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Deliver Us From Evil: The Business of Exorcism - Pacific Standard

Deliver Us From Evil: The Business of Exorcism

Exorcism and entertainment: How the distortion of a Catholic rite became a cottage industry
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bob larson exorcism skype

Bob Larson performs an exorcism via Skype. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Angel remembers the precise moment he was possessed by demons.

It was 1999, and Angel was traveling on a bus from Mexico City to his home in the western-central Mexican state of Michoacán. During the journey, Angel sensed a presence aboard the bus. He could not see this darkness, but felt its approach as it stopped directly in front of him. A moment later, Angel felt a sharp, stabbing pain—“something like a stake pierced my chest,” he said later—before experiencing a sensation that felt like his ribs were slowly being spread open from inside his chest. Angel assumed it was a heart attack, and believed he would die on that hot, dusty bus.

He survived. His health, however, soon began to deteriorate. Angel would often vomit immediately after eating. He found himself unable to walk or even move without excruciating pain. He struggled to sleep, and when he did, he suffered from “terrible nightmares connected to the evil one.” He frequently lapsed into unconsciousness in episodes resembling seizures, during which he would blaspheme against Christ or babble in strange, indecipherable languages.

To Angel, the woes that now beset his life were unquestionably the work of demons that had possessed him during that fateful bus ride from Mexico City. Angel’s family, though, was not so sure. Doctors performed numerous examinations on Angel, but found no physiological explanation for his symptoms. His family began to question his state of mind, with several of his close relatives suspecting that Angel was mentally ill. Regardless, Angel’s family stood by him, even when he began to seek out exorcists to rid him of the demonic force that, he claimed, had seized control of his body.

In total, more than 30 exorcists performed rituals to rid Angel of the demons that possessed him, including Gabriele Amorth, the most senior of the Roman Diocese’s six exorcists. Even Amorth, though, who once claimed to have personally exorcised more than 160,000 demons during his service to the church, could not expel the demons from Angel.

In total, more than 30 exorcists performed rituals to rid Angel of the demons that possessed him, including Gabriele Amorth, the most senior of the Roman Diocese’s six exorcists. 

It was only when Pope Francis laid his hands upon Angel in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square after Mass in May 2013 that the world finally took notice of Angel’s plight. Images and video of the alleged “street exorcism” of Angel spread rapidly around the world, prompting the Vatican to issue a statement denying that Pope Francis had performed any such ritual. “The Holy Father did not intend to perform any exorcism,” said Father Federico Lombardi, director of the press office of the Holy See. “Rather, as he frequently does with the sick and the suffering who come his way, he intended simply to pray for a suffering person who had been brought before him.”

Whether the Pope meant to rid Angel of demons or not, the incident ignited a vigorous worldwide debate concerning Pope Francis’ stance on an ancient ritual amid what many people have described as the most progressive papacy in the history of the Catholic Church. While liberals have praised Pope Francis for his attitudes on several urgent social issues, from the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change, his position on demonic possession is considerably more orthodox. The work of the International Association of Exorcists recently received the endorsement of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, which approved the organization’s statutes last year. Approximately 300 exorcists and psychiatrists from around the world gathered in Rome in October last year for the association’s 12th annual conference, during which attendees discussed matters including the dangers of Halloween and changing societal attitudes that place people at greater risk of demonic attack.

“The struggle against evil and the devil is becoming an emergency,” Walter Cascioli, spokesperson for the International Association of Exorcists, told Vatican Radio in an interview during the conference. “The number of people who are turning to these practices, which are psychologically, spiritually, and morally damaging, is on the rise.”

Although there are several types of exorcism, the one most commonly imagined in popular culture is the solemn or “major” exorcism, a ritual to rid a possessed person of the demon or demons that inhabit their body—not merely a prayer for spiritual healing. Solemn exorcisms can be performed only by Catholic priests, and only then with the express permission of a bishop. Exorcism is not one of the seven Catholic sacraments, but the ritual is sacramental, meaning that the rite’s success is not dependent on the formulaic approach common to Catholic sacraments, but rather the exorcist’s faith and the authorization of a bishop.

In light of the Vatican’s concerns over heightened demonic activity around the world and the apparently urgent need for more exorcist-priests, training courses have been offered to equip the next generation of exorcists with the spiritual knowledge they need to expel demons from their non-consensual hosts. More than 170 priests and laypersons alike gathered in Rome for the most recent course, which was held at the Sacerdos Institute, an organization of priests affiliated with the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, an educational institute of the Catholic Church. The course, which costs around $330, covers numerous topics, including the theological, liturgical, and canonical aspects of exorcism, as well as its anthropological history, its potential place within the criminal justice system, plus medical and neurological issues surrounding demonic possession.

The Vatican may be confident that demonic possession is an urgent spiritual danger, but many Americans remain skeptical. According to a YouGov poll conducted in September 2013, 57 percent of Americans said that they believed in the devil, but only 51 percent indicated they thought it was possible for a person to be possessed. Similarly, when asked how often they thought people were possessed by demons, 56 percent of respondents said either “rarely” or “never.”

Yet despite these obstacles—a regimen of rigorous spiritual training to perform major exorcisms, plus a largely skeptical public—the casting out of demons has become a lucrative cottage industry in the United States. Dozens of self-styled exorcists ply their trade across America, promising relief from demons—in exchange for a “donation.” Bob Larson, proprietor of the International School of Exorcism, is one such opportunist. According to his website, Larson is “the world’s foremost expert on cults, the occult, and supernatural phenomena.” The Los Angeles Times said that Larson “has honed the art of exorcism into astonishing public performance,” and CNN said that “people are falling into step with Larson, mesmerized by his public confrontations with people who say they are possessed by devils.” Apparently recognizing the unique opportunities for salvation offered by modern technology, Larson even offers exorcisms via Skype for a “donation” of $295, an experience that Scott Bixby detailed in a piece for the Daily Beast in 2014.

Larson’s website also touts several of his books (including Satanism: the Seduction of America’s Youth, UFOs and the Alien Agenda, and Extreme Evil: Kids Killing Kids) but offers very little information about his spiritual background or training, or even whether he’s affiliated with the Catholic Church. Larson’s International School of Exorcism operates on a tiered structure, offered at Apprentice, Warrior, and Exorcist levels, each of which is priced at $995—significantly more expensive than the course taught at the Sacerdos Institute—although “scholarships” that reduce tuition to $200 are available, according to the school’s website.

Numerous other so-called demonologists have emerged in recent years, their media appearances fueled by a resurgence of the supernatural in popular culture. Several movies focusing on demonic possession released during the past decade have been extraordinarily popular, including the Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Rite, and Deliver Us From Evil. The Reverend Michael Maginot, who sought to rid Latoya Ammons and her children of demons at their home at 3860 Carolina Street in Gary, Indiana, last year, signed a “standard” movie deal with Tony DeRosa-Grund’s Evergreen Media to bring his harrowing account of the exorcism to the big screen. Maginot also signed an agreement with Zak Bagans, host of the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge, to produce a documentary about the events that took place in the house on Carolina Street, which Bagans purchased for a mere $35,000 in January 2014.

When cops and doctors perpetuate hysterical delusions, it diminishes and detracts from real problems in favor of archaic superstition.

Maginot has a bit more credibility than some hucksters, at least by virtue of being a Catholic priest. However, it seems far more likely that Ammons experienced not a supernatural possession by evil spirits, but symptoms of mental illness that made possible a collective delusion—a delusion that subsequently spread to police captain Charles Austin, who claimed to have experienced supposedly inexplicable phenomena after visiting the house on Carolina Street, as well as Dr. Geoffrey Onyeukwu, the physician who assessed Ammons and her children. Austin, Onyeukwu, and others are entitled to their beliefs, but their positions in law enforcement and the medical profession carry a great deal of responsibility; when authority figures perpetuate hysterical delusions, it diminishes and detracts from real problems in favor of archaic superstition.

Recent interest in exorcism and demonic possession has hardly been limited to the big screen or reality television specials. Paul Tremblay’s novel a Head Full of Ghosts, which was published to critical acclaim in June, tells the story of the Barretts, a typical New England family very nearly torn apart by the possession of their 14-year-old daughter, Marjorie. After seeking help from a priest, and with Marjorie’s medical bills pushing the family to financial breaking point, the Barretts reluctantly agree to allow Marjorie’s exorcism to be filmed and broadcast as part of a reality TV show called the Possession. In a classic example of life imitating art, Destination America will broadcast an exorcism on live TV on October 30.

Exorcism: Live! will take place at 8435 Roanoke Drive in the St. Louis suburb of Bel-Nor, Missouri, better known as the “exorcist house” at which a Catholic priest attempted to exorcise an anonymous teenage boy known as “Roland Doe” in the late 1940s. The events of that fateful night served as the inspiration for William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel the Exorcist. Instead of a Catholic priest, the ritual broadcast during Exorcism: Live! will be performed by the Tennessee Wraith Chasers, “an elite team of paranormal investigators” seen on Destination America’s Ghost Asylum, alongside Chip Coffey, a medium featured in TV shows such as Paranormal State and Psychic Kids. (Coffey’s claims of psychic abilities have been the subject of intense skepticism.)

“As we step into one of the most haunted and well-known spirit destinations in America, Exorcism: Live! will show exactly what is inside this infamous, highly dangerous and possessed home,” says Marc Etkind, general manager of Destination America. “By actually exorcising this iconic house live, Destination America will do what it does best — bringing never-before-seen experiences to television.”

Whether Coffey and the Tennessee Wraith Chasers will successfully rid the house of any demons remains to be seen. What’s guaranteed, however, is that, like much of the worst reality TV, the “experience” promised by Destination America will do little more than offer cheap thrills at the expense of those who genuinely need help and are willing to turn to the supernatural for relief, the gullible and desperate upon whom carnival barkers like Bob Larson prey, and Catholics whose spiritual beliefs have been reduced to theater and appropriated for the sake of entertainment.

TV shows like Ghost Asylum are popular because of our readiness to tolerate their premise. Just as we suspend our disbelief when watching movies like the Exorcist, we voluntarily accept the staged theatricality of paranormal TV for the sake of escapism—perhaps even a smug sense of intellectual superiority, if we dare to admit it. We are complicit in the unspoken pact between performer and audience. The paranormal investigators on-screen may not be actors in the traditional sense, but a performance is what we expect, and exactly what they deliver.

The ongoing fascination with demonic possession also raises questions about the nature of supernaturalism in modern religion, and about our willingness to accept it. The insidious influence of Satan has become one of the religious right’s most reliable tools in its war against progressive values, but demons are rarely, if ever, blamed outright for the moral disease that supposedly plagues modern America. Satan is frequently invoked by conservative extremists and blamed for everything from political correctness to feminism, but such dire warnings are almost always framed in the context of demonic influence—an important distinction also frequently made by exorcists—rather than possession. Even the most hardcore of the right-wing party faithful usually stop short of blaming demonic possession for the nation’s ills, an indication that perhaps even the most outspoken conservatives are hesitant to peddle such anachronistic theatricality to win votes. This apparent reticence does not, however, diminish the faithful’s hatred for those they deem sinners—it merely provides them with a convenient social and rhetorical shield behind which to hide: It is much easier to blame demonic influence for the supposed evils of homosexuality or marriage equality than to condemn openly those whom the Bible commands believers to love. Blaming Satan is an easy way to hate the sinner while appearing to love him.

At the same time, Christians often warn of the need for spiritual vigilance against Satan’s influence, but it seems far fewer are willing to acknowledge their belief in the necessity of taking up crucifixes and holy water as the weapons of righteousness against a literal enemy. Perhaps even the strongest faith has its limits.

In the Exorcist, Father Merrin warns his protégé Father Karras of the dangers of conversing with the demon that inhabits the 12-year-old girl they have been tasked with saving. Merrin tells the young priest that the demon will lie to confuse them, and that it will mix lies with the truth to attack them. The same could be said of those who prey on the vulnerable to sell books or fill seats in Holiday Inn conference halls. Whether demonic possession is a true spiritual danger or not, there can be little doubt that those who believe in the manifestation of evil spirits and the power of demonic forces are at significantly higher risk of falling prey to those who make their living supposedly fighting the forces of darkness. The supernatural power of demons makes for better TV, but the deceptions of the righteous are just as dangerous.

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Demon Week is Pacific Standard's series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.

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