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'Deliverance' from evil: Exorcisms are a horror movie staple with roots in religion

There’s something perversely fascinating about demonic possession.

At least such suggests the endurance of blockbusters like The Exorcist, which positioned the phenomenon as a horror staple when it terrified movie-going audiences in 1973. Later movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and The Rite (2011) would cast collared priests in similarly dramatic roles, while The Possession (2012) added a Jewish twist.

In Arabic-speaking countries, a slate of horror movies paint similarly disturbing pictures of entities known as jinn.

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Islam and Christianity each recognize the theological possibility of a malevolent spirit inhabiting and, in turn, either influencing or controlling an individual. A spiritual intervention of some sort but not necessarily an exorcism in the way that Hollywood imagines it may occur.

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Silver screen portrayals are best viewed as entertainment, rather than education, according to several in the local religious community. But that doesn’t mean demonic possessions are simply the stuff of horror movies.

“There are real cases,” said Imam Talal Eid of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. “The real ones, we deal with.”

Islam and Christianity each recognize the theological possibility, albeit rare, of a malevolent spirit inhabiting and, in turn, either influencing or controlling an individual. Each also recognizes less dramatic circumstances of “spiritual warfare,” as the Rev. John Nissley characterizes it; these might call for a spiritual intervention of some sort but not necessarily an exorcism in the way that Hollywood imagines it.

Mr. Nissley is ordained in the Mennonite Church USA and teaches spiritual formation and pastoral theology at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay. He has some experience in counseling those who are experiencing the latter.

“Instead of using the word ‘exorcism,’ oftentimes I think of the word, ‘deliverance,’” he said, describing an approach that’s neither sensational nor one-size-fits-all.

Modern Judaism, alternatively, largely does not encompass an understanding of demonic possession. That’s in part because a belief in demons is more folklore than faith within the tradition, according to the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a respected writer who broached the topic in an online article posted to My Jewish Learning.

The frightening dybbuk that terrorized the protagonists in The Possession has roots in the Kabbalah, a mystic tradition that does encompass a “vast demonology,” according to Rabbi Jacobs. He describes belief in demons as “present but peripheral in the Jewish scheme.”

It’s perhaps natural for Hollywood producers to gravitate toward the dramatic. But when it comes to theological perspectives on demons, Imam Eid and Mr. Nissley each spoke in terms of graduating degrees of activity.

Mr. Nissley, specifically, breaks it down into three levels.

The first level involves a trial, test, or temptation. It’s a pretty human experience, he said, and although it might feel overwhelming to a person, it wouldn’t necessarily leave him or her running for a priest or minister.

“God allows a certain amount of that in our lives,” Mr. Nissley said, describing it as a way that a believer matures in his or her faith. “It comes into our lives when we’re ready to handle it.”

Islam has a somewhat similar perspective, according to Imam Eid, who explained that an individual is always occupied by “bad” jinn. (Jinn are invisible entities separate from both humans and angels. While “bad” jinn act as the soldiers of Satan, jinn can be “good” too.) These jinn try to influence the individual toward an action they know is wrong but, ideally, the individual can overcome that temptation based on the strength of their morals.

Things get more complicated as that influence intensifies. The next level Mr. Nissley identifies is oppression, a more intense, overwhelming, and persistent experience. He said this might affect someone who has dabbled in magic or the occult or who has experienced “some type of traumatic, painful experience when one allows evil to have a spiritual stronghold in their life that is manifested in negative behavior, emotions, and thinking."

The Rev. Monte Hoyles, chancellor for the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, described oppression this way in an email: “... the devil doesn’t possess the control, but makes attacks on the body, perhaps even physical illnesses for which there are no scientific or medical explanations.”

The third level is more frightening and, perhaps, more fascinating to filmmakers: possession.

Father Hoyles described this condition as when “the devil controls the body.” Imam Eid drew a distinction that, in Islam, a jinn can never control an individual, but can only strongly influence their actions.

These are the cases that would require an exorcism, and different religious traditions have different ways of approaching this. The Roman Catholic Church, which authorizes only specifically trained priests to do this work, employs a very specific rite compared to other Christian traditions or to Islam, neither of which have such guidelines.

But it’s rare to reach the level of possession. The Rev. Hoyles said the Diocese of Toledo does not have a trained exorcist and, although they “occasionally” receive calls inquiring about the service of one, have recorded no need for an exorcism in his time as chancellor. He took on the position in 2011.

Imam Eid, who served Muslims in Boston for decades before coming to the Islamic Center in 2015, said he fields calls far more frequently — “on a weekly basis” — from Muslims who believe they are possessed. It’s a fairly common concern, he said, exacerbated, in some ways, by the prevalence in Muslim countries of purported holy men who offer to identify or remove jinn in exchange for payment.

While the concerns he hears in these calls are serious, in the sense that Imam Eid said it’s important to step in and counsel the frightened callers, they rarely indicate genuine cases of possession.

Only twice, he said, while in Boston, has he run into the latter.

A common characteristic in each of these cases was an aversion to the Qur’an, he said, describing victims who screamed upon hearing its verses and who resisted entering the mosque. He said the contrast in their demeanor, before and after the approximately hourlong exorcisms, was striking.

Of one, he said: “She came back, and she started to pray.”

Contact Nicki Gorny at ngorny@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.

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