Empathy For The Devil
Written for Discover magazine between 2007 and 2010 but never published.
“Some of you have felt that there was something nasty or evil down inside of you,” the Rev. Bob Larson, in his mid-60s with a thick graying beard and slicked-back hair, says to a packed ballroom of 200 at the Atlanta Marriott Northwest. “And you’ve spent your whole life suppressing it.” Larson then addresses not the crowd but the Dark Lord: “You’re going to let them go, Satan!”
Larson claims to have performed “more exorcisms than any living person on this planet,” upwards of 10,000 since 1971. He has signed television production deals with CBS/Paramount and the Sci-Fi Channel, and oversees 100 affiliated ministries worldwide that perform a combined 15,000 exorcisms per year. Tonight is no exception: A mustachioed, slender man in the crowd—a 45-year-old accountant named Wayne—screams, growls, weeps, convulses, retches, hisses and shrieks as if something is trying to claw its way out of him. Assistants bring him a white bucket in which to vomit.
“Fathers killed their children five generations ago,” Wayne says with glazed eyes, his voice becoming the sinister whisper of a demon apparently called Death. “Saaaaaaaaaaacrifice. Yessssssssss.”
“Satan, you’re going to pay for what you’ve done to this man!” Larson whacks Wayne’s chin and stomach with a bible. “You’re going to have to leave. Go—”
“Go—” Wayne repeats with an expression of sheer terror.
Wayne’s body releases a death cry and goes limp. A demure calmness returns to his eyes. When the audience realizes what has transpired—what they believe has transpired—they give Larson a standing ovation and bellow cries of “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” and “Thank you, Jesus!”
“I can’t describe it,” Wayne says after the exorcism. “I was conscious but it was like I was looking up at myself.” He had “absolutely” no idea that he was possessed. “You would look at me and think that there’s nothing wrong with me—I functioned just fine in life—but on the inside I was bound up with pain, hurt, anger, fear, bitterness… And the Holy Spirit through Bob fixed that.”
Larson’s deliverance ministry is one of hundreds in the U.S. Nearly 60 percent believe in demonic possession, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll, including well-known politicians: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal participated in a friend’s exorcism, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin received a Kenyan exorcist’s blessing in 2005 to shield her from “the spirit of witchcraft.” Fr. Gary Thomas told Good Morning America in 2006 that the Vatican wants an exorcist in every U.S. diocese.
From the Roman Catholic Church on down, exorcism is hotter today than it’s been since a certain 1973 Linda Blair film ruled the box office. Whether you are a believer or skeptic, you cannot deny that this ancient ritual is a major component of our cultural consciousness. Proponents view exorcism as a powerful alternative or supplement to psychotherapy; meanwhile the vast majority of mental health professionals cringe at the notion of demonic possession, which they view as a delusion that originates from neurological or social maladies. However, a surprising number of doctors concede that exorcism might help as a placebo effect, and subsequently adopt the philosophy of “by any means necessary” when it comes to curing their patients.
Exorcisms do not always end with miraculous recoveries, and Larson’s TV-friendly techniques are relatively tame. Modern exorcists take safety precautions unknown to their medieval predecessors, but deaths still occur. At least eight people were allegedly killed in the past decade—including children in Illinois and Texas—from botched amateur exorcisms. People seeking help, or compelled to seek help, were stabbed, choked, smothered, drowned, flogged, bitten and hammered.
In 2005 a Romanian Orthodox priest faced murder charges for crucifying a 23-year-old nun—whom doctors had diagnosed as schizophrenic, according to the New York Times—and leaving her to die. He told reporters, “God has performed a miracle for her; finally [she] is delivered from evil.” He further defended himself thusly: “I don’t understand why journalists are making such a fuss about this. Exorcism is a common practice in the heart of the Romanian Orthodox church and my methods are not at all unknown to other priests.”
Beyond the question of safety, there is a question of necessity. A controversial YouTube video depicts the exorcism of a seizing, vomiting, fainting Connecticut teenager in 2004 for “homosexual demons.” The young man is subjected to screams for twenty minutes, an experience surely more traumatic than simply accepting one’s sexual orientation. (In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a Texas Supreme Court decision that protected exorcists—under the First Amendment—from lawsuits over psychological injuries.) At Larson’s seminar, a 33-year-old woman seeks an exorcism for migraines, which is the kind of faith healing that the famous exorcist condemns in his books.
In some cases, however, exorcism might be just what the doctor ordered. Ralph Allison, a retired psychiatrist in California, has performed exorcisms on patients “who appeared to have possession syndromes.” He spent three years “integrating” one patient’s 60 alter-personalities. Although he believes that possession is “nothing parapsychological” and demons are “the creation of a patient’s imagination, usually due to an abusive parent,” exorcism is the only treatment that seems to work in some cases, especially for patients who were raised in a highly religious background. “Nobody should do an exorcism until they have dealt with the psychological facts of their problems,” Allison says, but “exorcism is flushing the toilet, sending that hate energy to the treatment plant to get recycled into positive energy.”
As Larson puts it, most exorcism-seekers have “already tried everything else—been through therapy, been through psychiatrists—and this works; it solves the ultimate problem.”
The modern obsession with exorcism has roots going back thousands of years. From the Jewish Dybbuk (a harmful sexual spirit) to the Islamic jinn (described as “hidden from sight” in the Koran) to ancestral and animal spirits in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, nearly every culture on earth has concepts of possession. Indonesian and Arctic peoples blame dark spirits for brooding, negative emotions; Southwestern Native Americans expel unhealthy spirits through the art of sandpainting; many Ethiopians believe the zār spirit causes madness and marital strife.
Babylonian records from 2000 B.C. contain incantations for the expulsion of disease-causing spirits, according to Dr. Seth L. Sanders, assistant professor of religious studies at Trinity College. A Babylonian/Sumerian exorcism rite called Udug-Hul (“evil demons”) remained in practice for 2,000 years. “The basic idea is that malevolent spirits could get pissed off—if you did a ritual wrong, for example—and come inside you to screw up your life,” Sanders says.
The Babylonians believed these spirits were either people who died unfulfilled or cosmic forces. Hebrew culture absorbed many of their ideas; in one instance a 4,000-year-old Babylonian nocturnal demon named Lilith winds up in Jewish lore as Adam’s first wife. “Ancient Jews would bury ‘incantation bowls’ upside-down to trap demons,” Sanders says. “It was medical, a way of dealing with sickness before antibiotics.”
Later, however, demons evolved from disease agents to soldiers of darkness in a holy war between good and evil. “In the Old Testament Satan is more of a job description, one of God’s employees, like a prosecuting attorney,” Sanders says. “By the time of the Dead Sea scrolls and early Christianity, Satan has been elevated to the level of a cosmic force. He becomes the devil, engaged in a contest with the forces of God, which comes to a head in the book of Revelation.”
Ancient Greeks and Romans likewise originally had no concept of “an evil entity taking over someone’s personality, and then needing to be driven out,” according to Penn State professor Peter Dendle, but instead believed in “morally ambivalent” spirits that “could either help you or hurt you.” When Christianity spread out of Palestine, “most Romans … considered [demonic possession] a superstition from some impoverished backwater,” Dendle says. “The re-branding of all classical ‘daemons’ as evil demons—and then identifying them as the fallen angels left over from Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven—was one of the great religious/mythological shifts of early Christianity.”
Similarly, Anglo-Saxons were not concerned with demons until the Norman invasion of 1066. They viewed such negative spirits as “mindless, naturalistic” disease agents as opposed to pawns of an evil mastermind, according to Dendle. This theological paradigm “only spread with the spread of Christianity itself,” and such non-Christian concepts of possession “had to be re-branded with a new vocabulary … to fit the Christian framework.” This did not always go smoothly, Dendle says, because devout peoples “had to reject all other gods—not rejecting them as ‘non-existent,’ but acknowledging that the old gods are duplicitous demons, actively trying to seduce people into perdition.”
In the Middle Ages, paranoid European mobs killed as many as 9 million people (by Larson’s estimates) for their epilepsy, Tourette syndrome and even left-handedness, misdiagnosed as signs of occultism. “At some point in the Early Modern period, possession had become inextricably linked with witchcraft,” whereas they had previously been viewed as “completely unconnected,” Dendle says. “This meant to Early Moderns that some actual person—such as a neighbor—had consciously summoned those demons… This is part of how the witch hunts spiraled out of control in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries [when] a lot of people suffered, lost property, and died because of the particular theology of the day.”
For those who say that exorcism is incompatible with the scientific method, Dr. Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School has a revelation of his own: exorcism gave birth to the scientific method. In order to distinguish between possession and hysteria during the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church developed “trick trials,” disguising ordinary water as holy water, ordinary wafers as communion wafers and ordinary nails as relics of the Holy Cross. “Placebo-controlled experiments were modeled from exorcisms,” Kaptchuk says, which might cause skeptics’ heads to spin 360 degrees.
Church authorities continued to adjust their approach until settling on the 1614 Rituale Romanum, which did not see revision until Pope Benedict XVI replaced John Paul II, who performed occasional exorcisms but did not pursue the practice with his successor’s zeal. The Vatican now offers its two-month exorcism class to hundreds of priests, whereas only six attended a 1993 conference, according to the Los Angeles Times.
John Zaffis and Dave Considine serve as Catholic exorcist assistants in Connecticut. Zaffis, the nephew of famed paranormal investigator Ed Warren (who died in 2006), says that his first paranormal encounter—at age sixteen—was a visit from the ghost of his grandfather shortly before his grandmother died. Considine, a protégé of the late exorcist and bestselling Hostage to the Devil author Malachi Martin, similarly claims to have seen an apparition in his youth—albeit an evil one, not a friendly one—which inspired him to learn how to combat the forces of darkness. Zaffis and Considine both say that a bishop must approve every exorcism, which can take years and only happens after mental illness is ruled out by documenting supernatural occurrences.
“People’s heads don’t spin but you can get levitation, atmospheric change, and people being seen in different locations at the same time,” says Considine. “A person once read my notes back to me over the phone; another time someone knew that a cross had fallen off my wall at home. There was no way they could have known that. When you talk to these individuals you have to keep yourself out of it; it’s too freaky.”
Zaffis also claims to have witnessed levitation, “enormous strength,” and revelations of “things about my personal life they could have no way of knowing.” He acknowledges that “people have schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” but is convinced that “sometimes the medications don’t work—and then you have to look at it from a wider approach.”
Richard Gallagher, a graduate of Princeton and Yale who teaches at Columbia University Psychoanalytic Institute, is one of the few medical professionals who openly profess belief in demons. Every year he evaluates dozens of potential possession cases, and informs priests whether they are dealing with mental illness.
“I am not making a spiritual diagnosis,” Gallagher says. “I am merely ruling out a medical diagnosis.”
Gallagher was raised Catholic and “was certainly exposed to these ideas from an early age,” but did not become a true believer in possession until priests from “all over the country and all over the world” began asking him to diagnose or rule out mental illness. “There was no ‘aha’ moment where all my presuppositions in life were overturned,” Gallagher says. “It was a gradual process of coming to believe this.”
He is still a skeptic when it comes to most cases. “Ninety-nine percent of these claims have no merit—people who think they are attacked by the devil generally are not—but in very, very rare circumstances I have found clear evidence of activity beyond scientific and psychiatric explanation.”
One example, Gallagher claims, is while discussing one case with an exorcist over the phone, the possessed woman—hundreds of miles away from either—came on the line somehow and warned them to desist: “Leave us alone—you will never deliver her.” Another time the woman revealed that she knew the particular type of cancer that killed Gallagher’s mother, information that was not easily obtainable. Gallagher says of the experience: “I felt chills… it was creepy. You are dealing with a strange, bizarre realm, and it can be dangerous, but I don’t get petrified. People tell me I’m a calm person.”
Although Gallagher disagrees with the reigning materialist worldview in the mental health field, “I don’t feel quite as alone in this as some people assume,” and does not worry that he is risking his professional reputation. “Plenty of doctors” have privately expressed belief in his ideas, but “don’t want to say so publicly.” (Former American Psychiatric Association president Joseph T. English and Harvard psychiatry professor Mark J. Albanese, have vocally supported his research.) Secular psychiatrists have even come to him for advice when “they don’t know what to make of a case and think it might be a demon.”
Gallagher has addressed the International Association of Exorcists, founded by Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist. He says these are “scholarly meetings” that cover history and techniques with experts from every continent. “This is all decentralized,” Gallagher says. “The local diocese oversees it, not the Vatican.”
Some in the Church do not want this issue publicized because it reinforces the “superstitious” beliefs of the mentally ill, according to Gallagher. Others feel that it should be publicized in order to help people with actual spiritual afflictions.
Gallagher agrees with Considine and Zaffis about how to differentiate demons from dementia. “You need to have a basic, clear pattern—superhuman strength, ability to speak an unlearned language, a hidden knowledge of others’ personal lives—that cannot be explained by mental illness,” he says.
Gallagher has studied enough reports of similar phenomena throughout history to convince him this is nothing new. “Any student of history knows that every culture has some beliefs in this area,” Gallagher says. “Before the Enlightenment, people knew that mental illness existed; they often treated psychiatric problems differently than spiritual problems. People in the modern world think that people in the past were extremely naïve, and that’s a myth.”
Gallagher believes that religious fundamentalists too easily believe in the ubiquity of possession (“it’s not happening in every town and hamlet of America”), and is critical of preachers who “do public displays of this stuff for monetary benefit.” Nevertheless, he says, “I’ve seen people who are cured after an exorcism. Actually I wouldn’t use the word ‘cured’; I’d say ‘delivered.’”
Larson’s press materials refer to him as “the world’s foremost expert on cults, the occult, and supernatural phenomena.”
“I’m the only preacher who has his own Hollywood agent,” Larson boasts. “And they’re almost all Jewish!” His 100 affiliated “Do What Jesus Did” ministries—up from 40 in late 2000 and located on nearly every continent—train thousands of amateur exorcists who perform a combined 15,000 exorcisms per year. Larson personally averages 250 exorcisms annually and runs the Spiritual Freedom Church outside Phoenix, Arizona, which he describes as “the biggest exorcism training center in the world.”
Nearly everyone at Larson’s Atlanta seminar—whether black or white, male or female, young or old—is convinced of his powers.
“Obviously he’s gifted,” says Lynn Snyder, who decided to attend the seminar after seeing Larson on TV the previous night. “The Lord has blessed him in a lot of ways and he helps a lot of people.”
“He’s the best,” says A.J. Smith, the deacon of a local church—and aspiring exorcist himself—who refers to Larson as “the most powerful deliverance minister that I’ve ever seen.” Smith, a former skeptic who “grew up where there was no belief system whatsoever,” says he has seen “demonic manifestations come up” and is now a believer: “Bob Larson is doing exactly what Jesus commanded his disciples to do.”
A woman with the last name of Blair, who wears a “Glory Bound” sweatshirt and does not laugh when I ask if she’s related to Exorcist star Linda Blair, claims that she was raised in a Midwestern satanic cult and tortured for years as a child.
“It was the worst of everything that you see on television and on horror films,” Blair says, such as “ceremonies” that involved “sexual abuse, murder, torture, crucifixions, cannibalism, human and animal sacrifice.” She ran away from home as a teenager. According to Blair, these cults “raise their families under the disguise of the church; they’re often church members because they can’t get away with what they’re doing … if they look like underworld people, but they can if they’re doctors, lawyers, police officers, politicians.”
Although a nationwide FBI investigation showed no evidence of satanic ritual abuse, Blair swears, “This was the kind of organization where families raised children and grandchildren [as followers]; it went for generations” and “most don’t get out alive.” These days Blair is committed to God, and strongly believes in the power of exorcism. “I feel that the Lord is calling me to work with people who were raised the way I was,” she says. “As a Christian that means deliverance ministry.”
Larson takes the stage and shows videos of his exorcisms augmented with thundering drums and soaring choral music. “Give the Lord a hand,” Larson says, and the audience claps. “Isn’t that some amazing footage?”
And then Larson drops a bombshell: “Everybody here has been cursed. Every one of you has a nasty ancestor. If you don’t believe me, take a look at your next family reunion.” He says that such curses lead to “heart disease and cancer because some ancestor had a child sacrifice five hundred years ago; you should see a good doctor but you should also see the exorcist.”
“Amen!” the audience responds. “It’s in the Book!”
In the twenty-first century, long after the Enlightenment, blaming evil spirits for behavioral problems seems like a laughable primitive fallacy. However, many scientists and psychologists who study exorcism say that possession syndromes are deeply rooted in the nature and neurophysiology of the human species. Even if no demons exist, we are powerfully compelled by the perception that our actions are not always our choices. A large number of medical professionals express belief that exorcism can provide placebo-like relief for major psychological issues.
Andrew Newberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and author of How God Changes Your Brain, believes that a charismatic figure such as Larson can actually induce an out-of-your-mind experience. “Some people really get the crowd going, and introduce rhythmic elements that very subtly affect the nervous system, which can affect and reboot the brain from the body up,” Newberg says. “The parts of the brain like the limbic system responsible for emotions are involved. The exorcism seems to re-kick their frontal lobe back in, thus reestablishing the person we all thought they were.”
Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of demons, Newberg is careful to note, but strange things happen neurologically to people in religious trance states.
“The frontal lobe helps us feel we’re in control of ourselves; in a possession state, however, you lose your will and self because activity decreases in the frontal lobe,” Newberg says. “Other parts of the brain start turning on and evoking weird responses—memory areas, language areas—that try to come online, which allows for other personality states and strong, normally suppressed emotional responses to start coming out of the person.”
Although Newberg “wouldn’t necessarily prescribe exorcism” for major psychological problems, he nevertheless insists that “one of the things missing in modern psychology and psychiatry is a lack of emphasis on how spiritual beliefs affect people.” He believes that medical benefits can come from rituals such as exorcism. “If we treat people for depression when they have a deep spiritual problem, psychotherapy might not be enough and we might need a minister or a priest to address it in an effective way.” He says that many well-adjusted people “feel very good and calmed and relaxed” after speaking in tongues, which superficially resembles an exorcism in many ways, and believes positive effects can result, even if it’s a placebo.
Another defender-albeit-skeptic of the practice, Dr. Eli Somer, a psychologist at the University of Haifa, says that exorcism is the only channel for squelched voices to address sexual abuse in repressive theocratic societies. The symptoms of possession are “in most instances associated with a history of prolonged childhood trauma,” but in many ultra-conservative communities, victims cannot openly discuss their issues. Since “psychopathology is often seen as a result of malicious poisoning, curses, or encounters with spirits, demons or deities,”possession mythology is therefore the exclusive accepted way for victims to “express disowned memories, pain, distress or outrage at the injustices inflicted by the patriarchal hegemony and that cannot be openly spoken about.”
Somer criticizes Western medical experts who view this ritual as “primitive,”because the “cathartic expressions” of exorcism can have “ameliorative functions” as a “placebo effect, of course.” He says “the cure is very pertinent to the problem and it works because it deals squarely with its cause and it uses idioms of the particular culture.”It is “non-stigmatizing,” as discussing sexual abuse would be; it is “often conducted in the presence of the support system: family and community,” and “the processes involve factors that are known to be agents of psychological change.”
After exposure to Eastern philosophy during his tour of duty in Vietnam, Stafford Betty, who is now a professor at California State University, came to believe in the existence of possessing spirits. Although he disbelieves in Satan and describes himself as a freethinker in religious matters (“I fully believe in Western medicine, and do not believe in demons from hell”), Betty feels that medical professionals should open their minds—and are opening their minds—to non-materialist possibilities.
“There is a groundswell of psychologists and psychiatrists—educated, important people—beginning to tiptoe into these areas of speculation and even performing exorcisms themselves,” Betty says, but many doctors and scientists “are holding back their views for fear of their peers looking down on them.” From his research, Betty is convinced that a possessed human can “levitate or bend an iron bedstead or puff up to twice his size while an exorcism is ongoing,” because “the literature is too consistent, the witnesses are too often beyond suspicion.”
Betty recently visited an Indian temple where “Hindu priests conduct a group exorcism—chanting, praying, frantic beating of drums, and blaring trumpets—with thousands watching.” He insists that such immersive rituals have surprisingly high success rates: “Certain psychological and psychiatric problems simply do not respond very well to Western medicine, whereas they respond when ‘paranormal healing technology’ is worked into the totality of health administration.”
After Larson finishes with Wayne nearly half the audience lines up to receive deliverance from him and his team of deputy exorcists. People around the room cry, moan and flail their arms. A teenage girl jerks back and forth rhythmically and then falls to the carpeted floor, sobbing and shaking as if she is having a seizure. Once she comes to her senses I ask if that has ever happened to her before.
“No, that’s definitely the first time,” she says. “I was thinking about my mom abandoning me and just… I don’t know… freaked out.”
A gruff former Marine releases a terrifying roar. After Larson sends the demon Murder “back—to—the—PIT,” the man admits, “I guess I’ve still got some anger.”
Blair, the woman who says that Satanists raised her, receives an exorcism and falls to the floor.
“Out! Out!” Blair cries. “In Jesus’ name! Get out!”
Twenty-year-old Lauren Swilling stands in the line because she “might” have some kind of ancestral demon even though she had never considered the possibility before tonight’s conference.
“It says in the Bible that if there’s disobedience then God will punish the generations to come,” Swilling says. She hopes to discover “anything that I don’t really know about,” much like a routine visit to a physician.
Do these people need to visit actual physicians?
Most psychiatrists, unlike Gallagher and Allison, cringe at the notion of treating what they see as psychiatric illness with exorcism instead of drugs. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, minces no words. “There is not one case of ‘demonic possession’ that is the slightest bit convincing,” Novella says. Exorcists are no different than “stage magicians and illusionists” who get people “worked up emotionally, so they get a tingling down their spine and accept the mundane as supernatural.” He compares deliverance ministries to “the UFO abduction subculture.”
In 1994 Dr. Narsimha R. Pinninti, a New Jersey psychiatrist, was called to treat a twenty-two-year-old Hindu prisoner who believed a spirit forced him to commit “wicked” actions, such as kidnapping and robbing a taxi driver. (Bizarrely the man’s chaplain and cellmates they claimed to have seen the spirit materialize.) After Pinninti prescribed the antipsychotic drugs trifluoperazine and clopenthixol, however, the man no longer felt possessed, indicating that it was a mere case of paranoid schizophrenia.
“When people talk about possession, they are talking about changes in behaviors and emotions that are treatable with medication,” says Pinninti. “If deeply religious people express doubt, I do not say ‘you are wrong,’ but that healing comes from God and medication is the means. You will not lose your faith.”
Many mental health professionals blame neurotransmitter imbalances for possession-like symptoms; others blame childhood trauma or adult repression. Allison, the California psychiatrist who recommends exorcism in some cases, singles out abusive parents for the vast majority of possession cases.
“The false-front personality is a survival mechanism when the mother and father are brutal people,” Allison says. “It is nice and compliant and doesn’t anger the parents; the baby learns not to cry when it doesn’t get fed.” However, the victim turns inward, developing a hyperactive imagination and creating invisible playmates—the angry kind, not the healthy kind—that can stick around for decades. “Some of them get people in jail for murder cases,” Allison says. “People make them for revenge in childhood, but as adults they say ‘it came over me and I couldn’t stop it.’”
Dr. Stephen A. Diamond, author of Anger, Madness and the Daimonic, is concerned that neither exorcism nor pharmaceuticals are unable to address underlying problems in the long term. “We don’t want to feel things like anger, but that doesn’t make it go away,” Diamond says. “It festers in the unconscious.”
From his work with violent criminals and tutorship under the late humanistic psychologist Rollo May, Diamond has developed a secular explanation of psychotic possession that draws on the Greek concept of daimons, which he describes as “any function in a human being—psychological or biological, not supernatural—that has the power to take over the whole personality and make us explode when chronically denied or repressed.”
These functions, such as “sex, love, anger,” and can either be “constructive or destructive.” He ominously theorizes, “The reality is that any of us could become psychotic—possessed—under the right or wrong circumstances.” The likelihood of such a breakdown is higher for some personality types than others. “If you look at the lives of great artists—Picasso, Beethoven, Jackson Pollock, Vincent van Gogh, filmmakers, novelists, it doesn’t matter the medium—what you find is that without exception these have been very angry individuals who found a way to channel to redirect their rage into their work,” Diamond says. “They chose to be artists instead of serial killers.”
Some experts believe that possession is the mere fantasy of highly suggestible and hypnotizable personality types. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive science professor at the University of California, Irvine, proved the limits of rationality by conducting an experiment in which she successfully implanted “memories” in college students of witnessing satanic rituals as children, merely by telling them how commonly this happens. “You can get people to ‘remember’ all kinds of things with hypnosis or guided imagery,” Loftus says. “A lot of times it depends on the person in whose clutches they wind up.”
Perhaps this explains the case of John Safran, a Australian comedian whom Larson exorcized in 2003 for the TV series John Safran vs. God. “There was no acting up for the camera,” Safran says of the experience, during which he flailed violently, “channeled voodoo spirits and temporarily accepted Christ into my heart.” (Safran is a secular Jew.) He further recalls, “I had to focus and cooperate when he was lulling me into that state; I think I could have overruled his attempts at that very early stage. But once I was going through the exorcism/hypnotism I was pretty much lost.”
“Half the people in this room have demons?” Larson asks rhetorically, referencing his proclamation on CNN that 50 percent of the U.S. population is demonically influenced. “Absolutely.” However, Larson says, “[Y]ou’re at a safe place tonight where people understand how to deal with this stuff. So what you need to do tonight instead of suppressing it and pushing it down is let it out.”
Many of those who attend Larson’s seminars—and perhaps the majority—have stories of physical and emotional childhood abuse, which he pinpoints as the primary cause of demonic possession. Larson tells the Atlanta audience, “Almost all people who have been sexually molested get demons at some point in their lives,” and instructs those who “have experienced sexual abuse and rejection” to “focus on your issues, your hurt—get your stuff out. … Cut loose inside. If you want to scream, scream. If you want to roll on the floor, roll on the floor. … Satan is in your suffering.”
But no form of therapy, and apparently not exorcism, comes cheap.
“If you don’t tithe, there’s a curse on you,” Larson tells his audience. I’ve asked the Lord to send us someone who will give us $120,000… I’ve asked the Lord to send us people who will give $12,000. … You might be one of those people here tonight.” Soft, soothing music plays as he makes the hard sell. “Takers get nothing, givers get everything,” Larson says, going on for more than ten minutes: “So when that offering bucket comes by, here’s what we’re going to do: reach into your purse or billfold and grab some green. Don’t look at me like that! A one, five, ten, a twenty, a fifty, and throw it in as a loose offering. … You are sitting there looking at me … and not grabbing some green. You are missing unbelievable blessings in your life. Come on! Come on! … We don’t apologize for it. Why should we?”
The Atlanta attendees retrieve wads of cash, sign checks and write down their credit card numbers. The donations—which must total thousands of dollars—are collected in the same white buckets used for Wayne’s puke.
Although Larson claims the money is necessary to run his ministry, his fundraising techniques and lifestyle have garnered plenty of rebuke. A spokesperson for the Church of Satan is disdainful when asked about Larson: “He seems like a classic snake oil salesman, taking advantage of the fears of gullible people for his own profit. We wouldn’t be surprised if his entire exorcism routine was just a cynical scam.” (This is not without precedent: Italian prosecutors alleged in 2008 that a priest staged exorcisms—his assistants posing as possessed—and reaped nearly $5 million from the performances.)
Larson laughs off the allegations. “I’m the best friend they’ve got,” he says in response to the Church of Satan, “because I make people believe in the devil!”
Whether or not the devil is real, belief in exorcism seems to hold a real-world power—a medical power in some cases, at least on a temporary basis. Dr. Pinninti concedes that exorcism can solve minor mental difficulties in the short term. When it comes to the long term, however, “a serious problem needs treatment, and I doubt that exorcism could make it completely go away.” As the open-minded Betty puts it, however, “The doubters will have to wait until they die and become a spirit themselves.”
After the Atlanta seminar concludes around 11:30 p.m. Larson and I have dinner at a nearby Waffle House, an experience far more surreal than witnessing the dozens of freak-outs inside the Marriott ballroom. Larson stops the interview to pray over his pecan waffle and thanks God for my presence.
“Fried Satan and then fried bacon?” I joke.
“All hell broke loose in there,” Larson says, “exhausted and exhilarated” after the night’s events. “All sorts of weird stuff was happening.”
As for the skeptics, Larson says, “The behaviorists—the B.F. Skinners of the world—would reduce [good and evil] to the reducibility of electrical impulses surging through the brain. If you reduce everything to that, you have a lot of questions to ask about truth, beauty, love, companionship, altruism… People do great, good and noble things for reasons that are beyond themselves.”
On the flip side, Larson says, human beings perpetuate evil for reasons that are beyond themselves. He watches and reads “anything I can” on Hitler.
“How can you explain him?” Larson asks rhetorically. “How can you explain the insanity and insensitivity? How do you explain Jeffrey Dahmer? Sometimes you just have to shake your head and say, ‘There is a component of the soul that we do not understand.’ People are capable of greatness and evil. … Science doesn’t have an answer to that. Science doesn’t go that far. Believe about it what you will, but it’s beyond science.”
We return to the Marriott. As Larson walks into the elevator, I wonder if he’ll smell the sulfur zit cream I have on my face and volunteer his services. (Hey, there is a part of me that is greedy, wrathful, slothful, lustful, proud, envious and otherwise fun at parties.)
“If people realized that an evil creature is tempting them every day to commit the kind of evil in the newspaper headlines,” Larson says, “they would be terrified.”
Even though the idea of a devil might be terrifying, it may be far scarier that people could do such things on their own. A man who killed his parents at the age of 16 once told Larson, “The only power Satan has is the power we give him.”
Skeptics and believers would agree.