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Exorcism in everyday life

Updated Tuesday, 22nd September 2009

Jenny Hockey meets Tom Willis, a Church of England exorcist, and explores his role

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A horror movie such as The Exorcist can lead us to imagine exorcism as a form of arcane traffic with the devil and all his demons, something that takes place in ruined abbeys and gothic castles.

Yet exorcism is an established practice within the Church of England that happens in the homes and workplaces of ordinary people throughout the country. Exorcism became part of my research into death and dying when I began asking how people relate to the dead and where they might imagine them to be.

An important part of the exorcist’s work is trying to remove the dead from a place no-one wants them to be and if possible relocate them to somewhere thought of as appropriate. So place is important.

We can see this as an example of human beings’ preference for thinking about difficult things in concrete terms. As research shows, both the place where a death occurs and places associated with the dead can be important anchor points for our ideas and our emotions after someone has died.

Not only do we find it easier to think in concrete terms, we also like the world to be predictable and indeed tidy. Anthropologists such as Mary Douglas have studied the way different societies classify their worlds, the compartments they put things into.

When an exorcist is called in – perhaps by the police, the social services or the Samaritans – it is because something unclassifiable has happened. Very often, someone who is dead has turned up where they shouldn’t be. One compartment within our map of life and death (some might call it "heaven") has leaked into another–the front room or the stairwell. The exorcist’s job involves putting things back into their rightful place. And if they are working within a Christian framework, then heaven or some kind of afterlife is indeed that place.

They achieve this through prayers and blessings, the power of the crucifix they are likely to wear, and the holy water they are likely to bring with them. These help release a troubled spirit trapped in a particular place, perhaps because they died violently, or they have a message for the living, or they cannot break off their attachment to life and the living for some reason.

Before getting to grips with the supernatural, though, the exorcist will ask some very "earthy" questions - about the plumbing, the foundations of a building, the pranks a teenage neighbour might get up to. Tom Willis, the Christian exorcist I interviewed, described the "detective work" he always undertook, finding out who’d previously lived in a property, whether the current residents had a difficult family history, what the neighbours had to say. Only when other explanations were exhausted would he undertake an exorcism.

So we are beginning to get some idea of how the Anglican Church makes sense of "things that go bump in the night". If all this seems to take us into the realm of the irrational, the magical and the superstitious, we need to remember that ordinary people in a workaday city like Hull have run out of their houses in the middle of the night, terrified by what they’ve seen, heard and smelled.

And Hull is by no means the exception. In a modern, rational world, why have we razed to the ground the Gloucester property where Fred and Rosemary West’s victims died or the house where Soham’s Ian Huntley murdered two schoolgirls? We may know the answer at a gut level, but can we provide an intellectual explanation for our sense that evil can infest bricks and mortar?

Let’s begin with the Church’s point of view, as put forward by Tom Willis. As an Anglican minister with special responsibility for exorcism, he described all kinds of "cases". For example, a family in East Yorkshire had heard horrific sounds of destruction going on downstairs at 3 am. When they ventured out of bed they found their sitting room in chaos, precious items smashed, everything turned over.

In another case a widow putting sausage rolls in the oven was shattered to see her dead ex-husband smiling at her from the corner of the room, an apparition who then turned up all over the house at roughly six monthly intervals. Sounds of feet pounding up and down stairs and a couple screaming terrified tenants in a block of flats.

They came out onto the stairwell to find no-one there. A woman and her daughter had been rehoused three times but couldn’t escape an "evil smell" that left them choking, with streaming eyes.

Tom himself had never "seen’"a ghost but he described sitting on a settee with a family who were experiencing a haunting and, as he put it, "my knees shot together and my elbows shot together and head whiplashed back – pow! – like this." These were among many many examples and they do challenge belief in a rational, material world. In fact, people seemed to find it easier to believe that they had "gone mad", than to re-think their commonsense models of the way the world worked.

As a member of the Church, however, Tom understood these events fairly straightforwardly. They were the result of channels which can open up between the separate worlds of the living and the dead, channels which can admit evil spirits as well as the restless dead.

Lay people should not meddle with this border; they should let the dead go and not try to call them up through spirit mediums and ouija boards, nor should they try to receive mystical predictions through tea-leaf reading. "Dabbling in the occult", as Tom termed it, contributed significantly to the occurrence of hauntings. For Tom, this spiritual explanation was quite compatible with rational, scientific thought.

The Church could tell us why a haunting was taking place; science would one day be able to explain the physics or the chemistry of the otherworldly sounds, sights or smells people were experiencing. If you like, scientists were the people to research the mechanics of spirit manifestation.

How does all this contribute to my work on the importance of the place of death and the ways in which the living relate to the dead? I would argue that our difficulty in making ourselves "at home" in accommodation where violent death has occurred is an extreme example of our general feeling that home is very much part of who we are.

Any house move takes us into someone else’s space and because it is their private space, we can only guess at what happened their. When we strip out a previous owner’s kitchen fittings or paper over their colour scheme, we are also carrying out a kind of exorcism, making sure that we don’t get too up close and intimate with people, practices and events we’d rather not know about. Violence that resulted in death, whether murder or suicide, is simply an extreme version of this.

So I’m arguing that our cultural attitudes to home and to places of death predispose us to anxieties about what the dead might leave behind in the bricks and mortar. In addition, when we look more broadly at how the living relate to the dead at the end of the twentieth century, we find all kinds of evidence of people wanting contact with the dead, and welcoming them into their lives.

For example, we increasingly leave the dead messages on graves and at the sites of violent death; we hold on to their ashes; we make them into our silent advisors as we go forward into lives without them. Changes in the way we think about dealing with grief towards the end of the twentieth century have made people feel more comfortable about keeping "continuing bonds" with the dead. However, as sociologists and historians have argued, our commitment to a rational, scientific way of thinking about the world is still in its relatively early days within the grand scheme of things. More than this, our openness to "magical" thinking, or what the sociologist Max Weber would call "enchantment", is a legacy which has never entirely left us.

Find out more

‘Houses of Doom’ by Jenny Hockey
in Ideal Homes? Social Change and Domestic Life
edited by Tony Chapman and Jenny Hockey

Ghost Encounters: Finding Phantoms and Understanding Them
Cassandra Eason

The Guardian: The Church and exorcism - Madeleine Bunting on the clergy having to cope with an increasing demand for exorcism

BBC Radio 4: Reverend Tom Willis describes how he performs an exorcism


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