Sitting down with America's Leading Exorcist
The classic movie The Exorcist is one of the most iconic films in the horror genre. Who can forget Regan MacNeil levitating off her bed, spewing pea soup, and spinning her head completely around?
But how much of that is trope, and how much of that is real? Gallows Hill sat down with Father Gary Thomas, America’s leading exorcist and inspiration behind the movie The Rite to find out.
“For many people, even today, there are images in that film that are forever indelible,” says Father Thomas of the 44-year-old film. “But much of what is in that movie is very accurate. The experiences of levitation can happen.”
The green pea soup projectile vomited around the room was apparently an overstatement, but “as the demonic is leaving, there is a lot of foaming at the mouth.” And while he acknowledges that he has never seen a spinning head, Father Thomas does grant that “a demon can manipulate a body any way it wishes.”
Father Thomas has been at this for a long time. 34 years as a priest, 12 years as the mandated exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose. In that time, he’s performed dozens of full exorcisms and countless deliverances, the name the Church gives to minor exorcisms. He is widely regarded as the leading expert on exorcisms in the United States.
So Gallows Hill sat down with him and asked him what exorcisms are really like, and how horror writers can balance the realities of the Rite and the sensationalism of fiction.
“The vast majority of people don’t understand what exorcisms are all about,” says Father Thomas.
They aren’t a one-time showdown between priest and demon; nor are they an option that can be entered into lightly. There is a long process of discernment that comes before an exorcism, and cases that come before an exorcist are heavily screened before the Rite is administered.
“You need a prayer team – a group of professional consultants,” he explains. “An exorcist doesn’t do any of this work alone. He works in collaboration with people of prayer and professionals who have specific expertise who can ferret out what is mental illness or a medical condition from what is a spiritual condition.”
“The exorcist has to be the ultimate skeptic,” he adds.
That is an important aspect that is frequently missing from fiction: this is not something that can be jumped into lightly, on the whim of a priest who has a hunch.
According to Father Thomas, “it’s the last option you have.”
It isn’t until medical doctors and psychiatrists have failed to successfully help the patient that exorcist is called in.
“I would say that’s the number one tipping point” in the discernment process, Father Thomas says.
The Catholic Church wants to make sure that they don’t perform exorcisms on people simply suffering from a mental or medical condition such as schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, or epilepsy.
And no, it’s not just because the Church wants to avoid a potential PR disaster. They also want to ensure that the person receives the best care possible. If, at any time during the discernment process, the exorcist determines that the affected person’s symptoms stem from a medical condition, then they continue to provide prayer and spiritual support, but pass off the case to the appropriate specialists.
Exorcism has been highly criticized, and is really facing an identity crisis. Even within the Catholic Church, there is a growing faction that believes that exorcisms are bad for the image of the Church, and that the demonic is just the figment of Dark Age theology, not something to be taken literally.
But for exorcists like Father Thomas, the proof is in the proverbial pudding.
“I had doubts when I was first going through the training and observing exorcisms and seeing people acting out and manifesting in one or a multitude of the classic signs of exorcisms,” he recalls. “And I had never seen that before. And it caused me to initially have some doubts about was this a placebo effect from the prayers, or was this really something that was stimulating the demonic attached to this person. But after seeing the same kinds of signs for a few days to a week, I thought ‘ok, this must be the real deal.’”
According to Father Thomas and the proponents of exorcism, not only is the demonic decidedly not a Middle Age fiction, it’s growing in prevalence.
“Our society is becoming increasingly pagan,” claimed Father Thomas. “And I think there is a direct correlation between the rise in occult practices and the rise in the need for exorcisms.”
Neopagan spirituality has certainly been on the rise in recent years, with participation in religions like Wicca and Druidry growing rapidly since the 1970s.
Another common misconception about exorcisms is that they happen all at once.
“You never perform one exorcism,” explains Father Thomas. “You perform exorcisms until such time as the person is fully delivered.”
That means that as wonderful as it is to have a final confrontational scene between priest and demon, it just isn’t grounded in reality.
Exorcism is a continual process. Frequently people who are suffering from demonic possession (or lesser demonic issues such as vexation, obsession, or infestation) will come to the exorcist on a weekly basis, showing up as they would to any continuing care appointment.
And just with any sort of continuing care, sometimes people drop out of exorcisms. Father Thomas has seen those possessed by demons suddenly decide that they no longer wanted to be rid of the entity.
“I’ve had people decide that they are afraid of what they’re going to be like once they’re completely freed from this demonic condition,” he recounts. In cases such as these, people have frequently grown so accustomed to the demonic entity that they don’t know what life would be like without it. In rare cases, according to Fr. Thomas, they are even offered rewards or favors if they stop the process.
So what is a horror writer to do with all of this information? First, writers need to understand that this isn’t a made-up ceremony; it is a real religious rite that is administered almost every day in the US. Writers can’t expect it to fit seamlessly into their story outline.
“None of this is fiction,” Father Thomas points out. “One might tell a fictional story about an exorcist, but exorcism is not fictional, and the condition of demonic possession is not fictional.”
Writers should also be willing to go to their local exorcist to discuss the Rite. There are more than 50 active exorcists in the United States, and even more abroad. Writers can contact their local Catholic church, who should be able to provide details on the closest exorcist.
It’s vital for writers to ask questions before they undertake a story about exorcism. According to Father Thomas, they should strive to understand “the questions the exorcist asks, the protocol as it applies to what the exorcist needs to discern, and the actual evidence that the person has a demonic condition.”
“And then,” he adds, “if the author was to describe what the manifestations of the exorcism looks like, based on the power of the prayer, that would all have to be looked at” for accuracy.
“I think anybody who is going to write about this has to get their facts straight.”
Father Thomas knows what he’s talking about. He was a consultant on the film that was based off of his training in the field of exorcism, 2011’s The Rite.
“My role was simply to be there to help coach Anthony Hopkins and the actor who played me on the way the prayers were prayed, the symbols were used, and the actual movements of the woman who was the subject of the possession.”
As a final thought, Father Thomas suggested that writers interested in accurately portraying exorcisms should read Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.
“Everything in that book is accurate,” says Father Thomas, which means that it is a great resource for writers putting in the due diligence to get it right.