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‘The Exorcist’ — an unlikely parable of alternative medicine?

What do you do when all legitimate medical treatments have been exhausted?

The Exorcist is a film about faith and the nature of evil. The intent is to show proof of transcendence and the triumph of good over evil. While these intended themes are obvious, the realism of the production tells another story.

The movie can also be seen as a case study of how people can be lead to alternative medical treatments. It shows how frustration with the processes of modern medicine and the inability to accept its findings can make someone seek relief elsewhere — a cure administered by a holy man, rather than a doctor.

The fiction

Actress Chris McNeil and her pre-teen daughter Regan live in Georgetown, D.C., while Chris is shooting a movie. They appear quite content and happy, until Regan’s bed shakes, she urinates on the floor, and then spits in the face of her doctor while calling him a “f*cking bastard.”

Afterward, Dr. Klein provides his diagnosis of Regan’s condition, “It’s a symptom, of a type of disturbance in the chemical-electrical activity of the brain … in the temporal lobe.” He explains this is the cause of bizarre hallucinations that are preceded by convulsions. “Mrs. McNeil, the problem with your daughter is not her bed,” Klein says, “it’s her brain.” When questioned about Regan’s change in personality, the doctor tells her that a lesion in the temporal lobe can lead to destructive, even criminal behavior.

The doctor starts the process of gathering data to support the diagnosis, wheeling Regan into a surgical theater in which she is told to lie still while a huge needle is injected into her neck. This is all to prepare for the x-rays that are taken by heavy equipment, a strangely violent procedure that, a neurologist confirms, identifies no abnormalities, falsifying the initial diagnosis.

While the doctors are viewing the results, an urgent call is received from Ms. McNeill. They arrive to find Regan thrashing violently on her bed and making vulgar statements and gestures. The two doctors hold Regan down and a sedative is administered. Ms. McNeil is taken out of the room crying and screaming.

Ms. McNeill asks, “How could she fly off the bed like that?” and the neurologist explains that pathological states can induce abnormal strength. When told that they still consider Regan’s condition to be a temporal lobe disturbance, Ms. McNeill understandably loses her temper and screams that Regan is “acting like she’s out of her mind! Psychotic, like a … split personality.”

The neurologist notes the rarity of confirmed cases of “so-called” split personality disorder. “I know the temptation is to leap to psychiatry,” he says, “but any reasonable psychiatrist would exhaust the somatic possibilities first”. The doctors then agree to more painful and traumatizing tests to “pin down that lesion” and “at least eliminate certain other possibilities.” When the new test results come back negative, the doctor advises that now it’s time to look for a psychiatrist.

The initial inclusion of a psychiatrist in Regan’s care is short-lived and does not go well. The psychiatrist attempts to address the person “inside of” Regan, and while in a hypnotic state, Regan starts to growl and attacks him. The psychiatrist leaves Ms. McNeil and the doctor bereft of answers and nursing a bruised crotch.

Regan is moved to a clinic for observation. When not screaming and trying her restraints, she’s staring blankly and moving her lips without speaking. In a conference room on the clinic’s campus, Ms. McNeil confers with 11 different doctors who tell her what they seem to be observing is “somnambular-form possession,” and that “it starts with a conflict or guilt and leads to the delusion that the patient’s body had been invaded by an alien intelligence.” The doctors’ suggestion of referral to a mental hospital is vehemently refused by Ms McNeil.

With all medical options exhausted and Ms. McNeil’s refusal to submit to long-term psychiatric care, the lead doctor makes a last ditch suggestion, asking if she’s ever heard of exorcism. He explains that he sees it as a “shock treatment” and “a very outside chance” for a cure. The doctor explains that the stylized ritual of the exorcism has worked, “although not for the reasons they think, of course. It’s purely force of suggestion.” Ms McNeil is a bit flabbergasted at the suggestion and takes her daughter home.

Regan is home a very short time before she has the most violent and horrific episode to date, and Ms. McNeil is then ready to take the doctors’ suggestion and seek an exorcism. Father Karras, a priest who happens to be psychiatric counselor for the diocese, is skeptical, but agrees to help her out of compassion. He receives approval to assist in the exorcism and is paired with the more experienced and faithful Father Merrin. The two priests eventually free Regan of the demon, but lose their lives in the process.

The reality

It’s important that the process of attempting to diagnose and treat a mysterious condition is shown to be long and grueling. It can be that way for rare or complicated conditions. The toll for treatment can be physically and emotionally exhausting. A good example of this is radiation and chemotherapy for cancer. The truth about modern, science-based medicine is that it is not always quick, easy, and painless. The doctors in The Exorcist did their best to investigate Regan’s condition and to counsel Ms. McNeil.

Taking the long way to the truth is exhausting. The endurance of this journey can understandably lead to a leap of faith. In the world created by the movie, demonic possession turns out to be a real thing. In our world, it isn’t. Going straight to an exorcist would have saved Ms. McNeil time, expense, and heartache, but it is not a real-world solution.

In the real world, an exorcism would be an alternative treatment. Alternative treatments ignore science-based medicine in favor of treatments based on spirituality or religion, naturalism, pre-scientific understandings of biology, vitalism, or other methods that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Alternative treatments do not show evidence of actual efficacy.

While it’s easy (especially for skeptics) to judge harshly those who discard modern medicine in favor of alternative treatments, that’s not helpful for anyone.  We need to have empathy for the exhausted parent or patient who goes for the alternative treatment. One can imagine how difficult it is to suffer, or to see a loved one suffer, while enduring long, traumatizing testing and treatment.  Derision should be saved for the charlatans who take advantage of the vulnerable and unhealthy, not the victims.

The hypnotist probably didn’t help.

Alternative practitioners are too willing to pounce on folks who are worried and exhausted by the slow process of science-based medicine. When alternative therapies are chosen, they can interrupt or delay valid treatments, which can lead to deeper manifestations of the medical issue, or even death. Many times the return to science-based medicine is too late. If Ms. McNeil and Regan lived in the real world, an exorcism could have done real harm. It’s probable Regan’s physical and mental state would have deteriorated proportionately to the time kept away from legitimate treatment.

Alternative treatments provide false hope. They don’t help to cure or treat serious medical conditions. They may provide temporary relief for psychological issues, but not addressing the root of the issue can contribute to more lasting damage. While modern medicine isn’t perfect, it does something the alternative treatments don’t do. Medicine changes and adapts to new information.

May the power of Science compel you to better physical and mental health.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

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