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A recurrent pattern I've noticed across multiple live recordings of exorcisms from multiple independent sources is the fact that the individuals being exorcised at some point begin to gag, sometimes very dramatically. Here are a few illustrative examples of this phenomenon: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O (timestamps are included). What I find interesting is that these people are not vomiting food, they are just dry heaving, spitting out saliva at most, and this usually happens when the exorcist is commanding the alleged "entities" to leave the person, "lift a curse" or something similar. In fact, there appears to be a whole trend of "online" exorcists uploading videos of remote deliverances via Skype, Zoom and other platforms, and it's very common to see people manifest and start retching and coughing at some point in the videos.

Here is a similar anecdote posted by U.S.Catholic on May 16, 2011:

After a decades-long absence, interest in demonic possession—and the ritual to defeat it—is on the rise. For more than a decade, Frank, a software consultant who lives near Silicon Valley, California has been haunted by depression and rage. Searching for remedies to lift his dark mood, Frank, 52, tried pills, therapy, even channeling spirits. Nothing worked.

Three years ago, his wife handed him a book about demonic possession. Written by a former priest active in charismatic Catholic circles, the book presented scriptural arguments for the existence of demons and offered advice to questions such as, “How do we know if an evil spirit is really present?” and “How do I pray for deliverance?” Desperate for relief, Frank decided, while jogging one night, to pray for deliverance.

“If I had known what was going to happen, I would have picked a more private place,” Frank says.

After reciting the recommended prayer, he doubled over, dry heaving, by the side of the road. His lungs felt like they were leaping out of his chest.

Question: Is this just a recent phenomenon? Can we find evidence of retching, gagging, coughing, dry heaving and vomiting during exorcisms throughout history?

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  • Is not dry-heaving similar to the act of vomiting, minus the vomit? Some call the act of vomiting, the slang expression of performing an exorcism (slang usage). Perhaps, the victim had no more ammunition in his or her stomach to bring forth.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 11 at 1:58
  • @KenGraham - Yes, it could be. I don't know. Btw, I found an interesting thread discussing this exact same topic in a random forum from the internet. Jan 11 at 2:25
  • We can learn from scriptures such as Matthew 7:21-23 that even people who do not worship God can still expel demons. The reason for this is, in my opinion, that the demons in those cases leave the person on their own accord, so as to lend credence to the preacher. In that sort of cases the more extravagant/dramatic the situation is (with the person vomiting and so on) the more memorable the exorcism will be to onlookers. Which then again is what the demons are after, in order to mislead as many as possible (Matthew 24:11)
    – coderworks
    Jul 5 at 16:41
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+50

I basically agree with Ken Graham's answer. However, based on some research by Kristen Herdman, it seems like the idea of vomiting during exorcisms is certainly pre-modern.

Research by Herdman

In a MA Thesis by Kristen Herdman (Herdman, 2016), Gregory of Tours (†594) is quoted a couple of times, giving instances of vomiting during exoricisms:

In chapter eight of the Vita patrum, Gregory describes such an event in the life of Nicetius of Lyon:

Very recently three women coming from the land of Berry, tormented by demons, were on their way to the basilica of St. Martin, and they entered this church. Immediately they clapped their hands together and cried out that they were tortured by the power of St. Nicetius. They threw up out of their mouths I know not what foul substance, mingled with blood, and they were immediately freed from the spirits that had possessed them.

A similar event is described in Gregory’s account of the life of Nicetius of the Trevari:

God also gave [Nicetius] the grace of healing. As he was walking one day around the church of St. Maximin the bishop, in the fore court of which three possessed men rested, overcome by sleep after many convulsions. Seeing them fast asleep, he made over them the sign of the cross, and immediately they woke up, uttering great cries, and suddenly vomiting, they were delivered.

All emphasis mine. Herdman cites these examples on p. 32 from James, 1991. pp. 62 and 107-108 respectively.

She goes on to write:

The examples provided by Gregory have parallels in medieval visual art. In many images of exorcism, a demon is depicted as emerging from the mouth of the afflicted individual, drawn out by the power of the exorcist. In regard to this imagery, Nancy Caciola writes,

The central element in accounts of demonic possession is the sense that the afflicted individual has incorporated a foreign being within herself... their exit point is the victim’s mouth, a detail that suggests the need for a specific bodily opening. … Seldom were unclean sprits envisaged as numinous forms wafting out the victim. Rather, they crawled out from an orifice: usually though not universally, the mouth.

A case can be made that vomiting (rather than other forms of manifestation) has a theological significance, so the actual historical occurrence of vomiting cannot be demonstrated beyond doubt merely by the report of Gregory (since the report may be theologically motivated), accordingly, Herdman states

The biological functions of the mouth make it a clear threshold between the interior and exterior of the physical body. It is transformed into a passage by breathing, eating, and even vomiting—the mouth allows matter to be taken in and to be expelled. The latter of these functions becomes a classic hallmark of possession throughout the Middle Ages and has even persisted into contemporary horror films. In the late Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period, a possessed person may be observed to vomit foreign matter, such as a great quantity of pins or paper.

For this, she cites Levak, 2013, who writes:

A recurrent element in many narratives of possession was the vomiting or extrusion of alien objects. Pins and needles were the most common materials, but the list of ejected substances includes nails, glass, blood, pottery, feathers, coal, stones, coins, cinders, sand, dung, meat, cloth, thread, and hair.

Herdman has plenty more to say, and I encourage you to give the referenced section of her Thesis a read. However, I wish to particularly emphasize the main theological theme associated with these vomitings:

When the former demoniacs vomit, the audience is assured that what was torturing the afflicted from the inside has been forced out.

vomiting is depicted as a physical purging closely associated with the expelling of the demon from the body.

Scripture

A possible (albeit partial) basis for oral expulsion of demons during exorcism is Revelation 16:13:

And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. (ESV)

Speculation about Dry-Heaving

Up to this point the discussion has centered on vomiting. However, what about dry-heaving? There are a number of points to consider.

  1. Firstly, dry-heaving obviously accompanies vomiting. But which of the two is more notable and worth mentioning in passing? In a sense, the dry-heaving is simply part of the process of vomiting. It could be argued that a mention of vomiting therefore implicitly includes dry-heaving as well.
  2. This is especially the case for foreign objects, which are not as easy to vomit up as simple bile, and may require additional dry-heaving beforehand.
  3. Given the theological motivation to emphasize the expulsion of the demon: and thereby symbolically the expulsion of material (be it of human or foreign origin), it is not particularly surprising that dry-heaving was not recorded (even when assuming vomiting was an occurrence during historical exorcisms).
  4. On the other hand, modern exorcisms are not "independent" of historical exorcisms, in the sense that beliefs and expectations about what will occur during an exorcism are going to be shaped by the cultural depictions of historical (and fictional) exorcisms. So it could be argued that many of these dry-heaving episodes which are not accompanied by actual vomiting are more self-induced (perhaps unconsciously).
  5. Proper vomiting is not really possible without having food in the stomach, especially when dehydrated. So dry-heaving would be the alternative.
  6. If the exorcist is explicitly requesting vomiting, then dry-heaving and gagging is the way it appears when someone is attempting to comply with that request.

I cannot offer a definitive answer on the question of dry-heaving, but all things considered it does seem somewhat suspicious when such a thing is not accompanied by actual vomiting proper in these modern cases. My perspective is that there may be a psychological factor at play (see point 4).


References

Caciola, N. (2003) Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. p. 41.

Herdman, K. (2016). Effugatis Daemonibus: Possession and the Body in Gregory of Tours' Vita patrum. pp. 31-37. Electronic Thesis downloaded from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_olink/r/1501/10?clear=10&p10_accession_num=case1459539746

James, E. (1991) Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. Liverpool University Press.

Levack, B. P. (2013) The Devil Within: Possession & Exorcism in the Christian West. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 9.

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  • Great answer. +1 for detailed response. You’re answer is superior than mine!
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 11 at 21:41
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What is the historical evidence of people gagging and vomiting while being exorcised?

I truly do not believe that what you are asking about is a recent phenomenon. I equally believe that you will not find any external evidence of a historical nature on this subject.

This is not something that is typically written about.

If fact, Catholic exorcists are required not to name the victims of demonic possession. So Catholic exorcists generally would only talk about such things in the third person. People has the right to privacy and how would such information be compare to their reputation as good standing Christians.

I am not a fan of believing exorcisms published on YouTube, as in reality exorcisms are not for the faint hearted!

The De Exorcizandis Obsessis a Daemoni of the Rituale Romanum of Pope Pius XI requires exorcists to vomit any cursed object that is within the victim of demonic possession.

He shall, moreover, command the devil to tell whether he is detained in that body by necromancy, by evil signs or amulets; and if the one possessed has taken the latter by mouth, he should be made to vomit if he has them concealed on his person, he should expose them; When discovered they must be burned. - De Exorcizandis Obsessis a Daemoni

When The Evil takes possession of someone and they seek the aid an exorcist, the proof of possession must be fully ascertained before he can be given permission from the bishop to perform the exorcism. There are many things that must come into play here: doctors in various fields of medicine, etc...to aid the exorcist. Vomiting is just one of the many signs of possession and at times in great volume.

According to the Vatican guidelines issued in 1999, “the person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness.” Most reported cases do not require an exorcism because twentieth-century Catholic officials regard genuine demonic possession as an extremely rare phenomenon that is easily confounded with natural mental disturbances. Many times a person just needs spiritual or medical help, especially if drugs or other addictions are present. After the need of the person has been determined then the appropriate help will be met. In the circumstance of spiritual help, prayers may be offered, or the laying on of hands or a counseling session may be prescribed. The exorcist might not perform an exorcism if he doesn't know the person.

Signs

Signs of demonic invasion vary depending on the type of demon and its purpose, including:

1.Loss or lack of appetite

2.Cutting, scratching, and biting of skin

3.A cold feeling in the room

4.Unnatural bodily postures and change in the person's face and body

5.The possessed losing control of their normal personality and entering into a frenzy or rage, and/or attacking others

6.Change in the person's voice

7.Supernatural physical strength not subject to the person's build or age

8.Speaking or understanding another language which they had never learned before

9.Knowledge of things that are distant or hidden

10.Prediction of future events (sometimes through dreams)

11.Levitation and moving of objects/things

12.Expelling of objects/things

13.Intense hatred and violent reaction toward all religious objects or items

14.Antipathy towards entering a church, speaking Jesus' name or hearing scripture.

It is not hard to imagine that the Devil tries his upmost to remain hidden, but once he has been discovered through an exorcism he will try his hardest not to be expelled. If he has to spit, vomit or worse at the exorcist he will. I had a priest exorcist tell me more than once: "You can not imagine how many times I have been spit in the face!"

Exorcists are required to be very prudent when asking questions about how a person became possessed:

15 But necessary questions, are for example; about the number and name of the spirits inhabiting the patient, about the time when they entered into him, the cause thereof, and the like. - De Exorcizandis Obsessis a Daemoni

Fr. Gabiele Amorth in his book An Exorcist Tells His Story (Pages 137 -139) has this to add to questioning the Demon, vomit and liberation:

Norm number 20 of the Ritual suggests asking the Demon the cause of his presence, particularly whether it is due to something the individual ate or drank. If this is the case, the exorcist must command the person to vomit. If instead the curse is due to some foreign object, the exorcist must ask to be shown where the object is hidden, find it and burn it. - De Exorcizandis Obsessis a Daemoni

So if the case is do to something the victim of possession has eaten the exorcist must demand the demon to puke it up so he can destroy it by fire!

scene from the movie: The Exorcist

Scene from the movie: The Exorcist.

As I mentioned above this whole subject matter is not something that is typically written about. For example, historical records, if they exist at all, on dry-heaving is quite similar to the act of vomiting in that physical muscles used are the same. Just because a person has dry-heaves does not mean he is going through the actions comparable to vomiting. Perhaps the victim has to ammunition in his stomach to expell. This leads me to recall that some call the act of vomiting, an exorcism (in slang usage).

Having first hand knowledge of what goes on in the real McCoy exorcisms with Catholic exorcists, I can assure you that the only person an exorcist is obliged to explain things that transpired during an exorcism is his bishop and no one else. No wonder that there is a lack of documentation on the physical happenings that occur during exorcisms. For this reason, I seriously doubt published stories of exorcism on YouTube. Besides that, those who aid an exorcist are not to speak about the happenings except in generalities. Besides the victim of an exorcism has the right to privacy in this matter. Others have no right to know the ins and outs of a particular exorcism, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Of all the phenomena that the OP has mentioned, I can assure you that those ones listed are only the tip of the iceberg. To start understanding the in and outs of this subject matter one has to have read the lives of those who dwelt on the front lines for many years as exorcists and not simply wanting to have a bunch of historical facts to digest.

One exorcist friend has told me that he can not even come close to counting how many times he has been spit on by a possessed person. Another one has had the victim of an exorcism walk on the ceiling, in order to rattle everyone’s nerves. As for things flying though the air, I am not even going to go there.

Anyone one aiding an exorcism, I have one solid recommendation: be in the state of grace!

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What is the historical evidence of people gagging, retching, dry heaving and vomiting during exorcisms?

27 As Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a man from the town who had demons in him. For a long time this man had gone with out clothes and would not stay at home, but spent his time in the burial caves.

29 He said this because Jesus had ordered the evil spirit to go out of him. Many times it had seized him, and even though he was kept a prisoner, his hands and feet tied with chains, he would break the chains and be driven by the demon out into the desert - (Luke 8:27,29).

These verses prove that a man who has demons in him is not in his right mind. Jesus ordered the demons to go out of him, but there were no indication of retching or vomiting of some sort.

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