“Not by chance is the possessed body essentially female,” wrote scholar and priest Michel de Certeau in 1975. Spoiler alert. Those are pretty wise words considering what’s ahead.
Exorcism is a religious practice, most commonly associated with Christianity, more specifically Catholicism, greatly influenced by entertainment, pop culture, and literature. Most of us can for example recall disturbing movies such as The Exorcist, from 1973, with scenes of head spinning and spider-crawling, and quotable lines like, “The power of Christ compels you!”
The depiction of exorcism in entertainment is a great starting point for us in our gendered exploration of the topic. In the film The Exorcist, a twelve year old girl gets possessed by a demon, thereby making her increasingly disobedient and inhumanely strong. From a feminist standpoint the movie uses a young woman’s body to explore the battle between good and evil. The girl uses profanities, her body is dirty, her actions are abject, and she no longer fits within the structures posed by patriarchal society. To save her, two priests (white men) fight the demon inside this girl’s body to restore order. An order where women and girls are clean and pure again, to some extent returning to our good old patriarchy. This depiction of a white woman’s body defying established norms on how women should behave and look is a dominant trope in entertainment. We can even take into consideration that the film itself is based on a real exorcism of a boy and can speculate whether changing the character to a girl added to the shock value since boys are allowed to misbehave from time to time but God forbid a young girl from acting out.
Although the possessed girl in the film was not in control of her behaviour and was a victim of an evil spirit, the film still provides an opportunity to explore the limitations posed on different bodies. Here, I would like to pose the simple question: “Who can be abject?”
Abjection is a fascinating concept to explore with this topic because we are all somewhat intrigued by things that disgust us and are a bit gross. Perhaps because to some extent they defy norms we accept but wish we could break out of, or maybe because they distinguish us from others. Honestly, it might be a mix of both. We have such rigid beauty standards in place today that the most natural of bodily functions are apparently unacceptable. I mean periods are apparently disgusting and talking about them is not ladylike! So it would be quite liberating to demolish these standards, right? However, on the flipside, by being disgusted by behaviour and bodies that display and do not conform to what we deem appropriate, we hold onto a power structure that others people and defines what abject behaviours are acceptable. It might not come as a surprise that the opportunities to be abject are not the same for us all and factors such as race, (dis)ability, and gender influence this greatly.
Exorcism is not immune to these double-standards on the ability to be abject or break norms. Research demonstrates that historically, women have been subject to exorcism way more frequently than men. Can you guess the reason for this? Bingo! Recalling the first sentence you read, this has to do with women’s bodies.
Looking at exorcism through a medical lens informs us about underlying assumptions on what and whose behaviour and bodies can be considered as the norm. Symptoms of epilepsy and various mental health disorders are often described in similar ways to the descriptions of people being possessed. From a medical standpoint it is clear that non-disabled cisgender men are the standard and other types of bodies are basically understood as incomplete versions or held to higher standards. This assumption, coupled with the taboo on ugly, has led to women’s behavioural deviations from the masculine standard to be called into question, to be explained through unknown and wicked spiritual-possession. Take, for instance, cases of exorcisms and witchcraft in mediaeval Europe in which society vilified some women failing to comply with gendered expectations. These women could be said to basically ressemble quite alien creatures that men simply did not get and needed to keep in line.
Complexifying the issue, assumptions on spirit-possession are directly linked to people’s religious doctrine. Christianity can be said to follow a patriarchal hierarchy, which also influences the way in which exorcism is perceived. While anyone, regardless of gender, can be possessed, for some mysterious reason, men who do are more likely to be inhabited by ‘friendly’ spirits upholding morality rather than ‘wicked’ and ‘alien’ ones. Sounds quite convenient to me.
Exorcisms also feed into discussion and stigmatisation of mental health issues. Overall, they can have negative consequences on people’s health and in some cases they have even been fatal. In 1976, which is notably not long ago, 23 year old Anneliese Michel passed away during an exorcism performed by two Catholic priests in Germany. Michels demonstrated behaviour that looked demonic and instead of medical care, which she desperately needed, she received a series of whopping 70 exorcisms over the course of eleven months. The priests and Michels parents were found guilty of homicide as her death could have been prevented by proper medical care as she was suffering from mental health disorders and epilepsy. Although this case is extreme for today’s standards, people with mental health disorders are often more vulnerable to violent exorcist practices. This means that people are not getting the psychiatric assistance they need and demonstrates how societies will rather claim that people are possessed rather than accepting that humans exist in various conditions.
Exorcism can also be explored from a queer viewpoint. Queerness has historically been considered unnatural in medicine and various religions, and there are several recorded cases of exorcism being used as a psychiatric treatment and conversion practices to ‘cure’ people of their ‘sexual deviancy’. A bulk of research has demonstrated that these treatments do not work (shocker), can cause significant trauma, and are detrimental to mental health. Unfortunately, these are not just mediaeval accounts of exorcisms to ‘cure’ queer people but cases from today and although the research is clear on the dangers of these practices they are yet to be outlawed and abandoned in most countries.
Although we often think of exorcism as a practice of the past, it is still being performed today and catholic exorcisms have actually been on the rise. In 2018, the Vatican held training courses for priests even though critics warn that exorcisms can be a form of spiritual abuse. In Mexico and Columbia, priests and even police chiefs have performed exorcist rituals to restore order and curb high levels of violence, drug cartels, and apparently also the practice of abortions, which is being viewed as a demonic activity.
In line with the spooky Halloween season, exorcisms can show us very clearly what our societies are afraid of: people that do not fit within the non-disabled cishet-men box. It is all good and well to use religious practices with the purpose of improving the world. However, it is important that we all, religious or not, can also be critical of practices that can negatively impact other people and are in some cases even outright dangerous and illegal. We can all contribute to a more just world for all people, we just have to have a little bit of faith in ourselves.
Be it Halloween or not, I encourage you to give yourself a little slack and embrace the attributes that do not fit societal standards. Be a bit gross, it’s fine!