Are Exorcisms Real? 12 True Exorcism Stories
The belief that evil spirits can possess humans has been terrifying people throughout history. That's probably why the history of exorcism is littered with horror stories such as these.
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Exorcism: A tale as old as time
Most people may not know what it’s actually like to be an exorcist. Exorcism came to everyone’s attention with the release of the 1973 film The Exorcist, which was based on the book The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. The author drew from the real-life exorcism of Roland Doe (more details to follow).
But exorcism has been part of virtually every religion throughout recorded history. Ancient Babylonian priests performed exorcisms via a voodoo-like rite. Ancient Persians were saved from demonic possession via holy water, and the Bible recounts many times when Jesus Christ cast out demons from people believed to be possessed.
Are exorcisms the stuff of horror movies, or do they teeter in the realm of reality? The answer might not be as straightforward as you think. Read these spine-chilling, real-life exorcism stories that tread the thin line between the inexplicable and the terrifying. In the end, the verdict on their reality is yours to decide.
1778: The exorcism of George Lukins
In 1778, English tailor George Lukins was behaving oddly—speaking in strange voices, making inhuman noises, and singing hymns backward. In a ceremony held in Bristol’s Temple Church, seven priests commanded the demons who’d apparently taken over Lukins’ soul to leave, once and for all. When the ceremony was over, Lukins recited the Lord’s Prayer and thanked the priests. This was one of the few recorded exorcisms with a happy ending.
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1842: Gottliebin Dittus
In 1842, German villagers noticed strange goings-on at the home of a 28-year-old woman named Gottleibin Dittus. Dittus claimed her house was haunted and soon began slipping in and out of what others described as “trance-like” states, but it was only when a religious pastor commenced an exorcism that things went truly nuts: Dittus became violent, requiring physical restraints. For two torturous years during which the pastor performed various exorcism rights, Dittus vomited glass, nails—and blood, of course. Finally, Dittus informed everyone the demons were gone and stated that “Jesus is victor.”
1906: Clara Germana Cele
A 16-year-old from South Africa, Clara Cele, was heard making a pact with the devil and soon began behaving erratically, tearing at her clothes, growling, speaking in tongues, and demonstrating super-human strength. In 1906 and 1907, two priests performed exorcisms on Clara, during which her skin “burned” when touched by holy water and her body levitated before 170 witnesses. But after a “noxious smell” was observed leaving her body, Clara was deemed free of evil.
1896: Anna Eklund
Anna Ecklund was not her real name, but it’s the one people associate with this classic American case of demonic possession, thanks to the 2016 horror film, The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund. The real girl was born in 1882, and her name is unknown. Her father accused her of being possessed by the devil at age 14 after she refused his sexual advances. After several years and two lengthy exorcisms—interspersed by foul play, thanks to Anna’s father’s lover, a woman named Mina who practiced black magic and introduced another demonic possession—”Anna” was finally she was freed of her demons in December 1928.
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1949: Roland Doe
This 13-year old boy—in the records of the case, his name was changed to Roland Doe to protect his privacy—was mourning the loss of a beloved aunt when he began seeing and hearing strange things. As the possession worsened, Roland began demonstrating violent super-human strength. His parents took him to St. Louis in 1949 for a weeks-long exorcism now known as “the St. Louis Exorcism.” This is the story on which The Exorcist is based. Roland screamed, cursed, and attacked his exorcists until a “miracle,” according to the exorcists, finally led Roland out of his trance-like state; the boy simply stated: “He’s gone.” Find out what the director of The Exorcist saw when he witnessed an exorcism in Italy.
1974: Michael Taylor
When Englishman Michael Taylor, a husband and father of five, met 21-year-old pastor Marie Robinson, his frequent bouts of depression seemed to ease. In part, Taylor believed it was due to Robinson’s ability to exorcize demons plaguing him. After Taylor’s wife confronted Taylor about a possible affair with Robinson, he physically attacked her; this led to an actual exorcism by two ministers that took place on October 5, 1974. Michael had seizures, spit at and bit the exorcists, and screamed in tongues. The next day, he brutally murdered his wife. He wasn’t convicted, however, because of the defense’s argument that the exorcism had made him insane.
1976: Anneliese Michel
The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel by Felicitas D. Goodman relates a tragic story from Germany. (It’s also the basis of the 2005 horror film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose.) Like Michael Taylor’s exorcism, Anneliese’s story also ended in murder, only it was Anneliese who was murdered. The German woman’s “demonic possession” was actually an undiagnosed brain disorder (possibly epilepsy, schizophrenia, or both), but being a religious young woman, Anneliese welcomed exorcism to help cure her. After 67 attempts—each unsurprisingly unsuccessful—the 23-year-old succumbed to starvation. Two of her priests were convicted of homicide.
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1990: The exorcism of Gina
In 1990, Reverend James LeBar oversaw three exorcisms, all sanctioned by the archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, and the Vatican. One of them, the exorcism of a Florida teenager named Gina, was televised by on the ABC network in 1991. Newsweek described the ceremony, which was accompanied by medieval-style music, as “little more than the gratuitous torment of a deeply disturbed young girl.” Strapped to a chair, she screamed and barked unintelligibly while the reverend pressed a cross into her face and told her supposed demons that if they wanted pain, he’d give it to them—meaning, of course, the helpless Gina. Ultimately, it was antipsychotic drugs that gave Gina relief.
2003: Terrance Cottrell
In 2003, an autistic eight-year-old boy named Terrance Cottrell was killed during a prayer service that was “intended” to drive out the evil spirits supposedly causing his condition. “The official cause of death is mechanical asphyxia due to external chest compression,” CNN reported, “meaning Terrance was suffocated.” The Reverend Ray Hemphill, who had performed the exorcism, reportedly sat on the boy’s chest until he stopped breathing. The reverend was convicted of homicide.
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2005: Maricica Irina Cornici
Romanian nun Maricica Irina Cornici was 23 when she began hearing voices. She thought it was the devil talking to her. Although she was treated for schizophrenia, she relapsed and was then subjected to an exorcism. Bound to a cross, gagged with a towel, and left in a dank convent room for three days without food and water, Cornici died of suffocation and dehydration, according to CBS‘s coverage of the case.
2010: Kristy Bamu
On Christmas Day 2010, a 15-year-old boy, Kristy Bamu, was beaten and drowned in a bathtub in London by his sister and her friend in an attempt to exorcize evil spirits from the boy, according to the BBC. Originally from the Republic of Congo, the pair tortured the boy with knives, sticks, metal bars, a hammer, and a chisel until he “begged to die.” The pair were convicted of the boy’s murder.
2015: The exorcism of Laura
If you thought exorcisms were a thing of the past, guess again: In Argentina, church officials filmed the exorcism of a 22-year-old woman named Laura by Bishop Manuel Acuna. Laura writhes, bangs her head, and screams profanities. Supposedly, the exorcism ends well as the evil spirits leave Laura and the bishop makes the sign of the cross over her. If you want to read first-hand accounts of exorcisms, check out Interview with an Exorcist, a book about Father Jose Antonio Fortea.