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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Changing Face of Exorcism in Local X-Files

Floating lights.  Levitating furniture.  Police from the Town of Lee responded to reports of refrigerator-flinging, bookcases torn asunder, decapitated religious statues, and a family's terrified accounts of a scratching, growling, black robed being they claimed had terrorized them throughout the summer of 1981.  

If you were intrigued by mention of this 31 year old local haunting story in Adam Poulisse's excellent new feature on exorcisms in the Berkshire Eagle, and are interested in knowing more about this case- which made headlines around the country from the AP to Geraldo- I have made available for the first time online this 2006 feature from the magazine Haunted Times, Horror in the Berkshires. With it, I have also uploaded an accompanying sidebar article from the same issue, which takes a closer look at the fatal casualties of a ritual gone wrong: When Faith Turns Deadly.

Long before the incident in Lee, an old Shaker legend tells us of the possession of Sister Martha Tomlinson, climaxing in an epic Final Battle with the Evil One.  Their community having fallen into sinful ways, an Elder leads a faithful posse up Mt. Sinai, advancing upon the devil, singing hymns and encircling him until he burned out with a shriek and a puff of sulphur.   It is worth noting that since I first wrote on this, I have come across this legend in circulation already by the 19th century not only in Hancock, but the colonies at New Lebanon and Tyringham, each attributed to their own respective holy mount.

Going further back, there's a tale from the Cotton Mather colonial era  regarding Dalton's Wizard's Glen that represents an earlier style of exorcism lore, where a hunter named John Chamberlain is said to have aborted some Native American ritual with the "demonic" Hobbomocko, by holding his Bible in the air and speaking his Lord's name.

Nowadays in the Berkshires, one is more likely to encounter the practice of a softer kind of exorcism, less connotated with satanic evil.  Various modern spiritualist, pagan, new age, shamanic practices on the rise are more apt to speak of "depollution" of "manifestations" that can cause strife, emotional upset and illness.

Savoy's recently departed Witch Vortex was known to perform such activities, from the secluded retreat of his Dragon House.  In downtown Pittsfield, popular psychic medium Vicki Baird also provides this service, though if you need any of her services you'd best not put off getting in touch- at the time of this writing, she is booked up with appointments into January.  Baird, who has appeared at times on the stage of the Colonial Theatre, is said on good authority to have de-polluted that historic site of a certain lingering spirit.

Even in this context, the practice is not without its disturbing anecdotes.  In the spring of last year, a local individual who practices as a professional shaman and healer performed such a ritual on a local child, at the behest of the child's parent.  Less than forty eight hours later, the apartment building where the child and parent lived was destroyed by a massive fire.  The following night, a truck went off the road in what local media referred to as a "bizarre crash," completely destroying a house.  That house, as it happens, was the home of the shaman who performed the rite on said child.

It's a fairly diverse list, and with the exception of the incident in Lee, not much conforming to the standard image people have of exorcism- which is essentially that of Catholic doctrine as adapted by Hollywood.  Ultimately exorcism is a diverse span of practices, which vary considerably in style, method, and terminology between different denominations and belief systems and also over time, from one era to another.

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