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
Thomas Wu. The charge: murder of at least five women and two men in
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.
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
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
“There’s only one of us. One . . .”
The rest of the sentence was drowned in a sudden outburst of flaming
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
saturated with inexplicable wrackings ; and exaggeration. Their
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
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
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
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
for diagnosis. However rickety and tentative the findings of
example, one can possibly seek in its theories of telepathy and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
There is no lexicon of Exorcism; and there is no guidebook or set of
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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