Like gout and marrying cousins, demonic possession and exorcism belong to that category of things that one thinks of as having been around forever. They are familiar, part of our everyday language: I’m facing my demons, he’s exorcising the past, she’s running around like a woman possessed. When something becomes a metaphor in this way, it begins to hide its strangeness from us. Brian Levack’s new history of demonic possession in the Christian West, The Devil Within (Yale, £25), succeeds in making possession strange again. He shows that exorcism isn’t just a good metaphor for rehab but rather a historical activity, which had its heyday in 16th and 17th-century Europe.
As you might expect, The Devil Within is full of great stories. In 1619, a nun called Benedetta was asked why she had engaged in a variety of—sadly unspecified—sexual practices with another nun named Bartolomea. Benedetta explained that she had been possessed by a beautiful male angel called Splendiletto. During an ecclesiastical investigation of her claims, Benedetta sometimes spoke in the voice of Splendiletto, leading the investigators to suspect, understandably, demonic rather than angelic possession. Another passage recounts the story of another nun possessed at Auxonne in 1658, who hoisted a heavy marble vase full of holy water using just two of her slender fingers. There is also the 1620 case of William Perry, a 12-year-old boy who claimed to be possessed, but who was exposed as a fake when he was caught mixing his urine with ink to make it blue.
By focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries as the high-point for possession, Levack makes a surprising argument. Like witch-burning, demonic possession feels “medieval” in our contemporary imagination but it didn’t actually happen with any regularity in the medieval period. Rather, Levack shows how demonology persisted into the era of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, when one thinks of science and rationality beginning to shine light on the darkness.
Levack explains this by highlighting the rise of nominalism in the early 15th century, the view that “an inscrutable, arbitrary God might give the devil great latitude in the world for reasons unknown to humankind.” Popular apocalyptic thought—the strong suspicion that the final battle between good and evil was under way—made possession seem reasonable, even expected. The devil (or his attendant demons) taking control of your body was like the forces of evil saving seats at the cinema by putting coats on them.
The script for convincing somebody you were possessed was strict, and Levack lists the signs in an amusingly detached manner: convulsions, physical pain, levitation, loss of bodily function, trance experiences, visions, blasphemy and abuse of sacred objects. The “demoniacs” (the preferred term for the possessed) also seem to have done a lot of puking—and not just regular puking, sometimes they would vomit pins, nails or hair. And, finally, there were the “immoral gestures and actions.” Nuns exposing themselves, that kind of thing.
The possessed in early modern Europe tended to be women rather than men, and there was a strong sexual element: “The trances and visions of the demoniacs and the performance of exorcisms by male priests on writhing female bodies, which were very often lying on a bed during the rite, only served to accentuate the sexual dimension of the experience,” says Levack. The thought of nuns pretending to be possessed just to get their cute priest to wrestle with them is delightful, but the real reason for the higher proportion of female demoniacs is likely because it allowed them a certain measure of otherwise unattainable freedom. As Levack notes, “possession served the function of allowing demoniacs… to violate moral norms with impunity. Thus child demoniacs were able to disobey their parents, while female demoniacs could express themselves sexually in ways that would not normally be permitted.” It’s also fairly certain, however, that visions of being raped by the devil could be coded references to sexual assault, or expressions of unbearable remorse by religious women at having consented to sex with their spiritual advisers.
Exorcism of the possessed went beyond simple manhandling of the demoniac to more complicated routines like questioning the demon in a variety of languages to test whether it was real. Although his tone is measured and his descriptions rooted in careful citation, Levack makes it all sound very exciting to watch. He describes exorcism as chiefly a Catholic drama—Protestants tended not to believe that a person could control the devil, as that was God’s job. These exorcisms were always a little bit public, a little bit entertaining, and pretty violent.
But we all know what goes on in a Catholic exorcism. We know because there was a very famous movie, The Exorcist, made about it in the 1970s, a period bursting with films about the devil inhabiting children, such as The Omen (1976) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Other films, such as Children of the Corn (1984), The Wicker Man (1973), The Shining (1980) and Don’t Look Now (1973) are also part of this genre—they’re not directly about demonic possession, but they are psychological dramas that go heavy on the religion and that feature supernatural children. These movies can help us to understand the human motivations that, according to Levack, propelled the early modern possession craze.
There are a lot of monster-stories that express anxieties about what it means to be human. Vampires and zombies and werewolves are eloquent allegories about the fear of losing one’s humanity, but they aren’t terribly complicated. The 1970s movies about demonic children, however, are not just stories about losing yourself but about losing control over yourself. They are horrors of agency, meaning your capacity to be truly in charge of your actions. Don’t Look Now is so terrifying because it mixes the fear of losing a child with the fear of the supernatural, and shows how similar those fears are. Parenting means surrendering control—you get taken over by your responsibility and love for the child. Demonic possession is not so very different, if you believe in it. The devil and children are both scary because they rob you of your autonomy, so the devil being inside your child is a double-whammy of primal terror.
These films help explain Levack’s central argument, just as Levack’s book illuminates what makes these films so good. The key to the “popularity” of possession in early modern Europe, he says, is that it was a great spectacle. This is why films about possession work: possession is about agency but also humankind’s tendency to put on a show. Possession, in short, is very watchable.
“Demoniacs as well as all those who participated in the effort to cure them,” he writes, should be regarded “as performers in religious dramas.” In the early days of the church, exorcisms were intended to convert the audience, becoming a tool for disseminating demonological thought. Demonology held that the devil exists and only the one true (Catholic) church can help you keep him out of your body. As a PR exercise for a church competing among churches, it was hard to beat.
Exorcisms involved a cast of “families, neighbours, physicians [and] pastors.” They were “directed” by the exorcist and drew large audiences: one 1632 exorcism at Loudun was witnessed by 25,000 people, the equivalent of a full home crowd at Wigan Athletic. They were public entertainment. The demoniac was cued to begin and end their antics. The exorcist wore a costume and carried props. The exorcist could follow one of many published scripts. The demoniacs themselves read accounts of other possessions or witnessed them.
By focusing on the performative aspect of possession Levack, in his methodical, scholarly way, cuts against the two most common modern explanations of possession: illness and fakery. Scholars a hundred years ago retrospectively diagnosed demoniacs with epilepsy, melancholy and hysteria. Today scholars seeking a medical explanation point to Tourette’s syndrome, dissociative identity disorder and religious anxiety. But Levack is at pains to show that any one medical explanation cannot fully account for the range of demoniac behaviour. Nor is intentional William Perry-style fakery a sufficient explanation for the full range and extent of the phenomena described in the early modern period.
Levack’s way of looking at possession allows one to view demoniacs in a new way. His argument hands agency back to those involved in cases of possession—they didn’t just suffer an illness, or deceive a community, says Levack; they actively played a part in a social ritual. Demonic possession was “a theatrical performance that reflected the religious cultures of the demoniac, the community, and the exorcist.”
Levack’s argument adds a much-needed historical lens through which to view possession, but he goes too far when he rejects any attempt by contemporary medicine to understand the demoniacs. The specificity of social context for all human behaviour is important, but that doesn’t preclude illness or self-interest interacting with performance. The book also suffers from the curse of the academic historian: Levack’s scholarly tone is sometimes so hygienically detached from his subject that he ends up presenting the most lurid episodes (lesbian nuns puking nails) as if they were entries in an accounts ledger. Even so, this is a fascinating book. The power of Christ might not compel you to read it, but it comes recommended.