Exorcizing Exorcism?

Ronald L. Grimes (rgrimes@MACH1.WLU.CA)
Fri, 20 Jan 1995 12:43:58 -0500

A two-year-old girl, surrounded by her mother, grandmother, and
two neighbors, died in Cambridge, Ontario; her funeral is today. The
police labelled it exorcism, the public called it ritual murder, and the
phone rang a dozen times. Whether the death is hers, that of a
Waterloo County cow sprinkled with strange red powder, or that of
a band of hooded people in Switzerland and Quebec, reporters clog
the lines with queries: How many Canadians believe in the devil?
How crazy do you have to be to commit ritual murder? Are there
really Satanists?
Before long my head is spinning. Later, I listen to the radio
to hear what I really said. Like those of most other academics,
supposed experts, my comments are inane. They don't really explain
anything much less make sense of it. My first temptation is to blame
the media the way some folks blame the devil. But in the end, when
interest in the story dies and I go back to the desk in my ivory tower,
I must admit that what I said to the quote-hungry media really was
I used to wonder why reporters called me at all. Then one
pointed out that I teach a course called "Ritual, Illness, and the
Body" and another one entitled "Evil and Its Symbols," so I suppose
I deserve the harassment. In both courses I say to students that, no
matter how many words we professors spout, in the final analysis we
understand very little about evil, death, and illness. Fools, we suffer
it dumbly and blindly like everyone else. Scholars or not, we don't
understand any more than the next person why a little girl dies at the
hands of relatives or a group dies by its own hand. Since we don't,
and since I am a religious animal of sorts, my impulse is to light a
candle for the girl or to wash myself several times after hearing about
communal suicide and murder.
Reflecting on this impulse to commit symbolic acts in
response to stories about exorcism and possession, I have begun to
realize how utterly ritualized the whole scenario is: some one dies
by exorcism or other ceremonial means; the police tell fragments of
a tantalizing story; the media boils an almost empty pot until it is red
hot; someone calls an "expert;" the expert offers an incantation (a
vacuous but authoritative comment); the incantation is spliced into
the evening television liturgy in which we all--simultaneously
attracted and repulsed--celebrate the great mystery of this death; a
few weeks later the story is given a pauper's burial or memorialized
in a speedily cranked out paperback.
Our vaunted objectivity and training notwithstanding, we
scholars do not really stand outside this cultural ceremony. Rather
we are its acolytes; occasionally, even its priests. Someone should
name this rite; names tame. How about "The Rite of Diabolical
Discovery?" Or, "The Liturgy of Exorcising Exorcism?" Or, "The
Ceremony of Uncovering Ceremonial Ignorance?"
It is sad when a young girl dies, and such an event makes me
fear for my own two children. What if I accidentally killed my
asthmatic son by mistakenly diagnosing serious croup as asthma? Is
death by exorcism any more tragic than dying on the operating table
at the hands of the medical priesthood? I doubt it. If Satanists (to
employ the cliche) wearing black robes take the life of a member
while chanting diabolical canticles, is that worse than a scene of
domestic violence in which a husband takes a woman's life? I doubt
it. If I had to choose between dying at the hands of misguided
parents or dying under the knife of an incompetent surgeon, I'd
choose the former. And I don't believe that Satanists pose as much
a threat as drunk drivers do.
Exorcism is an effort to excise a source of suffering by
employing symbolic means. It is a ritual attempt to alleviate suffering.
Like surgery, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Like
surgery, it can be done competently or incompetently. Like surgery,
it can be fairly gentle or astonishingly violent. But there is nothing
inherently diabolical or irrational about it, any more than there is
about mainline medical procedures. We understand exorcism less
well only because we have such undying faith in our own medical
Rituals such as exorcisms may or may not cause people to
get well, but insofar as rites are capable of realigning a person's
social, psychological, and spiritual resources, they can affect the
course of illness, physical as well as mental. Speaking of destructive
forces as devils is not altogether different from guided imagery
exercises conducted in reputable hospitals and oncology centres.
There people attempt to reimagine their cancers as benign tubers
rather than malignant bulldozers. Construing an illness as demon-
induced is not very different from speaking of a cancer as
"devouring" or "invading" our bodies. In both cases we are taking
metaphors with utter seriousness.
Surgery, like exorcistic ritual, has its symbolic dimensions.
The very act of cutting people open and sewing them up has a
placebo effect. Patients are sometimes healed by it even when no
additional procedure is performed. So "we" who excise by surgery
aren't so different from "those" who excise by exorcism. They, if they
are compassionate and competent, likely understand the symbolic,
social, and psychological dimensions better than we do. We, if we
are competent and compassionate, likely understand the biological
dimensions of it better than they do.
It is not death that attracts public voyeurism but rather bizarre
death. Children die all the time. "Regular" deaths are either
threatening or boring; we pay them as little attention as we can get
away with. But witchy and diabolical deaths stir an almost
pornographic interest. They are fascinating, and they provide an
excuse for feeling unbridled outrage or basking in a sense of
superiority: we couldn't possibly be that crazy or backward.
The fertile soil of witchcraft is narrative. Largely, witchcraft
exists in the telling of stories. Most of what we hear about witches,
demons, and devil worship is gossip--sometimes vicious, sometimes
benign--spiced with speculation and cultural self-titillation. We don't
really believe the stories, and we are desperate to believe them.
Remember when we were kids, telling each other ghost stories? We
loved scaring ourselves to death--well, almost to death. A much
smaller proportion of witchcraft arises from actual secret ritual, or
what the media likes to label "cult" activity. Cultus means "to
cultivate" and is related to "culture." In religious studies the term
refers to ritual activity. When we fear cults, we fear ritual that we
don't understand or ritual that is secret. It is not death but ritual
death that we are incapable of comprehending, since ours is a
ritually impoverished society.
I do not claim that there is no danger from cultic activity--
ritual is a powerful tool capable of serious abuse--only that such
danger is greatly exaggerated and that it is largely a blank screen
upon which we project our own worst fears about ourselves. The
danger of being brainwashed into dying from an overdose of cultic
ritual is considerably less than the danger of being brainwashed into
dying on the operating table.
For most of us, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are no
less occult forces than diabolical ones. Of course, it doesn't seem
that way because of our "faith" in the medical profession. But an
honest doctor will readily admit how little he or she really knows
about how bodies, poisonous medicines, and deadly rays actually
In view of our abysmal ignorance about the ways people fall
ill, get well, or commit those all-too-human acts that we label
inhuman, what should we do? I confess that I don't really know. But
I've resolved to try out a ritual scenario different from the one I am
presently trapped in. It goes something like this: Say less. Listen
more. Commit repeated acts of radical self-examination. Eschew
expertise. Exorcise arrogance and chant twelve times over, "'They'"
are not all that different from 'us.'" Light candles.

Ronald L. Grimes is Professor of Religion & Culture at Wilfrid Laurier
University, founding editor of the Journal of Ritual Studies, and
author of several books including Marrying & Burying (Westview
Press, 1995).


Ron Grimes
Department of Religion & Culture
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5
E-mail: rgrimes@mach1.wlu.ca
Office phone: (519) 884-0710, ex. 3085