The world of entertainment is replete with stories of the battle between heavenly forces of spiritual ascendance and twisted demons in constant recruitment of human fodder for their world of eternal, molten punishment. Most viewers of cult classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby and newer adaptations of the angel-demon war, like Constantine, drop their suspense of disbelief and leave the mythology behind once the credits roll. This is not the case with some followers of religion.
In Hinduism mantras are repeated to help release the departed from a trapped spirit state. In Islam it is called Ruqya and is used to repair the effects caused by black magic. In Catholicism, exorcism, and it is here that we find perhaps the most alluring and romantically woven stories of the like found in pulp fiction religious thrillers. Unfortunately, much like the demons that break through to the human world in works of fiction, the fantastical mythology of exorcism has seen a recent resurgence in actual practice. This renewed battle against evil has harrowing and sometimes gruesome consequences.
During this past week in the U.S., a young Maryland woman and self-proclaimed commander of a four-person group called Demon Assassins killed two of her four children, 1-year-old Norrell and 2-year-old Zyana, when she tried to exorcise the demons that she believed were possessing them. The mother, Zakieya Latrice Avery, 28, and her accomplice, Monifa Denise Sanford, 21, claim that they witnessed the children's eyes turn black and saw a black cloud floating above them. After unsuccessfully attempting to break the first child's neck, and subsequently choke him, the pair stabbed him and claim that the demon then began to jump between the other children and even Sanford herself, who Avery attacked as well. When the perceived battle concluded, the two youngest children had died from stab wounds and Avery's 5 and 8-year-olds, also stabbed, were in critical condition. Avery and Sanford then showered and “prepared the children to see God” by washing their bodies and wrapping them in blankets. The pair had attended a local congregation where participants dance out their demons and decided that a more extreme response to the demon problem was needed and formed Demon Assassins.
Just a week earlier, 31-year-old Florida resident Bryan Adams, who had been seeing demons, took his 11-year-old son from his bed at 3 a.m. and brought him into the woods to perform an exorcism on him. According to police reports Adams said to his son, “You are the demon and you know what I must do with you.” Fortunately, police were able to track Adams into the woods and subdue him before he could harm his son, the boy escaping with only a minor injury.
One might think that these are surely always acts committed by individuals of questionable sanity dwelling on the fringe of reality and fantasy and that exorcisms aren't actually a component of mainstream religion. Whether or not such individuals struggle with psychological issues, exorcism is, in fact, alive and well in the strongholds of religion.
Father Gabriele Amorth of the Roman Catholic Church is a man of some repute in the world of angels and demons and is the Vatican's in-house Exorcist and heads the International Association of Exorcists. Father Amorth, whose favorite movie is, you guessed it, The Exorcist, claims to have banished demons from some 160,000 people. In 2011 he claimed that recent child abuse scandals in the church were proof that the devil had infiltrated the Vatican. Later that year he claimed that yoga is the work of the devil because it leads to eastern religions and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation,” and that “In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses.” Father Amorth of course, with expert cognitive dissonance, fails to apply the same rule of logic to his own belief in the occult as he applies to that of other religions or his perception that a popular fantasy series is driving our young adults toward magics that will open their souls to demon invasion. Just last year, Amorth said about the now retired Pope Benedict:
"Pope Benedict has done many things for exorcists. He has allowed them within the catechism of the Catholic Church, consenting them to administer the sacrament of exorcism to people suffering from demonic possession. But not only to them, also those who suffer other evil disorders such as being plagued by devils and diabolic infestation."
It would appear that the promotion of exorcism in the Catholic Church is more than a rogue Vatican priest on the fringe of mainstream belief. Pope Francis was also claimed to have performed exorcisms by some exorcists last year, though the Vatican denied it. Regardless, it is clearly a presence in the Diocese of Rome.
The recent news events around exorcisms are tragic and heart wrenching. While the people who perpetuated these crimes can be considered extremists on the demon-angel belief spectrum, sanctioned belief from the Vatican reinforcing the fear that we are in the midst of a war against demonic possession can only help to fuel such irrational belief. Religion, by its very nature, demands that its followers accept irrational truths that cannot be proven. Is it any surprise that such suspense of critical faculties in a person can be so easily extended to even more fantastical beliefs? Many still defend religious belief as a harmless comfort to those who practice it, but for the victims of its wrath, like 1 and 2-year old Norrell and Zyana Avery, there is little comfort to be had.
Tyson Ouellette is a writer, artist, and science junkie living in northern New England. You can follow him on Twitter @tysonouellette.