The Exorcist Files: Why this is a really bad idea

The Exorcist Files is going to result in a lot of self-proclaimed demonologists and exorcists, who may do more harm than good

The Discovery Channel recently announced a new TV show called The Exorcist Files, which it plans on premiering sometime in the Spring of 2011. This is a really bad idea for a number of reasons.

I suspect it won't be bad for the Discovery Channel. The topics of exorcisms and demonology are rather hot right now, with several movies recently produced on the subjects, so show ratings will probably be quite good.

And, of course, this being television, that's all the show's producers really care about. Everything imaginable is fodder for TV's insatiable appetite for spectacle, whether it's appropriate or offensive or not (in fact, the more inappropriate or offensive the subject, the better it is as far as the medium is concerned), so why not people allegedly suffering from demonic possession?

Granted, I have not yet seen the show, so I cannot comment on the specifics of its presentation, but according to an article based on promotion materials, "the series will recreate stories of 'real life' haunting and demonic possession, based on cases investigated by the Catholic Church."

While I do not advocate that the show should be censored, I do think it is going to have adverse effects. Here is what I predict will happen as a result of this show:

A MULTITUDE OF "EXORCISTS" AND "DEMONOLOGISTS"

The arrival of Ghost Hunters on the SyFy channel several years ago, and its subsequent popularity, resulted in the organization of many hundreds of ghost hunting groups all over the country, and even abroad.

They all wanted to be like Jason and Grant.

Likewise, with the airing of The Exorcist Files, we can expect a surge in the number of self-proclaimed "exorcists," "demonologists," and "demon hunters." (In fact, I would not be surprised if the success of The Exorcist Files generated similarly themed shows on other cable networks; expect one called DemonHunters.) They will want to emulate the exorcists on the show.

Why this is a bad thing: Most of these self-proclaimed demonologists won't know what the hell they're doing. They're going to be entering people's homes, telling them that their houses are infested with demons, telling them that they are possessed (in the worst cases, that their children are possessed), and that they can drive out these devils.

This will give permission for every dummy out there to go into these private homes with crosses around their necks, vials of holy water, old Bibles and copies of the exorcism rite and say that they are representing God's power to defeat the Devil. And people will let them because, well, it's done on TV, so this must be the thing to do.

THIS IS NOT LIKE GHOST HUNTING

Ghost hunting groups, with few exceptions, do no harm. They generally investigate haunted places such as asylums, old hotels, abandoned hospitals, and the like that have reputations for being haunted. Although they may occasionally investigate a private home upon invitation, this is not their usual practice. And when they do take on a private home, they are investigating the house - the building - not the individuals who live there.

Exorcism, by definition, is personal. The exorcist is dealing with individuals who believe they are possessed by an evil spirit.

And the demonologist performing an exorcism rite on them can be, to the individuals, confirmation that they are possessed. This has all kinds of potential for harm.

Think about it. The idea that you - your identity, your personality, your soul, if you will - is possessed or compromised by an evil spiritual force is horrifying. It can affect a person on a deep psychological level, especially if he or she is a fervent believer. And to have an untrained, unqualified person come in and perform an exorcism could be disastrous. And make no mistake, it's going to happen. These would-be demonologists are going to see it on TV, perhaps read a few articles or books, and then think they are qualified to take on this business.

Whether demons are real or not is irrelevant. The people involved believe them to be real.

There could be any number of reasons why a person might exhibit behavior that believers attribute to demonic possession, from schizophrenia to sexual abuse to teenage acting out. These are matters for medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and trained therapists - not a person who has watched a TV show and read a book or two, no matter how well-meaning.

And if the person is truly possessed by an evil spirit, then that's all the more reason not to have an unqualified person sticking his or her nose into it. (This raises the questions: Who is qualified for such a task and how do they become qualified? Yes, the Catholic Church has training for its exorcists, but beyond that, I don't know.)

Next page: More of why this is a bad idea

CHILDREN EXPLOITED

I have stated this before on this website and I will state it again because I feel quite strongly about it. This alleged possession business can be especially harmful for children. To tell an impressionable child that he or she is possessed by an evil demon - without knowing that to be true with 100 percent certainty (and there is no 100 percent certainty of such knowledge) - is at best irresponsible and at worst abusive.

The potential for psychological damage - especially if the child is already psychologically compromised - is high.

NO LONGER PRIVATE

The Catholic Church has been conducting exorcisms for centuries, and until recently the practice has been kept pretty quiet. And for good reason: it is an intensely private matter. The Church also conducts a thorough investigation before resorting to an exorcism, including medical and psychological examinations of various kinds. It is only when these tests are exhausted that the Church grants permission for an exorcism. It is a last resort, and the case must be convincing and severe.

Do you think such care will be taken in the hands of TV-educated demonologists? I doubt it.

(Note: Originally, the PR for the show The Exorcism Files stated that it was being produced with the cooperation of the Vatican. The Vatican has denied this. A Fox News article states: "According to multiple Vatican officials, the Church had no official involvement with the series and the Vatican does not even have a group of exorcists.")

The Catholics aren't the only denomination to perform exorcisms, of course. There are several Christian fundamentalist groups that conduct public "deliverances," and the ones I have seen (on TV of all places!) are farcical sideshows that have little to do with spirituality and everything to do with entertainment value.

And now we'll have a TV show devoted to the ritual. That's not surprising, I suppose, in our current culture in which anything and everything - no matter how personal or sacred - is reduced to an entertainment in the form of a cable television show.

PEOPLE ARE FOLLOWERS

How can I predict there will be a springing up of home-grown demonologists as a result of this show? Because people are followers, especially of stuff they see on TV and in the movies. We live in a cult-of-celebrity culture (how else to explain Paris Hilton and Snooki?). We worship fame, no matter how notorious, and we want to be like the people we see on the screen.

We certainly would not have the vast number of ghost hunting groups out there if it weren't for Ghost Hunters and the other ghost investigation shows. This has actually not been a bad thing, for the most part. Most ghost hunting groups conduct themselves with professionalism and respect for their clients, and they have contributed to the study of the ghost phenomenon in the form of innovative technology and the collection of anomalous data, including EVP, photos and video.

A better model for how wrong-headed this follower mentality can be in this field is the current obsession over vampires and werewolves, thanks to the Twilight books and films, their copycats, and the various TV shows.

Take a look at this comment thread for my article "Are Vampires Real? There you'll see a long list of commenters - mostly young teens, presumably - who have mistaken fiction for reality and believe that vampires and werewolves are real. Several even claim that they are vampires or werewolves... or want to be. Their comments are actually a sad commentary on their own lives and the state of a vacuous American culture.

But this obsession, too, is harmless for the vast majority. It will pass along with their youth and naiveté. I dread, however, the negativity and harm that might result in the wake of an exorcism fad.

COMPOUNDING THE PROBLEM: MORE SHOWS

As I've said above, if this show is a success, you can expect more of the same... and worse:

  • The Women Exorcists
  • Possessed Kids
  • Cruise Ship Exorcisms
  • Ralph Nebbish, Neighborhood Demonologist
  • Exorcisms of the Stars
  • Law & Order: The Demon Squad
  • Charlie's Angels... and Demons
  • Priests 'n' Pitchforks
  • Hell's Kitchen - Literally
  • Demon Autopsy
  • ... create your own show.