ST. LOUIS — Catholic authorities and exorcists agree: Messing with the devil is a bad idea; but summoning him on live television in order to perform an unauthorized exorcism ritual is beyond foolish.
“We cannot play games with Satan and expect to win,” said Bishop Robert Hermann, auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, in a statement responding to plans for a séance followed by a minor exorcism at the St. Louis country home where a famous exorcism took place.
The archdiocese has forcefully responded to the plans by cable network “Destination America” and local radio personality Dave Glover of St. Louis’s The Dave Glover Show to conduct a purported exorcism live on national television on Friday at the home associated with the 1949 exorcism of a youth with the pseudonym “Roland Doe.” The events of the “Roland Doe” case inspired the 1971 novel The Exorcist by Catholic author William Peter Blatty and the subsequent 1973 movie of the same name that is still regarded as “the scariest movie of all time.”
Destination America plans to have a psychic medium, Chip Coffey, conduct a séance with a Ouija board. Paranormal investigators called the Tennessee Wraith Chasers (complete with their custom-made Ghostbusters-like “ghost traps” they say will physically capture bodiless spiritual entities) will be on hand, and Bishop James Long, presiding archbishop of the schismatic U.S. Old Catholic Church, a 19th-century breakaway from the Catholic Church, will be using a minor exorcism ritual for the house.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis has warned the public against participating in the made-for-TV ritual, calling it a “dangerous endeavor” that trivializes the Catholic Church’s ancient rites and the reality of evil for its audience.
“Any attempt to use the solemn rite of exorcism as entertainment exposes all participators to the danger of future, hidden Satanic attack,” said Bishop Hermann.
He also added that Archbishop Robert Carlson, archbishop of St. Louis, has not granted the necessary permissions — known as “faculties” — to any priests or bishops to conduct this exorcism, and none of the clergy involved are affiliated with the archdiocese or the Catholic Church.
“No exorcism can take place without the authority of the local Roman Catholic ordinary,” Bishop Hermann said.
The Bel-Nor House
The house where the true Exorcist events took place stands in the Bel-Nor village of St. Louis. According to what is reported as a diary of events, Roland Doe’s possession was preceded by his spiritualist aunt introducing him to the Ouija board and trying to contact the spiritual world. Doe’s possession lasted from January until April 1949. In March of that year, after a period of investigation, Jesuit priests at St. Louis University obtained permission from Archbishop Joseph Ritter to perform the major exorcism rite on Doe.
In the final moments of the exorcism, Doe was heard to say in a different masculine voice, “Satan! Satan! I am St. Michael! I command you, Satan and the other evil spirits, to leave this body, in the name of Dominus [Latin for the Lord], immediately! Now! Now! Now!” Doe then said in his own voice, “He [the devil] is gone” and recounted a vision of St. Michael holding a sword of fire.
According to local news media, nothing out of the ordinary happened at the Bel-Nor home since 1949, until radio host Dave Glover discovered it in 2008 to film a Halloween special, where he dared people to stay half an hour in the home. Apparently, the guests became quickly terrified, did not last five minutes, and the episode became the launching pad for the Destination America event on the eve of Halloween.
However, when it comes to allegations of paranormal or demonic activity, Catholic exorcists may be ranked among the supreme skeptics. Father Michael Driscoll, author of Demons, Deliverance, Discernment: Separating Fact From Fiction About the Spirit World, told the Register that the Church has strict protocols and procedures for investigating allegations of demonic activity. What the Church looks for is definitive evidence of demonic activity that has no natural explanation: In other words, a group of people who share creepy feelings or panic could be feeding off of their own anxieties; a person thrashing and making guttural noises could be mentally unstable or faking such symptoms to get attention.
“The instructions warn against presuming too quickly,” he said. One thing that exorcists look for is behavior outside of the normal laws of nature, or in the case of persons, knowledge of languages, events or things that would otherwise be impossible for them to know or have any acquired knowledge.
In any event, Father Driscoll explained, when people engage with the spirit world through séances, they are making contact with the devil and other evil spirits. They are not talking with one’s dearly deceased Aunt Mabel, and whatever is communicating with them is neither in heaven nor in purgatory.
“God reigns over all his saints. They’re not going to do anything weird,” he said. While souls in purgatory have manifested themselves to saints over the ages, “I don’t know how flickering the lights has anything to do with purifying their souls.”
The priest also explained that while playing with the occult, which includes the use of the Ouija board, and habitual mortal sin can open doors to possession, this does not occur often. But the risk of possession is not the greatest worry here.
“The main danger is you can go to hell,” he said.
Archdiocese of Indianapolis exorcist Father Vincent Lampert told the Register that he sees the Destination America event as a “mockery of the ritual of exorcism” by conjuring a Satanic being via a medium in order to swat him down with an unauthorized exorcist representing God.
“We live in an age where faith becomes less relevant in people’s lives. Faith will lead us in one direction; a lack of faith will lead us in another,” he said. “At a time when we no longer believe in God, or faith has become weak or less relevant, the greater is the fascination with evil.”
But the show’s approach treats exorcism as magic with a dash of Ghostbusters thrown in. According to Catholic teaching, fallen angels still retain their intellectual powers, which are far beyond the ability of human persons to control. They are also incorporeal beings that can’t be “trapped” by gadgets.
“St. Thomas Aquinas says that spirits are neither here nor there; we say they are here or there if they are choosing to act in a location,” Father Lampert said. “So it’s not as if evil spirits actually ‘live’ in that house.”
But people sometimes will do things in a residence that will invite an evil spirit to act in a location, and “evil may choose to make itself manifest.”
“There’s no way that a human could actually go up against a fallen angel on their own without the power of God,” he said.
“This is conjuring up the devil for entertainment purposes, and, certainly, God will not be pleased with that,” the Indiana exorcist said. “And God is the one that will defeat the evil.”
Satan is a legalist, according to the exorcist: If one invites the devil in, one creates a legal claim the devil may invoke as his basis for possession, whether a person likes that or not. An individual has to appeal to the Church, which then through its authorized minister, acting with the authority given by the bishop, to carry out the exorcism rites, which mainly consist of prayers to God, with some commands directed at the evil spirit.
Msgr. John Esseff, a priest for 62 years in the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., and an exorcist for more than 35 years, told the Register that people must remember that the devil “is always under the power of God.”
“One good confession is worth a hundred exorcisms,” he said, pointing out that mortal sin “is really where Satan is able to take over the soul.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.