(The following first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Paranormality Magazine.)
The word “Exorcism” brings to mind familiar images largely borne out of pop culture and horror movies. Films such as “The Exorcist” and, more recently, “The Conjuring” franchise, inform the popular conception of the ritual. The common depiction of exorcism in movies follow a similar track; a victim of demonic possession, often through dabblings in occult material, becomes taken over by an unseen force which then has to be cast out by a priest. William Peter Blatty, in writing “The Exorcist”, based his story on the real-life account of a boy known as “Roland Doe” in the late 1940s. The popularity of the movie helped to promote a growing idea within ghost hunting and paranormal circles about the prevalence of demons and conversely, the necessity of piety and Christian values. Father Malachi Martin and Ed and Lorraine Warren were instrumental in popularizing these concepts, strains of which can be felt to this day in paranormal television programming. Self-styled “Demonologists”, in the tradition of Ed Warren, can be found taunting spirits on the airwaves to largely agnostic audiences, titillated at the prospect of good conquering evil.
Far from the fun and games of jump-scares in the cinema, or sensationalized demon-hunting in TV programming, this strain of thought has damaging effects that are sadly more human than paranormal. There is always a danger that mental illness can be exploited or built upon by introducing ideas about supernatural influence. Exorcists working within religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, are required to rule this out before proceeding with a ritual. Medical experts should always be consulted and on hand for such events, and sadly, there have been deaths and lasting trauma in cases where these protocols weren’t followed.
Unseen malevolent forces, and methods of banishing them, appear in the traditions of cultures all over the world. It seems that humanity has always needed some manner of defense against these outside forces, although various cultures have had a more nuanced view than the dualistic moralism that characterizes the modern cadre of Devil Hunters. A comprehensive survey of varied cultural, religious, and magical beliefs about demons and what to do with them would be quite the undertaking- even within the modern, Christian-based concept of exorcism, quite a variety of cases that don’t fit the Hollywood mold can be found. Often wacky, but ever-interesting, these expectation-defying examples of modern exorcism probably won’t be hitting the theaters any time soon.
The aforementioned Ed and Lorraine Warren bring us our first out-of-the-ordinary exorcism case; that of a Werewolf. Conventional logic would have us believe that a silver bullet is the only tool that can help defeat such a monster, but in this case it was the intervention of the Warrens’ friend Father Robert McKenna. While visiting the United Kingdom, Ed and Lorraine caught wind of the story of Bill Ramsey, the Southend Werewolf. Ramsey was a blue collar, average man with a wife and kids. He worked several jobs at a time, always concerned about providing for his family. He was well-liked by his coworkers and in his community; that is, at least, until his werewolf tendencies were revealed.
He had twice tried to seek help at an emergency room at the onset of one of his “spells”, and on both occasions he rampaged through nurses, orderlies, and other patients. He was said to have growled and moaned in inhuman ways, his hands curled to simulate claws as he struck out and bit anyone who came too close. After a similar attack on a local police precinct, he was admitted to a mental health facility and kept under observation. His werewolfism was treated as a delusion by the doctors, and a dangerous one at that. Though no physical transformation was reported during these spells, witnesses claimed he possessed superhuman strength and an uncanny animalistic rage.
In meeting the Warrens, he told a tale of being a young boy and feeling a “chill” while out playing in the backyard of his childhood home. It was the first time that he had lost control, and by his account his parents watched in horror as he ferociously ripped a fence post out of the ground and proceeded to bite at the wire, thrashing at the fence like a panicked animal. Ed Warren immediately identified this as the moment “the spirit of a wolf” entered young Bill Ramsey. He also insisted that the only person who could help was just an ocean away at Our Lady of the Rosary Church, in Connecticut.
Father McKenna was sedeprivationist, whose ministry was an offshoot of the main Catholic Church. These traditionalist Catholics disavowed the primacy of the Pope in the wake of changes made in Vatican II. He was altogether willing to help Bill with his werewolf problems, as such traditionalist Catholics tend toward fostering belief in demonic forces as a means of driving people back to church, and to the old ways of doing things. The overseas voyage to his church was sponsored by the British paper The People, in exchange for exclusive rights to the story. The exorcism itself proved to be fairly anticlimactic. The entire affair was videotaped, and the “wolf spirit” did try to resist the efforts of McKenna. Ultimately, Bill was a changed man, and credited this to the ritual. Presumably he’s had no bouts of werewolf rampage since then, at least none that have made the news…
While exorcising a werewolf is novel, it still very much falls in line with the idea of a person possessed by an evil spirit- and, as we all know, possession is 9/10 of the law. But what about larger scale exorcisms, not just of people but of places?
The 1990s had a few such stories in the national news. In 1998, an exorcist named Baron Deacon tried, and reportedly failed, to drive out “the dragons and serpents” from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. While it’s unclear what specific effect Deacon had hoped to achieve during his exorcism on the steps of the Capitol Building, it nonetheless garnered attention in newspapers around the country. Another such public ritual, and a much sillier one, occurred earlier in the decade and was led by Father Guido Sarducci. Sarducci was a character developed by comedian Don Novello, who first appeared in episodes of Saturday Night Live. Boston radio personality Charles Laquiderra invited Sarducci to lead the faithful among the Red Sox fans in an exorcism of Fenway Park, their stadium. The idea behind this was to rid the team of the Curse of the Bambino- a superstition among sports fans that Boston had been magically barred from a World Series win after Babe Ruth had left the team for New York in the 1920s. Sarducci’s exorcism involved the releasing of balloons, sprinkling of water, women in short skirts, and liberally applied “noogies” to “shake out the bad spirits”. While amusing, the aforementioned Curse did not cease until 12 years after the exorcism- so it’s unclear whether Sarducci’s efforts could be credited.
While the exorcism of a branch of the Federal Government or of a baseball franchise may seem like a tall order, there is one man whose exploits in banishing make those attempts seem like child’s play. Enter the Reverend Doctor Donald Omand- the man who Exorcised the Bermuda Triangle.
Donald Omand was the son of a minister, and also claimed to have inherited his “feyness” or second-sight from his mother’s side of the family. He credited his innate psychical abilities, this feyness, for his successes in exorcism. To his mind, no amount of training or knowledge could make an exorcist- one must be born with these attributes, and the faith and knowledge would come later. While these magical beliefs may seem at odds with Christian ideas, Omand would say that these are gifts granted by God, and that employing them in his name would then be necessary.
He studied theology in Germany in the 1930s, while working as a reporter to earn money. This led to him interviewing Hitler multiple times, and also set him on the path of international renown as an exorcist. While in Germany, he was advising on a religious movie being filmed in a studio near another film which featured circus performers. The circus folk saw Omand in his clerical attire and asked him to join their troop as a circus minister. Traveling circuses are perpetual outsiders wherever they go, and many are religious or at least superstitious. The tradition of having a dedicated minister for weddings, baptisms, and other religious ceremonies is not an uncommon one, and it was a role Omand was happy to fulfill. It was in the circus, in southern Germany, when he performed his first exorcism.
The strong man had been acting strangely. Usually a jovial man, and friendly to children, he became foul and vulgar, and would scare kids away when they came near. Later he would describe the change coming over him after encountering an odd, menacing group of people outside of a church- the leader of which, he believed, had cursed him. During a performance of the lion tamer, the strong man got a crazed look in his eyes and grabbed hold of the bars to the cage where the tamer was directing his lions. The big cats in the show were like pets to the tamer, and the lions in this case were particularly affectionate; but now as the strong man grinned at the edge of the ring they became agitated. Suddenly, the strong man passed out and the lions attacked, mauling and killing the lion tamer. It was surmised that whatever foul force had possessed the strong man was now in the beasts.
Omand had to enter the lion’s den in order to exorcise the possessed felines. For a first attempt at exorcism, this was pretty extreme, but he later recounted a serene feeling coming over him and giving him faith that he would be protected in his endeavor. He was apparently successful, and the lions became tame once again.
Omand is perhaps best known in Fortean circles for having performed an exorcism of Loch Ness, as recounted in F. W. Holiday’s posthumous book The Goblin Universe. While the exorcism of lake monsters may seem absurd, it’s worth noting that the earliest recorded mention of a monster near the loch comes from an account of St. Columba driving back a serpent in the River Ness, in 565 A.D. Dr. Omand was careful to note that he was not trying to exorcise the Loch Ness Monster, necessarily, but to remove its “evil influence” over the minds of men. Nessie may have been the ghost of a prehistoric beast, he suggested, and ghosts aren’t necessarily harmful. This way of thinking informed other similar exorcisms he performed at the Arctic Circle and at a fjord in Sweden. His method at Loch Ness involved several ceremonies at points along the shore, which would form a cross when pinned on a map, and finally a ceremony on a small boat in the center of the loch. Nessie has still been seen in the years since this event, but Omand was satisfied that the evil aura of the area had been dispersed.
His most audacious exorcism was yet to come- that of the Bermuda Triangle. The area off the coast of Florida had a notorious reputation for disappearances of all kinds, such as that of Flight 19. Omand theorized that a history of trauma in that area as enslaved people were brought to the New World in centuries past had created a vector of evil influence for that part of the sea. In an unfortunate and problematic turn, he suggested in an interview that perhaps a “witch doctor” had been cast overboard from such a ship, and cursed the sea with his dying breath. His exorcism of the Triangle followed a similar plan to that of Loch Ness, with rituals being performed at key areas on shore and at sea. While it’s unclear whether this worked, it’s worth noting that no one ever seems to talk about ships going missing in the Bermuda Triangle anymore.
These wilder tales of exorcism show that there’s much more to the tradition, even in modern times, than we’re led to believe by Hollywood productions or television shows. It also shows the persistent need in humanity to have ritual, to have authorities to which one can appeal in order to address unknown and terrifying maladies. Whether the ritual is silly, as in the case of Guido Sarducci at Fenway Park, hardly matters- the intent and communal engagement in working toward a goal still has power. It also goes to show that there are myriad motivations for pursuing this work, and for seeking such supernatural assistance. Perhaps for some, the simplified “good versus evil” model brings comfort, while others like Omand have a more nuanced and accepting view of otherworldly forces. Whatever the case, perhaps it's high time we had a lake monster exorcism movie!