Sociology of Exorcism in Late Modernity

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Giuseppe Giordan, Adam Possamai
  • London, UK: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , January
     127 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The goal of Giuseppe Giordan and Adam Possamai’s recent collaboration is to understand under what conditions exorcism “peak[s] in the public sphere and in people’s everyday life consciousness” (11). The authors argue that exorcism is more likely to appear when scientific discourse is weakly emphasized and at times of social crisis (specifically when religious groups are competing against each other). The popularity of exorcism “is not due to an increase in superstition, but to religious market forces. In this sense, exorcism is now a commodity object used to brand certain religions” (96). Evidence to support this claim—external to this book—can certainly be found in D. P. Walker’s Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), Stan Royal Mumford’s Himalayan Dialogue:Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), H. C. Erik Midelfort’s Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany (Yale University Press, 2005), and Emilio Spadola’s The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Urban Morocco (Indiana University Press, 2013).

Furthermore, the authors’ second claim—that today, “in this period of continuous change and rampant anxiety, exorcism is re-emerging” (113-14)—can also be supported by Thomas Csordas’s The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (University of California Press, 1994), Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (Doubleday, 2001), and Sean McCloud’s American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States (Oxford University Press, 2015). Csordas, Cuneo, and McCloud—whose work is effectively used by Giordan and Possamai—speak to the growing competition between Protestants and Catholics over the use of exorcism. This is the first contribution of this book to the study of exorcism (see chapter 5).

Giordan and Possamai are right to include a discussion of deliverance ministries in their research because they change the scope of the phenomenon being analyzed. We see this as the authors build upon the sociological definition of exorcism from Moshe Sluhovsky’s Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago Press, 2007) that acknowledges the reality that many non-human entities (e.g., buildings, household items, and the like) are often the recipients of exorcism. The authors are further correct to extend this phenomenon beyond the realm of possession: “the evil spirits are not just taking over a person, but are also afflicting him or her from outside” (16). This would expand exorcism to include the removal of negative energies from a particular piece of land, bad dreams, illness and disease, and so on. Giordan and Possamai’s use of Jeanne Favret-Saada’s fieldwork on modern witchcraft and “unbewitchment” (Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage (Éditions Gallimard, 1977) is a testament to the second contribution of their book. Exorcism rituals belong in conversation with magic and the occult. The authors correctly assume that exorcism is publicly relevant as long as supernaturalism is publicly relevant (113-14).

At the heart of the book is a case-study of a Catholic exorcist in the south of Europe who dealt with more than one thousand cases during a decade of work. Chapter 3 is devoted to the 95% of his cases that did not lead to an exorcism, whereas chapter 4 is devoted to the fifty-five cases that were regarded as not solvable through psychiatry or other means (69). Several findings in this book warrant more discussion, namely the seasons of heightened activity for exorcists—around Easter and Halloween (51)—and the gender analysis of the exorcised clients—60% of whom were men (71). Based on the books scanned by Google (see Ngram Viewer on Google Books), the authors note that the published use of the word exorcismhas increased since the 1940s and again since the 1970s, but no meaningful explanation for either increase is discussed (4). 

In chapter 2, Giordan and Possamai overview two general approaches to the question: “What does exorcism do for people in a sociological sense?” In the “Durkheimian Approach,” the activities of the exorcist publicly demonstrate the existence of supernatural evil and its submission to a representative of tradition. Absent from the literature on “The Conflict Theory Approach” are the works of Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (PAJ Publications, 1982), Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), and Michael Taussig’s Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford University Press, 1999). Instead, the authors primarily use Pierre Bourdieu and Antonio Gramsci to discuss a cultural system where exorcism is used as an ideological apparatus that prevents social subordinates from realizing their oppression (31-33). Turner’s work on liminality and social dramas would have enriched the authors’ discussion of exorcism as a public performance and the overall ritual experience of the recipient of exorcism. The discussion of Girard’s theories of mimetic violence and society’s selection of a scapegoat would have done the same. Finally, Taussig’s theory of how sacrality can be created through defacement also would have improved the authors’ discussion of the subordinate’s temporary sacred identity, which is given only after their distorted possession experiences. 

It is also unclear why the authors did not use Michel de Certeau’s The Writing of History (Columbia University Press, 1988) for this section, given the frequent use of his work in this book. In his historical analysis of the possessed Ursuline nuns at a Loudun convent, he clearly argues that exorcists are trained to pigeonhole the subordinates’ deviant behavior (screams, cries, profanity) within the demonological repertoire of the culture; the afflicted can speak only within the code of this inquisition and only in the names and through the voices of demons culturally provided. 

The overview of these approaches is likely minimized because Giordan and Possamai also want to focus on those that believe in possession (whom de Certeau called “possessionists”), not simply those possessed and the people who exorcise them (12). A great opportunity would have been to either engage or replicate the research by Giuliana Mazzoni, Elizabeth Loftus, and Irving Kirsch (2001)—“Changing Beliefs About Implausible Autobiographical Events: A Little Plausibility Goes a Long Way,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 7(1), 51–59—where the researchers successfully manipulated certain participants to believe they personally witnessed a case of spirit possession, despite initially saying otherwise and previously believing possession to be highly implausible event. The authors’ discussion of exorcism and modernity would have also been improved with the inclusion of Douglas Cowan's Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen (Baylor University Press, 2008), namely his analysis of The Exorcist (1973) as evidence for the sociological power of the true story. So many exorcism films involve some type of variant of the coveted marketing gimmick, “inspired by true events.” A study of popular horror cinema is then crucial to a scholarly discussion of contemporary “possessionists.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Chavez is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giuseppe Giordan is Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Padua, Italy.

Adam Possamai is Professor of Sociology and Director of Research at the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Western Sydney University, Australia.


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