HEAD-SPINNING and green vomit are the symptoms most associated with demonic possession in films.
But could these horror movie scenes be inspired by the actual beliefs of the Church?
Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe is playing the real-life chief exorcist appointed by the Vatican in his latest film, The Pope’s Exorcist.
Father Gabriele Amorth claimed to have witnessed evil every bit as terrifying as 1973 film The Exorcist.
The priest, who died in 2016 aged 91, having performed tens of thousands of exorcisms, claimed that possessed people had spat out bits of a radio, wire and toy dolls.
He reported that four strong men were thrown aside by a ten-year- old victim, an 11-year-old lifted a heavy table and he saw people float in the air.
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It is such incredible tales of Amorth’s duels with the devil that persuaded the Gladiator actor to play him.
Russell, 58, said: “Gabriele Amorth had a purity of faith that gave him a level of courage and bravery to do the job.
“It’s a very dark pursuit. You’re dealing a lot with people who are suffering deeply.”
The question of whether Lucifer stalks the Earth or is a metaphor for humankind’s darker side remains contentious within Christian circles.
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But Protestant and Catholic clergy do have rites which are supposed to expel evil spirits from human bodies.
Father Amorth claimed that Pope John Paul II, the head of the Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005, carried out exorcisms.
His successor Pope Benedict XVI, who died last year, also supported Amorth’s work and there were rumours that Pope Francis had laid hands on a possessed man.
Russell said: “There is actually a real job called the Chief Exorcist in the Vatican.
‘Strength of the devil’
“The thing that got me interested is the fact that it is a real job and this particular man had not only done it for so long, but documented the things that he’d experienced.”
The Vatican has annual courses where priests can learn these ancient rites, and the Association of International Exorcists that was co-founded by Father Amorth is as busy as ever.
Most of the cases referred to the association turn out to be the result of mental health issues. But Father Amorth felt that two per cent could not be explained by psychiatrists.
Russell said: “He believed that very few cases were actually demonic possessions. But this meant that when he did come across something that was inexplicable, he was able to recognise it.”
Father Amorth was attracted to the Church from a young age, but he was advised to make sure he was committed to a life of celibacy and devotion before studying to become a priest.
Russell said: “The response was, ‘Look, you’re 17. You need to live a little bit more of life before you should follow your calling’.”
Father Amorth experienced the evil of men when World War II broke out in 1939. Initially called up to Italy’s fascist army, he left to join the resistance against the Nazis.
After the war he studied law and joined the centrist Christian Democratic Party, but in 1951 he decided his true calling was God’s work. “Having those experiences makes it better for you when you are a priest trying to advise people in the community,” says Russell.
In 1986 Father Amorth was asked to assist the Vatican’s chief exorcist and six years later he was promoted to the top post.
Over the course of three decades, he claimed to have seen some head-turning behaviour.
Father Amorth said: “I have seen many strange things. I have seen levitations, and a force that needed six or eight men to hold the person still.
“Such things are rare but they happen.”
His defence against the devil was a crucifix, book of prayers, holy water, consecrated oil and a purple scarf that he wrapped gently around the neck of the person under the influence of supernatural forces.
It was not work the elderly priest could do alone. He had at least six helpers. Father Amorth remembered: “During one exorcism I saw a child of 11 held down by four strong men.
“The child threw the men aside with ease. I was there when a boy of ten lifted a huge, heavy table.
“He could not have done it on his own. He had the strength of the devil inside him.”
The priests have to restrain people to prevent them injuring themselves as they thrash about.
His assistants lifted the eyelids of the possessed, which had turned white, so they were open during his prayers.
Father Amorth said: “I have seen many strange things. The devil told a woman that he would make her spit out a transistor radio, and lo and behold she started spitting out bits and pieces of a radio.”
The spirits squatting in someone’s soul vary in strength and number.
Father Amorth claimed: “The demons will want to hide. Our task is to expose them and then expel them.
“There can be anywhere from two to 30 demons.”
The process can last for minutes or hours and often it is said to require several exorcisms in order to purge the invader for good.
Many priests did not like The Exorcist due to its Hollywood depiction of possession but Father Amorth was a fan. So much so that he invited the film’s director William Friedkin to watch his work.
In 2017, the year after Father Amorth died, Friedkin released a documentary titled The Devil And Father Amorth.
In it a woman writhes and snarls as the priest calmly says prayers over her. Friedkin said: “It was terrifying. I went from being afraid of what could happen to feeling a great deal of empathy with this woman’s pain and suffering.”
The Association of International Exorcists, which is now headed by Father Francesco Bamonte, is worried about Russell’s new film.
Having seen the trailer, they issued a statement saying: “As has already happened in other films, everything is exaggerated, with striking physical and verbal manifestations typical of horror films.”
But Father Amorth granted the rights to his books to the producers of the new film prior to his death.
And according to Russell, the Vatican did not appear to oppose the movie. He said: “I have to say that the Church was very open.
“We were given some extreme privileges by those in charge at the Vatican.” How much a Pope has either believed in or been involved with exorcisms is open to debate.
In 2000 it was reported that Pope John Paul II had helped Father Amorth attempt to cast evil spirits out of a hysterical 19-year-old woman in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
John Paul’s successor Pope Benedict supported the work of the exorcists.
Father Amorth claimed that when Benedict drove by in his white Popemobile, his mere presence ended the possession of two men.
Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church, has encouraged priests to refer people with “genuine spiritual disturbances” to exorcists.
But the activity is not without controversy. In 2021 three-year-old Arely Naomi Proctor died during an alleged attempt by an evangelical church in San Jose, California, to cleanse her of evil spirits.
And in London, the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in 2000 was linked to ritual-based child abuse.
In 2012 the UK Government issued a national action plan to tackle “belief in witchcraft, spirit possession and other forms of the supernatural” that can lead to child abuse.
There are many explanations for the unpredictable behaviour displayed by people who are “possessed”.
It is possible they are suffering from mental illness or an epileptic fit.
Many though, question whether everything they see can be rationally explained.
While making The Pope’s Exorcist, Russell admits: “I’m incredibly superstitious.
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“There were a lot of unusual things happening around us, but you keep your balance and see them as coincidence, otherwise you’re going to drive yourself a little bit insane.”
- The Pope’s Exorcist (15) opens in cinemas on Friday, April 7.