Upon hearing this past week that the Catholic Church in Milan, Italy has set up an exorcist hotline to deal with an influx of calls, I was reminded of my childhood in the South Bronx. Growing up deep in the South Bronx with other Puerto Ricans, in a heavily catholic neighborhood, superstitions and fear of the devil ran deep. Most odd neighborhood occurrences were readily explained by either finding a bible verse, a dream encyclopedia entry, or tapping into a collective superstition at-large. I cannot but help believe that an exorcist hotline would do well in my old neighborhood. Specifically, the hotline would be very busy! The Catholic Church in Milan set up the exorcist hotline because they were dealing with up to 120 calls a day. That is definitely a high volume of calls related to exorcism but the South Bronx, I would venture to bet, would have that number beat. Handily!
I am a child of the ‘80s. I am consequently extremely familiar with the Linda Blair head-turning role in the movie The Exorcism. That movie must have been seen at least 20 times by each resident of my old neighborhood. It spoke volumes to them (besides the fact that Latinos love horror films). When I first moved to the South Bronx, there was an incident that illustrates the neighborhood’s widespread belief in exorcisms. Let me recount that story.
A young girl had been hanging out with her family all day laughing and playing. No incidents, no fever, no indication of what was about to come. At around 8pm that night, she started to get ready for bed. She put her pajamas on and went to sit on her bed combing her hair. Now, I don’t know if she looked in the mirror while doing this. If she did, then that might explain what happened next; for there is the belief that looking at a mirror at night invites a demon into the room (or so I was brought up to believe and thus I still avoid mirrors at night). According to the family there was just a five minute lag between when she left the living room to go to her room and when all hell broke loose. As the mother and father went about getting themselves ready for bed, they heard their daughter chanting, saying some strange words over and over again that they didn’t understand. They went to look in on her and then she started screaming about how hot the room was and how they had to get out of there. She screamed loudly about how scared she was and couldn’t be calmed down. She then started to run about the house still screaming about how “it was here”. Of course, now I think of the movie Poltergeist and wonder if they had seen that movie. The father tried to hold her down but she had an incredible amount of energy and strength. This is what scared the family the most: her inordinate amount of strength. She escaped their grips and went running into the building’s hallway. We all, including myself, stepped out as well when we heard the bone-chilling screams. It took three big men to hold her down. I was very confused by this situation and asked my own family what was going on and whether we should call the cops. Sadly, I already knew how to do that very well by then and was prepared to do so. No one called the cops. No ambulance came. Eventually everyone went back into their apartments. I was told a week later that the girl had suffered some form of possession. She was being sent to Sunday school thereafter so that she could get confirmed. Her form of possession was whispered about the neighborhood and I was told it was “delirium tremens”. I believed that explanation at the time. What did I know?
Apparently, suffering from delirium tremens (the DTs) was a common occurrence in that old neighborhood of mine. The DT instances were ascribed, by the community, to the devil taking a hold of the person. Now, as I went to school and majored in psychology and watched popular cultural depictions of delirium tremens, I came to realize that it wasn’t so much the devil but alcohol that was heavily impacting my old neighborhood. In one of my favorite (yet very depressing) movies, Leaving Las Vegas, the main character, Ben Sanderson (played by Nicolas Cage), suffers from delirium tremens after a drinking binge, and rushes to his liquor supply to prevent them from continuing. That scene was such a stark reminder of what we saw as part of everyday life in the old neighborhood. Delirium tremens is mainly caused after a long period of drinking, being stopped abruptly and experiencing withdrawal. It may also be triggered by head injury, infection, or illness in people with a history of heavy use of alcohol. Delirium tremens also commonly affects those with a history of alcoholism that has existed for more than 10 years. Interestingly, the main symptoms of delirium tremens are confusion, nightmares, disorientation and agitation and other physical indicators that the body is fighting something off, such as fever or tachycardia. These symptoms may appear suddenly but usually appear a few days after alcohol cessation. Also, this can start abruptly at night. Other common symptoms include intense hallucinations such as visions of insects, snakes, or rats. I note this all to say, wow-sounds symptom-wise that the girl did suffer from the DTs. That poor girl had supposedly experienced intense heat (I suppose fever) and extreme agitation and hallucinations. My question is could she really be experiencing the DTs at that age?
But can I just tell you this is all typical of living in the South Bronx? People are always seeing rats because rats truly do exist in quite plentiful form in those streets. But since the DTs had become synonymous with being possessed and in need of an exorcism, I am not too sure she got the actual care that she needed (perhaps the intervention of a social worker). But considering that most triaged exorcism-cases end up being referred for psychological counseling, this somewhat makes sense. Let me add one other spooky anecdote about that young girl. The family soon moved from that apartment and months later said apartment was engulfed in flames. Coincidence? Had a supernatural being warned her about the pending fire? Or perhaps it was just the typical result of a slumlord not heating the building and everyone having to use candles to keep warm. Of course, most, including my mom believed there was some otherwordly force at play.
The threat of making someone go through an exorcism was often invoked to keep teenagers in check in the neighborhood. The Catholic Church admits as much as well. Let me give you another example from my old neighborhood. A long time ago, when a young woman was getting ready to get married (she was maybe 19 years old), rumors were started by the vicious mean girls of the block that this young woman was a not a virgin. The horror! (of course the girls that spread this rumor were not virgins themselves). This rumor set off a frenzy of activity on the part of the family. They had the young women go get counseling from the local priest. The family tried to pressure her into telling the truth by threatening an exorcism to rid her of the evil spirits that were keeping her from being a good girl. As she continued to swear that she was a virgin, the family still did not take her at her word and sent her off to be examined by the family doctor who confirmed that her hymen was indeed intact. A letter announcing that her hymen was still intact was written and circulated throughout the block. Had she turned out to have had a broken hymen, I am 100% sure that the family would have called for an exorcism believing that the young lady had to be possessed. The young woman got married and never returned to the block. We were all convinced that she must have gone to the local botanica of wherever she had moved to and set the evil eye upon the neighborhood. After her neighborhood departure and within a short period of time thereafter, a young girl was hit by a car while she played, a young boy got killed in a motorcycle accident and the girlfriend of one of the local alcoholics was decapitated and stuffed into a garbage can. I am not joking about any of this. Now, one could say these are all phenomena that can be easily explained by the ecological environment (poverty, drugs, crowded streets where kids play in the street instead of a park). But a majority of the people believed there was something otherworldly that was taking vengeance upon the neighborhood. So, exorcisms –the threat of – have always been part of the community consciousness of certain neighborhoods.
I’m reminded of Grosse Point Blank where the main character explains to his future father-in-law that he has been a hitman for the last decade and the in-law impressively notes that as a growing job field. Seems the same can now be said of Exorcists. The City of Milan has established an exorcism switchboard that will be available from Monday to Friday from 2.30pm to 5pm. Furthermore, the church has doubled to 12 the number of priests dealing with demonic possession cases. I wouldn’t be psychologistmimi if I didn’t note that the Fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) is about to be fully released May 2013. Perhaps a joint task force and hotline can be set up between the Catholic Church and the American Psychiatric Association. Wait a second is that what Torchwood is supposed to be about anyway -that does truly exists in an underground bunker somewhere, right? One final question does come to mind: What happens when the Devil comes knocking outside of the hours of Monday to Friday between 2.30 and 5 pm?