It Scares Us To Death — And We Love It

A bird's-eye view as the lights flicker on in the "Exorcism Room" (Video by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross)

Be it thrill rides, theme park haunted houses or bungee jumping, people regularly — and willingly — engage in frightening pursuits. Why are we fascinated with things we should fear, and why at Holy Cross is a dusty storage space home to the campus’ most persistent (and unsubstantiated) legend?

The one inviolable rule of a horror movie? When afraid, run. 

Run from the red-balloon-bearing-razor-toothed clown, the cocaine bear and the Blair Witch. Run from Freddy, Jason, Michael and Chucky. Take a lesson from nature. Does the rabbit stop to question whether the werewolf might want friendship and not dinner? No.

There is only one response: Run. 

Now, there are places not to run: alleys and attics, basements, boarded-up houses, abandoned insane asylums, abandoned anything. But chief among those — a misstep so knuckleheaded it incenses and invites judgements of “too stupid to live” — would be a room with a reputation as a place that hosted exorcisms.

And yet, if you’ve ever waited until dark to ascend the staircase at the corner of Fenwick and O’Kane halls, the steps nicknamed “The Stairs to Nowhere,” the one that ends at a locked door, then your intention is to enter a room rumored to have been used for exorcism.

A staircase leads into darkness
A visitor's view as they climb "The Stairs to Nowhere"

If Catholic and a believer in the Rite of Exorcism, why take the risk? And if not, why go there — literally and figuratively? Is it thrill-seeking? Certainly. Is it about bragging rights? Definitely. But could seeking out the scary experience offer bigger benefits? Could it be that our attraction to haunted house tours, thrill rides or jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet is about more than a heavy-hitting adrenaline rush?

Or does fear propel us for reasons far more complicated and mysterious? What if it eases a painful adolescence? Enables us to think about death? Affirms faith? What if it inspires wonder? Or strengthens our sense of connection and belonging? What if it might even foster a sense of pride? Could it be a conduit for which fear is payment for extraordinary experience?

That would be quite a room.

What fear holds for us is complicated. So why are we attracted to it?

“Middle school is a horror movie for everyone”

In December 2023, director William Friedkin’s horror classic “The Exorcist” turned 50 and, two months earlier, Hollywood released a sequel, “The Exorcist: Believer,” starring Ann Dowd ’78. The movie returns to familiar territory: Two middle-school girls are demonically possessed and the adults in their lives must do battle with the devil for their souls. True to its roots, this new chapter of “The Exorcist” franchise doesn’t end well for all involved. In the aftermath of the exorcism, Dowd’s character, Paula, a nurse who once aspired to be a Catholic nun, lays out the eternal battle: “We’re born in[to] this world with hope and dreams and a desire to be happy. The devil has one wish: to make us lose faith, to kill it in us. And the devil never gives up.”

One version of Holy Cross’ “Exorcism Room” legend — there are several variations, as is typical of the oral tradition — follows a similar trajectory: Two Jesuits take a young woman possessed by a demon into a room above the fourth floor of O’Kane Hall for the purpose of performing an exorcism. One priest is thrown through a window and falls to his death. The other priest and the young woman are never seen again.

Accurately dating an urban legend is near impossible, notes Scott Malia, associate professor of theatre, but he theorizes that “the story has to be 50 years old or less because before that we weren’t a coeducational institution.”

A man seated in a movie theater
Scott Malia, associate professor of theatre.

“Possession stories tap into this idea of what we call ‘agency panic,’” he says. “One of the many things that horror does is put people in situations where the ordered way of being and living that they think they have is thrown out the window.”

Perhaps, similar to the sudden presence of women in a previously all-male environment, as was the case for Holy Cross starting in 1972?

There’s a name for the linking of unrelated things like co-education to ritual exorcism, folklore and Hollywood movies — it’s called apophenia — but before calling that ridiculous, consider the possibility of connection, says Malia, who teaches “The Exorcist” in his course Horror Films, Sex and Gender.

“It might be that this story started circulating as a response, as in, ‘You’ve let a woman into our midst’ and women are this sort of uncontrollable force — especially adolescent women,” he says. “‘The Exorcist’ is about a girl going through puberty and she becomes a different person. And her mother can’t control her. Metaphorically, there’s so much about possession that is about our fear of women, their sexuality and, certainly with young women, there is a desire to control them.”

Put another way, desire prompts fear, which prompts the desire to control. It’s a common, if not ubiquitous, theme in the realm of horror, whose overarching premise is that only through confrontation is order restored. And it’s an idea kids respond well to for its promise of growth and transformation, Malia says.

He started watching horror movies and reading Stephen King when he was an adolescent. Such stories can be a balm to the child who feels rejected, he says: “Why do we put ourselves through experiences like these? The stories are often about the freaks, the outcast kids, the kids who aren’t popular, who aren’t necessarily doing well and how they kind of band together. That shows up in a lot of horror stories. Middle school is a horror movie for everyone. At that awkward age in life where you don’t want to stand out, where you’re not really sure who or what you are and everything is so awkward and painful, such stories speak to you. There’s a lot of really interesting ways in which horror, including ‘The Exorcist,’ deals with adolescence.”

Part of coming of age is “facing the darkness, whatever that may be,” he says. “Even if it’s some made-up, supernatural thing. Part of your entry into adulthood is realizing not everything is rosy and sunny.”

“How many New Yorker cartoons have you seen that have the Grim Reaper at the door saying, ‘Sorry, wrong address!’”

Religious Studies Professor Emerita Joanne Pierce was a first-year student at Georgetown University when Friedkin filmed “The Exorcist” on campus in November and December of 1972. Pierce is an expert in rituals. During her 30-year tenure at Holy Cross, she taught courses on the history of Christianity, sacramental theology, symbol and ritual, ritual studies, concepts of death and the afterlife, and the honors seminar Purity and Filth, among others.

Pierce on the filming of "The Exorcist" at Georgetown in 1972.
Audio file

A point to keep in mind about the particular panic caused by “The Exorcist” and stories like it (“The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Omen” were all released between 1967 and 1976) was that the idea of demonic possession, despite appearing in other faith traditions, was rather novel to a non-Catholic public.

A man and a power in business attire lean on a wooden stairwell
Religious studies colleagues Joanne Pierce, professor emerita, and Mathew Schmalz, professor.

“Every country in Europe has its own stories about demons, the dead, leprechauns, trolls or the changeling — those outside forces that are either clearly evil or mischievous — that’s part of our fascination with wanting to understand and control death,” Pierce says. “How many New Yorker cartoons have you seen that have the Grim Reaper at the door saying, ‘Sorry, wrong address!’ that kind of thing? But it’s also based on Christianity’s ancient and medieval belief in a very explicitly defined heaven and hell, and, then later, purgatory and limbo: this whole focus on the afterlife and the world of intelligences that are not corporeal.”

And these beliefs persist. Pope Francis has repeatedly referenced the devil’s influence in the world and, on one occasion, his actions caused a frenzy of speculation that he may have performed an exorcism. In 2013, multiple media outlets released footage of the pope laying his hands on and praying over a wheelchair-bound man who’d attended Mass in St. Peter’s Square. In the video, the man gapes, gasps several times and then slumps in his wheelchair. TV2000, the Italian bishops’ conference television station, reported at the time that the pope had performed an exorcism, according to the May 21, 2013, New York Times article “Exorcist Says Pope Helped Liberate Man.” The Vatican released a statement saying Pope Francis “didn’t intend to perform any exorcism . . . he simply intended to pray for someone who was suffering,” according to USA Today. The Church continues to train exorcists, something it has done since Jesus charged his apostles with the ability (Luke 9:1, Matthew 10:1, Mark 3:15). Jesus also performed numerous exorcisms throughout the New Testament.

Pierce, like the Jesuits consulted in the writing of this article, is quick to note that exorcism is employed by the Church only in extreme cases after a petitioner has been examined by medical doctors and psychological and physiological diseases have been ruled out. The rite may only be performed by a trained priest appointed by the local bishop. The priest, through a process of prayer and discernment, may determine that the person’s affliction is demonic in origin. Proof of possession may manifest as abilities beyond what the afflicted ordinarily possesses, such as great strength or intelligence or the ability to speak a foreign or archaic language. Some claiming to be possessed report perpetual pain and suffering, though symptoms aren’t as dramatic as those displayed in the queasiest moments of “The Exorcist.”

Hear Pierce explain why humans are attracted to fear.
Audio file

What is behind this fascination with the devil and danger, whether it be that of a person seeking exorcism or a legend-tripper breaking into the room where it allegedly happened? A healthy fear of the unknown has its value, as any anthropologist, philosopher or insurance agent will tell you. So, does that mean an interest in exorcism is unhealthy?

Maybe, maybe not, the experts say.

“I think it’s a symptom of a deeper kind of discomfort in the wider culture,” Pierce says. “I think we’re frustrated with things we don’t think we can control and exorcism is a way of controlling evil, let’s say, or darkness. When I think about ‘unhealthy,’ I think about discontent, and not just the need for control, but also, in this contemporary period, an increasing dissatisfaction with science and technology and — we saw this during COVID — a real suspicion about medicine and medical techniques.”

Mathew Schmalz, Pierce’s friend and fellow professor of religious studies, also disagrees with the characterization of an interest in exorcism as “unhealthy”: “I think it represents one way in which we, as human beings, try to make sense of evil, try to control or confront it. And, also, it’s one way of recognizing that the boundary between this world and the next is porous. And I think Catholics, and people in the wider society, find that idea compelling, you know, that our reality is not the only reality that exists — and that realities interpenetrate each other.”

Schmalz speaks from particularly pertinent personal experience. He’s attended an exorcism.

“The boundary between the natural and the supernatural, at least in traditional Catholicism, is not that stark”

In the mid-1990s, Schmalz was a Ph.D. student researching charismatic Catholicism in North India. Some charismatic Catholic lay healers claim prodigious powers, such as the gift of prophecy and the ability to exorcize the diabolically possessed. One thought Schmalz had such abilities. “One of my chief informants, a Catholic charismatic healer, wanted to persuade me that I had the gift of healing and prophecy,” he says.

The healer decided to test his theory without letting Schmalz know first. The pair were in a Catholic ashram, a place where people sought Catholic charismatic counseling from men and women healers. The healers would discern whether the person was possessed. If so, the afflicted would be taken to an exorcism room, a room that had been blessed, in which the demon would be confronted and expelled by the healer. “It was just an ordinary room with a picture of Jesus and two chairs, but there was this sense that there was a kind of spiritual force field around it that would enable a confrontation."

Typically, two charismatic healers would sprinkle holy water over the supplicant and prayers would be said upon entering the room. Then the ritual would begin. One day, while Schmalz was filming the healer, the healer turned and said, “OK. You can finish,” then left the room.

“And the woman was barking like a dog, rolling around and using profanity, and I was, like, What do I do here? I felt kind of constrained,” he recalls. “So, I did lay hands on her and she stopped barking and rolling around, and thanked me and left the room.”

Schmalz smiles. He doesn’t think he healed the woman nor does he believe she was possessed. His experience is not unique to those who do ethnography, the study of cultural phenomena from the position of the subject, the person or persons, studied. As a Catholic and a believer in the Rite of Exorcism, Schmalz believes only a trained priest is capable of driving out demons. The Catholic Church doesn’t sanction Catholic charismatic exorcism by lay healers.

“But one thing I thought was very compelling was the idea of looking at the world in terms of the world being alive with all these spiritual forces,” Schmalz says. “One thing about Catholicism that sometimes gets lost in the modern era is that the boundary between the natural and the supernatural, at least in traditional Catholicism, is not that stark.”

In a 2018 interview with “Exorcist” director Friedkin for the documentary “The Devil and Father Amorth,” William Peter Blatty, author of the novel “The Exorcist,” said he originally wanted to write a nonfiction book about exorcism based on a 1949 case involving a 14-year-old boy. The novelist was introduced to the Rite of Exorcism in a theology course taught by a Jesuit that Blatty took while an undergraduate at Georgetown. Blatty later read about the 1949 case in The Washington Post and contacted the priest who performed the exorcism. 

“And I was very excited about it,” Blatty told Friedkin. “And I thought, Wouldn’t it be absolutely marvelous if one could write a nonfiction account of this, provided it was authentically something paranormal and inexplicable? What a tremendous reaffirmation of faith that would be.”

“It was a really nice room, high ceilings and the best bathroom on campus”

An author who’d written extensively on the devil once warned Friedkin against delving too much into demonic possession. Many raised Catholic will recognize the warning as a caution against “letting the devil in.” It may come as a surprise (and a relief) to some to know that every baptized Roman Catholic has been the subject of an exorcism, as the sacrament of baptism contains a short prayer of exorcism.

Pierce on the link between the Sacrament of Baptism and exorcism.
Audio file
An old brick building sporting two wings
Carlin Hall, which opened in 1922.

But what if campus folklore says you’re rooming with a demon and you’re not Catholic? How would that play out?

Such was the situation Maia Lee-Chin ’21, raised Presbyterian, found herself in when she moved into a third-floor room in Carlin Hall. 

“I moved in in August of 2018 and I heard that the girl who’d lived in the room before me had said that she was seeing things moving at night and things were falling off surfaces and there were bumps in the night,” recalls Lee-Chin, who in 2020 was named a Fenwick Scholar, the College’s highest undergraduate academic honor. “And I’m not particularly religious, but I’m not one to mess with demons.”

Lee-Chin says she also heard that the room had been “cleansed” and, so, moved in.

“Then a couple of months into living in that room, I decided to rearrange the furniture — just to make it feel more like home — and there was this crawl space area I hadn’t noticed before. It was boarded up and painted over. In my imagination, I was like, That’s where the demon lives, and it became this kind of tale within my friend group that the Carlin demon lived there, post-exorcism. And my friends were very into supernatural stuff. They would go and play with Ouija boards and things like that and I did not. I did not want to mess things up, invite bad things into my life. I took it pretty seriously. Like, I was not letting that demon out.”

Why not just move?

Not a chance, Lee-Chin says: “It was a really nice room, high ceilings and the best bathroom on campus, I’m convinced. I wasn’t going to purposely provoke the demon, but we could cohabitate, you know?”

“We may not have a lot of control around the circumstances that are creating a sense of fear, but I think we do have a lot of choice around the story we tell ourselves about it”

The tower containing the alleged “Exorcism Room” has no spire, just a flat roof. An artist’s rendering of Fenwick and O’Kane halls, framed and hanging in College Archives and Distinctive Collections, indicates it was intended to sport an impressive domed roof. There’s a certain irony in knowing the space was intended to be an observatory, a place to contemplate the heavens. “Thy Honored Name: A History of The College of the Holy Cross 1843-1994,” Holy Cross’ official history written by the late Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, S.J., makes no mention of an exorcism room. Aside from a 2006 cover story in Holy Cross Magazine, “Myths and Legends: Tall Tales from Mount St. James,” and occasional mention in the school newspaper over the years, no other official College documentation of exorcism exists on campus.

A black and white etching of a brick building
A pre-1854 artist’s rendering of Fenwick and O’Kane halls indicates the “Stairs to Nowhere” were intended to lead to an observatory that never materialized.
A brick building at dusk
The locked "Exorcism Room," located at the top of 129-year-old O'Kane Hall, lit up at dusk.

It is well-known, though, that Fr. Kuzniewski mentioned the room on campus tours and in his classes. His relationship to the room then reflects the College’s position now — one of genial amusement. Evidence: The “Exorcism Room” gets top billing in “Legends, Myths and Tall Tales of Holy Cross: Halloween Edition,” a 2020 video produced by the Office of Alumni Relations. When the class of 2020, who lost a traditional commencement due to COVID, was invited back to campus for a celebration in 2022, one of the entertainment offerings by the Office of Advancement was a tour of the room and an invitation to sign its walls. And during a Holy Cross trivia game played at the Holy Cross Alumni Association’s board of directors fall 2022 meeting, the final question: “What was the function of the room on the fifth floor of O’Kane?” drew an enthusiastic response.

“Exorcism!” board members cheered.

Approaching fear with curiosity or openness is something the English department’s Leah Hager Cohen tries to do in her teaching and writing. Cohen, an author of several novels and the James N. and Sarah L. O’Reilly Barrett Professor in Creative Writing, characterizes herself as someone “captivated by storytelling” who pays particular attention to subjects that have an initial negative effect on her. “One thing I talk about often with my students is resistance,” she says. “Whenever I have resistance to a project or a subject, I try to think of it as a present for me to unwrap, to investigate. I’ve learned that moving into the resistance is often the beginning of discovering something."

Woman sitting in chair holds an open book
Leah Hager Cohen, James N. and Sarah L. O’Reilly Barrett Professor in Creative Writing.

She sees two basic responses to fear: “One is to turn away from it and put yellow tape around it, cordon it off, to separate ourselves from the source. And it seems to me that, often, that intensifies the fear. The other response is to be curious about it. Obviously, fear is a part of all our lives. We may not have a lot of control around the circumstances that are creating a sense of fear, but I think we do have a lot of choice around the story we tell ourselves about it.”

And what benefit might we derive from mining our fears? Fellowship.

“Whether we’re approaching the unknown, that which can never be known, through Scripture and the formalized rituals of religion, or through ghost stories, or through some other method — there are so many different ways we can approach the unknown — we can get closer, but we will never arrive at some kind of perfect, absolute understanding,” Cohen says. “So writing, storytelling, is, in some ways, an effort to close the gap. Stories put us in relationship, help us draw nearer, both to one another and to the ineffable.”

“The question of transcendence . . . the kind of ecstatic oneness that people have been reporting for thousands of years . . . poses related questions”

Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society Mark P. Freeman has published extensively on the self and narrative psychology. His other areas of expertise include the history and philosophy of psychology and the psychology of art and creativity. The supernatural interests him as a psychologist. In fact, Freeman taught a yearlong course for first-year students, much of which explored the relationship between the natural and the supernatural: “We tried to look at a whole range of phenomena in the second semester, from life after death to telepathy, all that sort of stuff, not so much to convince people of anything, but to hold open those questions.”

To illustrate, he offers a personal story from his book “Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward.” It was 1997 and he was in Berlin for the first time, speaking at a conference. On a bus ride through the city, Freeman, raised in the Jewish faith, writes of experiencing a kind of dissolving of boundaries between himself and all he saw.

“Everything that had been a fascinating or disturbing spectacle, an object to be beheld, taken in — as when one takes in the sights of any city — had become a kind of living, breathing presence,” Freeman wrote. “When I initially tried to explain this to someone, I said that I had never had such an intense experience of history as I had had then, during those moments. As for my response to this sudden transformation from spectacle to presence, it was something like a deep grief, a mixture of sorrow and horror, rolled into one. I was either weeping or on the verge of it for a good amount of time afterward. It was very strange and very powerful.”

And disturbing. Twenty-six years later, the experience still offers much to ponder.

A man sits back in an office chair
Mark P. Freeman, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society.

“The question, of course, I had to ask was: What is this? So, at the level of sheer, felt experience, I felt, in a way, that the place was haunted,” he says. “That is, that there was death in the air. I even compared it at the time to the haunted house where the family living in it experiences weird things happening and they look it up in the paper or on microfilm, and they discover that a child was brutally murdered there 200 years ago, something like that. So, I did flirt with that briefly, but, of course, as a modern thinker, I didn’t stay with that.

“And I’m still not inclined to stay with that. So then I had to ask, ‘OK, what is it?’” he continues. “My own interpretation, which I still consider to be really tentative, is that, unbeknownst to me, I had brought so much with me to Berlin in terms of the books I had read and the movies I had seen and that somehow all of that was activated by the spectacle before me. I sort of blamed it, so to speak, more on what I brought to the situation than what was actually there in the world.”

Such experiences resist easy classification,  but this needn’t be troubling. For scholars like Freeman, this kind of haunting can lead to fruitful lines of inquiry. For everyday folks, there is comfort to be taken in knowing that such extraordinary experiences happen with surprising regularity when viewed from a historical, rather than personal, vantage point. And as is often the case for the intrepid adolescent misfits in a Stephen King movie, fear confronted can end in faith rewarded.

“If you ask me now, is it conceivable that there exists vestiges, traces, lingering energies of dastardly acts from the past that somehow remain, my answer would be, ’Maybe,’” Freeman says and laughs. “I wouldn’t want to rule it out. The question of transcendence poses related questions. And by transcendence I’m referring to the kind of ecstatic oneness that people have been reporting for thousands of years and appear to reveal a different level of reality altogether.”

What’s in a name?

So, we return to the “Stairs to Nowhere” and the “Exorcism Room.” Say you get in. What will you find? Breathtaking views of Worcester — and enough dust to provoke an asthma attack. A couple of marching band hats. Purple plastic Adirondack chairs and tinsel garlands. Christmas ornaments with cards embossed with “Fr. Brooks.” Wegmans bags and empty Pampers boxes. A purple plastic skull.

You’ll find life-size cutouts of people, which, if turned wrong side out, would make excellent silhouettes of apparitions. Also, locked cabinets, scratched floors, peeling gray paint, a strange square hole in the ceiling and a scratch across one wall that could possibly have been made by the massive claw of a demon. Or a garden rake.

Names scrawled on a wall of peeling paint
Intrepid visitors to the "Exorcism Room" have left their mark of bravery over the years.

What the room is or isn’t isn’t really important. Metaphorically speaking, the room is capacious, a liminal space big enough to admit the believers and the skeptics, the scholars and the neophytes, the thrill seekers and the scaredy cats. Like monuments and cemeteries, the room has its use and utility. Inarguably, it sets the mind on a speculative journey. And if fear might lead to transcendence, then perhaps this room performs a similar function. Maybe it’s not the “Exorcism Room” that haunts us, but rather we who haunt it, for reasons obvious and mysterious.

We need horror to fully appreciate its inverse, Malia says: “I don’t think you can appreciate the lightness, the beauty, the magnificence of life or the world around you, even in a spiritual sense, if that’s part of your tradition, if you don’t acknowledge the darkness. You can’t pretend that it’s not there. And, actually, what happens in a lot of these stories is, you try to pretend it’s not there, and it just comes and knocks on your door anyway.”