Agnostic Director of ‘The Exorcist’ Witnesses a Real-Life Case of Possession

Medical experts consulted by the agnostic director of The Exorcist could not dismiss the phenomena they had witnessed. “I’ve never believed in ghosts or that stuff,” said one, “but I’ve had a couple of cases, one in particular, that really just gave me pause.”

William Friedkin
William Friedkin (photo: Photo by Elen Nivrae, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Movie directories describe the 1973 film adaption of The Exorcist  as a “horror film.”

But William Friedkin, the director of the film, which depicts the demonic possession of a young girl and an exorcist’s efforts to save her life, took the Church’s claims about the danger posed by the Devil seriously.

A self-identified agnostic, Friedkin had continued to ponder the details of the story, written by William Peter Blatty, a devout Catholic. But he had never witnessed an exorcism, so he reached out to Roman exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, who died in September.

Father Amorth told him that the film adaptation had raised awareness about the reality of the Devil, and agreed to let him videotape an exorcism of a young woman named “Rosa.”

Friedkin recounts Rosa’s profound and inexplicable suffering, and his subsequent efforts to obtain a separate diagnosis of her condition from medical experts in “The Devil and Father Amorth”, a fascinating article in the Dec. 2016 issue of Vanity Fair.

The most interesting part of the story may be Friedkin’s interactions with medical experts. He had expected them to be deeply skeptical, but their reactions surprise him.

Two neurosurgeons he consulted at UCLA Health Services “seemed baffled as to how to define her ailment, and both agreed it was not something they would attempt to cure with surgery.”

Dr. Neil Martin, the chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center, tells him:

There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it. She’s not separated from the environment. She’s not in a catatonic state. She’s responding to the priest and is aware of the context. The energy she shows is amazing. The priest on the right is struggling to control her. He’s holding her down, as are the others, and the sweat is dripping off his face at a time when she’s not sweating. This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations. She appears to be engaged in the process but resisting. You can see she has no ability to pull herself back.

Friedkin asks if Rosa’s symptoms could arise from a brain disorder. Dr. Martin replies that it doesn’t present the cluster of symptoms of schizophrenia epilepsy, or delirium.

With delirium you see the struggling, maybe the yelling, but this guttural voice seems like it’s coming from someplace else. I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, ruptured brain aneurysms, infections affecting the brain, and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.

Dr. Itzhak Fried, a UCLA neurosurgeon and clinical specialist in epilepsy surgery, seizure disorder, and the study of human memory, has this to say:

 It looks like something authentic. She is like a caged animal. I don’t think there’s a loss of consciousness or contact, because she’s in contact with the people. She appears to respond to the people who talk to her. It’s a striking change in behavior…

It’s a physiological state. It seems to be associated with religious things. In the temporal lobe there’s something called hyper-religiosity. You probably won’t have this in somebody who has no religious background. Can I characterize it? Maybe. Can I treat it? No.

Friedkin asks if he believed in God. Dr. Fried responds: “I do believe there is a limit to human understanding. Beyond this limit, I’m willing to recognize an entity called God.”

The director also shows the video to leading U.S. psychiatrists in residence at Columbia University: Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute; Michael B. First, professor of clinical psychiatry; Roberto Lewis-Fernández, president-elect of the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry; and Ryan Lawrence, M.D., assistant professor of clinical psychiatry.

Here are just a few of their most interesting responses.

Lieberman: To be perfectly blunt, this is unconvincing as to anything that could be supernatural or excused from the laws of nature as we know them.

Friedkin: Do you think it’s fraud?

All: No, no, it’s something real.

First: It fits recognized psychiatric syndromes that have been defined. It’s classic. I would say she fits into the pattern that we call Dissociative Trance and Possession Disorder. There is no obvious known psychopathology. Exorcism as a therapeutic technique could work.

Lieberman: Given our scientific and medical backgrounds, do we countenance the possibility of there being something that’s spiritual or supernatural in nature that takes the form of disturbed behavior?

Lewis-Fernández: The person is expressing a pathology that is understood as possession. Our field of psychiatry can understand it as possession just on the virtue of what she’s presenting, without having to take any kind of stance on whether there actually are demons, spirits. [Dr. Lewis-Fernández worked on adding the word “possession” to “Dissociative Identity Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, relied upon by clinicians, researchers and the legal system.]

Lieberman: I’ve never believed in ghosts or that stuff, but I’ve had a couple of cases, one in particular, that really just gave me pause. This was a young girl, in her 20s, from a Catholic family in Brooklyn, and she was referred to me with schizophrenia, and she definitely had bizarre and psychotic-like behavior, disorganized thinking, disturbed attention, hallucinations, but it wasn’t classic schizophrenic phenomenology. And she responded to nothing,” he added with emphasis. “Usually you get some response. But there was no response. We started to do family therapy. All of a sudden, some strange things started happening, accidents, hearing things. I wasn’t thinking anything of it, but this unfolded over months. One night, I went to see her and then conferred with a colleague, and afterwards I went home, and there was a kind of a blue light in the house, and all of a sudden I had this piercing pain in my head, and I called my colleague, and she had the same thing, and this was really weird. The girl’s family was prone to superstition, and they may have mentioned demon possession or something like that, but I obviously didn’t believe it, but when this happened I just got completely freaked out. It wasn’t a psychiatric disorder—you want to call it a spiritual possession, but somehow, like in The Exorcist, we were the enemy. This was basically a battle between the doctors and whatever it was that afflicted the individual.

Friedkin: Do you completely disregard the idea of possession?

Lieberman: No. There was no way I could explain what happened. Intellectually, I might have said it’s possible, but this was an example that added credence.

First: I think all of us would agree there are things we can’t explain.

Friedkin's conclusion:

Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.