The practice of using religious rites to free a person from supposed demonic possession stretches back thousands of years and spans many belief systems. But when you hear the word exorcism, you probably think of the Roman Catholic ritual popularized by the 1973 film The Exorcist. In America, the practice had largely been relegated to the fringes of superstition until the movie brought it back into the spotlight, creating a surge in demand that hasn’t abated.
The Catholic Church once sought to distance itself from the controversial practice. But in recent years, it has tentatively embraced it, with Pope Francis calling exorcism “a delicate and necessary ministry.” To accommodate rising demands for the service, the Vatican now offers a week-long training seminar. We’re not sure exactly what attending priests get for their roughly $370 course fee, but Catholic.org outlines a formal exorcism rite for the curious.
The practice of expelling demons from the afflicted stretches far beyond the confines of the Catholic Church. It has been widely co-opted by Pentecostal churches and Evangelicals, who often refer to exorcism as “deliverance ministry.” Protestant missionaries have driven the practice’s growing popularity in developing nations, fueling a surge in popularity in Africa, South America, Asia, and the Caribbean.
In America, the practice is as popular as it’s ever been, maybe because a rise in exorcisms is often linked to social or political upheaval. In 2020, priests in Oregon and California performed mass exorcisms after racial justice protests. Ironically, the growing popularity of exorcism has also been linked to the decline in church attendance, which, as an American priest told the BBC in 2018, might be driving a rise in superstitious beliefs and practices.
Unfortunately, exorcism has a dark side that has nothing to do with demons. It often deprives people with mental illness or addiction of medical treatment. Victims have been beaten, starved, submerged in water, gassed, and burned at the hands of exorcists. In 1976, 23-year-old Anna Elisabeth Michel of Bavaria died of malnutrition and dehydration after an 11-month attempted exorcism. According to Joseph P. Laycock, author of The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, “those killed in this manner are nearly always children or young women.”
Regardless of whether you view exorcism as a spiritual service or exploitation, the practice has a fascinating, unsettling history, and it’s left an indelible mark on pop culture. Here are six historical exorcisms that are every bit as chilling as anything Hollywood can produce.
1. The New Mexico Colony Exorcisms // 1764
In January 1764, a Spanish missionary named Juan Toledo wrote a letter to the governor of New Mexico describing a series of exorcisms he had performed in the settlement, which was then a Spanish colony.
The troubles started in November 1763, with a local woman named María Trujillo. According to Toledo’s letter, Trujillo was “given to great sadness of an extreme nature” after giving birth, and “could not be amused by the diversions of the fiesta.” Such behavior would be recognized today as signs of post-partum depression, but to Toledo, it pointed to demonic possession. She “remained in her state of melancholy” until mid-December, when she fainted after prayers, awakened, and proceeded to “exhaust herself with unnatural strength.” Toledo performed an exorcism on December 18.
Other residents also exhibited signs that Toledo interpreted as symptoms of possession. A young woman named Francisca Barela heard pig noises where she could see no pigs and experienced assorted shudders, tingling sensations, seizures, and an overwhelming sense of dread she couldn’t explain. Barela was taken to the local mission for help, and according to Toledo, the sight of him caused the young woman to become violent, turn gray, and mimic “the sound of pigs, cows, horned and spotted owls, and other animals.” Toledo exorcised her, too, and during the ritual Barela supposedly insulted him, attacked his lineage, howled, and hurled a shoe at somebody. All told, Toledo performed exorcisms on five women and one man before he finally decided the outbreak of possession, which he blamed on witchcraft, had ended.
2. The Exorcism of George Lukins // 1788
Sometime around Christmas 1769, a tailor named George Lukins was “mumming” in his Somerset, England, village of Yatton. The old folk tradition would have seen Lukins and his friends going door-to-door to perform a Christmas-themed play, but their rounds were interrupted when Lukins experienced what he later called a “divine slap” that left him unable to walk home under his own power. (Others identified the offending force as potent beer handed out by one of the troupe’s hosts.) Shortly afterward, Lukins began experiencing “fits” that made him unable to work, leaving him dependent on financial support from his fellow parishioners. The parish sent Lukins to a hospital in 1775, but the doctors claimed he was incurable and sent him back [PDF]. Lukins insisted he was bewitched and blamed several local women for his condition, which, according to witnesses, included convulsions, singing hunting songs in strange voices, and “blasphem[ing] in a manner too dreadful to be expressed.”
Lukins seemed to improve for a while, but his condition returned in 1787. This time, Lukins claimed possession rather than bewitchment. He declared that he was being menaced by seven devils and therefore needed seven ministers to get rid of them. Rev. Joseph Easterbrook, vicar of Bristol’s Temple Church, agreed to help. When Easterbrook’s fellow Anglican priests declined to participate, Easterbrook recruited six Methodists to fill out the roster. The two-hour exorcism was performed on Friday, June 13, 1788. Instead of using a formal ritual, the priests improvised; in The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, Laycock writes that they “prayed, sang hymns, and ordered the demons out in the name of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.”
Whatever was plaguing Lukins, the exorcism seemed to have worked. He became a cause célèbre in Enlightenment-era Bristol, whose citizens were divided over whether Lukins, who became known as “the Yatton Demoniac,” was possessed, deranged, or simply an effective conman.
3. The Exorcism of Clara Germana Tele // 1906
According to accounts recorded in a pamphlet called Are There Devils Today?, the exorcism of a young Zulu girl named Clara Germana Tele (her name was altered to “Cele” in some sources) is among the most dramatic ever reported. The presiding priest, Rev. Erasmus Hoerner, claimed Tele levitated several feet in the air, walked up a wall, displayed telepathic abilities, and understood a multitude of languages. The account gets even more nightmarish, with some witnesses claiming Tele could extend her limbs and neck “to incredible lengths.”
During the ritual, Hoerner was assisted by another priest, several nuns, and “eight large, strong girls” who were tasked with restraining Tele. Hoerner claims all eight were lifted into the air with Tele as she levitated. The priest decided to handcuff the girl, but he says it took them three hours to accomplish the task as Tele choked, punched, and bit anyone who came close enough. The exorcism was finally declared a success around 9:30 on the morning of September 13, 1906. Just to be sure it took, Hoerner exorcised her again that evening. She happily cooperated, though another exorcism was performed the following year when her symptoms seemed to return. That exorcism was considered successful, but Tele’s recovery was short-lived. She died of consumption just six years later.
4. The Exorcism of Emma Schmidt // 1928
The 1928 exorcism of a 46-year-old woman in an Earling, Iowa, convent is one of the best-known cases in America. Some accounts refer to the woman pseudonymously as “Anna Ecklund,” but her real name is thought to be Emma Schmidt. A Capuchin monk named Theophilus Riesinger reportedly conducted the ritual over the course of 23 days.
The case was detailed in a 1935 German pamphlet called Begone, Satan! A Soul-Stirring Account of Diabolical Possession, and profiled in a 1936 issue of Time magazine. Some of the more spectacular allegations will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Exorcist: Schmidt supposedly levitated, was tied to a bed, and, according to one of Riesinger’s associates, vomited “quantities that were humanly speaking impossible to lodge in a normal being.” The popular account gets increasingly far-fetched—when the exorcism began, Schmidt reportedly flew off the bed, “landed high above the door of the room and clung to the wall with catlike grips.”
One unique thing about the Earling Exorcism, as it has become known, is the nature of the entities that supposedly possessed Schmidt. Besides the requisite demons, the tormenting spirits were said to include Schmidt’s dead father and his child-murdering lover. Through Schmidt, the father allegedly “confessed” to making unwanted sexual advances toward his daughter, leading some to wonder if abuse was at the root of her torments.
Schmidt was declared demon-free on December 23, 1928, but there’s a strange postscript to the story. As it turns out, the 1928 exorcism was neither the first time Riesinger attempted to rid Schmidt of demons, nor the last. Riesinger first exorcised Schmidt in New York City in 1908. The two reportedly became close, and the priest exorcised her several more times over the following years, with Schmidt traveling to whatever state Riesinger found himself in.
5. The Exorcism of Roland Doe // 1949
In 1949, Jesuit priests spent weeks working to free a 14-year-old Maryland boy pseudonymously known as Roland Doe from alleged demonic possession. Newspaper coverage of the case would eventually inspire William Peter Blatty to write his blockbuster 1971 novel The Exorcist.
The Doe family first began hearing strange sounds in January 1949. They assumed the scratching noises coming from their walls and ceiling were the work of rats, but exterminators couldn’t find any evidence of infestation. The family soon claimed to experience other frightening phenomena, including unexplained footsteps, furniture and dishes moving of their own volition, and the violent shaking of their teenage son’s bed. The activity seemed to center on Roland, even following him when he stayed with neighbors. It seems the boy’s aunt, who had been a spiritualist, had died recently, and they wondered if she was haunting them. The family appealed to a Washington, D.C.-based Lutheran minister, who advised them to see a Catholic priest. Father E. Albert Hughes unsuccessfully attempted to exorcise Roland; the boy allegedly broke off a piece of mattress spring and attacked the priest with it, slashing his arm.
Roland and his mother eventually left their home and traveled to St. Louis to visit relatives, hoping to escape whatever was troubling them. While they were in Missouri, several Jesuit priests, including Father William Bowdern, Father Walter Halloran, and Rev. William Van Roo, attempted to free the boy from the demon that supposedly possessed him. Throughout the ritual, the priests claimed to see words and images appear on the boy’s body in the form of spontaneous scratches. At one point, Roland broke Halloran’s nose. The exorcism continued night after night—Roland seemed normal during the day—until April 18, 1949, when Roland abruptly appeared to be cured. He went on to lead a quiet life, free of whatever condition led to the infamous exorcism.
6. The Exorcism of Gina // 1991
On April 4, 1991, an estimated 29 million people tuned in to ABC’s popular news show 20/20 to watch the exorcism of a 16-year-old girl identified only as Gina. A pair of Catholic priests presided over the ritual, which took place at a Florida convent and allegedly lasted for six hours. (The footage was edited to fit the show’s time slot.) One priest was referred to simply as “Father A”; the other was Rev. James J. LeBar, who had appeared on the controversial 1988 Geraldo Rivera special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground and authored a 1989 book called Cults, Sects, and the New Age. LeBar had supposedly conducted a six-month investigation and determined that Gina, who had been hospitalized for psychotic episodes in the past, was possessed.
It was one of the most-watched episodes in the show’s history. It wasn’t exactly The Exorcist—although LeBar later claimed that Gina might have levitated to the ceiling if she hadn’t been tied down—but what unfolded was certainly disturbing. Gina growled, thrashed against her restraints, cursed the priests, and spoke in tongues. Father A and LeBar determined she was being tormented by not one demonic force, but several. By the end of the ordeal, two of the entities, Zion and Minga, had supposedly been cast out and Gina seemed to feel better. She was soon rehospitalized and treated with antipsychotic medications rather than holy water. The following year, LeBar was appointed chief exorcist of the archdiocese of New York.