The Penguin Book of Exorcisms
- ISBN: 9780143135470
- Published By: Penguin Random House
- Published: September 2020
The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, edited by Joseph Laycock, is a welcomed entry within the publisher’s anthology series—a compilation of various primary sources related, in this case, to the subjects of possession and exorcism. Laycock assembles thirty-seven accounts from across the world religions paradigm and divides his anthology into eight chronological and/or cultural sections: the ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman world, medieval Europe, early modern Europe and America, Jewish traditions of exorcism, the Islamic tradition, exorcisms from South and East Asia, and (late) modern exorcisms. Given that the volume is primarily a reader or sourcebook, I focus my review on Laycock’s editorial introductions, his selection of sources and book structure, and, especially, the marketing discourse from Penguin. In regards to this latter material, I approach Laycock’s anthology as both an academic resource and popular commodity.
How then is exorcism popularized for mass consumption—in this case, made digestible for Penguin readers? To begin, The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, per its description, uses specific marketing terms like “haunting” accounts, “real-life” exorcisms, and “documented” cases (“even in our time”) to stress the ubiquity of dark supernatural forces found throughout world cultures and their respective histories. “[A]fter reading this book, you may [believe in demonic possession] too,” the description concludes. The “signs” of possession, themselves explicitly supernatural, are selected and highlighted with a similar tone of exoticism: “feats of superhuman strength,” “speaking in tongues,” “a Zulu woman who floated to a height of five feet almost daily,” and “a boy [who] walk[ed] backward up a wall.” The desecration of clergy is emphasized as if to give credibility to intense tales of possession given possession-targets like priest-exorcists and a convent of nuns. Finally, the book capitalizes on decades worth of popular culture intrigue with references made to The Exorcist (1973), Supernatural (2005-2020), the Warrens of Conjuring fame (2013), The Witch (2015), a Tagalog-language film called Clarita (2019), and Zak Bagans’ Demon House documentary (2018).
The book’s structure represents the general history of religious studies: a Christian-centric approach made global and ahistoric. It reveals more about Western fascination with exorcism than exorcism itself. In short, The Penguin Book of Exorcisms reflects a trend in popular media whereby religion is exotified and rendered into a form of entertainment. As the popular Western imagination opposes modernity with premodernity, these “strange and unusual” tales concern a heightened, combat-oriented cosmos whereby explicitly supernatural entities are coded as sinister yet susceptible to the apotropaic icons and rituals of premodern religious institutions. Laycock’s selections assemble an eclectic pantheon of exorcised forces – e.g., the erotic dead, headless bears, rakshas, fox spirits, rusalki, and so on. His selections signal the Catholic Church as an institution with exorcising authority, similar to his inclusion of exorcisms performed by institutional representatives like the Prophet Muhammad and Joseph Smith. Though there is variety in the type of source material (e.g., ritual texts, hagiographies, systematic arguments, discernment questionnaires), most of the non-Western content ultimately draws from Western observations (i.e., a British judge in Sudan, a Baptist missionary in Japan, a former British officer in the Punjab, a Russian Tibetologist, and a Swiss anthropologist in Haiti). This is not to say that Laycock’s book does little to advance the study of exorcism. Even with this selective scope, the book, nevertheless, presents a refreshing “folk” way of teaching the world religions paradigm (121, 137).
Laycock complicates the ritual practice of exorcism with respect to Judeo-Christian norms—he does this by including discussions of possession by ghosts and not just demons, exorcisms performed by women, prominent theologians skeptical of possession phenomena, holy figures like Solomon conjuring spirits for personal use, and so forth. Laycock includes also editorial hints to at least four interpretive strategies from the anthropology of religion. First, possession behavior manifests as a socially conditioned response, whereby the non-possessed learn to mimic social deviance through an observation of routine public exorcisms. Second, viewing possession as a culture-bound syndrome, exorcism manifests also as a form of psychocultural therapy. Third and most commonly, exorcism manifests in the public sphere during heightened periods of religious competition—exorcism is a religious practice shaped by denominational disputes, moral panics, discursive subjugation and hegemonic oppression, and/or rapid social change.
The last interpretative strategy follows an astute observation from Mu-chou Poo’s “Ghost Literature: Exorcistic Ritual Texts or Daily Entertainment?” (Asia Major, 2000): “[Exorcism may] also be considered as a form of entertainment for [public] onlookers, [with] rich music and spectacular performances and ritual paraphernalia on display, in addition to invoking a sense of mystery and reverence [to] hold the attention of the audience.” Laycock features echoes of the above statement in both his Eastern and Western selections. For instance, Martha Brossier, a peasant girl from Romorantin, France, was routinely exorcised before the public in 1598 for a number of reasons. Her politicized demonic speech was sponsored by radical Catholics due to its supernatural indictment of King Henry IV and his support of France’s Protestant minority. Her demons also served the public with oracular consultations, answering “questions about whether dead loved ones were in heaven or purgatory, whether enemies would go to hell, etc.” Brossier’s public exorcisms were then converted into a “sort of traveling show, possibly as a way for [her immediate] family to earn money,” Laycock writes. “As they traveled, they collected ‘certificates’ from local clergy attesting that they had observed Brossier and that she was indeed possessed” (77-78).
The Penguin Book of Exorcisms prompts religious studies scholars to consider the function of popular scholarship. Is this book assembled as a form of entertainment or simply presented with popular topics familiar to a layperson? These facets are not mutually exclusive. The anthology is clearly marketed to capitalize on the popular intrigue associated with dark supernaturalism. It also reifies the Christian-centric approach that dominates the general study of religion. As a sourcebook, it is most welcomed on a syllabus teaching Christian histories and/or world religions. Scholars of religion and popular culture, however, should study this anthology as a primary source in its own right.
William Chavez is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.William ChavezDate Of Review:August 30, 2022