Skip to main content

Exorcist, Cure Thyself

Lessons on religious hubris—and secular smugness—from an evangelical childhood.
exorcism and demons oh my

(Photo: Olaf Speier/Shutterstock)

"The supernatural is an embarrassment today."
     —Flannery O’Connor

The closest brush I ever had with a demon—in the flesh, though it was in someone else's flesh—was at a Pentecostal prayer service in upstate New York, near Troy. My mother attended the service frequently and took along whichever of my siblings were interested. I went only a few times that I remember. The drive was dark and winding, the service long, and the rewards unclear to a 13-year-old. The format was always the same: The pastor called for prayer. Young children ran in circles on the industrial carpet. Banners hung on drywall, proclaiming the fruits of the spirit. A four-person worship band played continuously. Music almost always accompanies ecstatic worship—anyone who has been to a Phish or a Grateful Dead concert should appreciate the basic wisdom of this. Just as a noodling jam band can unlock and guide the sensations of a good high, a worship band subtly choreographs the spiritual improvisation that makes up a charismatic service. The pastor's son, a handsome and talented saxophonist, played along with the piano, made holy in the knowledge that his instrument was chosen as an instrument of the Lord. The spirit moves, but the spirit also welcomes a little music to grease the wheels-within-wheels. There’s biblical precedent, of course, as when King David danced with enough abandon that his clothes flew off his writhing body and he danced naked in the street—naked before his people and his God.

I've never yet seen anyone get naked at a worship service, sad to say. Most of the moments at this particular service were simple prayers for comfort or spiritual refreshment or healing. Congregants occasionally erupted in glossolalia, known as “speaking in tongues”: a child-like babbling, a disarticulate river of language, a dream of direct contact with the divine. The demon-possessed was a regular, a stocky man whose wife often sat with him, and whose children ran on the carpet or sat and colored. This night, he lay on his back, insensible but active, yanked by the pastor’s magnet hands, his back bridging upwards and his head snapping from side to side. I remember, though, that his face looked serene. The pastor stood over him, pulling down fistfuls of Jesus and hauling the demon out by main force while he shouted prayers and verses from the Bible. It went on for a long time. I was jealous both of the attention that the writhing man received, and of his peaceful face.

The possessed man lay on his back, insensible but active, yanked by the pastor’s magnet hands, his back bridging upwards and his head snapping from side to side.

In the canonical Gospels, Jesus' own encounters with demons can often feel pro forma, playing out a common script. (It’s true, at least, that demon possession and exorcism were fairly common at the time, and New Testament accounts correspond with other accounts of possession from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.) Jesus often tells his disciples and those whom He heals to keep silent about His miracles, even demanding silence of the demons that he casts out. The exception is the Gerasene demoniac. When Jesus questions the demons possessing the man, they name themselves Legion, and, trying to avoid banishment, ask to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs—whereupon the pigs stampede into a nearby lake and drown.

My mother occasionally watched tapes of David Hogan, an evangelist working in the canyons of Tamaulipas, Mexico, preaching in Brownsville at the tail end of the Brownsville Revival, which burnt out like an old bulb in the early 2000s. David Hogan, stamping and snorting and spitting and waving a holy red handkerchief, asked no one to be silent about the miracles he performed. He told stories about spines growing out of witch doctors' backs, about pitch-shifting voices—graveled and groaning—emerging from children, about casting demons out in the name of Jesus. These demons were held at bay, he declared, by a company of angels tasked solely with protecting him. Further, Hogan claimed to have raised dozens of people from the dead.

I remember wondering, at the time, questioning how Hogan’s prayers worked exactly. If someone rebukes an evil spirit during a recorded television performance, does only the original demon hear it? Do you have to echo it in your heart with true belief for it to work a second time? Or is the prayer preserved, somehow, becoming newly effective each time it’s released? Do demons watch television? What would happen in the spirit world if you put a prayer for the binding of demons on an electronic loop and carried it around with you?


"Some of my friends are / becoming more / religious and some / less"
     —Cassie Donish

The last century has seen a resurgence of Western interest in demons, devils, spirits, and Satan hardly known since the notorious exorcisms at a convent in Loudon, France in 1634, and the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. We might—as my own devil tempts me to do—label such beliefs and practices regressive or barbaric, left over from earlier, darker, more ignorant ages. Such superstitions have no place within our modern march of enlightened progress. The modern mind desires the clarity of light and rejects the uncertainties of darkness. The hospital, after dividing and sub-dividing the body into its constituent parts—eyes, throat, wrists, stomach, brain—finds little room left for the soul, which is then relegated to the psych ward—but never because it is “possessed.” Research suggests a class element that helps guide modern beliefs in religious evil. The idea is that poor people, who experience greater hardship and have less recourse to a social services, are more likely to believe that the evils in their lives are inflicted by Satan or by demons. There may be some truth in this, at least as an argument about vocabulary. You can get a degree from any number of mainstream denominational seminaries without ever being asked to fret over the word "demon."

However, the tale that we might want to hear, a tale of deliverance from our very belief in demons, is a prejudicial one. Demons aren’t relics from a previous age; they are part of our own. A man possessed by a demon or spirit does not believe that he conjures it himself—that the “demon” is no more than a rattling ball of psychological phlegm disgorged by the subconscious.

Even if the demons that possess us are real, we are also the ones who fabricate them. And so my contention isn't with the powers and principalities of darkness; it's with our methods of imagining of them.

I once heard a church deacon claim that every Christian should watch the Exorcist (1973)—a film that inspired a slew of similar possession-related films—as if it were a documentary. A friend of my mother's told the story of a teenage girl who had watched the Fellowship of the Ring 13 times in theaters and, the friend insinuated, became possessed: you could see it in her eyes (an absurd stance that, as much as anything else, turned me into a teenage skeptic). Behind such statements and stories lies a particular hermeneutic, a method of reading and of textual and visual interpretation, in which evil, like meaning itself, hides within the bubble of the word or image, a demon in a spirit cage. Tap the wrong surface, and this power is released. Such is the logic behind the radio evangelist's exhortation that teenage girls cover their skin, lest the demon of lust be released to prey upon young and vulnerable men. The boundary between the word and the world is scraped thin, almost invisible; a mere pulsing membrane between which a fluid demon may slip.

In 1986, young Pentecostal named Frank Peretti wrote This Present Darkness, a central exorcist text, about spiritual warfare in Ashton, a small college town. To date, Peretti has sold a respectable 15 million copies, enough for Publisher’s Weekly to call him the “father of Christian fiction,” despite the heavily derivative nature of Peretti’s horror fiction and the well-established earlier traditions of Catholic and Protestant writers, not to mention the much higher sales numbers pulled by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The foolishness of ascribing such a magisterium to a tired hack illustrates the cultural ghetto to which certain groups of Christians (and not just Pentecostals) have banished themselves, in part through a narrative of martyrdom, with the church a refuge beset on all sides by the powerful, seductive forces.

But there is a certain logic to the title. Peretti seeded the market for future best-selling works such as the Left Behind series; and, like Left Behind, Peretti’s novels patched a theological rationale for a legion of Moral Majority policies onto popular narrative forms established by Stephen King and John Grisham. The demons in This Present Darkness are scaled and feathered bipeds, its hero a Bible-touting pastor, its villain—puppet though he is—a psychology professor at a local college. In Peretti's sequel to This Present Darkness, Piercing the Darkness (1988), a pseudo-hippie public school teacher ends up getting a young girl possessed, since, according to Peretti, the practice of Eastern mysticism and New Age dogmas, yoked to secular psychology, opens the door to demon possession. Several formative American prejudices—anti-intellectualism, millennialism, fear of religions beyond a certain form of Christianity—occupy Peretti’s pages with as much energy as his tanned and militant angels.

Despite their worn and borrowed tropes, Peretti’s books—as well as the Left Behind series and other books that followed his—are too often read, not strictly as fiction, but as examples of prophecy, theology, even history. Meanwhile, Peretti’s notions of territorial demons (principalities responsible for possessing geographies rather than individuals), though not original to him, surely amplified pre-existing prejudices. I remember a pastor at one church in upstate New York, in the library of which I read several Peretti novels, telling us how Muslims were controlled by demons; that a single principality, like a blood-stuffed leech, presided over Islam in both geographical and spiritual control. I remember a Toronto youth conference attended by thousands of teenagers, where a visiting speaker, who worked in Jacksonville, Florida, spoke of prayerfully binding the spirits who controlled that city; he said nothing about rebuking the systemic and divisive racism that breaks that city.

This is not to say that everyone who reads Peretti necessarily shares his notions about spiritual warfare or demonic yoga. But text is one of the cornerstones for any spiritual community, especially for groups that claim access to a literal reading of Divine word. The irony is that those splinters of Christianity that seek to read the Bible most literally, outside of tradition, are bound to fail (for example, the myth that equates fallen angels with demons is a fabrication of late ancient Christian writers, not of the original texts or translators, and is therefore a product of tradition—after all, it’s tradition all the way down). There is no doubt that our sojourn on this Earth is demon-ridden, filled with awful transcendences, but there is no reason to draw their images either from the exotic chaos of the Exorcist or the second-hand paranoia of Peretti’s novels. Most dangerous, finally, is the inability—just as endemic to Hollywood as to fundamentalist Christianity—to acknowledge how our lusts and attachments, our texts and images, compose our own particular demons, and to admit the contingency of evil.


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