What the Movies Get Wrong About Exorcism

By Adam Blai

Just as the demons have many ways to attack us, we have a number of ways to defend ourselves. The most important of these ways is a proper understanding of the spiritual world, as this shapes intent and actions. People tend to have two basic approaches to the spiritual world: magical thinking and religious thinking. The essential difference is whether one’s focus is on oneself or God.

Magical thinking assumes that if one knows enough information and then applies it through proper execution of behaviors and willpower they will achieve a result. Essentially, the thinking is “my will be done.” There is usually no explicit need for God, but sometimes the power of God, usually in the form of angels or the name of God, are presumed to be recruited to serve the will of the person. These approaches vary quite a bit but essentially seek ways to force one’s will onto the world through some form of personal power. Magical thinking often appeals to adolescents who feel powerless and have a need to individuate. One error that Christians sometimes make along these lines is to say that anything commanded to a demon in the name of Jesus must be obeyed, period. Experience shows that this is not the case with demons—if it were that easy, exorcisms and deliverance sessions would be over in one sentence. We cannot force our will on other people by commanding it, even in the name of Jesus, if they have not chosen to be free. God doesn’t force us to not sin, or to reject a demonic problem; we must make those choices.

Religious thinking, on the other hand, assumes that God is the only authority and active agent and that people serve God’s will. Essentially, “Thy will be done.” In the religious approach one tries to be sure that any request fits God’s rules and ways. One prays and asks God to do some action, then waits to see if God chooses to answer that prayer. The person is completely subservient to God in this approach as they understand that they are powerless on their own.

The language seen in exorcism seems to be from a magical-thinking perspective because it involves direct commands, but it is dependent on God’s will. The exorcism is a sacramental and so does not have a guaranteed effect. Jesus—not the priest—exorcises the demon when He wishes. The exorcism is primarily dependent on the person choosing God and wishing to be free, and only secondarily on the command of the Church for the demon(s) to depart the person.

Many people who seek out an exorcist have a purely magical-thinking mindset, though they don’t realize it. They assume that if they find the right priest with enough “power,” their problem will be solved. They often assume that only an exorcism, and nothing less, will help them. This is placing human power or mechanistic ritual before their relationship with God. This may be part of why they have not received the assistance from God that they seek: God may be trying to correct their relationship with Him.

In resolving spiritual problems, it is imperative to first explore one’s personal theology and correct any errors. A person’s beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes are often key to the resolution. There are many ways that God might interact with a person and help them disentangle from a relationship with a demon. It is important to remember the big picture: God is completely aware of every individual situation and wants to help people to not only stop suffering, but to not repeat the errors that led to their problem. In cases of a demon attached to a family, we see that God wants to heal the family completely so that not only this person is freed but the next generation is as well.

People can be stuck at a certain point for some time. It is at those times they have to follow God’s lead out of the situation. While there are many errors that lead to a continued or relapsed attachment to demonic forces, the most important thing to remember is that God is attempting to orchestrate disentanglement from both the demon and the misunderstandings that formed the relationship with the demon.

In every situation related to demonic problems, one should first establish a solid foundation of prayer, the sacramental life, the use of sacramentals, and blessings. Often this foundation, along with some theological formation and catechesis, resolves the case. People are commonly tempted to skip this foundation and the work it entails, and instead seek an exorcism to remove the problem. This usually leads the person back to the foundational problem, allows the demon to return, and only makes the problem worse in the long run.


Adam Blai is a Peritus of religious demonology and exorcism for the Pittsburgh diocese. He has been an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome for a number of years. Blai is the author of Hauntings, Possessions, and Exorcismsa field guide to defense against the demonic.