When he made his 1973 classic, The Exorcist, William Friedkin had never seen an exorcism. For decades he wondered how close he had come to reality. So, last May, he followed “the Dean of Exorcists” as he fought to expel Satan from an Italian woman.
We have a clergy today who no longer believe in the devil, in exorcism, in the exceptional Evil the devil can instill or even in the power that Jesus bestowed to cast out demons. —FATHER GABRIELE AMORTH
Sunday morning, May 1 of this year, was Father Amorth’s 91st birthday, but he had no plans to celebrate. He awoke just after dawn, said his usual morning prayers and one to Joseph of Cupertino, a 17th-century saint, and another to the late Father Candido Amantini, his mentor. Clutching a walking aid, he shuffled from his cell-like room to the dining room on the third floor of the Paulist Fathers residence, south of Rome’s historic center.
After his usual breakfast of caffè latte and biscotti, Father Amorth returned to his room, which had a tall window, a hospital bed, two chairs, and a wooden desk cluttered with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Padre Pio, a priest-mystic who experienced stigmata—bleeding wounds, corresponding to those inflicted on Jesus Christ on the Cross. For the next six hours, Father Amorth reviewed the mail requesting his services from around the world. Each letter contained tragic questions and appeals from people who knew Amorth only by name and reputation. He answered the letters, writing with a fountain pen, licking the envelopes and stamps himself. At two P.M., he knelt again to pray, then arose with difficulty, took up his walking aid, and made his way to an elevator, which took him to the first floor, where the small room dedicated to his work was located. The hallway was empty and dark. Whispering voices and footsteps could be heard, as from a tomb.
His old adversary was waiting.
At exactly three P.M. he began to conduct the ritual of exorcism. The possessed woman, Rosa, was in her late 30s, tall and slender, with raven-black hair. She was as dark and attractive as an Italian movie star—Sophia Loren or Silvana Mangano, with a quiet demeanor. She had a college degree but couldn’t work because of the fits and behavioral changes that came over her, most severely on the Christian holidays, such as Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Easter, and Pentecost. This was her ninth exorcism with Father Amorth. As with traditional psychiatry, the patient is usually not “cured” after the first session. Father Amorth had been exorcising one man for 16 years.
Rosa arrived with her mother and father and her boyfriend, Giuliano. Her parents were in their late 50s, her father tall, white-haired, with an aristocratic bearing, her mother short, a bit plump, friendly. Giuliano was over six feet, with the build of a heavyweight boxer and short close-cropped hair. He was warm and considerate of Rosa, but I sensed a strangeness about him.
With them was Roberto (Rosa, Giuliano, and Roberto are all pseudonyms), about 50, an insurance agent in Rome. In 2012, his sister, in her 30s, was suffering from depression. One day, Roberto saw her on the floor, convulsively twisting her body and growling like a wolf. When this continued for several days Roberto took her to a psychiatrist, who was unable to help her and suggested she see Father Amorth. She required four exorcisms before she was healed.
It was Roberto who noticed Rosa at Mass, acting disturbed and disoriented the way his sister had. He brought her to Father Amorth in August of 2015.
Now, for Rosa’s ninth exorcism, Father Amorth shuffled into the small, high-ceilinged room with five burly men. Four were middle-aged priests. The fifth, Alessandro, stocky and strong with short red curly hair, was Father Amorth’s personal assistant of seven years. For this exorcism Father Amorth had granted me permission to attend and film it.
Father Amorth thumbed his nose at the demon within Rosa, and the exorcism began. Rosa’s motivation was not a death drive. She had come to this room for the past nine months to be set free of something that had been visited upon her.
Father Amorth insisted that anyone who came to him first seek the help of traditional medicine and psychiatry. “Out of a hundred people who seek my help,” he explained, “one or two at the most may be possessed.”
I asked Rosa if she felt better after the exorcism. “Each time, it feels like I’m becoming free. I can feel the Devil suffering inside me,” she said.
I had been curious to meet Father Amorth for many years. In the early 1970s, when I directed the film The Exorcist, I had not witnessed an exorcism. Maybe this would be an opportunity to complete the circle, to see how close we who worked on the film came to reality or to discover that what we created was sheer invention.
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. Six years before, I had told him one of his scripts was terrible. As a result, he believed I was the only director who would tell him the truth. We didn’t know each other well at the time, and I had no credits that would suggest I could manage a difficult film such as The Exorcist. Then my film The French Connection opened successfully and the studio came on board.
Blatty had started writing his novel 20 years after hearing about a case of possession involving a 14-year-old boy in Cottage City, Maryland. The case had been chronicled at great length in 1949 by The Washington Post, which quoted Catholic sources saying that the boy had been possessed and was successfully exorcised. The reporter, Bill Brinkley, was given extraordinary access to the Washington, D.C., diocese. But Blatty, then an undergraduate at Georgetown University, couldn’t get anyone involved to divulge the facts of the case, so he wrote it as fiction and out of his own deep faith.
Blatty and I wanted the film to be as realistic as possible, with the flavor of a documentary. We had a technical adviser for the exorcism scenes, Rev. John Nicola, assistant director of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. He was considered an expert on the ritual, though he had never seen or performed one himself—few people, including priests, have.
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.
The Science of Evil
Last April, I was in Lucca, Italy, to receive the Puccini Prize for my work in opera. On an impulse, I e-mailed a friend in Rome, Andrea Monda, who is a religious scholar. I asked him if he thought Father Amorth would meet with me. Word came back shortly: “FATHER AMORTH CAN SEE YOU AT 9 AM ON APRIL 5 AT THE SOCIETÀ SAN PAOLO IN HIS RESIDENCE.”
Through Andrea, I was able to hire a translator/assistant, a talented young man named Francesco Zippel, and a few days after Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, Francesco and I met with Father Amorth in his residence, in the room that’s dedicated to his work.
He was short, bald, and frail. His face was heavily lined, his voice and movements were weak, but his mind was razor-sharp and his manner jovial. We shook hands warmly. He smiled and said, “The Devil has made me famous all over the world.”
He had agreed to meet with me because he admired my movie. In his book An Exorcist Tells His Story, published in 1990, he wrote:It is thanks to the movies that we find a renewed interest in Exorcisms. Vatican Radio, on February 2, 1975, interviewed William Friedkin, the director of the movie, The Exorcist. . . . The director stated that he wanted to tell the facts of an episode, narrated in a book, that had actually happened in 1949. When a Jesuit priest was asked [on the same program] if The Exorcist was just one of many horror movies or something altogether different, he emphatically maintained that it was the latter. He cited the great impact the movie had made on audiences throughout the world.
“Father, you write of dialogues you’ve had with Satan. Have you ever seen him?” I asked Father Amorth.
“Satan is pure spirit. He often appears as something else, to mislead. He appeared to Padre Pio as Jesus, to frighten him. He sometimes appears as a raging animal. The ritual of exorcism is not practiced by an ordinary priest. An exorcist requires specific training and must be thought to have a personal sanctity. He can be exposed to dangerous behavior and personal threat. His prayers often cause a violent response as he attempts to shine a beam of light into the darkness.”
“You’ve said publicly that you believe, referring to the current Church scandals, that Satan is in the Vatican. Do you still believe this?”
“Yes. Today Satan rules the world. The masses no longer believe in God. And, yes, Satan is in the Vatican.”
Belief in possession by spirits appears as early as 3100 B.C., in the Sumerian culture of ancient Mesopotamia, now parts of Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait. In the New Testament, demons are cast out by Jesus. Exorcisms were common in the Middle Ages. Perhaps every society needs explanations for things that cannot be explained. As Hamlet said to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dream’t of in your philosophie.”
I wanted to get credible scientific opinion about what I had witnessed. A skeptic’s explanation for the “possession phenomenon” is “unconscious fraud,” wherein a suggestible person is aware of the behavior that’s expected of him or her and performs it out of social compliance, as a child does when a parent shows approval.
I showed the video of Rosa’s exorcism to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California and to a group of prominent psychiatrists in New York.
Dr. Neil Martin is chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center. He has performed more than 5,000 brain surgeries and is regularly cited as in the top 1 percent of his specialty. On August 3, I showed him the video of Rosa’s exorcism. This is his response: “Absolutely amazing. There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it. She’s not separated from the environment. She’s not in a catatonic state. She’s responding to the priest and is aware of the context. The energy she shows is amazing. The priest on the right is struggling to control her. He’s holding her down, as are the others, and the sweat is dripping off his face at a time when she’s not sweating. This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations. She appears to be engaged in the process but resisting. You can see she has no ability to pull herself back.”
I asked Dr. Martin if this was some kind of brain disorder. “It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy,” he said. “It could be delirium, an agitated disconnection from normal behavior. But the powerful verbalization we’re hearing, that’s not what you get with delirium. With delirium you see the struggling, maybe the yelling, but this guttural voice seems like it’s coming from someplace else. I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, ruptured brain aneurysms, infections affecting the brain, and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.”
I also showed the video to Dr. Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon and clinical specialist in epilepsy surgery, seizure disorder, and the study of human memory. He is based at both UCLA and the Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. This was his conclusion: “It looks like something authentic. She is like a caged animal. I don’t think there’s a loss of consciousness or contact, because she’s in contact with the people. She appears to respond to the people who talk to her. It’s a striking change in behavior. I believe everything originates in the brain. So which part of the brain could serve this type of behavior? The limbic system, which has to do with emotional processing of stimuli, and the temporal lobe. I don’t see this as epilepsy. It’s not necessarily a lesion. It’s a physiological state. It seems to be associated with religious things. In the temporal lobe there’s something called hyper-religiosity. You probably won’t have this in somebody who has no religious background. Can I characterize it? Maybe. Can I treat it? No.”
I asked Dr. Fried if he believed in God, and he took a long pause before answering: “I do believe there is a limit to human understanding. Beyond this limit, I’m willing to recognize an entity called God.”
The reaction of the neurosurgeons took me by surprise. I had expected they would quickly dismiss Rosa’s symptoms as madness or unintentional fraud or suggest that she might be cured by brain surgery. They did not.
They wouldn’t come out and say, “Of course this woman is possessed by Satan,” but they seemed baffled as to how to define her ailment, and both agreed it was not something they would attempt to cure with surgery.
I was eager to pursue another path, one devoted to the treatment and prevention of mental disorder. I took the video to a group of some of the leading psychiatrists in the country, all in residence at Columbia University: Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute; Michael B. First, professor of clinical psychiatry; Roberto Lewis-Fernández, president-elect of the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry; and Ryan Lawrence, M.D., assistant professor of clinical psychiatry.
After showing the Columbia psychiatrists the video on a 36-inch screen, they had an open discussion about it for an hour and a half. Here are some of the highlights synthesized from that discussion:
LIEBERMAN: To be perfectly blunt, this is unconvincing as to anything that could be supernatural or excused from the laws of nature as we know them.
ME: Do you think it’s fraud?
ALL: No, no, it’s something real.
FIRST: It fits recognized psychiatric syndromes that have been defined. It’s classic. I would say she fits into the pattern that we call Dissociative Trance and Possession Disorder. There is no obvious known psychopathology. Exorcism as a therapeutic technique could work.
LIEBERMAN: Given our scientific and medical backgrounds, do we countenance the possibility of there being something that’s spiritual or supernatural in nature that takes the form of disturbed behavior?
LEWIS-FERNÁNDEZ: The person is expressing a pathology that is understood as possession. Our field of psychiatry can understand it as possession just on the virtue of what she’s presenting, without having to take any kind of stance on whether there actually are demons, spirits. [Dr. Lewis-Fernández worked on adding the word “possession” to “Dissociative Identity Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, relied upon by clinicians, researchers, and the legal system.]
LAWRENCE: I have a patient now in my unit who’s similar to this in some ways. She says she’s possessed by the Devil. She speaks in a bizarre voice. She has a history of trauma. What we’re doing for her is we’re treating her with medication, giving her psychotherapy, creating a safe environment. She gets better. We don’t take a position of “Is this really Satan bothering you or are you just being bothered by your illness?”
LIEBERMAN: I’ve never believed in ghosts or that stuff, but I’ve had a couple of cases, one in particular that really just gave me pause. This was a young girl, in her 20s, from a Catholic family in Brooklyn, and she was referred to me with schizophrenia, and she definitely had bizarre and psychotic-like behavior, disorganized thinking, disturbed attention, hallucinations, but it wasn’t classic schizophrenic phenomenology. And she responded to nothing,” he added with emphasis. “Usually you get some response. But there was no response. We started to do family therapy. All of a sudden, some strange things started happening, accidents, hearing things. I wasn’t thinking anything of it, but this unfolded over months. One night, I went to see her and then conferred with a colleague, and afterwards I went home, and there was a kind of a blue light in the house, and all of a sudden I had this piercing pain in my head, and I called my colleague, and she had the same thing, and this was really weird. The girl’s family was prone to superstition, and they may have mentioned demon possession or something like that, but I obviously didn’t believe it, but when this happened I just got completely freaked out. It wasn’t a psychiatric disorder—you want to call it a spiritual possession, but somehow, like in The Exorcist, we were the enemy. This was basically a battle between the doctors and whatever it was that afflicted the individual.
ME: Do you completely disregard the idea of possession?
LIEBERMAN: No. There was no way I could explain what happened. Intellectually, I might have said it’s possible, but this was an example that added credence.
ME: If a patient doesn’t believe in psychiatry, has some resistance to it, is it likely to work?
LIEBERMAN: If you’re saying you need to believe in religious systems for something like exorcism to work, the answer is yes. In sum, this isn’t demon possession, but treating Rosa’s symptoms as demon possession may not be the worst thing.
FIRST: I think all of us would agree there are things we can’t explain.
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.
Devil May Care
Rosa’s 10th exorcism was set for the Fourth of July. I was determined to record it and follow this story to its end, however long it might take and to whatever conclusion. I arrived in Rome on the third only to learn that Rosa had canceled her appointment with Father Amorth. When Francesco talked to her on the phone she told him she didn’t feel up to it. She would reschedule when she felt better. Francesco asked her if, since I had come to Rome, we could film some background footage with her, to show what appeared to be her otherwise normal life with her family, friends, and her boyfriend, Giuliano.
She agreed, and we set a time to meet in Rome on July 5. The day before, I visited Father Amorth again at his residence. He emphasized that he believed Rosa was one of those rare victims of demonic possession, that her infestation was made worse by the curse from her brother and his girlfriend.
Father Amorth told me that even when Rosa appears normal she experiences mental suffering. “After her ninth exorcism, there was some improvement, but she is not liberated. Perhaps it won’t be me who is successful with her,” he said softly. “There’s someone who plants the seed and someone else who harvests. And Jesus reminds us it is He who sets people free, not the exorcists.”
After two hours he seemed to tire. We hugged, he gave me his blessing, and I left. I turned back once to see him smiling and waving.
Rosa canceled our meeting, only to call back and reschedule. She said she’d meet us in Rome, then called back a few minutes later sounding angry and frustrated to beg off. Then late in the evening she called to apologize. She claimed she had forgotten the date of our meeting, but told Francesco she was looking forward to seeing me again. She asked if we could meet her in Alatri, a small town close to where she lived, 90 miles southeast of Rome.
We set out for Alatri around 11:30 in the morning. Rosa said she’d meet us at 1:30 in the public park on top of the town in front of the basilica. The drive took two hours on the A24 and A1 motorways. We passed flat fields dotted with bundles of rolled hay.
Alatri is a historic village, perched on a hill, overlooking red-tiled rooftops and distant mountains. The village dates from the second millennium B.C. and is surrounded by massive, polygonal Etruscan walls, pieced together without mortar, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The narrow alleyways and cobblestone streets are lined with small houses, many of them adorned with oil paintings of the saints, under glass. This is a religious town in an old-world way. We had to walk to the top of the hill to the acropolis. Within it is the cathedral, considered a sacred place. We were to meet her in the park in front of the 12th-century basilica.
1:30. Rosa hadn’t arrived.
1:45. The heat was infernal and there was no shade. The temperature was over 100 degrees, with no humidity. We went into the basilica. The wood-paneled interior was in the shape of a cross with three aisles and a raised transept across the nave. It was dark, cavernous, and empty.
2:00. We went back outside. A half-dozen young boys lazily kicked a soccer ball around. There was no other movement.
Francesco called Rosa on her cell phone. She answered quickly, sounding angry. “Where are you?” she screamed.
“We’re at the park,” Francesco answered. “Where are you?”
“I’m where I told you I’d be, at Santa Maria Maggiore, the church in the town square.”
Drenched in sweat, we walked back down the steep road a quarter of a mile. The limestone church of Santa Maria Maggiore dominates the public square. Completed in the fifth century, it was built over the ruins of a temple to Venus. A four-story bell tower adjoins the pointed façade. Two smaller arched doorways flank a large center door under a rose window. We entered the door on the right, at the base of the bell tower.
For the next 15 minutes we were trapped in a living nightmare. Just within the entrance, Rosa, her mother, and Giuliano were sitting on dirty, plastic thrift-shop chairs. Her mother was crying. Giuliano stood over Rosa, holding her tightly to her chair, one hand around her neck and shoulders, the other around her waist. She was growling and screaming, struggling to break free. But this was not Rosa. It was a monstrous, ugly, despairing creature with a gravelly voice filled with anger and anguish. It was the voice of the damned. She was far worse than during the exorcism, but there was no priest to control her behavior. The church was otherwise empty but for this tableau of horror.
Francesco and I watched in stunned silence as Rosa slid around the floor, pulling Giuliano and the chair with her. For a moment, she stared at me with a malevolent grin I will never forget. Then came a sad, painful moan as she collapsed into a trance. Then a terrifying roar that burst from her whole body. RAAAAARRRRGGGGGHHH!!
The color drained from her face. Her disheveled hair flew wildly in all directions. Foamy spittle formed on her pale lips. She made a shrill wailing sound, over which her mother yelled at me, in Italian, “Give us back the film!”
To which Rosa shouted, “NO! NO! NON VOGLIO.” (I don’t want it.)
She collapsed again, with a tearful, exhausted expression.
Giuliano (clutching her tightly): “YOUR FILM MUST NEVER BE SEEN!”
Francesco, riveted, breathing with difficulty, translated everything quickly.
Rosa: “SI! SI IO VOGLIO.” (Yes! I want it seen.)
Mother: “What will happen to my son if the film is shown?”
It struck me as odd that she was concerned more about her son than about her daughter, who was under his curse. Rosa shouted furiously again.
I tried to appear calm, but I was terrified. I said, “I’m not going to give you the film.”
Giuliano: “I KNOW WHY YOU WANT TO SHOW THIS. TO MAKE A FAMOUS FILM ABOUT SATAN. YOU DON’T CARE IF SHOWING IT WILL RUIN ROSA’S LIFE!”
Rosa’s attempts to break free from Giuliano’s grip were directed toward her mother, not me or Francesco. Her leaps and thrusts became more violent.
I told Francesco to tell them there was no film. It was a video, on a little card. I thought they would have no idea what I was talking about, but Giuliano smiled and said, “Oh, it’s an SD card. You must bring it here and we will burn it.”
“I’ll never give you the video,” I said, raising my voice. “I made it to show the work of Father Amorth.”
Mother: “We will get lawyers, and we will sue you and Father Amorth.”
Rosa: “IO SONO SATANA!!!” (I am Satan!)
Giuliano: “She is possessed by Satan. If you show it, it will be used by Satan’s followers.”
Rosa (writhing and kicking): “NO! NO! I WANT IT TO BE SEEN. I WANT IT TO BE SEEN.”
Giuliano: “If you don’t give it back to us, we will kill you! Satan will kill you! We will find your family, and we will kill you all!”
It was the first time anyone had threatened my life. Rosa had fallen back into a trance. I looked directly at the mother and Giuliano: “I’m not going to bullshit you. I will never give you the video.”
I turned to Francesco: “Let’s go. We’re done here.”
And I walked out into the scorching white heat. Francesco followed a few moments later, and I could hear the screaming inside before the heavy wooden door slammed shut.
We said little as we drove back to Rome, the fear and the sweat clinging to us.
Rosa disappeared from Father Amorth’s radar. She didn’t return calls or messages or schedule another exorcism with him. It was believed that Giuliano and her brother now had control over her. It would be flippant to say I didn’t take their threat seriously. The memory of what happened in Alatri hovers in my consciousness to this day.
I held to the hope that Rosa would eventually re-unite with Father Amorth and that he would free her of her demons, but in late July Father Amorth had difficulty breathing. He had to cancel his appointments and was admitted to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a pulmonary condition and pneumonia. On Friday, September 16, at 7:37 P.M., he died.
When I heard the news I was devastated, as were all who loved him. But I thought he’d be O.K. I remembered something he had said to me: “Do you know why the Devil is afraid of me? Because I’m uglier than he is.”
The funeral was held at Santa Maria Regina Degli Apostoli alla Montagnola. It was a cloudy morning, but the sun appeared as the Requiem Mass began, at three P.M. A thousand people filled the church and stood outside. Roberto, Alessandro, and Francesco were there, as were many of the patients Father Amorth had liberated. All the mourners approached the coffin and kissed it. Rosa was nowhere to be seen.
Before dying, Father Amorth had told Roberto, “When I get to the Good Place I will continue to fight the Devil even harder.”
Venafro is another hillside town of fewer than 12,000 people, in southeastern Italy, near Alatri. There, according to Roberto, a clergyman recently performed an exorcism on Rosa. In the middle of the ritual, the clergyman called on the spirit of Father Amorth for intercession. Rosa began to writhe and screamed, “DON’T! DON’T CALL HIM!”
Father Amorth and Rosa’s work is not yet finished.