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Father Gary Thomas, exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose (CA) — whose 2005 training in the rite of exorcism in Rome led to Matt Baglio’s 2010 book, “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” and the 2011 movie, “The Rite,” starring Anthony Hopkins — likes to quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “As faith diminishes, superstition increases.”
So when we’re looking for cultural factors that have fostered increasing interest in, and practice of, Satanism and other occult activities, we have to begin with the decline in Christian belief in the West.
Fr. Jeffrey Grob, exorcist for the Archdiocese of Chicago, described this to me in a recent telephone interview as a “disenchantment with organized religion.” Americans are impatient people and “even Catholics,” he explained, “may go to healers or botanicas” or dabble in Santeria, “seeking alternatives to God for an instant fix.”
Msgr. Patrick Brankin, exorcist for the Diocese of Tulsa, agrees that the decline in Christian faith and concomitant rise in secularism is fostering demonic activity: “‘in the last few years, we’re seeing more demonic activity,’ he said, a trend he attributes to an increasingly secular society that has turned to Ouija boards, witchcraft, astrology, fortune telling and other occult practices that ‘open the door to the demonic.’”
All three exorcists believe that there has been a marked rise in the number of people who are dabbling in the occult — whether Satanism, paganism, idolatry or something else — compared to 25-30 years ago.
In “The Occult Roars Back: Its Modern Resurgence,” Richard Kyle, Professor of History and Religious Studies at Tabor College in Kansas, quotes several academic experts who have written about the causes of the sharp increase in interest in the occult. Jeffrey Russell, for example, noted that, historically, “interest in the occult has grown significantly in periods of rapid social breakdown, when establishments cease to provide readily acceptable answers and people turn elsewhere for assurance.”
But, Kyle adds, there is also a uniquely American foundation for the rise of interest in the occult, one proposed by Catherine Albanese, who —
Albanese also notes that “the urban and corporate organization of society” broke down all sense of community life. In its place, “astrology gave people a sense of identity” and “assisted them in establishing secure relationships with others. [Remember the bar pick-up line popularized in the media: “What’s your sign?”] Self-help literature helped people take steps toward improved prosperity, health, and happiness in their daily situations. ‘Psychics offered physical healing and spiritual advice’ on how to deal with everyday problems.”
Ted Baehr, PhD, founder and publisher of “Movieguide” and author of nearly a dozen books, spoke at the World Congress of Families II on “Protecting Children from Harm from the Media.” He quotes Yale scholar Harold Bloom, who analyzed “the emergence of post-Christian America in his book ‘The American Religion,’ and [who] says that the god we worship is ourselves. He says the real religion of America is Gnosticism, an elitist heresy that combines mystical Greek and oriental philosophies and claims that a person needed special knowledge to get to the highest heaven.”
Baehr’s talk includes cogent definitions of the beliefs that are currently vying with Christianity for followers in the United States and much of the rest of the world: secular humanism, pantheism, materialism, nihilism, romanticism, existentialism, nominalism, idealism, New Age and occultism.
Occult comes from the Latin occultus, meaning hidden or concealed. Richard Kyle provides a simple modern definition of the occult: “One, the occult is mysterious, beyond the range of ordinary knowledge. Two, it is secret and disclosed or communicated only to the initiated. Three, the occult pertains to magic, astrology, and other alleged sciences claiming use or knowledge of the secret, mysterious or supernatural.”
How widespread is belief in the occult among Americans? A 2005 Gallup poll found that three in four Americans believe in the Occult.
Having established that our culture has provided a fertile ground for the growth in Satanism and occult practice, let’s look at what we’ve been sowing in that receptive soil. Ted Baehr brings up the obvious fact that many children are not being raised “in the fear and admonition of the Lord, or on ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ or ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ but ‘Natural Born Killers,’ ‘Halloween’ and ‘Scream.’” An overstatement? Hardly. Consider television fare of recent years — the “Vampire Diaries,” “True Blood,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Charmed” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” to name just a few. Or blockbuster movies like “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Craft,” which pale in comparison to the “Twilight Saga” movies with a worldwide gross of $3.3 billion and the Harry Potter films which grossed $7.7 billion.
We can also point to occult fantasy role-playing video games, such as “Dungeons & Dragons” (1974) and its many progeny featuring swords and sorcery.
One psychologist reported that 60% of teens with chemical dependency identify Death Metal Music as their favorite genre of music. Lyrics typically glorify Satanism and the occult, anarchy, violence, abuse of women and children, murder, drugs, suicide, incest, rape and necrophilia. Richard Ramirez, the infamous serial killer known as Night Stalker, was obsessed with the heavy (or “death”) metal band AC/DC. Adult Satanists are known to “recruit” new coven members at concerts and videogaming conventions.
Dr. Baehr points out that most children who are exposed to Satanism and the occult through the entertainment media don’t rush out to join the local coven. But most become desensitized to the evils depicted and a significant minority become frightened and paranoid. He adds that “there may be long-term consequences of watching anti-social material” and “regrettably, 7 to 11 percent of the adults and up to 31 percent of the teenagers say they want to copy what they see.”
There is still another way that our culture fosters demonic oppression. As Fr. Thomas explains, people attacked by demons often have soul wounds from having suffered physical or sexual abuse in their childhood and this changes their perception of life, of themselves, and their ability to relate to others. “Demons,” he points out, “are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”
Demons can possess or oppress a person only by entering through his senses; there must be an opening or portal that makes the victim vulnerable. Common openings, according to Fr. Thomas, include Internet pornography addiction and the use of cocaine, methamphetamine or other drugs that cause hallucinations. In addition, he has been told that members of many Mexican cartels are Satanists and they curse the drugs before smuggling them into the U.S.
“The Kingdom of the Occult,” by Walter Martin et al., profiles the teen boys who are drawn into Satanism and occult practices as wounded, angry, hedonistic and nihilistic drug users, loners and underachievers. If they’ve felt “powerless, victimized and isolated,” Satanism can give them a sense of control, of status and belonging.
Adults are most often attracted to satanic cults by their elitism, secrecy, hedonism, pornography, prostitution and the desire to acquire magical powers.
Fr. Thomas stresses that we should not fear demonic attack. Your son or grandson who plays fantasy RPG games and your daughter or granddaughter who has a crush on a character from “Twilight Saga” are not going to wake up one morning with eyes rolled back into their heads, speaking fluent Aramaic. But he does recommend four ordinary means to protect ourselves from demonic attack — a moral life, a prayer life, a faith life and a sacramental life — which we’d all do well to observe.
Susan E. Willsis spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English-language edition.