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American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty [Hardcover]

Michael W. Cuneo
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 11 2001
A guided tour through the burgeoning business of exorcism and the darker side of American life.
There is no other religious ritual more fascinating, or more disturbing, than exorcism. This is particularly true in America today, where the ancient rite has a surprisingly strong hold on our imagination, and on our popular entertainment industry. We’ve all heard of exorcism, seen the movies and read the books, but few of us have ever experienced it firsthand.
Conducted by exorcists officially appointed by Catholic archdioceses and by maverick priests sidestepping Church sanctions, by evangelical ministers and Episcopal charismatics, exorcism is alive and well in the new millennium. Oprah, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters have featured exorcists on their shows. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Time, and other publications have charted the proliferation of exorcisms across the United States. Last year, the Archdiocese of Chicago appointed its first full-time exorcist in its 160-year history; in New York, four priests have officially investigated about forty cases of suspected possession every year since 1995.

American Exorcism is an inside look at this burgeoning phenomenon, written with objectivity, insight, and just the right touch of irony. Michael W. Cuneo attended more than fifty exorcisms and interviewed many of the participants–both the exorcists who performed the rituals and the people from all walks of life who believed they were possessed by the devil. He brings vividly to life the ceremonies themselves, conjuring up memories of Linda Blair’s astonishing performance in the 1973 movie The Exorcist and other bizarre (and sometimes stomach-churning) images. Cuneo dissects, as well, the arguments of such well-known exorcism advocates as Malachi Martin, author of the controversial Hostage to the Devil, self-help guru M. Scott Peck, and self-professed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren of Amityville Horror fame.

As he explores this netherworld of American life, Cuneo reflects on the meaning of exorcism in the twenty-first century and on the relationship between religious ritual and popular culture. Touching on such provocative topics as the “satanic panics” of the 1980s, repressed memory, and ritual abuse, American Exorcism is a remarkably revealing, consistently entertaining work of cultural commentary.

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In 1973, the film version of The Exorcist seared Linda Blair's head-spinning, vomit-spewing rendition of demonic possession into the popular consciousness. The movie's popularity, according to sociologist and anthropologist Michael W. Cuneo, tapped into Americans' deepest spiritual anxieties and helped spawn a "booming business" for Catholic, Protestant, and freelance exorcists that shows no signs of slowing. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty begins with a cultural history of exorcism from the 1960s to the present day. Then the book offers a wealth of case studies, based on the author's firsthand observation of dozens of contemporary exorcisms performed by New Age entrepreneurs and clerics of Christian traditions. But Cuneo's explanation of exorcism's popularity--that the rite allows believers to absolve themselves of responsibility for problems, including "depression, anxiety, substance addiction, or even a runaway sexual appetite," by offering assurance that "Indwelling demons are to blame"--seems merely a pretext for his scathing judgment of the whole phenomenon. "Personal engineering through demon expulsion: a bit messy perhaps, but relatively fast and cheap, and morally exculpatory. A thoroughly American arrangement." Cuneo's judgment may or may not be correct, but his research appears sloppy ("widely quoted" sources go unidentified, and sweeping cultural observations are unsubstantiated by footnotes). And his prose is littered with smug double-entendres such as "The pop culture industry cast its spell, so to speak, and an obliging nation fell into line." In both its argument and style, American Exorcism is every bit as lazy and sensationalistic as the phenomenon it purports to criticize. --Michael Joseph Gross

From Publishers Weekly

Not so long ago pundits were complaining that Americans had lost their sense of evil; "no one cares about Satan anymore," they sighed. This mesmerizing study proves them utterly misguided. Cuneo, an intrepid sociologist based at Fordham University, explores the bizarre subculture of renegade priests, rough-and-tumble preachers, shady psychiatrists and tormented souls, spewing foulness. Building on his earlier surveys along the fringes of contemporary Catholicism, the "openmindedly skeptical" author interviewed hundreds of believers and attended dozens of exorcisms, here described in mordant deadpan. The current plague of demonic infestation among charismatics and evangelicals, Cuneo proposes, has less to do with the machinations of hell than the productions of Hollywood. Popular books and movies have blamed malevolent spirits for a wide range of maladies everything from voices in one's head, to twinges in one's groin, to dissatisfaction in one's heart. And they have established models of behavior for both the possessed and their heroic deliverers: Regan and Father Damien of The Exorcist have scores of real-life imitators. The rise of a new therapeutic ethos also has something to do with it. Aimed at curing addiction, compulsion and other psychological problems, exorcism has become "a recovery program with a supernatural twist." Lucidly written and riveting as any horror novel, Cuneo's excursion into the darker paths of American faith offers a deeply disturbing, ironic vision of what he sees as the unintended consequences of popular culture for the modern religious imagination.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
The period since the early 1970s has seen a huge rise in Americans seeking relief from demons. The possessed have sought exorcism, while those merely "oppressed" by diabolic forces have received "the deliverance ministry". Cuneo's study is an in-depth exploration of the different Christian groups in America offering these services.
Cuneo's thesis is that two factors have led to this upsurge of demand: firstly, the popular media, particularly the book and film of "The Exorcist" and the work of a renegade Catholic priest, the late Malachi Martin, in the early 1970s; and secondly, the development of a "therapeutic culture" of self-fulfilment and self-help. As a result, the deliverance practices of Pentecostalism have come to feature across the board in conservative Protestantism and the previously rarely-used rite of Roman Catholic exorcism has become increasingly accessible.
The author travels across America, meeting exorcists and their patients and attending dozens of sessions. There are Catholic traditionalists, anxious to reassert the mystical authority of the priesthood after Vatican II; members of the Charismatic wings of several of the major American denominations; and independent Pentecostals and Fundamentalists. In many places (once prompted by Cuneo, it has to be noted), "The Exorcist" and Malachi Martin's book "Hostage to the Devil" are cited by informants as inspirations for their "countersecular worldview" in which human motivations can very easily be ascribed to demonic influence.
Cuneo's book is an excellent resource for tracing the way different parts of the movement have influenced each other.
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3.0 out of 5 stars OK for what it is, but what it is isn't much Nov. 4 2002
The problem here is one of (hermeneutical) access. If one of the goals is to find out whether or not demons exist, which the author plainly recognizes as an aspect of his purposes (esp. in his concluding chapter), the hermeneutics of skeptical open-mindedness, or open-minded skepticism (the author's stated approach), just isn't up to the job. One would have thought an author as sophisticated and worldy-wise as Mr. Cuneo would have been aware of the limitations of a secular/phenomenology-based methodology to get at a problem (an assessment of the existence or non-existence of demons) that is at best only partially accessible to such an approach. Thus when he declares that there were no spectacular demonic manifestations during 50 or so actual exorcisms to which he was an eyewitness, this could as easily be a consequence of his personal skepticism as evidence of the non-existence of demons. To his credit, Mr. Cuneo acknowledges part of this problem--he admits that his researches are limited, that demons may have manifested at other exorcisms he didn't attend, etc.--but he doesn't get at the heart of the matter, namely, that his "hermeneutics of suspicion" has only limited ability to gain access to the issue of the existence or non-existence of demons. Had he adopted a different approach, the "hermeneutics of generosity," his results perhaps would have been very different.
One would have thought that this method--the hermeneutics of generosity, ironically largely a result of Post Modernism--would be familiar to someone like Mr. Cuneo. After all, it has led to spectaculur results in other fields, e.g., Biblical studies (N. T. Wright), anthropology and literary criticism (Rene Girard), and philosophy (Jean-Luc Marion).
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3.0 out of 5 stars A Decent Book, But Lacks Bite Nov. 3 2002
In the last chapter Cuneo writes, "Exorcism may be a strange therapy, it may be the crazy uncle of therapies, but it is a therapy none the less." Well, this is the 300-page book in summation. Cuneo does a respectable job of researching a host of different forms of exorcism in America, and his accounts do prove interesting. He performs a first hand examination of a host of theological [excentrics], from evangelical snake handlers, to Catholic priests who exchange blows with the devil himself. However, it's clear that Cuneo puts very little merit in any of these exorcisms, and one can see his conclusions almost from the first page.
I think the book would have been much improved if Cuneo delved deeper in to the history of American exorcism. For example, a chapter or two about the Salem witch trials or other "exorcisms" from the distant past of American history would have given the book the bite it lacks. Although the book was slightly entertaining, it would be easy to skip over.
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5.0 out of 5 stars In You or Your Television: Demons in America Dec 15 2001
Cuneo´¿s text, American Exorcism. Demonology itself is not a field he wishes to research; however, the fact that some Americans believe both in demons and their alleged power is. Cuneo extensively interviewed people who perform exorcisms and those who believe that they are the victims of demonic affliction. These people come from all walks of life, from the mid-west housewife to the urban priest-socialite. From the text, it appears that Cuneo has covered most of the ground involved here, including such books and movies as Peck´¿s The Road Less Traveled and the film Kung Fu Exorcist.
As for the topic of demonology, Cuneo concludes that demonic presence is non-falsifiable. However, to continue wasting words on this subject is asinine; it is unimportant to the text. Demons do not matter; it is all in how people react to their alleged presence. Quite simply, people want these demons out of their hair and out of their spheres of influence.
Cuneo argues convincingly that popular culture has wielded its influence in Americans´¿ spiritual lives. It is no coincidence that the belief in demons and demonic possession rose immediately following the two theater runs of William Peter Blatty´¿s The Exorcist. Further, people watched a 2020 episode in which a Roman Catholic priest performed an exorcism and walked away believing that they, too, were the victims of diabolical possession. This displays a disconcerting readiness to identify with what we see on television and in other media. However, something else must make these people susceptible to the belief that they have had their bodies taken over by some malevolent supernatural force. Could there somehow be a benefit to believing yourself possessed?
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and engaging
AMERICAN EXORCISM is a fascinating book, tracing the resurgence and spread of the practice of exorcism in America since the first screening of the movie THE EXORCIST. Read more
Published on Dec 29 2002 by Mark I. Vuletic
3.0 out of 5 stars Who Do The Voodoo
Cuneo's sociological approach to a (strictly) religious ritual exposes this phenomena to be purely anthropic. Read more
Published on June 10 2002 by Thomas Lucadamo
3.0 out of 5 stars rrright...
got this book because I'm interested in the subject of demonology and exorcism. The book is very promising at first, and it keeps you wanting to turn the pages. Read more
Published on April 4 2002 by Christine
4.0 out of 5 stars Fairly written , fairly argued
For a man who is today (April 1st 2002) at a meeting of American Atheists in Boston Michael Cuneo gives a very fair hearing and an even fairer look at exorcism in America. Read more
Published on April 1 2002 by Peter Ingemi
3.0 out of 5 stars rrright...
I got this book because I'm interested in the subject of demonology and exorcism. The book is very promising at first, and it keeps you wanting to turn the pages. Read more
Published on March 9 2002
3.0 out of 5 stars The title is somewhat misleading...
I purchased this book expecting to find case studies of exorcisms (specifically Catholic) that have been performed in recent years in the United States. Read more
Published on March 4 2002 by James F. Anderson III
4.0 out of 5 stars Well Researched Book
Well written and generally smooth reading book with lots of documented research material to further study. Read more
Published on Jan. 26 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars Survey of an American religious phenomenon
Cuneo is thorough in his research and lucid as a writer. Even though I am trained in theology and psychology, I had no idea how widespread the exorcism phenomenon is in the USA. Read more
Published on Dec 18 2001 by D. W WISELY
5.0 out of 5 stars Demons in America?
Whether demons exist and whether they can possess a person is not the central question of Michael Cuneo's text, American Exorcism. Read more
Published on Dec 11 2001 by Matthew Mistal
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