In a small chapel on a hot day in a provincial town–called, appropriately, Santos Lugares (Holy Places)–bonarense exorcist Mañuel Acuña agreed to an interview with a journalist self-professedly of no religious faith. A video of an exorcism he carried out on young woman exploded on international news platforms after it was published in March; he claims, half in jest, that it has become the world’s most famous exorcism.
Certainly, it piqued my interest: this was a man engaging in what is widely regarded as an antiquated practice, willfully subjecting himself to the whims of a largely secular news network that thrives off click-bait and sensationalism.
This meeting was not a question of challenging his beliefs. There is only so far I can comfortably interrogate a devout person’s faith, and only in part is the line drawn out of courtesy; “you need proof”, or “you need faith”- the common respective recourse of the medically and religiously minded–are two arguments that tend to bring discussions to an impasse, and an interrogation based on assumptions inconsistent with his faith wasn’t why I was there.
This was an exploration of the 21st Century exorcism, with all the trappings of media rhetoric and public image that an ancient practice must adopt in an age in which the digital is coming to rival the spiritual as an existential mode. It has been edited for concision.
I was received with a cup of tea in a homely chapel, furnished with old village carpentry, familiar iconographic oil paintings, and less familiar holographic renderings of the Madonna. In line with a twitter-active priest, his image seemed carefully put together: he wore blue velvet, strong cologne, and signet rings, he wielded an embossed crucifix larger than my skull, and entered after a sedate ten minutes trailed by a yapping dog.
We start at the beginning of what could be considered Acuña’s mainstream success. His attitude towards developments in the press and the explosion of social media is refreshingly modern, at least compared to fellow exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth’s monochrome condemnation of The Media as a satanic tool. For Amorth, “the devil works through the media”; for Acuña, the media is welcomed as just another facet of the contemporary world, and its moral status depends on nothing more than how you use it; for him, it’s a boon that extends his preaching platform to a global level. The moral here is the same one responsible parents of every faith are drilling into their kids worldwide: the media, alongside today’s plug-in culture, can be wonderful, so long as you’re smart about how you use it.
THE BUBBLE: What was the motivation behind publicizing the exorcism video?
MAÑUEL ACUÑA: I consider myself a media missionary. They only used to preach from the mountain because there was an echo–if Jesus were around today, he’d use Twitter. Some have accused my work [the viral video, his press interviews] of being sensationalist, others have said I shouldn’t do it. But what one shouldn’t do is, in reality, is ignore the existence of evil.
TB: A lot of the sensationalism has in fact come from the media and mainstream cinema–do you consider it part of your job to clarify to people what it is that they are so fascinated with?
ACUÑA: It’s important not to fear evil. But it’s also important to not let yourself get over-fascinated. Curiosity also opens bad doors. Evil is not an idea–evil is a person, it is an angel. It is real. The best translation is not “deliver us from evil”, but “deliver us from The Evil One”. And in this very expression, you have an exorcism.
TB: Because there’s more to exorcism than the ritual we are all familiar with, right?
ACUÑA: There are ritual exorcisms [like the video], but when I pray to God –deliver us from The Evil One–this is an exorcism. When a priest pardons people’s sins, this is an exorcism. Exorcisms–although not ritual exorcisms–are happening all the time.
TB: And how does the whole process of ritual exorcism pan out, start to finish?
ACUÑA: The church is the last place you go. Imagine the person who starts to feel bad: They feel something strange start to happen to them, they are tortured by recurring nightmares, insomnia, sometimes a voice that says their name or tells them to do something bad, to damage themselves or others, life loses color. So they go to the doctor, and the doctor finds nothing. They go to the psychologist, and the psychologist can’t find anything either.
TB: Really? Because these signs have a lot in common with symptoms of depression…
ACUÑA: This is why our exorcism school, which is the first school in Argentina for exorcism and liberation, works with psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors. The person suspected of possession undergoes an interview, and we acquire a sort of clinical history to present to the medics and psychologists. From there we proceed to the ritual; the ritual might last however long, however many sessions. It all depends on the gravity of the situation.
The person lies down on a mat with the sign of the cross where they can see the Santo Sacramento, and we begin the litanies and invocations to the angels and the blood of Jesus. The person, according to the gravity of their situation, will begin to manifest.
The negative spirits [possessing the subject] live in a darkness deeper than darkness: the density of darkness; the density of nothing, a nothing so dark you might even touch it. I say this because I have been there, in my dreams. An exorcist generally has dreams before an exorcism. The spirit knows you are coming to the exorcism, and it will try to wear you out beforehand. I’ve carried out more than 1,200 exorcisms. I’m 53 years old.
TB: Has the spirit ever beaten you?
ACUÑA: Sometimes you get a dream that wakes you up because it creates tension, and you know then that you’re dealing with a powerful spirit. I like to talk about the spiritual battle: because it’s clear, there’s a spiritual war, and the prize is the soul.
TB: So would you cast yourself as a hero in this battle?
ACUÑA: I’m a protagonist, yes… I like to think of myself as a gladiator, a warrior. My weapons are spiritual, and my team is my army. The spiritual world moves among us, in the air. At the moment of exorcism a great spiritual battle takes place, a great confrontation. Sometimes it involves one demon, or sometimes they say “we are legion”, which means there are 6,000 demons involved. Jesus had an encounter with the same type of demon that manifested itself in the famous [filmed] exorcism. They said, “we are many”. It was one of the strongest I have done. You have to stand up against evil.
TB: Do you ever feel, in order to uphold your authority, that your position demands an element of performance?
ACUÑA: Being an exorcist is not an office. It’s a lifestyle. Exorcists have absolutely been controversial figures throughout history, even within the Christian church. They are considered fanatics who see the devil in everything, but it’s not like this. We don’t just talk a lot about witchcraft and curses and spells- we encounter them, we see them. Maybe [some members of the church] find us disagreeable because we aren’t so ambiguous: good is always good, evil is always evil. Nobody wants to be an exorcist. Nobody wants the job of watching people spit and vomit. An exorcist is a person called on by God to be transformed into His warrior and sent out to battle. I’m part of the church’s infantry.
TB: Exorcism seems to demand a religious conviction in the reality of Satan. Have exorcisms been carried out on atheists?
ACUÑA: Not believing in evil does not save you from its consequences. Once a psychologist knocked on our door, 55 years old, an atheist, and brought me a terrified lady–a forensic surgeon, also an atheist, and completely manifesting possession. We exorcised her right there.
TB: And now?
ACUÑA: She’s completely changed her faith, obviously. Like I say to the media–there is a before and an after when you’ve experienced exorcism. The parents gave us permission to make that [famous] video precisely because they don’t want what happened to their daughter to happen to other people.
TB: So sharing the video is a cautionary, as well as a publicity, project?
ACUÑA: There’s no economic gain to be had. A lot of the time, when this happens to somebody’s child, those who don’t believe in Satan stigmatize the parents. They think the child has been abused or maltreated. So the parents suffer social stigmatization on top of seeing their child tormented.
In this case it would probably be ungenerous to cry parental abuse. But here we run against a sticking point many people reach when discussing exorcism: passing the blame onto a higher force relieves individuals of responsibility, either for their own actions or for unpopular demands they want to make. Maybe it’s an easy out for people in a tough position, either taken willingly, or in bad faith. In 2013 Amorth used the possession of a Mexican man as an opportunity to condemn Mexico City’s 2007 loosening of abortion laws as an “insult to the Virgin”, claiming that the possession was a message from God. The possession was reported to have begun in 1999. Defendants have, on occasion, also tried to plead demonic possession in the court of law–the so-called “The Devil Made Me Do It’” defense. Conversely, the Salem Witch Trials saw people falsely accused as an isolated society freewheeled into religious extremism. Could the devil’s caprine associations be, at the expense of the institutions that adopted them, a joke riffing on the world’s most notorious scapegoat?
Again, however, there is a secular parallel which complicates this anti-exorcism objection: the plea of insanity can be similarly appropriated by opportunistic blame-dodgers, people looking to discredit the testimony of others, or simply people who find it easier to deflect responsibility, as touched upon in Louis Theroux’s recent documentary By Reason of Insanity Again, it seems that contemporary society can’t so easily justify seeing exorcism as backwards or obsolete, without acknowledging that some of the key criticisms can to some degree be leveled at itself too.
TB: So people look to you as a figre that can solve their social, as well as spiritual, problems. The idea of the devil as an entity gives you a concrete enemy, does that make solving people’s spiritual problems easier?
ACUÑA: If someone knows that there is a person who will reclaim their soul for them, it brings hope. it’s a gesture of love.
Acuña himself received his calling from God to the position of exorcist as–in his words– “a sort of birthday present”, when he intuitively carried out a spontaneous exorcism on an elderly lady who started manifesting during mass at church. From that day on, people from the area and beyond began to visit with increasing frequency. It is similar to the rise of demand for exorcisms that has happened ever since Bergoglio assumed the Papacy and started openly talking about the devil; I was suspicious that this might be an effect of psychological suggestion, but Acuña was adamant that it was instead:
ACUÑA: … because people’s guardian angels knew I had been chosen by God, and so they brought the demons here. They were informed. In hell, there’s a poster that says: “Beware of Bishop Mañuel”. There’s religious fundamentalism, and then there’s scientific fundamentalism–the idea that science can cure everything. This isn’t the case. A lot of the time there’s a lack of cooperation between a person’s religious outlook and their health.
TB: A while ago, conditions like epilepsy and Tourette’s were confused with cases of demonic possession. Do you worry that we might continue to discover things, taken today as signs of of possession, that are instead undiscovered psychological or medical infirmities?
ACUÑA: The co-operation between science and faith is enlightening–this cooperation was lacking in the past. In this, we see the need for religious people to be scientifically informed.
TB: There is, for some people, a mutual skepticism holding the two fields apart…
ACUÑA: Faith without science is lame, and science without faith is one-eyed. Uniting the two helps a lot, which is why we work in interdisciplinary teams. Science must be shown that not everything can be cured with pills. Today, for example, psychoneuroimmunology- which is a sort of integrated medical interpretation of health- is demonstrating with certainty that there is a unity between a state of happiness and health. We know, for example, that when a person becomes depressed, their defenses fall. That there’s something internal which demands that science reach out to faith. In the same way, faith needs to reach out to science for mutual support. We have to cleanse everything together. A person is a unity.
So there is, for this strain of believers, a demonstrable cause of sin and suffering, and it has a demonstrable solution: exorcism. It’s a neat process, and it provides a structured path to internal peace. Touting hope as a curative state of mind is something the medical community is becoming increasingly obliged to take seriously; the effect of prayer, a once disdained research topic in the sciences, is now a fertile field of investigation. Harold Koenig et al’s Handbook of Religion and Health, collating the results of nearly 1,200 investigations, concludes that people of faith may not only be less likely to be struck by psychological and medical maladies, but that they also tend to recovery more quickly. Koenig mirrors Acuña’s concerns, advocating that “the doctor should learn what the spiritual needs of the patient are, and get the pastor to come in to give spiritually encouraging reading materials.”
TB: Recent Popes have avoided mentioning the Devil. Pope Francis, comparatively, is all over it. Why do you think this is?
ACUÑA: I worked with [Pope Francis] for ten years in Argentina. I admire him. He believes in the power of oration, and in the devil, and in the temptation of Man. The devil moves comfortably among us today, because the majority don’t even believe he exists. That’s his greatest achievement. Society needs to salvage the presence of the spiritual in the everyday. We have to return to profundity: “he who has thought most deeply, loves what is most alive”.
Satanic concerns haven’t disappeared in the Church. They’re just been sidelined in the recent past–perhaps to avoid casting the Vatican as a pack of medieval fundamentalists in an increasingly secular world–and now they’re making a public comeback. Acuña‘s method, embracing modernity at the risk of exposing the practice to what he acknowledges is a media market that can treat matters of faith cruelly, is one of which he is evidently proud. It’s striking in its combination of exorcism–which he admits to be regarded as a fundamentalist religious practice–with a progressive embrace of modern technology and cooperation with the scientific community.
He is conscious that his interviewers might be antagonistic–quite figuratively, devil’s advocates–and that he needs to adapt his defense to our sound-bite culture. The publication of the video was an interesting gamble: subjecting the practice of exorcism to the sensationally-inclined media that was largely responsible for perverting its image in the first place. But it might be paying off, precisely because the media provides both the curiosity-piquing spin of the grotesque and the mystical that attracts people, and the platform from which he can dispel myth and misrepresentation.
Will it work? Who knows. Want to find out?