On Friday night a dozen or so ghost hunters, writers, self-described demonologists, and a Catholic Bishop will gather at a Maryland home for a "Destination America" TV event called "Exorcism Live." It is tied to the supposed true story behind "The Exorcist" film, which was based on William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel of the same name, which in turn was based very loosely on the diary of a priest describing a 14-year-old boy ("Roland Doe") who underwent an exorcism in 1949.
Virtually all of the gory and sensational details that appeared in "The Exorcist" book and film were wildly exaggerated or completely made up. In his book "American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty," sociologist Michael Cuneo found no evidence that anything supernatural occurred in the Roland Doe exorcism.
Cuneo refers to Blatty's book as "heavily fictionalized," and notes for example that in the original case Roland's spitting was exaggerated into prodigious projectile vomiting for the film; ordinary bed shaking became supernatural bed levitating, and so on, in classic Hollywood style.
Though "Exorcism Live" is being touted as "the first-ever live televised exorcism in U.S. TV history," the description is a bit misleading. For one thing it's not really what most people would call an exorcism, since exorcisms typically involve people believed - or claimed - to be possessed by spirits or demons.
Home Cleansing This "exorcism" is instead what might be referred to as a "cleansing," and it is done daily in homes around with world without fanfare, dramatic music or TV cameras. It is based on ancient superstitions and intended to bless a home, bring good luck and keep out - or less often drive out - evil spirits and magical creatures such as fairies.
It's similar in many ways to the New Age practice of feng shui, in which furniture in a home or building is arranged in such a way as to bring luck and health. It's not uncommon to find horseshoes above doorways for good luck, and window frames in many parts of the world are painted blue because that color was believed to keep evil spirits away.
"Exorcizing" a home can be a smart real estate move. In 2014 singer Olivia Newton-John asked a priest to cleanse her Florida home in hopes of selling it. Following the suicide of a contractor in her home she was concerned about the social and spiritual stigma associated with the tragedy.
Whether Newton-John believed that ghosts and evil spirits resided in the house is irrelevant: The ceremony was an attempt to assure potential buyers that the place was not haunted.
If the removal of real or imagined spirits from a house during the "Exorcism Live" event is not as dramatic as hoped, a variety of people will be on hand to provide commentary, including a psychic, an Ouija board expert, a historian of the 1949 exorcism, and several ghost hunters. There is, however, little or no connection between the alleged possession of Roland Doe and the "possession" of the house where he lived at the time of the exorcism.
The home itself does not have a particularly haunted reputation (the way, for example, Louisiana's Myrtles Plantation or California's Whaley House do), though the TV show's website claims that "Ever since the attempted exorcism of Roland Doe rumors have swirled that the house is still possessed by an evil entity. Paranormal investigators who have visited the house in recent years have experienced eerie and unsettling events which only bolster the belief that something sinister still lurks in the home. Can this home be cleansed once and for all?"
Will Exorcism Work?
Because of the nature of the phenomena it will, of course, be impossible to know whether the exorcism is successful. Since ghosts and spiritual possession - of people, houses, dolls, or other objects - have never been scientifically proven to exist, there's no way to distinguish the presence of a ghost from its absence.
If all is calm in the home at the dramatic conclusion of the two-hour live special, that doesn't necessarily mean that an evil spirit has fled the premises; since the "paranormal phenomena" claimed to occur there doesn't happen constantly it may simply mean that the supernatural intruder is taking a break, or waiting for the actors and TV crews to leave before resuming the haunting the next morning.
If history is any guide. future ghost hunters will continue to visit the residence in search of ghosts and find ambiguous evidence - such as photos or sounds they can't explain - indicating a spirit remains there. If that happens then Friday's exorcism will eventually be revealed to be a failure - but of course they can try again next Halloween for "Exorcism Live Part 2: Trying Again."
Though the exorcism/ghost hunt event will likely be harmless –and fruitless - fun, there's some danger if audiences get the impression that exorcisms are frivolous. The truth is that people who genuinely believe they are possessed need medical treatment, not reality TV coverage - and in fact several people have died during exorcisms. A real, live televised exorcism of a person would be unethical and exploitative, but a ghost hunt in "The Exorcist" house will likely scare up good ratings.