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The Game of Exorcism: A Spatial Analysis of Religious Practice

  • Author(s): Chavez, William Samuel
  • Advisor(s): Busto, Rudy V
  • et al.

The academic study of exorcism is theoretically weak and limited because the scholarship is largely disjointed, partitioned into sets of case studies described, analyzed, and theorized according to specific cultures and histories. This thesis is an effort to fill the gaps in the literature, offering a comparative analysis of numerous case studies – organizing the eleven most prominent properties of the phenomena into a concise field manual (Section I), synthesizing the most frequently cited scholars into cohesive cultural and social commentaries (Sections II and III), and advancing the analysis of exorcism into a new theoretical direction with the presentation of five spatial dimensions (Section IV).

Exorcism is a highly ostensible phenomenon (physically recognizable). Across cultures one can identify patterns in the ways that people interact with and speak to each other and with their environment (objects, places, etc.). There are patterns in the individual maneuvers and orations of the participants; patterns in the social dynamics between the principals involved; patterns in the religious discourse that narrate the event or ritual; patterns in the overall structure that governs the “gameplay.” Exorcism is a “game” because it involves numerous “playable characters” (exorcists, recipients of exorcism, human spectators), “non-playable characters” (deities, angels, demons, ghosts, etc.), additional “game mechanics” (props, tools, equipment, intervals of time), and a clear “game objective” to use and occupy space. “Players” take culturally regulated turns to compete for space as a piece of currency, a capital to be gained and used against their human and non-human competitors.

The study of space is vital to the study of exorcism (and religion, more broadly). In a constant competition for territory, spaces are always muddled with traffic. Thus, this thesis examines exorcism’s “field of play,” how the principals involved mark and unmark space as their own; how the various social agents ritually interact with space; how spaces are created, warped, and dominated; how movement and activity within space are regulated; how spaces influence religious individuals and vice versa. In the end, whether exorcism manifests as a spontaneous event or as a prescriptive ritual, there is always a story being told in space (“game narrative”). This spatial analysis of exorcism then contributes to the study of how human beings religiously interact with space (with whatever is in their environment).

Sections II and III are devoted to examining the key “players” of the “game” (human and non-human alike) and their relationships with each other. Section IV serves as an unofficial “rulebook” for the “game” of exorcism (an extension of the field manual presented in Section I). Overall, this thesis argues that space is the best heuristic available to study exorcism phenomena; it provides scholars with a more comprehensive understanding of exorcism’s “game mechanics.”

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