination. He had come from the interior of China broken in a way neither rest nor food nor loving attention could mend.
To the few who knew his story, it was clear that he had paid only part of his price as an exorcist. He frankly told them of that price. And of his failure. Both they and he realized he would have to liquidate his debt sooner or later.
His waiting creditor fascinated Michael, was always on his mind. For instance, toward the end of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, he and a friend were watching a flight of American bombers progress imperturbably like enchanted birds through a rain of Japanese antiaircraft fire. They deposited their bomb loads, and then departed unharmed over the horizon. As the explosions and fires in the harbor continued, Michael muttered: “Why does death make the loudest noise and the brightest fire?”
Some weeks later, a man-made light brighter than the sun mushroomed over Hiroshima. A new human record: more people were killed and maimed by this one human action than by any other ever recorded in the story of man.
I was not to learn of Michael for some years-or of the special price he paid day by day until his death, for his defeat in that strange exorcism at Puh-Chi.
The recent vast publicity about Exorcism has highlighted the plight of the possessed as a fresh genre of horror film. The essence of evil is lost in the cinematographic effects. And the exorcist, who risks more than anyone else in an exorcism, flits across the screen as necessary but, in the end, not so interesting as the sound effects.
The truth is that all three – the possessed, the possessing spirit, and the exorcist – bear a close relation to the reality of life and to its meaning as all of us experience it each and every day.
Possession is not a process of magic. Spirit is real; in fact, spirit is the basis of all reality. “Reality” would not only be boring without spirit; it would have no meaning whatsoever. No horror film can begin to capture the horror of such a vision: a world without spirit.
Evil Spirit is personal, and it is intelligent. It is preternatural, in the sense that it is not of this material world, but it is in this material world. And Evil Spirit as well as good advances along the lines of our daily lives. In very normal ways spirit uses and influences our daily thoughts, actions, and customs and, indeed, all the strands that make up the fabric of life in whatever time or place. Contemporary life is no exception.
To compare spirit with the elements of our lives and material world, which it can and sometimes does manipulate for its own ends, is a fatal mistake, but one that is very often made. Eerie sounds can be produced by spirit-but spirit is not the eerie sound.
Objects can be made to fly across a room, but telekinesis is no more spirit than the material object that was made to move. One man whose story is told in this book made the mistake of thinking otherwise, and he nearly paid with his life when he had to confront the error he had made.
The exorcist is the centerpiece of every exorcism. On him depends everything. He has nothing personal to gain. But in each exorcism he risks literally everything that he values. Michael Strong’s was an* extreme example of the fate awaiting the exorcist. But every exorcist j must engage in a one-to-one confrontation, personal and bitter, with pure evil. Once engaged, the exorcism cannot be called off. There will I and must always be a victor and a vanquished. And no matter what j the outcome, the contact is in part fatal for the exorcist. He must; consent to a dreadful and irreparable pillage of his deepest self.’ Something dies in him. Some part of his humanness will wither from j such close contact with the opposite of all humanness-the essence of j evil; and it is rarely if ever revitalized. No return will be made to him I for his loss.
This is the minimum price an exorcist pays. If he loses in the fight j with Evil Spirit, he has an added penalty. He may or may not ever again perform the rite of Exorcism, but he must finally confront and vanquish the evil spirit that repulsed him.
The investigation that may lead to Exorcism usually begins because a man or woman-occasionally a child-is brought to the notice of Church authorities by family or friends. Only rarely does a possessed} person come forward spontaneously.
The stories that are told on these occasions are dramatic and painful: strange physical ailments in the possessed; marked mental derangement; obvious repugnance to all signs, symbols, mention, and sight of religious objects, places, people, ceremonies.
Often, the family or friends report, the presence of the person in; question is marked by so-called psychical phenomena: objects fly around the room; wallpaper peels off the walls; furniture cracks;! crockery breaks; there are strange rumblings, hisses, and other noises’, with no apparent source. Often the temperature in the room where the possessed happens to be will drop dramatically. Even more often an acrid and distinctive stench accompanies the person.
Violent physical transformations seem sometimes to make the lives of the possessed a kind of hell on earth. Their normal processes of | secretion and elimination are saturated with inexplicable wrackings ; and exaggeration.
Their consciousness seems completely colored by’ I he violent sepia of revulsion. Reflexes sometimes become sporadic or abnormal, sometimes disappear for a time. Breathing can cease for extended periods. Heartbeats are hard to detect. The face is strangely distorted, sometimes also abnormally tight and smooth without the slightest line or furrow.
When such a case is brought to their attention, the first and central problem that must always be addressed by the Church authorities is: Is the person really possessed?
Henri Gesland, a French priest and exorcist who works today in Paris, stated in 1974 that, out of 3,000 consultations since 1968, “there have been only four cases of what I believe to be demonic possession.” T. K. Osterreich, on the other hand, states that “possession has been an extremely common phenomenon, cases of which abound in the history of religion.” The truth is that official or scholarly census of possession cases has never been made.
Certainly, many who claim to be possessed or whom others so describe are merely the victims of some mental or physical disease. In reading records from times when medical and psychological science did not exist or were quite undeveloped, it is clear that grave mistakes were made. A victim of disseminated sclerosis, for example, was taken to be possessed because of his spastic jerkings and slidings and the shocking agony in spinal column and joints. Until quite recently, the victim of Tourette’s syndrome was the perfect target for the accusation of “Possessed!”: torrents of profanities and obscenities, grunts, barks, curses, yelps, snorts, sniffs, tics, foot stomping, facial contortions all appear suddenly and just as suddenly cease in the subject.
Nowadays, Tourette’s syndrome responds to drug treatment, and it seems to be a neurological disease involving a chemical abnormality in the brain. Many people suffering from illnesses and diseases well known to us today such as paranoia, Huntington’s chorea, dyslexia, Parkinson’s disease, or even mere skin diseases (psoriasis, herpes I, for instance), were treated as people “possessed” or at least as “touched” by the Devil.
Nowadays, competent Church authorities always insist on thorough examinations of the person brought to them for Exorcism, an examination conducted by qualified medical doctors and psychiatrists.
When a case of possession is reported by a priest to the diocesan authorities, the exorcist of the diocese is brought in. If there is no diocesan exorcist, a man is appointed or brought from outside the diocese.
Sometimes the priest reporting the exorcism will have had some preliminary medical and psychiatric tests run beforehand in order to allay the cautious skepticism he is likely to meet at the chancery when he introduces his problem. When the official exorcist enters the case, he will usually have his own very thorough examinations run by experts he knows and whose judgment he is sure he can trust.
In earlier times, one priest was usually assigned the function of exorcist in each diocese of the Church. In modern times, this practice has fallen into abeyance in some dioceses, mainly because the incidence of reported possession has decreased over the last hundred years. But in most major dioceses, there is still one priest entrusted with this function-even though he may rarely or never use it. In some dioceses, there is a private arrangement between the bishop and one of his priests whom he knows and trusts.
There is no official public appointment of exorcists. In some dioceses, “the bishop knows little about it and wants to know less”-as in one of the cases recorded in this book. But however he comes to his position, the exorcist must have official Church sanction, for he is acting in an official capacity, and any power he has over Evil Spirit can only come from those officials who belong to the substance of Jesus’ Church, whether they be in the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, or the Protestant Communions. Sometimes a diocesan priest will take on an exorcism himself without asking his bishop, but all such cases known to me have failed.
It is recognized both in the pre-exorcism examinations and during the actual exorcism that there is usually no one physical or psychical aberration or abnormality in the possessed person that we cannot explain by a known or possible physical cause. And, apart from normal medical and psychological tests, there are other possible sources for diagnosis. However rickety and tentative the findings of parapsychology, for example, one can possibly seek in its theories of telepathy and telekinesis an explanation of some of the signs of possession. Suggestion and suggestibility, as modern psychotherapists speak of them, can account for many more.
Still, with the diagnoses and opinions of doctors and psychologists in hand, it is often discovered there are wide margins of fluctuation. Competent psychiatrists will differ violently among themselves; and in psychology and medicine, ignorance of causes is often obscured by technical names and jargon that are nothing more than descriptive terms.
Nevertheless, the combined medical and psychological reports are carefully evaluated and usually weigh heavily in the final judgment to proceed or not with an exorcism. If according to those reports there is a definite disease or illness which adequately accounts for the behavior and symptoms of the subject, Exorcism is usually ruled out, or at least delayed to allow a course of medical or psychiatric treatment.
But finally, reports in hand, all evidence in, Church authorities judge the situation from another, special point of view, formed by their own professional outlook.
They believe that there is an invisible power, a spirit of evil; that this spirit can for obscure reasons take possession of a human being; that the evil spirit can and must be expelled-exorcised-from the person possessed; and that this exorcism can be done only in the name and by the authority and power of Jesus of Nazareth. The testing from the Church’s viewpoint is as rigorous in its search as any medical or psychological examination.
In the records of Christian Exorcism from as far back as the lifetime of Jesus himself, a peculiar revulsion to symbols and truths of religion is always and without exception a mark of the possessed person. In the verification of a case of possession by Church authorities, this “symptom” of revulsion is triangulated with other physical phenomena frequently associated with possession-the inexplicable stench; freezing temperature; telepathic powers about purely religious and moral matters; a peculiarly unlined or completely smooth or stretched skin, or unusual distortion of the face, or other physical and behavioral transformations; “possessed gravity” (the possessed person becomes physically immovable, or those around the possessed are weighted down with a suffocating pressure); levitation (the possessed rises and floats off the ground, chair, or bed; there is no physically traceable support); violent smashing of furniture, constant opening and slamming of doors, tearing of fabric in the vicinity of the possessed, without a hand laid on them; and so on.
When this triangulation is made of the varied symptoms that may occur in any given case, and medical and psychiatric diagnoses are inadequate to cover the full situation, the decision will usually be to proceed and try Exorcism.
There has never been, to my knowledge, an official listing of exorcists together with their biographies and characteristics, so we cannot satisfy our modern craving for a profile of, say, “the typical exorcist.” We can, however, give a fairly clear definition of the type of man who is entrusted with the exorcism of a possessed person. Usually he is engaged in the active ministry of parishes. Rarely is he a scholarly type engaged in teaching or research. Rarely is he a recently ordained priest. If there is any median age for exorcists, it is probably between the ages of fifty and sixty-five. Sound and robust physical health is not a characteristic of exorcists, nor is proven intellectual brilliance, postgraduate degrees, even in psychology or philosophy, or a very sophisticated personal culture. In this writer’s experience, the 15 exorcists he has known have been singularly lacking in anything like a vivid imagination or a rich humanistic training. All have been sensitive men of solid rather than dazzling minds.
Though, of course, there are many exceptions, the usual reasons for a priest’s being chosen are his qualities of moral judgment, personal behavior, and religious beliefs- qualities that are not sophisticated or laboriously acquired, but that somehow seem always to have been an easy and natural part of such a man. Speaking religiously, these are qualities associated with special grace.
There is no official training for an exorcist. Before a priest undertakes Exorcism, it has been found advisable-but not always possible or practical-for him to assist at exorcisms conducted by an older and already experienced priest.
Once possession has been verified to the satisfaction of the exorcist, he makes the rest of the decisions and takes care of all the necessary preparations. In some dioceses, it is he who chooses the assistant priest. The choice of the lay assistants and of the time and place of the exorcism is left to him.
The place of the exorcism is usually the home of the possessed person, for generally it is only relatives or closest friends who will give care and love in the dreadful circumstances associated with possession. The actual room chosen is most often one that has had some special significance for the possessed person, not infrequently his or her own bedroom or den. In this connection, one aspect of possession and of spirit makes itself apparent: the close connection between spirit and physical location. The puzzle of spirit and place makes itself felt in many ways and runs throughout virtually every exorcism. There is a theological explanation for it. But that there is some connection between spirit and place must be dealt with as a fact.
Once chosen, the ,room where the exorcism will be done is cleared as far as possible of anything that can be moved. During the exorcism, one form of violence may and most often does cause any object, light or heavy, to move about, rock back and forth, skitter or fly across the room, make much noise, strike the priest or the possessed or the assistants. It is not rare for people to emerge from an exorcism with serious physical wounds. Carpets, rugs, pictures, curtains, tables, chairs, boxes, trunks, bedclothes, bureaus, chandeliers, all are removed.
Doors very often will bang open and shut uncontrollably; but because exorcisms can go on for days, doors cannot be nailed or locked with unusual security. On the other hand, the doorway must be covered; otherwise, as experience shows, the physical force let loose within the exorcism room will affect the immediate vicinity outside the door.
Windows are closed securely; sometimes they may be boarded over in order to keep flying objects from crashing through them and to prevent more extreme accidents (possessed people sometimes attempt defenestration; physical forces sometimes propel the assistants or the exorcist toward the windows).
A bed or couch is usually left in the room (or placed there if necessary), and that is where the possessed person is placed. A small table is needed. On it are placed a crucifix, with one candle on either side of it, holy water, and a prayer book. Sometimes there will also be a relic of a saint or a picture that is considered to be especially holy or significant for the possessed. In recent years in the United States, and increasingly abroad as well, a tape recorder is used. It is placed on the floor or in a drawer or sometimes, if it is not too cumbersome, around the neck of an assistant.
The junior priest colleague of the exorcist is usually appointed by diocesan authorities. He is there for his own training as an exorcist. He will monitor the words and actions of the exorcist, warn him if he is making a mistake, help him if he weakens physically, and replace him if he dies, collapses, flees, is physically or emotionally battered beyond endurance-and all have happened during exorcisms.
The other assistants are laymen. Very often a medical doctor will be among them because of the danger to all present of strain, shock, or injury. The number of lay assistants will depend on the exorcist’s expectation of violence. Four is the usual number. Of course, in remote country areas or in very isolated Christian missions, and sometimes in big urban centers, there is no question of assistants. There simply is none available, or there is no time to acquire any. The exorcist must go it alone.
An exorcist comes to know from experience what he can expect by way of violent behavior; and, for their own sakes, possessed people must usually be physically restrained during parts of the exorcism. The assistants therefore must be physically strong. In addition, there may be a straitjacket on hand, though leather straps or rope are more commonly used.
It is up to the exorcist to make sure that his assistants are not consciously guilty of personal sins at the time of the exorcism, because they, too, can expect to be attacked by the evil spirit, even though not so directly or constantly as the exorcist himself. Any sin will be used as a weapon.
The exorcist must be as certain as possible beforehand that his assistants will not be weakened or overcome by obscene behavior or by language foul beyond their imagining; they cannot blanch at blood, excrement, urine; they must be able to take awful personal insults and be prepared to have their darkest secrets screeched in public in front of their companions. These are routine happenings during exorcisms. Assistants are given three cardinal rules: they are to obey the exorcist’s commands immediately and without question, no matter how absurd or unsympathetic those commands may appear to them to be; they are not to take any initiative except on command; and they are never to speak to the possessed person, even by way of exclamation.
Even with all the care in the world, there is no way an exorcist can completely prepare his assistants for what lies in store for them. Even though they are not subject to the direct and unremitting attack the priest will undergo, it is not uncommon for assistants to quit-or be carried out-in the middle of an exorcism. A practiced exorcist will even go so far as to make a few trial runs of an exorcism beforehand, on the old theory that forewarned is forearmed-at least to some degree.
Timing in an exorcism is generally dictated by circumstances. There is usually a feeling of urgency to begin as soon as possible. Everyone involved should have an open schedule. Rarely is an exorcism shorter than some hours-more often than not ten or twelve hours. Sometimes it stretches for two or three days. On occasion it lasts even for weeks. Once begun, except on the rarest occasions, there are no time outs, although one or other of the people present may leave the room for a few moments, to take some food, to rest very briefly, or go to the bathroom. (One strange exorcism where there was a time out is described in this book. The priest involved would have preferred one hundred times going straight through the exorcism rather than suffer the mad violence that caused the delay.)
The only people in an exorcism who dress in a special way are the exorcist and his priest assistant. Each wears a long black cassock that covers him from neck to feet. Over it there is a waist-length white surplice. A narrow purple stole is worn around the neck and hangs loosely the length of the torso.
Normally, the priest assistant and the lay assistants prepare the exorcism room according to the exorcist’s instructions. They and the exorcee are ready in the room when the exorcist enters, last and alone.
There is no lexicon of Exorcism; and there is no guidebook or set of rules, no Baedeker of Evil Spirit to follow. The Church provides an official text for Exorcism, but this is merely a framework. It can be read out loud in 20 minutes. It merely provides a precise formula of words together with certain prayers and ritual actions, so that the exorcist has a preset structure in which to address the evil spirit. In fact, the conduct of an exorcism is left very much up to the exorcist.
Nevertheless, any practiced exorcist I have spoken with agrees that there is a general progress through recognizable stages in an exorcism, however long it may last.
One of the most experienced exorcists I have known and who was in fact the mentor of the exorcist in the first case related in this book, gave names to the various general stages of an exorcism. These names reflect the general meaning or effect or intent of what is happening, but not the specific means used by the evil spirit or by the exorcist. Conor, as I call him, spoke of Presence, Pretense, Breakpoint, Voice, Clash, and Expulsion. The events and stages these names signify occur in nine out of every ten exorcisms.
From the moment the exorcist enters the room, a peculiar feeling seems to hang in the very air. From that moment in any genuine exorcism and onward through its duration, everyone in the room is aware of some alien Presence. This indubitable sign of possession is as unexplainable and unmistakable as it is inescapable. All the signs of possession, however blatant or grotesque, however subtle or debatable, seem both to pale before and to be marshaled in the face of this Presence.
There is no sure physical trace of the Presence, but everyone feels it. You have to experience it to know it; you cannot locate it spatially- beside or above or within the possessed, or over in the corner or under the bed or hovering in midair.
In one sense, the Presence is nowhere, and this magnifies the terror, because there is a presence, an other present. Not a “he” or a “she” or an “it.” Sometimes, you think that what is present is singular, sometimes plural. When it speaks, as the exorcism goes on, it will sometimes refer to itself as “I” and sometimes as “we,” will use “my” and “our.”
Invisible and intangible, the Presence claws at the humanness of those gathered in the room. You can exercise logic and expel any mental image of it. You can say to yourself: “I am only imagining this. Careful! Don’t panic!” And there may be a momentary relief. But then, after a time lag of bare seconds, the Presence returns as an inaudible hiss in the brain, as a wordless threat to the self you are. Its name and essence seem to be compounded of threat, to be only and intensely baleful, concentratedly intent on hate for hate’s sake and on destruction for destruction’s sake.
In the early stages of an exorcism, the evil spirit will make every attempt to “hide behind” the possessed, so to speak-to appear to be one and the same person and personality with its victim. This is the Pretense.
The first task of the priest is to break that Pretense, to force the spirit to reveal itself openly as separate from the possessed-and to name itself, for all possessing spirits are called by a name that generally (though not always) has to do with the way that spirit works on its victim.
As the exorcist sets about his task, the evil spirit may remain silent altogether; or it may speak with the voice of the possessed, and use past experiences and recollections of the possessed. This is often done skillfully, using details no one but the possessed could know. It can be very disarming, even pitiful. It can make everyone, including the priest, feel that it is the priest who is the villain, subjecting an innocent person to terrible rigors. Even the mannerisms and characteristics of the possessed are used by the spirit as its own camouflage.
Sometimes the exorcist cannot shatter the Pretense for days. But until he does, he cannot bring matters to a head. If he fails to shatter it at all, he has lost. Perhaps another exorcist replacing him will succeed. But he himself has been beaten.
Every exorcist learns during Pretense that he is dealing with some force or power that is at times intensely cunning, sometimes supremely intelligent, and at other times capable of crass stupidity (which makes one wonder further about the problem of singular or plural); and it is both highly dangerous and terribly vulnerable.
Oddly, while this spirit or power or force knows some of the most secret and intimate details of the lives of everyone in the room, at the same time it also displays gaps in knowledge of things that may be happening at any given moment of the present.
But the priest must not be lulled by small victories or take chances on hoped-for stupidities. He must be ready to have his own sins and blunders and weaknesses put into his mind or shouted in ugliness for all to hear. He must not make excuses for his past, or wither as even his loveliest memories are fingered by ultimate filth and contempt; he must not be sidetracked in any way from his primary intention of freeing the possessed person before him. And he must at all costs avoid trading abuse or getting into any logical arguments with the possessed. The temptation to do so is more frequent than one might think, and must be regarded as a potentially fatal trap that can shatter not only the exorcism, but quite literally shatter the exorcist as well.
Accordingly, as the Pretense begins to break down, the behavior of the possessed usually increases in violence and repulsiveness. It is as though an invisible manhole opens, and out of it pours the unmention-ably inhuman and the humanly unacceptable. There is a stream of filth and unrestrained abuse, accompanied often by physical violence, writhing, gnashing of teeth, jumping around, sometimes physical attacks on the exorcist.
A new hallmark of the proceedings enters as the Breakpoint nears, and ushers in one of the more subtle sufferings the exorcist must undergo: confusion. Complete and dreadful confusion. Rare is the exorcist who does not falter here for at least a moment, enmeshed in the peculiar pain of apparent contradiction of all sense.
His ears seem to smell foul words. His eyes seem to hear offensive sounds and obscene screams. His nose seems to taste a high-decibel cacophony. Each sense seems to be recording what another sense should be recording. Each nerve and sinew of onlookers and participants becomes rigid as they strive for control. Panic-the fear of being dissolved into insanity-runs in quick jabs through everyone there. All present experience this increasingly violent and confusing assault. But the exorcist is the one who rides the storm. He is the direct target of it all.
The Breakpoint is reached at that moment when the Pretense has finally collapsed altogether. The voice of the possessed is no longer used by the spirit, though the new, strange voice may or may not issue from the mouth of the victim. In Thomas Wu’s case, the alien voice did come from the possessed’s mouth; and that was why the police captain was so startled. The sound produced is often not even remotely like any human sound.
At the Breakpoint, for the first time, the spirit speaks of the possessed in the third person, as a separate being. For the first time, the possessing spirit acts personally and speaks of “I” or “we,” usually interchangeably, and of “my” and “our” or “mine” and “ours.”
Another very frequent sign that the Breakpoint has been reached is the appearance of what Father Conor called the Voice.
The Voice is an inordinately disturbing and humanly distressing babel. The first few syllables seem to be those of some word pronounced slowly and thickly-somewhat like a tape recording played at a subnormal speed. You are just straining to pick up the word and a layer of cold fear has already gripped you-you know this sound is alien. But your concentration is shattered and frustrated by an immediate gamut of echoes, of tiny, prickly voices echoing each syllable, screaming it, whispering it, laughing it, sneering it, groaning it, following it. They all hit your ear, while the alien voice is going on unhurriedly to the next syllable, which you then try to catch, while guessing at the first one you lost. By then, the tiny, jabbing voices have caught up with that second syllable; and the voice has proceeded to the third syllable; and so on.
If the exorcism is to proceed, the Voice must be silenced. It takes an enormous effort of will on the part of the exorcist, in direct confrontation with the alien will of evil, to silence the Voice. The priest must get himself under control and challenge the spirit first to silence and then to identify itself intelligibly.
As in all things to do with Exorcism of Evil Spirit, the priest makes this challenge with his own will, but always in the name and by the authority of Jesus and his Church. To do so in his own name or by some fancied authority of his own would be to invite personal disaster. Merely human power unadorned and without aid cannot cope with the preternatural. (It is to be remembered that when we speak of the preternatural, we are not speaking about what are known as poltergeists.)
Usually, at this point and as the Voice dies out, a tremendous pressure of an obscure kind affects the exorcist. This is the first and outermost edge of a direct and personal collision with the “will of the Kingdom,” the Clash.
We all know from our personal experience that there can be no struggle of single personal wills without that felt and intuitive contact between two persons. There is a two-way communication that is as real as a conversation using words. The Clash is the heart of a special and dreadful communication, the nucleus of this singular battle of wills between exorcist and Evil Spirit.
Painful as it will be for him, the priest must look for the Clash. He must provoke it. If he cannot lock wills with the evil thing and force that thing to lock its will in opposition to his own, then again the exorcist is defeated.
The issue between the two, the exorcist and the possessing spirit, is simple. Will the totally antihuman invade and take over? Will it, noisome and merciless, seep over that narrow rim where the exorcist would hold his ground alone, and engulf him? Or will it, unwillingly, protestingly, under a duress greater than its single-track will, stop, identify itself, cede, retire, disappear, and be volatilized back into an unknown pit of being where no man wants to go ever?
Even with all the pressure on him, and in fullest human agony, if the exorcist has got this far, he must press home. He has gained an advantage. He has already forced the evil spirit to come out on its own.
If he has not been able to until now, he must finally force it to give its name. And then, some exorcists feel, the exorcist must pursue for as much information as he can. For in some peculiar way, as exorcists find, the more an evil spirit can be forced to reveal in the Clash and its aftermath, the surer and easier will be the Expulsion when that moment comes. To force as complete an identification as possible is perhaps a mark of domination of one will over another.
It is of crucial interest to speculate about the violence provoked by Exorcism-the physical and mental struggles that are so extreme they can bring on death. Why would spirit battle so? Why not leave and waft off invisibly to someone or someplace else? For spirit itself seems to suffer in these battles.
Time and again, in exorcism after exorcism, there occurs that curious thing to do with spirit and place, the strange puzzle mentioned previously in connection with the room chosen for the exorcism. When Jesus expelled the unclean spirits, those spirits showed concern for where they might go. In record after record, as well as in several exorcisms recounted in this book, the possessing spirits wail in lament and questioning pain:
“Where shall we go?”
“We too have to possess our habitation.”
“Even the Anointed One gave us a place with the swine.”
“Here… we can’t stay here any longer.”
Evil Spirit, having found a home with a consenting host, does not appear to give up its place easily. It claws and fights and deceives and even risks killing its host before it will be expelled. How violent the struggle probably depends on many things; the intelligence of the spirit being dealt with and the degree of possession achieved over the victim are perhaps two one could speculate about.
Whatever determines the actual pitch of violence, once the exorcist has forced the invading spirit to identify itself, and sustained the first wordless bout of the Clash, and then invoked its formal condemnation and expulsion by the Exorcism rite, the immediate result is generally a struggle tortuous beyond/imagining, an open violence that leaves all subtlety behind.
The person possessed is by now obviously aware in one way or another of what possessed him. Frequently he becomes a true battleground for much of the remainder of the exorcism, enduring unbelievable punishment and strain.
It is sometimes possible for the exorcist to appeal directly to the possessed person, urging him to use some part of his own will still free of the spirit’s influence and control, and engage directly in the fight, aiding the exorcist. And at such moments no animal pinned helplessly to the ground struggles more pathetically against the drinking of its life’s blood by a voracious and superior cruelty. The very nauseous character of the possessed person’s appearance and behavior appears to be a sign of his desire for deliverance, a desperate sign of struggle, evidence of a revolt where once he had consented.
Increasingly what had possessed him is being forced into the open, all the while protesting its victim’s revolt and its own expulsion. The violence of the contortions and the physical disfigurement of the possessed can reach a degree one would think he could not possibly withstand.
The exorcist, too, comes in for full attack now. Once cornered, the evil spirit seems able to call on a superior intelligence, and will try to lure the exorcist on to a field boobytrapped and mined with situations from which no human can extricate himself.
Any weakness in the religious faith that alone sustains the exorcist or any fatigue will allow the exorcist’s mind to be flooded with a terrible light he cannot fend off-a light that can burn the very roots of his reason and turn him emotionally into the most servile of slaves desperate to be liberated from all bodily life.
These are only some of the dangers and traps that face every exorcist. His pain is physical, emotional, mental. He has to deal with what is eerie but not enthralling; with something askew, but intelligently so; with a quality that is upside down and inside out, but significantly so. The mordant traits of nightmare are there in full regalia, but this is no dream and permits him no thankful remission.
He is attacked by a stench so powerful that many exorcists start vomiting uncontrollably. He is made to bear physical pain, and he feels anguish over his very soul. He is made to know he is touching the completely unclean, the totally unhuman.
All sense may suddenly seem nonsense. Hopelessness is confirmed as the only hope. Death and cruelty and contempt are normal. Anything comely or beautiful is an illusion. Nothing, it seems, was ever right in the world of man. He is in an atmosphere more bizarre than Bedlam.
If, in spite of his emotions and his imagination and his body-all trapped at once in pain and anguish-if, in spite of all this, the will of the exorcist holds in the Clash, what he does is to approach his final function in this situation as an authorized human witness for Jesus. By no power of his, on account of no privilege of his own, he calls finally on the evil spirit to desist, to be dispossessed, to depart and to leave the possessed person.
And, if the exorcism is successful, this is what happens. The possession ends. All present become aware of a change around them. The sense of Presence is totally, suddenly absent. Sometimes there are receding voices or other noises, sometimes only dead silence. Sometimes the recently possessed may be at the end of his strength; sometimes he will wake up as from a dream, a nightmare, or a coma. Sometimes the former victim will remember much of what he has been through; sometimes he will remember nothing at all.
Not so for the exorcists, during and after their grisly work. They carry nagging doubts and bitter conflicts untellable to family, friend, superior, or therapist. Their personal traumas lie beyond the reach of soothing words and deeper than the sweep of any consoling thoughts.
They share their punishment with none but God. Even that has its peculiar sting of difficulty. For it is a sharing by faith and not by face-to-face communication.
But only thus do these men, seemingly ordinary and commonplace in their lives, persevere through the days of quiet horror and the nights of sleepless watching they spend for years after as their price of success, and as abiding reminders that, once upon a time, another human being was made whole, because they willingly incurred the direct displeasure of living hatred.
The following five case histories are true. The lives of the people involved are told on the basis of extensive interviews with all of the principals involved, with many of their friends and relatives, and with many others involved directly or indirectly in minor ways. All interviews have been independently checked for factual accuracy wherever possible.
The exorcisms themselves are reproduced from the actual tapes made at the time and from the transcripts of those tapes. The exorcisms have necessarily been cut for reasons of length; all of the exorcisms recorded here lasted more than 12 hours.
I have chosen these five cases from among a greater number known and available to me because, both singly and taken together, they are dramatic illustrations of the way in which personal and intelligent evil moves cunningly along the lines of contemporary fads and interests, and within the usual bounds of experience of ordinary men and women. No fourteenth- or fifteenth- or sixteenth-century case, for all its possible romantic appeal, would have any relevancy for us today. On the contrary, it would remain a simple matter for us to dismiss such cases as fables made up to suit the fears or fancies of “more ignorant” people of “less sophisticated” times.
Each case presented here includes as an important element some basic attitude or attitudes popular in our own society. In the possessed person, it is pushed to a narrow and frightening extreme.
In the first case, Zio’s Friend and the Smiler, the insistence is that there is no essential difference between good and evil, and ultimately no difference between being and nonbeing; that all values are subject only to one’s personal preferences.
In Father Bones and Mister Natch, the compelling idea that was seized by Evil Spirit seemed to be that all mysteries can and are resolved in “natural” (i.e., rational or scientific or quantifiable) explanations; that there can be no relevance for the modern person in anything that cannot be rationally understood; and that there can be no truth important to man beyond what is rational.
In The Virgin and the Girl-Fixer, the battle concerned some of the great, deep, and mysterious “givens” of our very nature and our society-in this case, gender and human love. The priest in this case said to me a few months before he died, in one of the most profound conversations of my life: “A bird doesn’t fly because it has wings. It has wings because it flies.” We will ignore that mysterious truth in its applications to our sexuality and our gender only at our great peril, I believe.
In Uncle Ponto and the Mushroom-Souper, we have an example of what may be happening to many in our modern society-without their realizing it and without those around them taking cognizance of it. For it seems that there is an individualism, a purely personalistic interpretation of human life abroad today, which exceeds by far the bounds of what used to be known as selfishness and egotism. It has produced in thousands of people an aberrant and idiosyncratic behavior which is truly destructive.
In The Rooster and the Tortoise, the fatal confusion (and in this case it was literally almost fatal) was between spirit and psyche; between those parts and attributes of ours that are quantifiable, and yet through which spirit most easily makes itself known. If everything we have taken to be of spirit can be made to seem a product merely of the human psyche, with no meaning or significance beyond its factualness, then love can be made to seem only a chemical interaction, and love’s paradigm is killed.
In each case, one basic note of possession is confusion. Sex is confused with gender.
Spirit is confused With psyche. Moral value is confused with absence of any value. Mystery is confused with untruth. And, in every case, rational argument is used, not to clarify, but as a trap, to foster confusion and to nurture it as a major weapon against the exorcist. Confusion, it would seem, is a prime weapon of evil.
There is much more to be observed and said about the meaning of possession. Not everything can be covered in a single volume. But possession and Exorcism are not themselves mere fads with no interest beyond the bizarre and significantly frightening. They are tangible expressions of the reality which envelops the daily lives of ordinary people. No study of possession and Exorcism cases within the Christian optic would be adequate without a minimum of explanation -from the Christian point of view-about that reality: what takes place in possession, and how that degrading process develops in a particular individual. Such an explanation occupies the final section of this book.
This study makes no attempt to answer the ultimate puzzle of possession: why this person rather than that person becomes the object of diabolic attack which can end in partial or perfect possession. The answer certainly does not lie in psychological probings, in heredity, or in social phenomena. A final answer will include, as prime ingredients, the personal free choice which each individual makes and the mystery of human predestination. About free choice we know the essentials: I can choose evil for no other reason or motive than that I choose evil. Some apparently do. About predestination we know little or nothing. The puzzle remains.
All of the men and women involved in the five cases reported here are known to me personally; they have given their fullest cooperation on the condition that their identities and those of their families and friends not be revealed. Therefore, all names and places have been changed, and other possible pointers to identity have been obscured. Any similarity between the cases reported here and any others that may have occurred is unintentional and purely coincidental.
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