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This has been bothering me for a while.

In early encounters with demons, Sam and Dean (and Bobby) would capture a demon and perform an exorcism to try to save the person who was possessed. (Although, in some cases when the person was ridden too hard by the demon, the person did not survive long after the demon had been expelled).

In later seasons, Sam & Dean just outright kill most demons they cross paths with — either with the Colt or demon-killing knife. Usually, without bothering to capture and exorcise the demon or consider saving the person who was possessed.

So, is there an in-universe explanation as to why the change? Is this a significant turning point in terms of Dean/Sam slowly slipping to the dark side? Or is the answer an out-of-universe answer something like this concept just being plot device to simply keep the story moving along?

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    I think you inadvertently answered your own question - they kill Demons with the Colt (when they had it) or Ruby's knife. I think the point at which they switched was the point when they had access to those weapons - prior to that their only option was exorcism to combat demons. – Anthony Grist Oct 11 '12 at 13:01
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tl;dr They kill demons because it's faster, easier, safer long-term, and their experience has shown that they don't really gain much by doing exorcisms (as the demon hosts usually die anyway.)

Efficiency

Killing a demon with the knife is much faster, quiter, and easier than performing a ritual. The ritual requires them to keep the demon in one place long enough to finish chanting, which usually means tricking them into a devil's trap or overpowering them physically. In the early episodes, as mentioned in the comments, this was the only option, so they had to take it. Once they had better options available, it became a strategic decision, one that usually leads to stabbiness.

Note that, when possible, they have opted for exorcism instead of death; for example, they lured an entire town full of people into a police station and performed a mass exorcism during Season Four. Also, when Sam had his magic powers, he did explicitly point out that he preferred to use them because his victims sometimes lived, while the knife always killed them.

Long-Term Safety

In the early seasons the demons were mostly a nuisance, and in very low numbers, so it was fine to just send them back to hell individually. Once they started a war against Lilith, then later Lucifer, and at present, Crowley, demons became the foot soldiers in that war. There were a lot more of them around, and the brothers spend a lot of time just trying to avoid them. In that case, sending a demon back to hell is dangerous and counter-productive; it will just inform the boss-of-the-season where the Winchesters are.

(Dean makes this exact point in the second episode of season 8 - Sam actually does a reverse exorcism to keep a demon in its human host so Dean can kill it, because they don't want it running to Crowely with their location.)

Lack of Payoff

One of the things the boys seem to resign themselves to in later seasons is that the human hosting the demon is already dead and gone. In large part this is due to their own attitudes becoming darker, as well as a general fatigue with the whole demon battle scenario. Having killed probably hundreds of demons, a single one no longer registers on their radar. This is a pretty dramatic turn from Season 2 where Bobby actually stops Dean from hitting a possessed Meg because she's human.

But there's also a sense that trying to save the host isn't worth the trouble. Even Sam admits that his power, which doesn't physically harm the host at all, only "might" leave them alive. As we saw with Meg, just because the demon is exorcised successfully doesn't mean the host survives; the demon could destroy the host on purpose, or they could have suffered a fatal injury already, or they could just have aged beyond their natural life span while possessed. The comments that they (Dean particularly) make about possessed people in later seasons seems to reflect this type of experience -- that the people they managed to "save" are dead anyway, so they are adding a lot of risk without really saving anyone.

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I agree with Anthony Grist as you see a distinct decline in the number of individuals that Sam and Dean attempt to save from possession after they retrieve the Colt and the knife. However, as the seasons have progressed, you have also seen the brothers themselves become darker and more blase in terms of killing, and I tend to believe that this is deliberate as they begin to realize that their black-and-white, good-and-evil world isn't quite so black-and-white. Throughout the seasons, we've seen Sam and Dean both forge alliances with demons (not always to their benefit, but alliances nonetheless), we've seen angels do some pretty terrible things (Raphael? attempting to kill Sam and Adam to manipulate Dean into becoming Michael's vessel comes to mind), and we've seen Castiel align himself with Crowley (again, not necessarily to his long-term benefit). This current season seems to be along that same vein specifically with Dean and his return from Purgatory--Dean's character has always been the more callous of the two (with the exception of season 6), but this season seems to really drive that message home.

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Because they had tools to actually kill a demon. Then their only option was to exorcize, which didn't really help anyone. The Demon would just be sent back to hell temporarily, and often liked to return to old vessels. Ex, 7.15 Repo man "Dean and Sam return to Idaho when it seems like a serial-killer demon they exorcised 4 years ago is back." A ex demon vessel developed a sort of stokholm syndrome and missed his demon, going as far to sommun and help it.

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I believe they started using the knife and the colt when they realised that you can't actually save those who have been possessed because the people usually died afterwards. Also the knife and colt actually killed the demons instead of just sending them back to Hell.

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