The den of the Catholic Church's best-known exorcist is an unassuming place, a small third-floor room in a home for aging priests in Rome. I walk down the hospital-like hallway on my way to meet him, and the priest anticipates my knock before it happens. The door swings open, and there he is. The Rev. Gabriele Amorth, 89, peers up with goldfish eyes through his Hubble-telescope glasses. "Enter," says the diminutive priest.
The room is stark, fitted out with a bed and numerous images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Then there are the mementos, which Amorth began collecting after he was appointed as an exorcist in the 1980s. He has conducted thousands of spiritual cleansings since then, keeping a few of the bits and bobs he likes to call "the stuff that gets spewed from mouths." Nails. Keys. Plastic figurines.
His services are not always needed. "Most times there's no actual diabolical presence, and my job lies in suggesting those that come to me to live a life of faith and prayer," he said. "And this is enough to assuage the fears of those afraid of the Devil's ills."
But other times, he said, "there really is a diabolical influence." Twice, Amorth claims, he saw possessed victims levitate. "We try to keep the person in the armchair," he said, adding that demons "do it just to show off."
An hour later, he invites me to witness an exorcism.
His exorcism room is a retrofitted, white-tiled kitchen decorated with more images of Jesus and Mary. Before launching into combat with the Beast, Amorth dons a black cassock and a purple sash and speaks a few words of consolation to the 40-something Neapolitan housewife before him. The woman, who gave her name only as Antonella, seems perfectly normal at first.
Unlike the speedy rituals shown in the movies, real exorcisms often involve years of repeated rites. Antonella, who drove up to Rome from Naples for her latest exorcism, claims to have been possessed by multiple demons for the better part of 17 years.
She blames the affliction on a curse by a devil-worshiping, childless friend who she says envied Antonella's fecundity as a mother of two. Antonella began throwing violent fits after receiving the Eucharist at Mass and going into trances in which she spoke Aramaic and German — languages she said she has never studied. It would typically take three grown men to subdue her.
After four years of exorcisms with Amorth, however, her fits have grown progressively less violent.
After a round of praying, Amorth, aided by three assistants, launches his spiritual attack. He begins chanting in Latin, commanding the presumed devils inside Antonella to reveal themselves. Several minutes pass before Antonella reacts. She begins choking, coughing up phlegm. She moans, and rocks back and forth. As if in pain, she demands that the chanting stop.
Amorth refuses, shouting: "Tell me your name!"
Antonella writhes in her seat, hissing "No! No!" She shakes her head, her eyes rolling to the back of her head. In an altered voice, she says, "I will not!"
"Tell me your name!" Amorth repeats, until finally she spits out a name: Asmodeus, a demon from scriptural lore.
"How many are you!" the priest demands, repeating the question as she grunts and shakes her head violently.
Finally, she responds defiantly: "We are five!"
Amorth begins making the sign of the cross on her forehead, prompting her to recoil. The chanting and blessings go on for several more minutes before Antonella calms down. Soon, she comes around as if from a dream. She opens her eyes and slumps in her chair.
Amorth simply shrugs. "That," he said, "was a light one."