Stories about the supernatural fascinate and attract, I suppose, because they deal with those realms of human experience that are mysterious. Ordinary people enjoy such stories because ordinary people are mystics to one degree or another; and as such they realize that a large part of reality is not merely unexplained—it is unexplainable. With reference to this, my present focus is on exorcism literature; and three examples come to mind.
“The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty is a work of fiction (based on a true case) that was published in 1971. It concerns a girl named Regan MacNeil who becomes possessed by a demon. She is finally freed from this evil through the heroic efforts of two priests. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with this story. It became a bestseller that was made into a successful and chillingly effective film. In fact, the movie is much better than the book. Blatty’s novel, while heartfelt and earnest, is rather mediocre in terms of style.
The second example is “The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel” by Felicitas D. Goodman. This too was made into a film (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) that turned out to be superior to its written source. Goodman’s book, a work of non-fiction, is interesting and worthwhile up to a point. But a shift occurs during the last fifty pages that seemed jarring to me. Suddenly the author adopts a strictly neurological interpretation of her subject’s ordeal. The problem is not that Goodman offers non-spiritual explanations for what happened to Anneliese; that is to be expected. The problem is that she does so in a one-sided manner. Add to that, she becomes increasingly condescending toward religion.
The third and best example is “The Rite” by Matt Baglio. His non-fiction book looks at possession and exorcism generally; but it also details the training of an American Catholic priest who is sent to Rome to learn about “the rite” from an expert. Each day people visit this veteran exorcist, hoping to be delivered from various demonic torments. The trainee suspects right off that most of these people have problems unrelated to the powers of hell; but before long he witnesses things that cannot be explained quite so easily.
Baglio explores this perplexing and unsettling topic thoroughly, and is neither too credulous nor too skeptical. Natural explanations are presented with clarity and intelligence; so too their counterpoints. For example, Tourette syndrome might explain some of the behaviors of people who are allegedly possessed; but it doesn’t explain how such people can levitate several feet off the ground.
Readers must decide for themselves what all of this means. For myself, I have always leaned toward Charles Baudelaire’s aphorism: “One of the devil’s best ruses is to persuade you that he does not exist!”