The Franciscan Sisters of Earling, Iowa took an unusual lodger into their convent in 1928, a 46 year old woman named Emma Schmidt with a history of demonic possession. A pious Roman Catholic who’d suffered a traumatic childhood, for several decades, Schmidt had occasionally exhibited frightening behaviors, including the screaming of blasphemous obscenity and violent aversion to holy ritual objects. Now, behind the nunnery’s stone walls in that flat and prosaic Midwestern hamlet, a distraught Schmidt was institutionalized for several months. According to eyewitnesses, the energumen—that is the possessed woman—had taken to shrieked invectives in ancient tongues, to spurning offered relics and the sacrament. In fact, a February 1936 article published in this very magazine quotes the nuns who claimed that “with lightning speed the possessed dislodged herself from the bed and the hands or protectors, and her body, carried through the air, landed high above the door of the room and clung to the wall with catlike grips.” Finally, after nearly two works of prayer and ritual, the Bavarian Capuchin Brother Theophilius Reisinger was able to exorcise from Schmidt a quatrain of demons that included Judas and Beelzebub.
Seemingly the narrative from a medieval hagiography rather than something recorded in medical literature, yet as uncanny and unsettling as this account may be, this archived tale bears details familiar to anyone who has ever seen William Friedkin’s classic horror film of 50 years ago The Exorcist, the fourth sequel of which was released on Oct. 6, 2023. Indeed, Schmidt’s story is a prototypical tale of possession which indirectly influenced the novelist William Peter Blatty in the writing of The Exorcist.
Nearly a century later, how are we to interpret those bizarre events in Earling? Or for that matter, the terrifying accounts at the Mariannhill Mission Society in South Africa in 1906 or the possession of Clarita Villanueva in 1950s Manilla? What of the terrifying details from the late 1940s exorcism of a boy recorded as “Rolande Doe” in suburban Maryland, the direct inspiration for Blatty’s novel?
Most of these accounts of possession contain similar features, from the merely uncanny like xenoglossy (the speaking of languages unknown to the speaker) to the normally impossible, such as levitation. Whatever the veracity of these stories, the fascination with possession and exorcism remains a staple of American popular culture in film, television, and literature, perhaps a means of intimating the divine—even in its diabolical manifestations—especially within an era that is so disenchanted. Even more crucially, these narratives provide a means of conceptualizing radical evil. Heinous evil—war, genocide, sadistic murder—can’t just be reduced to the arid language of cognitive psychology and sociology, of economics and political science. To truly grapple with those things sometimes requires the poetics of evil.
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Regardless of the “literalism” of these accounts, the language of possession and exorcism—of demonology—remains a potent critical vocabulary, not just useful but necessary. Even for those of us with a skeptical disposition, the cache of symbols, metaphors, narratives, and characters which demonology offers remains some of the most powerful ways of discussing subjects ranging from why evil exists to how justice should be realized. “The Devil is the best known symbol of radical evil,” begins the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World. “The existence of radical evil is clear to anyone not clearly blinded,” notes Russell, who elaborates on all variety of wickedness, from the cruelty of sadistic serial killers to the latent potential of nuclear war.
Several decades after Russell wrote his book, and today’s problems from climate change to the savagery of war, we can hear how evil talks in varied and permeable forms. “The more intense is one’s love for this planet and its creatures, the greater is one’s agony over the evil that twists it,” writes Russell. “Sensitivity to evil is sensitivity born of love.”
There is an empirical jargon to discuss “evil” born from disciplines as diverse as biology and psychology, sociology, and political science. Such language is needed in any analysis, but it would be a mistake to exorcise the poetics of demonology (if not the demons themselves). Because the Devil remains the most potent symbol of radical evil, so too do those legions that serve him remain convenient ciphers for discussing behavior and phenomenon too aberrant, too otherworldly, to be entirely reduced to arid and cold rationality.
What aspects of game or decision theory can make any sort of comprehensive sense out of the fact that around 13,000 nuclear warheads now exist, enough to obliterate the planet several times over? How can the grim reality of anthropogenic climate change, which could kill billions of people and collapse multiple biomes by the end of this century, be spoken of only in terms of politics and economics, but not also in terms of greed, avarice, evil?
Any student of the occult understands the power of identifying demonic names. These names remain powerful. For example, when American journalist Gary Wills writing for The New York Review of Books in 2012 needed a powerful metaphor for the madness that sees thousands of children a year immolated upon the altar of Second Amendment absolutism, he used Moloch, that blood-besmeared, bull-headed Carthaginian deity of child sacrifice. Hungry, wolf-life Mammon remains a potent personification of avarice, of the prodigious hoarding of resources. Could there be a more accurate representation of the ecological degradations of our economy, and the manner in which it endangers the planet, than the soot-covered demon of industry Mulciber? Mephistopheles, that shape-shifting creature who trades in illusion and Faustian contracts, is a powerful symbol of both modernity and the wicked concessions individuals are willing to make for power. Then, of course, Beelzebub, the bestial lord of the flies, still hums within the heart of those whose evil is so irrational, so cankered and disturbed—Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacey—that nothing short of mythology can help us to fully comprehend them.
The idea of possession complicates individuality and agency. Ever since the Enlightenment, our philosophy and politics has assumed that each person is an agent that can act rationally, but the possessed demonstrate how far more than being an individual, we are legion. A pious girl can be a cacophony of demonic voices; just as a good person can sometimes be capable of evil and the wicked can be capable of good. There are things that are much larger than us, aspects of mind beyond the conception of the singular self, as the entire discipline of advertising and now algorithmic prediction can testify towards. The energumen is a reminder of just how inexplicable consciousness can be. Now, in the era of artificial intelligence, narratives of possession—of mysterious outside thoughts animating us—seems less medieval than predictive.
Whatever the reality of an exorcism conducted nearly a century ago in rural Iowa, whether we’re done with demons or not, the idea of them clearly isn’t done with us.