Episode Spotlight: Exorcism


Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“Exorcism” (#108, 5×12)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, December 14th, 1976
Teleplay by Jay Folb
Story by Gene Reynolds & Jay Folb
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: After Colonel Potter orders Radar to remove a spirit post, strange things start going wrong at the 4077th, leading Hawkeye to bring in a priestess to perform an exorcism.

This is a bizarre episode and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. There are a few good jokes but the exorcism sequence doesn’t seem to fit and the B-story isn’t really much of a story at all.

The most amusing part of the episode comes when Hawkeye tells Kyong Ja he’ll try to exorcise the spirits (Hawkeye: “Acetyl, salicylic, phenobarb and arsphenamine.”) and then Frank walks out of pre-op (Hawkeye: “My God, it worked.”) and Radar begins to laugh hysterically. The scene in the Swamp in which B.J. and Hawkeye tease Frank about his cologne is also a funny one, too.

Exorcising spirits

Exorcising spirits

The actual exorcism, although impressive in its execution, is difficult to take seriously. Although I am sure research was done to ensure the priestess and the ceremony were as accurate as possible, it just looked like she was dancing around the camp and in the operating room. It was a piece of performance art not a religious or spiritual ceremony.

There aren’t a lot of episodes that delve so deeply into Korean beliefs and customs. Although everyone other than Frank is certainly respectful to some degree (Hawkeye’s pretend exorcism is really quite mocking in tone) and in the end Potter decides to have the spirit post put back, you can’t help but get the sense that everyone was laughing a little bit at the whole thing. Hawkeye tricking Frank out of $10 by exorcising his radio in the tag isn’t particularly respectful of Korean culture.

I suppose that’s the point of the episode. Klinger may believe wholeheartedly in spirits and jinxes but everyone else is just trying to help an old man who needs an operation. They’re humoring him and letting him have his way because they want to save his life. I wonder if the episode would have worked better had it dealt solely with Korean superstition and left out all the bad luck and broken lights and strange occurrences. Although that ground may have been covered in other episodes.

The Corporal Marsh B-story doesn’t add much to the episode because it doesn’t go anywhere. He’s at the 4077th for a second time, winds up there a third time, and then leaves. That’s it. Are we supposed to think he was affected by evil spirits, too?

12 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Exorcism”

  1. Admittedly, whenever I watch Season Five on DVD or TV, I usually skip over this episode… not because I don’t like it, or that it doesn’t do anything for me (which it really doesn’t), but because believe it or not, I’ve actually had encounters and problems with spirits before in the past, I am not lying, and it seems like whenever I watch something that has to do with spirits like this episode (or say ghost hunting shows and things like that), they turn out to be invitation for the spirits to come to me. Matter of fact, I’ve had to have an exorcism before too. Back in the summer of 2008, I was being visited by a spirit every night for maybe a week or two: it would go through the things on my desk, or hover over me and consume my energy, but then finally, one night, I actually saw it in a vision – he was a little boy, maybe six or seven years old… don’t know why he decided it was me he wanted to play with, but finally had a Catholic priest come over and exorcize to send him on his way, and he even blessed the play with Holy Water.

    Another experience was years earlier, it was early in the morning, there was still a little bit of time before I had to get up, so I still laid in bed half asleep, then the covers were just ripped from the bed, but when I sat up, there was nobody there. What’s more, it turns out the same thing happened to my down, only he also felt someone lift him up, then push him back down.

    So, yeah.

  2. I personally think this is one of the all -time lowest episodes that was made. Really pretty stupid……one exception. The only funny part I liked is when Hawk was trying to cast out evil spirits from the OR and Frank walked out just as he finished. Hawk replied, “God, it worked!”

  3. I liked this episode, it was funny. Things like spirits and demons and things like are most definitely the product of peoples imaginations. I know this lady who raised believing in demons, and everywhere she would go, she “saw” them. In other words, she was indoctrinated and brainwashed from infancy into believing this junk, so of course, she would be affected by it when she got older. A persons imagination is a very tricky thing, and this episode pretty much puts it all in the correct perspective. Love the way Hawkeye was doing his own excorsim, hilarious!

  4. I love watching this lady dancing. It’s beautiful the way the fabric of her costume flows with the the late afternoon sun showing through. She’s very graceful. One of my favorite episodes.
    As for spirits, I am a born again Christian, so I know that there are spirits, evil, and of God. I know that ghosts are not the spirits of the dead, but are fallen angels / demons. Human spirits either go to Heaven or hell when we die.

  5. I think the overall theme of the episode was superstition. That’s why they started bringing up things like Friday the 13th in OR, and why Frank knocks on wood toward the end (after insisting all along that he’s not superstitious).

    That’s also where the B story fits in; the writers were treating the St. Christopher’s medal as yet another example of a superstition (though Catholics would disagree that the proper, devout use of medals is superstitious). Maybe the writers were trying to say, “Before you viewers look down on the superstitions that some Koreans hold, consider that you may have a few of your own.”

    Though one could argue that this episode does come across as a bit disrespectful of Korean shamanism due to the flippant remarks made during the exorcism: “Doesn’t have a ghost of a chance,” “Hells bells!” “Sort of a cross between a bishop and a bull-fighter.” Intentionally or not, they could come across as belittling her religious ritual. Maybe humorous remarks were considered necessary to keep the laughs coming in a sitcom. Yet I wonder whether the subject would be handled the same way today. The 1970s were a less politically correct time and it shows in many of the sitcoms of the era; M*A*S*H is no exception.

  6. Notice how Klinger is shown rubbing what looks like a rosary around his neck during the priestess’ dance. Wonder if he was trying to help the lady along with the exorcism or if he was trying to spiritually or ceremonially protect himself from the spirits using his own beliefs?

  7. Phil, Klinger has a blue bead, traditional in the Middle East to protect against evil spirits. He talks about it when he replaces the light bulb in the Colonel’s office. I always figured he was protecting himself using his own tradition while he watched her. (Rosemarie, I didn’t like the wisecracks during her ceremony either.)

    I’d pay attention to the video that Julie Nielsen linked to and look up “Korean shamanism”. The priestess is a mudang shaman. Her attire and dance are real. My guess is that she wasn’t credited because she was not an actress. Southern California has many Koreans who follow the ancient ways and it’s not implausible that they asked permission for a real one. Her dance is probably a dodanggut which removes evil spirits and protects a community (and would be appropriate to bless the set where M*A*S*H was filmed in reality, not just the compound in the show).

    Klinger might be interested in the fact that these shamans cross-dress because they embody both male and female deities. I would love to know what inspired Jay Folb to write this episode, which covers the folkloric link between what we think of as superstitions and traditional beliefs.

    1. I’m guessing you’re from Southern California or you happen to be Korean. This episode is hard for me to relate to because I have never encountered spirits of any kind.

  8. This sounded like it might have been intended as a Halloween episode. Klinger is the only one who takes spirits seriously. I wonder if any minds were changed when things started working again!

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