March 7th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Meet America's top exorcist, the inspiration for 'The Rite'

Editor's Note: This story comes from a new CNN Special, "Stories Reporter," with Tom Foreman which features an in-depth look at the news of the day.

By Tom Foreman, CNN

The sun was shining on the Santa Cruz Mountains. The freeway from the San Francisco airport to San Jose was still buzzing in my ears when I stepped into the parking lot of an unassuming church and the most famous exorcist in America walked up.

“Hello, I’m Father Gary Thomas.”  At 57 years old, he has an easy smile, an abiding love for the Giants and strong convictions about the nature of evil.

"You believe there is a devil?"  I ask him as we settle in at a small, beautiful chapel near the church.


“You believe that this devil acts upon people?”


He says it with the certainty that I reserve for answers to questions like, “Did you bring your lunch?” but that’s no surprise.  He has faced skeptics many times and never more than now, because his life and training as an exorcist in Rome are the inspiration behind the Hollywood film "The Rite."

Father Gary Thomas at the premier of 'The Rite'

Indeed, at the premiere, as the cameras swirled around the star, Anthony Hopkins, Thomas walked the red carpet alongside him.  This movie, like salvation, is something the priest believes in.

“First of all,” he says, “it was very emotional for me.  I found some of those scenes very riveting.  I found some of them very profound.  They’re very accurate.  That’s what I’ve seen in real life.”

That’s saying something.  "The Rite" is chock-full of heaving, cursing, ranting characters, who, according to the screenplay, are possessed by Satan, people who one moment seem fine and the next are raging against all that is holy.

And yet, Thomas says people who fear that very fate come to him constantly.  “Well, often times they’ll begin the conversation with ‘Father, I need an exorcism.’  And my answer back to them is, ‘I don’t do them on demand.’”

But he does think a lot more of them need to be done.  It is all part of a push by the Vatican to make more exorcists available to the faithful.  Some in the Catholic Church believe the world is facing a rising tide of demonic activity, particularly in America, where millions are moving away from traditional faiths and looking for alternatives.

"A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …"

A vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head and I interrupt.  “But a lot of people would tell you up front, ‘I’m just playing around.’”

“Right.  Absolutely.  And it’s not,” he says, noting that those who feel adrift from the church and from others of faith are more likely to be drawn in.  “Demons are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”

Simply put, Thomas believes just as surely as a person can summon God through prayer, through other rituals, the devil can be called, too.

Father Thomas, left, and Tom Foreman

Thomas says an exorcism usually takes from 45 minutes to two hours and involves reciting prayers, reading scriptures and using sacramental objects such as crucifixes and holy water.  Of course, that’s like saying surgery involves a knife and some sponges.

It is vastly more complicated.  Before the rite is even considered, there must be psychological testing by professionals, extended consultations and questions about drug and alcohol addiction.

Thomas says fully 80% of the people he meets claiming demonic possession have actually suffered some kind of abuse.  An exorcism, he says, is the last step in a long process.

“I have a particular situation now,” he says, “where I think this particular person is suffering from a very unique psychological disorder, but she’s also been exposed to satanic cults, and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

Even when an exorcism is prescribed, it often must be repeated.  Judging from Thomas' comments, it takes something of a trained eye to decide whether it is even working.

Father Thomas and Anthony Hopkins at the premier of 'The Rite.'

The movie, to be frank, complicates this whole discussion.  Not "The Rite."  Thomas says he likes that one, and found Anthony Hopkins a “delightful” man.

But rather the movie from 1973.  "The Exorcist" captured America's imagination about demons taking over a person’s body and profoundly shaped the public's perceptions about the process of throwing those devils out.  It was lurid, violent and unforgettable.

It was also based on a real exorcism in Washington, which was far less dramatic than the film.  Thomas will tell you emphatically there are no spinning heads, spewing pea soup or levitating bodies.

But he has seen manifestations of possession.  "Sometimes the person's head will begin to move in very rigid ways.  Sometimes their eyes will roll.  Sometimes there will be epileptic-like seizures," Thomas said.  "Occasionally people will take on kind of a body language of a serpentine look, and they'll begin to stick their tongue out and use their tongue in ways that would look snake-like, and they'll coil up in a snake-like position."

“And these are things that you have seen in real life?” I ask.

"I have seen that," he said with a wry smile.

I’ve seen it, too.  A few years ago I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to report on a Protestant exorcist who was holding a session in a hotel meeting room.  Several dozen people filed in while, no kidding, "The Devil Inside" by INXS played on a stereo system.

Suffice to say, there were plenty of eye-rolling, seizure-like eruptions in the crowd as people cried out and the exorcist confronted them, pressing his Bible against their heads, and demanding that their demons reveal their names.

We talked to some of the participants before and after, talked to the exorcist, too. For all their heartfelt expressions of belief, I can’t help but ask Thomas the same thing I asked that night: Couldn’t all these folks just be acting?

"I don't think they're acting out in a conscious sense,” he says, “because many times … they don't remember the experience itself.”

What’s more, he says, occasionally the person will do something that defies explanation.  "Sometimes the person will begin to speak in a language in which they have no competency in.”

Meaning, for example, someone who knows no German might start speaking precisely and accurately in that language.  Thomas says he has witnessed that, too.

I stopped by the Pew Center in Washington, where some of the best research on religion is done, to ask about all this.  Allison Pond is a charming young researcher who kindly sat me down before delivering some startling news: A Pew survey found more than one in 10 Americans have witnessed an exorcism, and when you narrow it down to Pentecostals it’s about one in three.

“Forty percent of Americans said they completely believe angels and demons are active in the world,” she told me, “with 28% telling us they mostly believe this."

That is the kind of information that needs more than a priestly explanation, so I roamed over to Georgetown University to talk to Ori Soltes, a theologian.  The problem, he says, is that we can’t know for sure what people mean when they say they’ve seen an exorcism.  Was it a formal ceremony?  A personal revelation?  A changed way of life?

Still, he has no doubt that claims of demonic meddling are high, because, after all, the year 2000 rolled around less than a dozen years ago, and at every millennium fears of the devil’s influence rise.

"My sense is that we are still in the backwash from the millennium,” he says, “but then you know ... events have helped to proliferate that:  9/11,  the war in Iraq.  And now as we approach 2012, suddenly everyone is very interested in the Mayan calendar and how we interpret the idea that the apocalypse is coming in December of 2012 at the time of equinox ... all that sort of stuff.”

So maybe it’s no wonder that Thomas is getting calls for exorcisms from not only Catholics, but also from followers of other faiths.

"How often?" I ask.

"I would say probably one out of 10."

Thomas says there are about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States, and that’s not nearly enough.  He’d like to see one exorcist in every parish.  But until that day, he does not mind explaining over and over what exorcisms are really all about.

“It's a healing ministry.  It's not hocus pocus.  It's not smoke and mirrors.  It's not magic. But I think if we don't respond to people who come in their very troubling moments, I think it diminishes us as a church."

Despite all that Hollywood has done to mythologize exorcisms, he still believes in the power of this rite, a power born not of fear, but of faith.

CNN's Eric Marrapodi and Katie Ross contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Devil • Mass • Movies • Vatican

soundoff (1,247 Responses)
  1. Aquinas

    I really love how the nay sayers seem to know everything. To this day we don't know what's at the bottom of the oceans or how to cure cancer, but yet you know there is no God or Demons? You're egotists and perfect prey.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • barney

      Totally true. But, we still need to pray for them...and anyone who hasn't found the truth in Christ.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • barney

      It's all about the love. Gotta love everyone no matter what. We are lucky to be adopted by God. Very lucky.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  2. Kerry

    When are we going to stop believing in this kind of Medieval witchcraft nonsense and those who practice conducting exorcisms? Clergy in this country should be REQUIRED to contact social services when people come in requesting exorcisms. These people need proper psychiatric attention to diagnose their disorders, not mumbo-jumbo myths spread by the Church. Are we living in the 21st century or not?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  3. Mark

    I hope to see the day when these scam artists are tried and jailed for preying on the weak and ignorant.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  4. jayman419

    Maybe they make strange movements and look at you funny because they don't want you to touch them there, Father. Deal with the very real devils that are running your organization. Then we'll see about expanding the spiritual equivalent of waterboarding to every parish in the world.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  5. moderate1234

    Honestly, I don't think that the Devil is necessary – people do evil things all on their own. Then again, it is still possible that something along the line of demons could exist. If you google "real life demonic possession", or something like that, you should find the case of a woman that seemed to be possessed. This event was observed by a psychiatrist. She was involved in Satanic cults for years, and while on her hospital bed, she levitated, and objects started flying off the walls for no known natural reason.

    Am I a religious fundamentalist? No. Do I recognize the fact that many paranormal phenomena do exist? Yes?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • barney

      The Devil's #1 goal is to create separation between man and God. So that there is no relationship there. I think Satan has done a great job at getting many humans to the point of believing in themselves and looking out for #1. Vanity is the easiest thing to manipulate. I wouldn't want to be a puppet on his strings. Not cool.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • kso

      of which, you've seen how many for yourself? heresay.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  6. Johnny Durham

    The devil loves semantics.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  7. Dwight Stegall

    There is no Devil, Hell, or Demons. You've been watching too many movies. Read Life In the World Unseen by Victor Borgia

    March 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  8. LouAz

    BOO !

    March 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  9. CHHoosiers

    What does that say about Pentecostals if one in three have seen a exorcist? Sounds like a lot of evil in that group.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  10. Marty

    Re: the cost of exorcisms: They are indeed free, but it's always in good taste to pop a $20 or so in the hand of the exorcist. Otherwise, you might get repossessed.

    I'm heartened to know that the Catholic Church has some of the finest minds of the fourteenth century hard at work on this matter.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  11. Tom

    Yes, me too. I'd also appreciate some of that snake handling on my behalf. That's you guys too, right?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  12. Marge

    Demons, lol. These people are sick.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Ken

      You really need to wake up since you believe in nothing.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • barney

      Marge, don't be scared. And, make sure you read and truly give as much effort to learning about Christ and the Bible as you do to being a cynic. I know, we live in America and anything that takes effort isn't worth it. I know. Immediate gratification. I know. Being a cynic is the easiest thing in the world. Is that what you want to be? Or do you want to be a child of God that wants to get to know God?

      March 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • CNR

      As a former Christian, I think its a misnomer to cast skeptics as cynics. Its also unfair to think that skeptics/atheists somehow "believe in nothing" or have no meaning to their lives. I would say the opposite.

      I am saddened by some of these comments.

      "Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone." - Ayn Rand

      March 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • ficheye

      These people ARE sick, Marge. There are so many inconsistencies in the bible it isn't funny. The 'serpent' in the garden of eden was never referred to as being the devil. Yet christians believe that. You would think that they would at least read it. How about Cain and Able? Cain offered his crops to god. God didn't like his offering, but he liked Ables offering of meat. He had to kill something. So, why did God not like agricultural products? It really doesn't make much sense. And this is just the very beginning of the bible.

      So when christians are derisive of those who don't have 'faith' ( interpret as 'Believe in something for which there is no proof, only a 2500 year old parable that has been edited numerous times), you have to realize that these are people looking to actually ignore the world outside of their door in exchange for peace. All of this at the cost of being a fairly clueless individual. Are we in the end times? Probably. And it's being brought to us by overpopulation, courtesy of the compulsive procreators themselves, the delusional, faith based masses. They are afraid of the stars.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  13. abuzayd

    There exists creatures who dwell on earth amongst us but there is a veil between us and them (for the most part) where we can't see them but they can see us. They are called Jinns and they are another creation of God who like humans have free will to choose good/evil. They were made from smokeless fire and humans(Adam and eve) were made from clay like soil. Satan(Iblees) was the first Jinn. God informs us of this reality in the Quran.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Godless


      March 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  14. Daithi mac curtáin

    Whats the difference between being possessed and doing evil like some one like Hitler

    March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  15. CNR

    Funny story....since there is no devil, or god for that matter.

    Know why he doesn't do exorcisms on call? Because he has to prep for the "show" first. He needs to do some checking to be sure that the person he is going to perform on isn't faking or will at least react favorably to his efforts.

    Anyone who is "possessed" is clearly suffering from mental illness and should be treated with modern, scientific methods. Holy water? Really?

    And we wonder why there is sectarian violence around the world? It's because ridiculousness such as this still occurs.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  16. barney

    Just because something scares you and you don't understand it, doesn't mean it isn't real and doesn't exist. It only means you fool yourselves into believing it isn't there so that you are comforted. After all, if it was true, then you might have to deal with yourself. But remember, Christ forgives. Just get to know Him. It's awesome. God Bless.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Pope Higherthanmost

      Dear Barney, Oh what a lost soul you have. To beleive in God and the Devil as much as you might believe in the truth and lies of men in flowing robes, only reveals how weak minded you and folks of faith truly are. If you could only release yourselves from the binds of religious authority and actually think for yourselves, you might start to feel free of this kind of oppression and realize that without God and the Devil, you will truly be OK. In fact, you might start to think for yourself and take charge of your life and have a positive affect on others. To be free from religion is to be free from self-bondage.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  17. Ken

    It is very funny how naive this society is in America. A lot of you on here make your blind assumptions in thinking that Father Gary Thomas is lying about his accounts and the existence of a devil. All I can say for you all is "wake up". I guess some of you all really believe there is no devil because he don't have his own Reality TV Show that you all can watch on the indiot tube. For one, I am not catholic and not very religious person in the sense of a going to church multiple times a week. However, that is not needed for you to plainly see the existence of Satan and his presence in the world. All you have to do is read. And I don't mean read just one version from one religious group, but different religous group for a broader perspective. I have a question for the ones who don't believe in anything they can't see. Do you think when you die, do you think that that is the end of your complete existence? If you think that, then you are a fool. Also, if you really think that, then on your last minute, conscience of this earth, are you really willing to bet your soul that you don't have on your arrogance?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • barney

      Well said, Ken. I'm a Christian not because of church or something that mankind did. It's because of God and what Christ did. Too many stare at man looking to poke holes. Well, they'll be successful 100% of the time because not one of us is without sin. That's where it's easy to bash religion because it is either haughty, or the perception from non-believers is that it is...whether the church is a great, humble place or not. Man created religions. Christ saved us and simply said "follow me". He didn't say "Follow Father Gary Thomas". The good Father would be the first to say that none of this has anything to do with him. It's just the reality of what we can only see if we believe. Christ wants us to believe, and wants us to hate evil and love with all the effort we have.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • CNR

      Bad things happening don't imply the existence of a devil.

      Why are those who think there is no afterlife fools? What evidence is there for an afterlife?

      Here's a good quote: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." – Sagan

      March 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • barney

      ....sorry....and Love God with everything we have. Actually, this is most important, followed by loving each other.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Bob U

      Instead of preaching your idiotic religious dogma, you should learn to write a sentence.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Human1

      Hi Ken,
      I decided to reply to your post, despite being annoyed by a lot of the "athiest/unbelieving" posters on here. I am a Muslim and believe in exorcisms, although I'm sure each faith has their own ways of doing them. I don't particularly value the Catholic faith because it is very secretive (i.e., why WOULDN’T exorcisms be allowed more freely by the Vatican?) and in Islam the belief is that you are praying to One God (not three, God/Jesus/Holy Spirit) and that you do not need someone to pray on your behalf (priest). In this instance, I feel the prayers of a priest or Imam are needed when the need for an exorcism exists, and I hope that although you've noted you are not very religious, that you will continue to follow your beliefs of the existence of God to be able to find true peace in this Life and contentment. I am not as well read in my own religion as I would like to be, but I have found videos by "The Deen Show" on youtube to be very helpful and insightful. Here is an analogy for the athiests: There was once a group of athiests and a Muslim Imam who were to meet to have a religious debate. The Imam was late and the athiests asked how it is that he could be so late, to which the Imam stated that he came upon a bridge that was broken and it delayed him. After some comments from the athiests, the Imam added that the nails and pieces of the bridge just spontaneously came together, so he was able to eventually make it to the meeting. (i.e., he was congering up the notions that athiests have about the spontaneous creation of the universe and humans). Another thing that we should point out that many people may not know is that there are trillion of intricate cells in the human body and each individual cell, each ONE cell functions more efficiently than any city in the world (i.e., NY, London) combined. (See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMlk0th7Enw for a really nice recap of 5 proofs that God exists). I hope athiests will stop ignoring obvious signs and being so self centered. Many times I think many of them or maybe most are possessed because they flat out refuse to acknowledge God.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • CNR

      Complexity does not imply a creator. Truly skeptical atheists are not being self-centered, they are merely looking for actual evidence of a god. To me, this universe, and its scale either implies that there is no god, or that he is trickster that made the universe to appear that he did not create it.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • InFaMoUsLy_AgNoStIc

      re-incarnation and being "devine" was an idea needed (at the time) to control a population on the uprise. Just a machination of a greedy, power hungry church. Remember people, these ideas are coming from a civilization who thought a Thunderstorm was God getting angry..

      March 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  18. WhatwouldJesusDo

    @ILoveJesus Satan has control over a lot of individuals-Just look at how he's trying to attack you spiritually through these individuals. But you are protected for No weapon formed against me shall prosper Isaiah 54:17. WE are warriors for Christ we shall keep these individuals lifted in prayer

    March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • kso

      adults who still believe in satan are not adults.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  19. Bud in NC

    If the devil is so powerful that god can not destroy him, how come a mere mortal "priest" can cast satan out. Wow, priests are more powerful than god. Cookoo!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Chris

      wow dude, you really need to study the Bible...

      March 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • ficheye

      CHRIS: No, I think it's you who needs to actually read the bible. I'll bet you have never done that. You only read the good parts. How many 'sects' of the christian religion are there? An amazing number. Why? because every one of these denominations interpret the bible in their own way. And that means that they are really confused. If all of what you believe is true and it's so unassailable... why isn't there just one church? It's really the ultimate proof that 'religions' are bogus. Spirituality is good. But it has nothing to do with the whole Jesus story. That story is there to convince obsessive compulsive sinners not to be evil. But normal people already know the difference between right and wrong. So quit tailgating me on the freeway, take the cross off of your rear view mirror, rip off the 'christians aren't perfect, they're forgiven' bumper sticker.... and just do the right things on your own.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  20. Unfrozen Caveman

    “Forty percent of Americans said they completely believe angels and demons are active in the world,” she told me, “with 28% telling us they mostly believe this."

    I wonder how these numbers track with other statistics like level of education, poverty, relgious indoctrination, etc..

    March 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.