Thanks to Hollywood, we've all got a certain idea of what an exorcism entails: a ruggedly handsome young priest, a plethora of atmospherically vital candles, a crucifix doing double-duty as a metaphor for both faith and sex, maybe a side-plot about the priest questioning his faith that seems a little tacked on, and boom! Ex-demon. But is that really how it goes? To find out, we spoke to Adam Hii, Victoria Visser, and Josh Sanders about their modern-day exorcism experiences ...
While exorcism might make for great movies (well, like four movies and one TV show, anyway), we tend to think of it as a bygone practice. We've come an awful long way since the dark days when you'd burn a neighbor for looking at you cross-eyed. But the fact of the matter is that exorcism is on a comeback tour. The Roman Catholic Church has been training more exorcists than ever before, to address what Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, archbishop of Madrid, referred to as an "unprecedented rise" in demon possessions. (Hell, in 2014 the Pope Leo XIII Institute opened in Milwaukee to allow more priests to earn their exorcism badges here stateside.) Bobby Jindal, who you might (but probably don't) remember as the guy who tried for a shot at the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, claimed to have exorcised a demon from a fellow student while attending the University Of Oxford, complete with tongue-speaking and disparaging remarks about the pastimes of her classmates' mothers.
For some, it's even become a day job: Marion and Larry Pollard run a veritable Exorcisms2Go service in their Arlington, Texas home, to which pastors throughout the country refer their most infernal followers. And perhaps most shocking of all, Richard Gallagher -- board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College -- is a 100-percent believer that certain, extreme cases of mental illness can only be explained by demonic possession. Well, how else could you possibly explain an illness that the great Richard Gallagher cannot diagnose? Huh, smart guy?
During a volunteer stint with the Peace Corps in Botswana, Adam Hii's host village was home to a Youth Forum co-sponsored by the Ministry Of Education and the Ministry Of Health. The forum went swimmingly for eight days, but then on the ninth morning, Adam arrived at the school to find the entire faculty panicking.
"The previous day [allegedly], one of the other facilitators led a session talking about homosexuality for some of the teenage groups," Adam says. "Apparently, by doing this he had opened up the camp to demon possession and was himself possessed. (A couple important background notes: homosexuality is illegal in Botswana, and I myself am gay.)"
The solution, of course, was a mass exorcism. That's a very unsteady "of course," of course.
"All 150 kids were rounded up into the main hall. I was originally going to stay in the back near a door, but then some of the teachers started barricading the doors with tables, so I left before I got trapped in there."
From outside, Adam heard repeated chanted prayers, whose volume steadily increased all the way up to 11, like a fundamentalist African Spinal Tap.
"At that point the doors burst open and five kids were dragged out by three teachers each. Each of the kids was brought to a separate classroom, where they were beaten. Now, corporal punishment is still legal and widely used in Botswana, but it's usually with a small stick. This was different. This was slapping, pinning against walls."
Adam and his cohorts appealed to the Peace Corps headquarters, whose best advice was to leave and wait for things to calm down. When they returned later that day, the five professedly possessed students were nowhere to be found.
"They had been sequestered with a priest until that night, when they were brought in front of the entire camp staff (not the other kids, thankfully) and lead through a sort of confessional one at a time."
Simply confessing wasn't enough to do the trick, however, because it turns out demons can also possess one's possessions:
"One kid had supposedly drawn a likeness of the demon on his backpack, so that was seized. Three others lost possessions as well. The last kid, a teenage female, mentioned seeing snakes. She had hair extensions, and these were deemed to be the snakes in question. So several of the teachers held her down and tore out her hair extensions. All of the kids were forcibly held down while their possessions were burned."
Victoria Visser attended a tiny Christian fundamentalist high school. When she hopped into her teacher's car one afternoon, for what she thought would be some math tutoring (presumably on word problems involving plesiosaurs traveling at different speeds towards Disproving Evolution Station), little did she know that they were about to take a screeching left into madness:
"Like most teenage girls in the late 90s/early 2000s, I was very into Harry Potter and Buffy The Vampire Slayer," Victoria says. "I loved heavy metal and I had a decidedly Goth aesthetic, despite the constraints of the school uniform and makeup rules. So obviously, I was the Antichrist."
She's only slightly exaggerating -- her teacher had decided that Victoria was literally demonically possessed.
"Apparently, my Goth look was the demon making his presence known. She didn't tell me we weren't going straight to her house. We ended up at her church. Everything seemed normal enough until I noticed that people were unraveling gigantic homemade flags with Christian emblems on them."
Cue ominous choir music riiiight aboooouuuut ... NOW:
"They started waving [the flags] around, weaving up and down the aisles. People were dancing all over the place. The preacher was screaming unintelligibly into the microphone and whenever he touched someone's forehead, they fell to the floor. I sat transfixed, equal parts shocked and scared. When the fervor died down, my teacher said, 'I want you to meet someone.'"
"She took me to a woman who didn't even introduce herself, just stared directly into my eyes and muttered, 'What has hurt you, child?' I responded with stunned silence. After a few moments, she whispered something to my teacher and walked off. My teacher told me to take a deep breath and sit down on the floor to pray with her. My teacher, her husband, the preacher, and the woman (the preacher's wife, turns out) came over to sit and pray also. Soon, the women started speaking in tongues, and the men pulled me onto the floor flat on my back. Each man held me down by one wrist and one ankle, while the women's voices became more and more rapid and unhinged. Eventually the men joined in as the women waved their hands over me, their eyes closed, practically screaming."
Victoria's experience eventually came to an end, without so much as a fountain of blood spewing forth from an unexpected orifice.
"After what seemed like forever, they stopped and the men released me. I tried to run away, but I couldn't move. My heart was racing, I was clammy, my sentences were utterly incoherent nonsense, I felt like I couldn't breathe. My teacher hugged me and said I was 'drunk in the Lord,' but I know now that I was experiencing symptoms of shock. She insisted that my body was overwhelmed by the intensity of God's power and the strength of the demon inside who was fighting against letting go. And that was when I realized I'd been given an exorcism."
According to Josh Sanders: "It's not like the movies. There was no body contortion. No voices different from my own coming from my mouth. No upside-down crucifixes or vomit or demons that must be named in order to gain power over them. But it was just as horrifying (probably even more so), because my exorcism was due to the traumatic and torturous practice of so-called ex-gay conversion therapy."
Josh grew up in the church, active in para-church organizations such as Young Life, InterVarsity, and the Fellowship Of Christian Athletes. But when his homosexuality came to light as a young adult, the same church and religious organizations that were his very foundation began piling on the shame. His community convinced him that the only way to avoid an eternity bathed in hellfire was to become straight, and the only way to become straight was through therapy.
"Ultimately it was my choice to attend Sought Out, an extension of the now-disbanded Exodus International," he says. "Exodus at the time was the largest ex-gay group in the world, claiming that change was possible and promising to pray the gay away if a person experienced unwanted same-sex attraction."
As it turns out, a gay exorcism is much like a regular exorcism (we're assuming the difference is that, in this case, the demon is impeccably dressed).
"I arrived at therapy that day heavy with shame because so far nothing had worked. I still experienced same-sex attraction," Josh says. "My therapist suggested we attempt something else. I remember going into the room and lying on the couch; my therapist shutting the door behind us. He lit candles, placing them on each side of the couch. He pulled out a small vial of holy water and began praying. I remember feeling sick, with a desire to dry heave the emptiness from my stomach. My skin began to crawl and then tears. Lying on the couch feeling displayed like a carcass waiting to be devoured by the heavenly host, I wanted to cry out for help. Then a wet, lukewarm thumb touched my forehead as my therapist continuously prayed for the cleansing of my sins. I don't remember how long this went on, but I do remember wanting it to stop. It wasn't working. The heavenly redemption I was seeking was instead a Hell on Earth experience. After it was over I remember feeling the same as before -- still attracted to men, but confused as to what I just went through."
Keystone Features / Stringer/Getty Images
After his "failed" exorcism, Josh suffered from Religious Trauma Syndrome: a form of PTSD caused by close proximity to a Jesus explosion.
"Depression, anxiety, and fatigue impacted my ability to function throughout the days and months following," he says. "I would break into sweats thinking about my place in eternity."
Josh's entire worldview was shattered, and the first step towards reassembling the shards was to force a break of his own: "I had to break away from all of it. Similar to ripping off a Band-Aid, the pain was immediate but didn't last. I began turning off all the outside noises of church friends and religious leaders, instead listening to my inner voice. 1 Kings 19:12 tells of the sound of a gentle whisper following an earthquake and a fire. I look at my conversion therapy as those natural disasters, and afterwards came the whisper of truth from within telling me I am beloved by the God I believe in. It took a while to hear that voice."
Josh Sanders is an inclusion consultant, social justice activist and media talent. Follow him on Twitter @joshbsanders. Jason is an editor for Cracked. Exorcise his insecurity demons by liking his Facebook page.
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