Did You Know Exorcisms Aren’t Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus?

Whether you are getting ready for a gory Halloween movie marathon, taking it to the streets to trick-or-treat – or priming your costume for a spooky soiree, remember, as we indulge in the spirit of make-believe and pretend, some scary traditions are based in reality — yikes! In fact, one of the scariest movies of all time, “The Exorcist,” involves the concept of exorcism, which according to Drexel history professor Jonathan Seitz, PhD, has a very real history and is even being practiced today.

Seitz’s research focuses on the historical intersections among science, medicine and religion, especially in the early modern era (roughly the 1400s-1700s). Just in time for Halloween, Seitz gave the News Blog some insight on the very real roots of a practice that seems tailor-made for horror movies.

According to Seitz, exorcism has roots in both religion and medicine. Healing clerics — calling themselves exorcists — in early, modern society were influential and often sought after to cure “spiritual” illnesses.

Title page of a 1626 edition of the Thesaurus Exorcismorum
Title page of a 1626 edition of the Thesaurus exorcismorum. Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines exorcism as “a specific form of prayer that the Church uses against the power of the devil.” According to Seitz, its original purpose was to remove a malevolent spirit or a demon afflicting a person or a place.

Back then, exorcism was a common cure for a “spiritual illness.” In the 1500s and 1600s the professional exorcist community strove to assume an authority over the practice. Known “healers” such as Zacharia Visconti and Girolamo Menghi authored books on exorcism that included lists of symptoms and prayers. German Jesuit Peter Thyraeus authored the Daemoniaci – which listed demonic symptoms as “speaking in unknown languages and hungering for raw meat.”

Physical remedies like herbal teas, baths and anointment with holy water or herbal ointments were often used by exorcists. Thyraeus also focused on symptoms that were not demonic, such as “living an immoral lifestyle or having an unpleasant temperament.” A major goal of known healers was to be sure that people were receiving the proper treatment for their ailments.

Naturally, a wave of self-promotion began to evolve as lines between secular medicine and spiritual care began to blur and exorcists began to be viewed more like medical practitioners. “You weren’t able to charge a fee for an exorcism, however, if a patient was grateful to be cured, and made a donation or gift to the priest – it was permitted,” said Seitz.

This began to look suspicious to the Church – which began to tighten up the official rules. Pope Paul V tried to standardized exorcism practices in an authoritative “Roman Ritual” in 1614 and other rules were issued over time in the “Code of Canon Law.” According to the current Canon Law, an exorcism can be performed only by an ordained priest, with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness.

Seitz explained, “historically, the process of determining what was a supernatural illness and a natural illness was taken seriously.”

Illustration from Obras de la gloriosa Madre Santa Teresa de Jesus. Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections.

Should a priest have some doubt that the individual is actually afflicted by a demon, it was not uncommon for them to employ simple diagnostic tests — to expose a fake. “A priest might wrap a relic, or crucifix in cloth in one hand — and in the other hand hold a cloth without a relic. The rationale was that an individual claiming demonic possession might respond to the touch of the empty cloth – while a demon would respond only to the cloth concealing the relic,” said Seitz.


While exorcisms are more heavily represented and documented throughout the Reformation Period – the dispelling of demonic spirits is still a common practice that is recognized by the Catholic Church, particularly in Italy.  In 2014 the Vatican officially recognized the International Association of Exorcists – and the practice or profession is seemingly alive, even today.

Jonathan Seitz, PhD, is a Drexel historian, assistant department head and teaching professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Media interested in speaking with Seitz should contact Emily Storz at els332@drexel.edu or 215 895-2705.




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