exorcism room
© William FriedkinHALLWAY TO HELL The corridor leading to the exorcism room (second door on right) at the Paulist Fathers residence in Rome.
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."

© William FriedkenDEVILISH WORK “Rosa's” ninth exorcism, which began at three p.m. on May 1 of this year.
Rosa had no apparent medical symptoms. It was Father Amorth's belief that her affliction stemmed from a curse brought against her by her brother's girlfriend, said to be a witch. The brother and his girlfriend were members of a powerful demonic cult, Father Amorth believed.

I sat two feet away from Rosa as her torment became visible. Her family stood against a wall to my right. Father Amorth invited everyone to join him in saying the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary. Then he invoked Saint Joseph, Padre Pio, Father Amantini, and the Blessed Virgin, asking for their protection.

Rosa's head began to nod involuntarily. Her eyes rolled back, and she fell into a deep trance. Father Amorth spoke in Latin in a loud, clear voice, using the Roman ritual of Paul V, from 1614. He asked the Lord to set her free from demonic infestation. "EXORCIZO DEO IMMUNDISSIMUS SPIRITUS." (I exorcize, O God, this unclean spirit.)

Rosa's body began to throb, and she cried out, before falling back into a trance. Father Amorth placed his right hand over her heart. "INFER TIBI LIBERA." (Set yourself free.)

She lost consciousness. "TIME SATANA INIMICI FIDEM." (Be afraid of Satan and the enemies of faith.)

Without warning, Rosa began to thrash violently. The five male helpers had all they could do to hold her down. A foam formed at her lips.

"RECEDE IN NOMINI PATRIS!" (Leave in the name of the Father.) Rosa's features slowly altered into a mask of despair, as her body continued to writhe. She was trying to rise and, clearly, to attack.

"SANCTISSIMO DOMINE MIGRA." (Let him go, O God Almighty.) Rosa did not speak or understand Latin, but she thrust forward and screamed in Father Amorth's face: "MAI!!" (Never!!)

A low buzzing sound began, like a swarm of bees, as the others in the room prayed quietly. "SPIRITO DEL SIGNORE. SPIRITO, SPIRITO SANCTO SANCTISSIMA TRINITA." (God's spirit, Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity. . . . Look after Rosa, O Lord, destroy this evil force so that Rosa might be well and do good for others. Keep evil away from her.)

Then Father Amorth called out the satanic cults, the superstition, the black magic that had possessed her. She reacted, growling, and screamed "MAAAAAAIIIIII!!!" The scream filled the room.

Another voice from deep within her shouted in his face: "DON'T TOUCH HER! DON'T EVER TOUCH HER!!" Her eyes were still closed. Father Amorth yelled, "CEDE! CEDE!" (Surrender!)

She reacted violently: "IO SONO SATANA." (I am Satan.)

The buzzing continued. Rosa grew more defiant and agitated. The room was cold, but everyone was sweating.

Except Rosa.

"RECEDE ERGO NUNC!" (Leave her now.)


"Answer me!"


"How many demons are you?"

"Eighty legions!"

"IN NOMINE DEO QUANDO TU EXIS?" (In the name of God, when are you leaving?)


"She belongs to Jesus Christ!"


"Requie creatue Dei" (Rest, creature of God), Father Amorth said quietly.

Rosa slowly awoke and sat up. She was disheveled and had no memory of what had happened. One of the priests led her into a corner as her mother received a blessing from Father Amorth. Suddenly Rosa began to rage again, cursing and screaming, while one man held her firmly by the neck and another held her legs. Gradually she returned to a normal state and, in fact, seemed beatific to me.

Father Amorth smiled, as the mood in the room changed.

Everyone sang "Happy Birthday" to him, in Italian.

Everyone but Rosa.

"Many things happened over the years that made me believe I was possessed," Rosa told me afterward. "There is a time when you can't bear or postpone it anymore. After two years, I had to do something."

I asked her if she had been treated by physicians or psychoanalysts. "It was useless to go to doctors," she replied. "My problem is caused by evil spirits." She had also been to see other priests, "but Father Amorth is the only one who helps me."

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.

Lucifer Rising

Father Amorth
© William FriedkenFather Amorth
Father Amorth was born Gabriele Amorth, the son of a lawyer, in the town of Modena, in the north of Italy. In his teens, during the Second World War, he joined the Italian Resistance, and then he became Giulio Andreotti's deputy in the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Party, a Roman Catholic centrist party. He left that position and was ordained in 1951. In 1986 he was assigned by the vicar of Rome to assist Father Candido Amantini, then the chief exorcist in Rome. When Father Amantini died, in 1992, Father Amorth was named his successor. In the years that followed he has variously been referred to as "the Vatican Exorcist," "Rome's chief exorcist," and "the Dean of Exorcists." He has performed thousands of exorcisms successfully, and in 1990, he founded and led the International Association of Exorcists. Currently there are 4 exorcists in Rome and some 300 around the world within the Catholic Church, Father Amorth said, many of them trained by him.

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.

For more of this story go here.