Exorcism rituals have gotten a really bad name, at least here in the United States where they are stereotypically associated with “demons” or spirits who are believed to be possessing a psychologically perturbed or socially disordered person. Alternatively, these spirits are believed to be infesting homes that are occupied by people who, in other contexts, might be considered psychologically perturbed or socially disordered. The etiology of these disturbances can be quite varied, ranging from the real to the imagined. While physical or mental illnesses and intoxicant usage are obvious candidates, social factors may play a larger role. If a family member is mentally ill, socially perturbed, or suffering from drugs dysfunction, it can afflict the entire family and create severe tensions, including violent and bizarre behaviors. All this can create a feedback loop in which one disturbance leads to another and an exorcism is prescribed.
In the United States, the exorcism almost always proceeds along Christian lines. This is not surprising, given that most Americans are Christians and thus are predisposed, by virtue of cultural transmission and social reinforcement, to construct and construe these experiences through a Christian lens. When seen through this particular lens, the whole thing becomes a high-stakes and spooky affair. God and Satan battle over a person’s body or family’s home, playing out in provincial microcosm their macroscopic struggle for cosmic supremacy. Because good always triumphs over evil, the story always ends the same. In other contexts, fairy-tale endings might be seen as a defect, but in America it’s the journey that counts. We like to watch our heroes struggle and suffer before overcoming all obstacles and achieving the inevitable victory.
Given all the Manichean gravitas and Linda Blair ghastliness surrounding Christian exorcisms, it’s nice to know that exorcisms need not be so damned serious. Exorcism rituals are a worldwide phenomena and widely spread in both historical time and geographic space. This makes them highly variable, though the variability is culturally constrained and empirically regular: it always correlates with any given society’s worldview or dominant religion.
Given this cross-cultural fact, it’s not surprising that Shinto exorcism rituals in Japan differ from Christian exorcism rituals in America, and that exorcism rituals in shamanistic societies differ markedly from those in monotheistic cultures. Other than the fact that invisible agents (“spirits”) are allegedly involved in all these, the differences in exorcism rituals are so significant that one wonders whether the supernatural world is divided along national, cultural, or religious boundaries. Do these invisible agents need passports? Do they declare allegiance to one kind cultural or religious construct and decide only to work within those parameters?
These curious questions aside, some exorcisms strike me as more salubrious than others. Consider, for instance, Andrew Solomon’s “Notes on an Exorcism” which just appeared in Esquire. Solomon, who suffers from clinical depression, traveled to Senegal for a cure. An exorcism was prescribed and performed. The ritual, known as an ndeup, was communal, intense, and absurd. But there was a therapeutic point, which Solomon initially felt and later understood:
I felt so up! It had been quite an astonishing experience. Even though I didn’t believe in the animist principles behind it, all of these people had been gathered together, cheering for me, and it was very exhilarating.
And I had a very odd experience five years later, when I was working on my current book, and I was in Rwanda doing something else altogether. I got into a conversation with someone there, and I described the experience I had had in Senegal, and he said, “Oh, you know, we have something that’s a little like that. That’s West Africa. This is East Africa. It’s quite different, but there are some similarities to rituals here.”
He said, “You know, we had a lot of trouble with Western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide, and we had to ask some of them to leave.”
I said, “What was the problem?”
And he said, “Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun, like [the exorcism ritual] you’re describing, which is, after all, where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again when you’re depressed, and you’re low, and you need to have your blood flowing. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgment that the depression is something invasive and external that could actually be cast out of you again.”
This, in a profound African nutshell, tells us everything we need to know about exorcism rituals and psychosomatic efficacy. I sometimes think that Catholic rituals may succeed in spite of themselves. As non-Christian exorcists around the world have long known and still know, you can do the rituals and achieve results without all the hellish drama and damnation stuff.