Synopses & Reviews
A guided tour through the burgeoning business of exorcism and the darker side of American life.
There is no other religious ritual more fascinating, or more disturbing, than exorcism. This is particularly true in America today, where the ancient rite has a surprisingly strong hold on our imagination, and on our popular entertainment industry. Weve all heard of exorcism, seen the movies and read the books, but few of us have ever experienced it firsthand.
Conducted by exorcists officially appointed by Catholic archdioceses and by maverick priests sidestepping Church sanctions, by evangelical ministers and Episcopal charismatics, exorcism is alive and well in the new millennium. Oprah, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters have featured exorcists on their shows. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Time, and other publications have charted the proliferation of exorcisms across the United States. Last year, the Archdiocese of Chicago appointed its first full-time exorcist in its 160-year history; in New York, four priests have officially investigated about forty cases of suspected possession every year since 1995.
American Exorcism is an inside look at this burgeoning phenomenon, written with objectivity, insight, and just the right touch of irony. Michael W. Cuneo attended more than fifty exorcisms and interviewed many of the participants both the exorcists who performed the rituals and the people from all walks of life who believed they were possessed by the devil. He brings vividly to life the ceremonies themselves, conjuring up memories of Linda Blairs astonishing performance in the 1973 movie The Exorcist and other bizarre (and sometimes stomach-churning) images. Cuneo dissects, as well, the arguments of such well-known exorcism advocates as Malachi Martin, author of the controversial Hostage to the Devil, self-help guru M. Scott Peck, and self-professed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren of Amityville Horror fame.
As he explores this netherworld of American life, Cuneo reflects on the meaning of exorcism in the twenty-first century and on the relationship between religious ritual and popular culture. Touching on such provocative topics as the satanic panics of the 1980s, repressed memory, and ritual abuse, American Exorcism is a remarkably revealing, consistently entertaining work of cultural commentary.
"Cuneo, an intrepid sociologist based at Fordham University, explores the bizarre subculture of renegade priests, rough-and-tumble preachers, shady psychiatrists and tormented souls, spewing foulness....Lucidly written and riveting as any horror novel, Cuneo's excursion into the darker paths of American faith offers a deeply disturbing, ironic vision of what he sees as the unintended consequences of popular culture for the modern religious imagination." Publishers Weekly
"Cuneo's passion for all things bedeviled led him to write this remarkable book, a sweeping study of exorcism in contemporary America. His hypothesis? The popularity of exorcism, especially of the difficult-to-attain Catholic variety, is due in large part to William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist and the popular film of it....Written at an ironic distance that permits laughter at some of the more absurd exorcisms (e.g., a man exorcised because he sometimes disagrees with his girlfriend), the book reads like a novel, leading one to hope that it would be as popular as The Exorcist. But without hero-priests and possessed little girls, it will probably last only as a wonderfully astute and readable dissertation on pop culture's manipulation of religion." Booklist
"An evenhanded assessment of a volatile subject....Cuneo takes some delight in depicting earnest Middle Americans vomiting, cursing, and writhing in carefully conducted rituals, but he admits that he's encountered little that evoked the dark netherworld of honest-to-God possession. An engaging and detailed document of a provocative subculture, in a study that will neither confirm nor confound the reader's demonic fears." Kirkus Reviews
"If there were ever any question about the power of pop culture to influence people's behavior and beliefs, it is put to rest by Cuneo's provocative and frightening but limited book on exorcisms in modern-day America....His research takes him to some fascinating places where ancient religious dogma meshes with New Age therapy. Unfortunately, he's so worried about not being judgmental that he lets most of these self-styled spiritual warriors (the vast majority of whom seem little more than evangelical shysters) off the hook too easily." Book
About the Author
Michael Cuneo teaches sociology and anthropology at Fordham University in New York City. His previous books include the highly praised The Smoke of Satan, and his research has been featured in such publications as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. He divides his time between New York and Toronto and is currently at work on a true-crime book about a triple homicide in Missouris Ozarks.