The power of self-delusion


William Friedkin, the guy who directed the Exorcist movie, has written a rather unreliable account of the activities of an official Catholic exorcist, Gabriele Amorth. I say unreliable because, I’m afraid, he sounds rather confused.

I am an agnostic. I believe the power of God and the human soul are unknowable. I don’t associate the teachings of Jesus with the politics of the Roman Catholic Church. The authors of the New Testament—none of whom, it is now generally believed by historians, actually knew Jesus—were creating a religion, not writing history.

I had no particular interest in the spiritual or the supernatural when the writer Bill Blatty asked me to direct the film of his novel, The Exorcist.

More than any film I’ve directed, The Exorcist inspired me to the point of obsession each day as I made it. I rejected all constraints, creative and financial. The studio, Warner Bros., thought I had taken leave of my senses. I may have. I made the film believing in the reality of exorcism and never, to this day, thought of it as a horror film.

There is a video of a woman undergoing exorcism. She thrashes around violently, she growls and howls, she curses in Italian. There is absolutely nothing supernatural on display, although it is also illustrated with a still from The Exorcist of a possessed girl levitating. This woman does not levitate. Her head doesn’t spin around on her neck. It’s all sadly mundane and shows a person suffering from some kind of mental illness, nothing more.

So Friedkin takes the video to some real doctors. They are non-committal; this is a problem they wouldn’t know how to treat, they come right out and say “this isn’t demon possession”, they suggest that there isn’t necessarily anything they could do, they agree that religion may be a useful palliative, and they explain that they have a patient with similar symptoms, and “we’re treating her with medication, giving her psychotherapy, creating a safe environment. She gets better.” How does Friedkin interpret this? As an affirmation of the supernatural.

I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, “This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.” That’s not what I came away with. 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.

No there isn’t. It’s astonishing how he imposes his own beliefs on a natural phenomenon. And then he has the confidence to say of Amorth that He has performed thousands of exorcisms successfully. That makes no sense. Even the specific person he describes in this account he has to admit has been “exorcised” nine times, and at the end of the story is still having these seizure-like episodes. Is he going to call these nine successes?

I don’t believe in demons, but this account sure convinces me of the power of people to lie to themselves. There’s nothing heroic or noble in that, and in particular, there is nothing admirable about a man who uses religion to perpetuate damaging dishonesty about human behavior.


  1. says

    Anyone who has experimented with hypnosis, oughtn’t take exorcism seriously.

    Religion often tries to induce trance states, nobody should be surprised when someone suggestible and susceptible to peer pressure begins behaving as they are expected to.

  2. vucodlak says

    I suppose I’m weird, in that I do believe in demons, but I don’t believe in exorcism. I wonder how many people haven’t gotten the (medical) help they needed over the years, thanks to Father Amorth and his fellow exorcists.

  3. consciousness razor says

    I am an agnostic. I believe the power of God and the human soul are unknowable.

    Tastes very different compared to “I don’t know whether there is a power of God or a human soul.” Seems to know quite a lot, for a not-knowing or can’t-know sort of person.

    I made the film believing in the reality of exorcism

    Why are self-identified “agnostics” always such confused, half-embarrassed crypto-believers? Are people handing out pamphlets which tell you to call yourself that, so you won’t have to explain or justify whatever you’re saying? Are there Chick tracts for Agnostics? Or where does it come from?

    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.

    Maybe your non-horror movie which advertises it and treats it as real had something to do with that?

    Or sure, maybe psychology has coincidentally and for no apparent reason become less reliable.

    If I made a movie about the latter possibility, one a lot of people are going to watch and have strong emotional reactions about, should we expect more/less/similar acceptance of that possibility in forty-five years?

    Do we even have evidence that people do believe in possession more than they did forty-five years ago, or is this yet another thing that is unknowable which he nevertheless knows?

  4. anchor says

    “I am an agnostic.”

    Then he immediately follows that statement with, “I believe the power of God and the human soul are unknowable” and other contradictions that clearly indicate he doesn’t understand what ‘agnostic’ means.

  5. anchor says

    @#3, cr: Why are self-identified “agnostics” always such confused, half-embarrassed crypto-believers?” Good question. THE question. That’s the real mystery.

  6. zetopan says

    “I am an agnostic. I believe the power of God and the human soul are unknowable”
    So he is a theistic agnostic? Agnostic means that the existence can’t be show to be true or false, yet he is claiming that it is true. Agnostic, you keep using that word but it doesn’t mean what you think it does.

    Some people, as William Friedkin eagerly demonstrates, are “professional fools” rather than mere amatures. Of course his statement means that he is actually a theist pretending to be an agnostic to avoid any criticism, but that slight of meaning really doesn’t work excepting with the brain dead.

  7. latsot says

    I’m always surprised at these demons’ lack of ambition. They go to all the trouble of escaping from hell and possessing people then all they do is say the occasional word in a language the host isn’t supposed to know. Even in the movie the demon didn’t seem to actually *want* anything. It could do magic but didn’t seem interested in causing any actual mayhem other than killing a priest and a movie director. It seems to know everyone’s secrets but doesn’t seem interested in toppling governments or anything.

    Even Legion in the bible didn’t exactly unleash a reign of terror. Nobody could bind him or stop him doing what he wanted and yet all he wanted was to cut himself with stones.

    I mean, come *on* demons, make an effort.

  8. John Morales says

    I made the film believing in the reality of exorcism and never, to this day, thought of it as a horror film.

    Well, exorcism is real in that it occurs and has proponents.

    (What exactly is achieved thereby is the question)

    … In other news, Yogic flying is real, too — in precisely the same manner.

    (Shame that particular conceit has fallen into desuetude, it was much funnier to behold)

  9. latsot says


    I suppose I’m weird, in that I do believe in demons

    That part isn’t weird, just mistaken. There’s no good reason to believe in demons but lots of people do regardless, you apparently included. It’s a shame when people believe things that aren’t true but not weird. I wish it were.

    but I don’t believe in exorcism.

    That might be weird, though. How do you (think you) know about demons? Unless it isn’t from the same christian tradition commonly associated with demons, I think you have some explaining to do about why you believe some things about them and not others.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    A “daimon” is just the greek word for “spirit”.
    At first, the early Church accepted non-angelic spirits. Later in the medieval era, the “demons” (as the Church-latin-speaking monks called them) were considered evil, because all spirits are either pro-zod or anti-zod. The concept of spiritually neutral spirits became anathemaa.

    I would not object being possessed by the daimon of one of the Ionian philosophers. Unfortunately, daimons do not exist, so the question is moot.
    — — — —
    Enki Bilal wrote a cool graphic novel about a guy from Paris that is (partially) possesed by the Egyptian god Horus. They had some great times together, like winning a hockey game, and then winning the election of the city-state of Paris.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Re @ 7,
    Regarding all the fun you can have by possessing people, read the SF novel “Touch”
    by Claire North.
    In the book, connected people can even hire a ghostly operator to take over the body during -for instance- an unpleasant stint in the Crimean war, leaving the job to a body snatcher with military experience so the body wouid have a better chance of emerging alive from the war.

    Or a father whose daughter was abducted by traffickers hired a ghostly operator to get her back -incidentally, staying in the body during “cold turkey” since the traffickers had made the trafficked women addicted to drugs.

    A demon bent on mischief could just take over Putin and order a nuclear attack. So what is stopping them? Are they too yellow, or something? It is not like they would have to worry about physical consequences.

  12. latsot says


    So what is stopping them?

    Well quite. Demons seem the least of our worries. I fully expect a Putin or a Trump or a May to trigger a nuclear war but all the demon-possessed folk are at home clinging to the ceiling with their heads spinning round. Demon politicians seem like by far the more peaceful option.

  13. cherbear says

    Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis apparently looks a lot like traditional description of people who are supposedly “possessed”. It’s very sad that people who have this disorder may not be given the treatment they need due to these superstitious, anti-scientific beliefs.

  14. congaboy says

    I’ve always loved sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. I find, on its face, the idea of possession as creepy and interesting; that is until you actually start thinking about it. If we are to buy into the Catholic/Christian mythology that demons are immortal, supernatural, magical creatures of immense power, then possession actually makes them look extremely pathetic and weak. These creatures are purported to have powers that enable them to do things that humans can only dream about. They can travel through space, live seemingly forever, manifest things with mere thoughts, and are impervious to just about anything. So, how do these magnificent creatures spend their time? Coming down to Earth to rattle the monkey cages. Despite all their wondrous powers, demons and angels only exist to garner the attention of the balding monkeys on some obscure planet on the spiral arm of one of a trillion galaxies. I’m one of those balding monkeys and I find the idea of spending eternity torturing and teasing other balding monkeys extremely boring. What an absolutely pathetic existence these creatures must lead. Of course, these creatures are merely the product of relatively unimaginative, narcissistic, narrow-minded humans. It’s the same narrow-mindedness as that expressed in stories about people who are granted three wishes and then waste those wishes on merely increasing their status on this planet in this lifetime—instead of wishing for the knowledge of how everything in the universe works and the ability to use that knowledge and live long enough to enjoy that knowledge, etc. One of the many concepts that lead me to become an atheist was how ridiculous it is to believe that there exists supernatural creatures whose sole purpose in life is to be concerned about what the monkeys on Earth are dong with their time. I can say that the thought, “I wonder what the baboons down at the zoo are doing right now. They had better not be masturbating!” Never entered my mind until just now—and I only thought about it, because I’m writing about how ridiculous it would be to even think like that.

  15. vucodlak says

    @ latsot, #9

    To me, “demon” refers to a servitor of a deity who has been invested with a measure of that deity’s power. In essence, a demon is essentially a piece of a deity, and exists to carry out a deity’s will. It’s not really a discrete entity, but it’s not exactly the deity itself, either. I suppose it’s possible that a person could become a demon, though I’m not so sure about (non-consensual) possession.

    In any case, I don’t think shouting at a piece of a god, or sprinkling a little water on its vessel, is going to do much to deter it. And I rather doubt a god would bother to its energy on making someone growl like a dog and say a few naughty words. Then again, I don’t know many gods.

    I’m not sure that any of that clarifies what I meant, but I hope it helps. And, in case it wasn’t obvious from the preceding, I’m not a Christian, but I am a theist.

  16. consciousness razor says


    To me, “demon” refers to a servitor of a deity who has been invested with a measure of that deity’s power.
    I suppose it’s possible that a person could become a demon, though I’m not so sure about (non-consensual) possession.
    Then again, I don’t know many gods.

    But how many gods do you know? I think there are zero gods to know about.

    If a person could become a demon, which is a servitor of a deity (“a piece of a god” as you also said), don’t you know many potential god-pieces? Or isn’t that knowing many who will possibly be invested with the powers of at least one god? Do you have doubts that any of this makes any sense at all? You should.

    In what sense would “possession” ever be consensual? The language itself suggests the person is treated like property, a possession, which is how we’d describe slavery. You’re saying a god who is vastly more powerful than a (human) person could enter into a consensual, non-coercive, non-threatening, mutual arrangement with that person? And that person would not be a slave, but some kind of voluntary servant, who is fairly compensated for it somehow, would have the right/ability to quit, etc.?

    What you’re not sure about is the idea that it would be non-consensual in any number of ways? Sounds like you have it backwards. Or you’ve invented some very strange reasons, given purported knowledge of gods that you don’t actually have, not to expect that kind of situation.

  17. vucodlak says

    @ consciousness razor

    I know one god. I was raised a Christian, but I became an atheist at 22. I was, however, a Christian atheist. My ideas about what a god should be like all came from the Christian denomination I was raised in (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), as well as from the other denominations (Baptists, mainly) I was exposed to.

    Last year, at the age of 30, I was forced to reconsider what a god might be. I reached the conclusion that I’d known a deity for some time. Having reconsidered my atheism, and becoming a theist in the process, I had to consider that there were probably gods besides the one I know.

    You’re right, all that nonsense I said about demons doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Frankly, it’s just a theory I’ve pulled out of my ass, based on what little I know of the divine. I should add that what I know of the divine doesn’t make much sense in the context of what I was taught about the divine, either. It’s guesswork, based on experiences that don’t fit into the mold of what I thought I knew about the world.

    As to the idea of consensual possession, you’re right again. Possession wouldn’t be consensual, and it was the wrong word to use. In a case where someone volunteered to be a divine vessel, it could be a part of a consensual relationship.

    Again, I really only have my own experiences with one deity to base any of this on, and she has never coerced me to do anything. I am hesitant to share the next part, for two reasons. The first reason is that trying to explain spiritual experiences tends to come across like porn (h/t to Fred Clark for that particular metaphor). The second reason is that it ain’t going to convince anyone of the existence of the divine. That isn’t why I share this anyway; I’m offering the shortest explanation I can for my beliefs, nothing more.

    When I first lost my Christian faith, I tried praying to other gods, just to see if anything else was out there. I was in a rough place, and though I could no longer stand to follow what I’d come to believe was a monster, I still needed help. So I prayed.

    The idea of god that I was raised with led me to expect a god would appear in a blaze of glory, expecting me to fall on my face and grovel before it. I expected a god would command me, or perhaps even possess me in order to carry out its will. I expected the sky to crack open, a legion of angels with trumpets and flaming swords to appear, and a great faceless asshole on a throne to excoriate me in thunderous tones for my lack of faith. At the very least, I expect some flaming shrubbery to start ordering me around.

    Instead, I got weird-ass dreams.

    I didn’t think there was anything divine about the dreams, at the time. They were wonderful, in a bizarre fashion, and they stuck with me, but I didn’t even think about them in terms of my prayer. Yet, whenever I had almost made up my mind to end my miserable life, I’d have another dream. Whenever I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore, those dreams would come floating up in my mind, and I’d feel a little better. Well enough to keep going a while longer, at any rate.

    These dreams varied wildly. Many of them would have been nightmares, but for the common thread that ran through them: a woman. Well, usually she was a woman. She seldom wore the same face twice. Sometimes she wasn’t a woman. Sometimes she wasn’t even human. Yet I always somehow recognized her as being the same person.

    It drove me a little nuts, sometimes, because she was familiar to me, but I didn’t know who she was. I mean, I always recognized her, no matter the shape she wore, but I couldn’t figure out where she came from. She wasn’t one of my friends, though on occasion she wore one of their faces. She wasn’t a character from any fiction I’d consumed. Sometimes I’d wake from a dream she was in certain I knew who she was, but the harder I tried to hold onto it, the faster the certainty slipped away.

    Last year, I finally figured out who (and what) she is. I generally call her by the first name I knew her by: Isis. That really isn’t all that important, as she changes names as easily as faces.

    She’s been kind to me. She’s taught me a few things. Nothing major; just basic things on how to be a better person. She encourages me, but she doesn’t coerce me. She never says to me: “Obey or I will (insert anything from desertion to smiting).” I know I’ve disappointed her at times, but she doesn’t abandon me. She’s chewed me out on occasion, but she’s never hurt me.

    She’s never threatened me. I never knew that someone could love you, and not threaten you. At least, I didn’t believe it, before. That revelation alone is enough to make me believe in the divine. Eugh. I’d better wrap this up; it’s getting porny.

    My point is that she won’t force me to do anything. If she asked me to be some sort of divine vessel, I’d at least consider it. And if I said no, I don’t believe she would punish me for it. I don’t know if other gods are like that, or even if there are any other gods. And yes, there is more to my faith than dreams, but I’ve rambled on too long already.

  18. Meg Thornton says

    As someone who is mentally ill, and who has been living with suicidal ideation since I was about eleven, I can understand the desire to attribute mental illness to “demon possession”. Certainly I found it a lot easier to deal with my own suicidal thoughts and desires when I attributed them to be “sales-demon for suicide” who was taking up space in my head and trying to get me to buy something I didn’t want. Thinking of those thoughts as coming from outside me, rather than inside, gave me power over them.

    But here’s the trick: I knew, when I personified the part of my thought processes giving me suicidal thoughts as an external entity, that I was doing this. I have never lost track of the knowledge that this is a conscious choice. It was a choice of mine, an imaginative coping mechanism.

    By thinking of those thoughts as being external, as being something offered as a sales pitch (and by creating an image in my imagination of the “sales-demon” in question – he’s called Charlie, he looks like a blond, curly-haired cross between a very earnest Mormon missionary and an ambitious door-to-door salesman, in a suit jacket which is about half a size too large) I was taking control of the way I reacted to those thoughts. I pride myself on being hard to sell to – so imagining the suicidal thoughts and compulsions in my head as a sales pitch for something I didn’t want made them easier to ignore.

    (Oh, and incidentally, I also mutter to myself in a collection of dumped-together vaguely eastern-European sounding syllables on occasion. Mostly because I like the sound they make in my head, and it’s a good way of not swearing when I want to swear. It may be that I’m actually saying something nonsensical in another language, because there’s only so many phonemes out there, and often the same noises are re-used by a variety of languages).

  19. consciousness razor says


    Instead, I got weird-ass dreams.

    I understand that you weren’t/aren’t interested in convincing others, but I don’t get how you could be convinced. Just trying to understand people a little better, here … maybe I never will.

    Yet, whenever I had almost made up my mind to end my miserable life, I’d have another dream. Whenever I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore, those dreams would come floating up in my mind, and I’d feel a little better. Well enough to keep going a while longer, at any rate.

    I’m sorry for whatever has been troubling you. I’ve been through the same things. It can certainly be therapeutic to think about things in different ways, work through problems imaginatively or figuratively, have various kinds of experiences while dreaming or awake, and so forth. Those are normal human psychological processes, which happen all of the time due to natural processes, not supernatural ones.

    When solving a difficult problem by constructing an analogous one that is simpler or easier for you to grasp, you do not say that therefore this analogous thing must exist (except in the sense of a series of thoughts which you had). If it’s easier to calculate the area of a complicated surface by approximating it as a square, you don’t come away from that pretending as if you had discovered the existence of that square, or had obtained some valid mind-independent empirical evidence of a square. There is no such square, and in situations like that you can understand very clearly that the process you went through involving an imaginary square was just a way for you to solve a certain problem. It could be very helpful for that reason, but that is not an indicator of what there actually is. It is not something else which is out there objectively, with which you have had some kind of engagement. It’s just that you found a way to solve the problem, while reality contained no such square and may have no need for any squares of any description. It’s one of the very impressive and enjoyable things about being alive as a human, that we’re able to do that. Listing all of the pathetic and miserable parts isn’t probably something I should do right now, so I won’t.

    Likewise, if you represented a large and complicated territory with a map, which is another way of solving a different sort of problem, you should not conclude that the map is some additional thing, just like the territory and yourself, some thing which you did not invent but exists independently of how you represent the world. The paper that you drew it on is of course an existing piece of paper, but your mapping of the world is a representation which doesn’t count as an extra thing beyond you or your thinking.

    Whenever it comes to any existing thing, the question is not about our maps; it’s about the territory, which isn’t generally up to us. What is there? Did you draw a dragon in the sea? Maybe it makes the map look nice that way, warns other sailors about dangerous conditions, or whatever it may do. If it’s good enough to do the job, doesn’t cause much harm or confusion, then no complaints here. But that’s still not a coherent reason to think there are sea dragons, as you should know if anybody does, since you were the one who drew the thing. I don’t get why anybody would think things like that could/would/should play any valid role in answering questions like that.