Exorcism in America: As Practice and Spectacle
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Exorcism in America: As Practice and Spectacle

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For the scholar of American religion, exorcism remains sociologically intriguing because of its dynamism. This dissertation provides insight into how the practice of exorcism in different institutional and vernacular contexts shapes its ongoing popularity and how America’s postmodern culture enables new manifestations and mutations to emerge. I examine exorcism phenomena (as both practice and spectacle) through a discursive analysis, studying the use of exorcism discourse within various “communities of practice” – that is, within communities and situations where learning, even if institutionalized, remains “informal, fragmented, serendipitous, and situated in a set of social relationships and shared activities.” As such, this dissertation analyzes the exorcism discourse of established religious institutions, vernacular religious practice, the popular entertainment industry, and academia. Any study of contemporary Western exorcism should consider its relationship with popular media. News programs and media sites traffic “fringe” religious phrases and sensationalized images in order to generate public interest, excitement, or scorn. Contemporary practitioners and experts are interviewed in pursuit of “real life” representation and/or authenticity – providing the religious subject a platform to promote their practice or ideas. The entertainment industry franchises various segments of America’s popular religious imagination, producing dark supernatural content related to possession and exorcism phenomena and its adjacent areas of social conspiracy (e.g., Satanic cults). Academic scholarship is also marketed in ways that attract popular consumer segments as a result of exorcism’s association with mystery and controversy; the topic’s lack of rigid interpretation. The popular media consumption and reproduction of exorcism and Satanism is significant for a number of reasons. Popular media outlets reify “modern” self-conceptions of Western society and culture, rendering “premodern” content (e.g., ancient monstrosities, pagan cults, religious fervor) into mediatized entertainment and sensationalism. Popular cinema, especially, can act as a theological promotion of modern piety in a secular age, at once reifying the deviance associated with non-Christian iconography and the premodern powers that religious institutions still wield. Such popular Christian media also reifies Evangelical Protestant conceptions of “fringe” religious practice within trends of “Cathsploitation” (that is, doxa related to big institutions, bureaucratic structures, religious conspiracies, scary iconography, body rituals, clerical clothing, and the like). This dissertation also demonstrates that mediatization provides means to resist tenets of Western hegemony. This occurs through reactionary socio-political practices that challenge public Christian supremacy and through artistic reimaginings of exorcism discourse such that social frustration and political disenchantment are expressed. My thesis is, thus, twofold. First, the popular mediatization of possession and exorcism, observed in public practice, social media, popular news media, religious commercialism, and the entertainment industry, reflects a broader socio-religious American dynamic whereby “fringe” and marginalized content is exotified and sensationalized into a media spectacle, one that exploits the cultural attitudes toward and anxieties surrounding various oppressed, repressed, and/or liminal public identities. Second, due to recurrent demands for dark supernatural content within various sectors of American society, phenomena like possession, brainwashing, exorcism, and ritual abuse act as culturally available idioms for the creative expression of social subjugation; robust allegories wherein alterities are identified and confronted and suffering imbued with meaning. As a result, social misfortunes are attributed to the deliberate, often secretly planned, actions of malicious groups (human and supernatural). Various marginalized communities thereby appropriate this popular religious discourse in order to convey the American horror experience of a life spent on the margins of society. Thus, as a mediatized phenomenon, exorcism presents its consumers and creators with a methodology for revealing both society’s ruptures and insecurities – all that our civilization represses and oppresses.

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This item is under embargo until September 10, 2027.