Some may feel they’ve had a brush with evil, others experience total demonic possession. Either way, the demand for exorcisms keeps the Church busy.
It’s about 9pm when Michael Hewat answers the phone at his Dinsdale vicarage.
Two minutes later he’s out the door and on the road.
People in a house a short drive away in the country are scared. A man in their company has suddenly started hissing like a snake.
Hewat, vicar of West Hamilton Anglican Parish, knows the signs. Behaving like an animal especially a snake can be evidence of possession by demons.
Later the occupants would tell Hewat that as his headlights came up the driveway, the man, with a history of P use, went into a frenzy.
It seems he sensed what Hewat was there for.
When Hewat gets out of the car the heavily tattooed man is on the veranda.
His eyes are narrow and angry. Hewat puts a wooden crucifix in front of the man and starts praying for him.
It sounds like a supernatural thriller. But Hewat assures the Waikato Times that it happened.
He is matter-of-fact about exorcisms, which he says are relatively rare maybe two or three a year.
House blessings are more common. He doesn’t particularly enjoy the exorcisms, but they have to be done.
He’s agreed to talk about this subject because of what occurred in Wainuiomata in October.
He wants people to know that the tragic death of Janet Moses in a bizarre attempt to lift a Maori curse called a makutu has no relationship with exorcisms practised in the Christian Church.
Moses’ life ended when buckets of water forced down her throat finally drowned her.
Her 14-year-old cousin was also a target and almost lost her eyesight after having her eyeballs gouged. The behaviour even has Maori experts on makutu wondering what was going on.
For many of us, knowledge of exorcisms is limited to memories of the movie The Exorcist: Linda Blair levitating or swivelling her head around 360 degrees; two priests repeatedly shouting the words “the power of Christ compels you!”.
With the charismatic Christian revival in recent decades, exorcism or deliverance as it is known has become a relatively common practice.
Proponents are keen to point out that deliverance is quick, relaxed and gentle.
Generally it is simply a case of praying for someone a far cry from the incident in Wainuiomata or the way exorcism is portrayed in movies.
Some churches don’t practise exorcisms. Others use it regularly.
One woman who’d had several exorcisms told the Times that demons are common and most people could benefit from being “set free”.
The events of October 12 when Janet Moses died are still being pieced together by police. They are seeking advice on how to handle the matter and how to access who is culpable.
No kaumatua or tohunga (expert practitioner) was present at the house where the ceremony occurred only relatives.
Apparently a further six people were also “cleansed” including the 14-year-old cousin. The other five were unharmed.
It is understood the relatives believed a makutu had been put on after Moses’ sister stole a statue from a pub.
The extent to which exorcism is practised in Christianity depends on the church. Auckland University School of Theology head Elaine Wainwright says in Catholicism exorcisms are virtually unknown.
If they are done, it is only under the strictest guidelines. Most priests would not have performed one.
They would also not be considered by most mainstream churches such as Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican, and are practised more by the more evangelical churches.
Wainwright says often exorcism can simply be a case of praying over someone, “which is fine”.
“Where the problems come is when it becomes physical but they are aberrations.”
She refers to a case in 2001 of a Korean pastor in Auckland who conducted an exorcism that resulted in the death of one of his flock.
He was convicted of manslaughter but the verdict was overturned on appeal and a retrial ordered. He has since skipped the country.
While exorcism can be a fraught area, Wainwright is careful not to be critical.
“There’s an element in tradition around healing that I think the mainstream churches have lost sight of,” she says.
Michael Hewat sees exorcisms as an essential role for the church.
“I know of no mainline or pentecostal Christian denomination which does not still acknowledge that exorcism is one of the ministries Jesus commanded the church to exercise under his authority.
“True, there are many individual ministers and congregations within the liberal mainline who will not have a bar of it, but that is consistent with their rejection of a personal God doing anything supernatural, including raising Jesus from the dead.
“For those who have not abandoned a biblical faith, however, the devil too is a supernatural being who until he is finally vanquished once and for all needs regularly to be put in his place. Exorcism is one of the Church’s key weapons in this spiritual battle.”
Hewat recently did a house blessing.
He says occupants will generally contact him because they are worried about manifestations of spiritual activity such as doors opening and shutting and fingers trailing on the window.
Often the calls come from people associated with martial arts or involved with occult practices such as ouija boards or seances.
Such activities can provide the entry point for spiritualism, he says.
He’ll go through a house from room to room with salt and water, praying and symbolically cleaning.
Do house blessings work?
“I’ve never heard of one not working.”
He recalls one house he blessed after being called because children were seeing faces on the ceiling.
A teenager apparently returned to the house at night afterwards, unaware of what had happened, and immediately said: “What’s happened to the house? It feels completely different.”
Hewat’s introduction to exorcism came when he was part of a group supporting a minister in Auckland about 20 years ago.
A four-year-old girl was talking like an adult and saying horrible things about her mother. She was asleep as they prayed for her.
Suddenly one of the women who had a similar first name to the girl started screaming.
“She just went to pieces. We heard this terrible screaming from the other room. I thought ‘Oh no something has gone terribly wrong’.”
He says it appeared the demon had come out through the woman. It was initially traumatic for her but the exorcism was very successful.
Hewat says the crazed man on the veranda he described earlier settled down quite quickly after he prayed for him.
“He felt very tired afterwards and went to bed. A few weeks later I baptised him.”
Hamilton woman Robyn Jackson went through deliverance ministry soon after becoming a Christian in 1989.
Jackson had troubled times as a teenager and young adult.
In retrospect she feels she spent a lot of her life restlessly searching for love and for answers “in the wrong places”.
Living in Auckland, Jackson got interested in the occult and explored activities such as astrology, tarot card reading, channelling and psychic development.
“People tell you they are harmless, but I can tell you they are not.”
Still, she wasn’t fulfilled.
“There were no answers in what I’d been into it just wasn’t satisfying.
“I had tried seeking answers to my troubles and a lot of the hard questions in life but I was just going in the wrong direction and it made things worse.”
She began to feel she’d “stuffed up my life”.
Jackson eventually started going to an Anglican church but decided she needed more spiritual help.
She still had an oppressive feeling. She still felt “bound”.
Jackson began a series of sessions of deliverance ministry with the church’s minister and an associate.
She describes it as a bit like counselling, while they would also pray for her and ask for God’s guidance.
She remembers sensations sometimes a coughing, sometimes an unpleasant feeling the moment she felt whatever was inside her had left her body.
Jackson emphasises that it was a gentle process, done with love.
“There was nothing violent or no physical restraint.”
Which is why she regards the incident in Wainuiomata as so totally foreign.
“It’s just so far removed from my experience. It (deliverance ministry) is done with a lot of love and gentleness. But I’ll tell you what, it’s about power.
“The power of Jesus Christ is what does it. You can see Christ’s power when you go into a service where there’s a presence of God.”
Jackson felt immeasurably better once the process was over. She doesn’t like to use the word “demons” but feels dark spiritual powers had been removed.
“When the occult stuff went I felt just so much more able to relate to God and others. I was more compassionate. I wasn’t thinking only about me any more. A lot of those new age things are all about you.”
Jackson became deeply involved with the Anglican church. She became part of the church’s prayer ministry team, participating in deliverance ministry when she was needed.
She emphasises the method is just one way of the church helping troubled people. Deliverance ministry needs to work in with medical requirements or counselling and lifestyle changes.
Nor does it make you immune from what else life may throw at you. For example, soon after, Jackson struggled to deal with the death of her husband.
“The reality is we are human beings so things don’t always go right.”
Jackson says she hasn’t seen movies such as The Exorcist but describes some of what she has heard of their portrayal of exorcism as “absolute Hollywood rubbish”.
These days she is a different person, remarried, a successful naturopath and politically active. She accepts that people may find it hard to believe in the experiences she describes.
“To understand the deliverance ministry they have to really accept that there is good and evil. I realise that if people don’t believe in God they won’t be able to accept my explanation.”
Jackson says the reason she shared her experiences with the Waikato Times is that she wants other people to be able to ask for help.
“That’s the reason I’m sharing. I hope it helps someone to be free and know the love of God in a much greater way.”
The Times spoke to another woman who has been through exorcisms, who says most people will have some kind of demon.
She recounts how she had a lot of trouble throughout much of her life with grief and fear.
She could never understand where it came from or what was really wrong. Eventually she received deliverance ministry.
She was told during the process of how her father’s grandmother had a little girl who died and went through terrible grief.
The person praying for her removed what she calls “the spirit of grief”. She knew nothing of her ancestors’ tragedy until that moment. That night she called her parents in England who confirmed it.
Similarly as a child she had a terrible fear of death which had continued into adulthood.
Again, the “spirit of death” was removed through prayers. This time she traced the problem to her mother, who nearly died when she gave birth to her first child while a missionary in India.
Her mother had become pregnant again and was scared of what would happen. It appeared her mother’s fears were passed down to her before she was born.
“Often things happen in childhood that cause an emotional wound. I’m sure there is a lot of good that can come from counselling but if you have a demon there, you should get rid of it. It’s so simple and so gentle and so normal. Most people will have some kind of demon.”
David Riddell, editor of New Zealand Skeptics, says there was a time when almost everything the weather, disease, earthquakes, comets and eclipses was explained in supernatural terms.
“We have progressed as a society by developing natural explanations for the world around us, and this applies to the mental health field as well.
“Rather than interpreting erratic or destructive behaviour as the result of demons or curses, it’s likely to be more productive to see such things as being due to psychological trauma or physiological imbalance, and to manage treatment on that basis.
“Of course it’s becoming recognised that our psychological state has a tremendous effect on our physical wellbeing, and it may be that rituals or ceremonies which are appropriate to the person’s particular worldview may have a part to play in restoring his or her equilibrium.”
Riddell says such ceremonies shouldn’t be to the exclusion of other approaches, nor should they involve coercion.
“Anyone participating in tikanga Maori relating to makutu, an evangelical church’s exorcism or a New Age rebirthing ceremony all of which have seen people killed must, if someone’s well-being is threatened, be prepared to stand up and say, this has to stop.”
Michael Hewat says he takes great care with exorcism from start to finish. He is very careful about who he exorcises and how he does it.
Children should be prayed for from a distance, he says.
Hewat is careful with mental illnesses and says there is a need to work alongside medical authorities.
“A responsible person will take a holistic approach to any illness. You do have to be careful. There’s potential to do some psychiatric damage to people.
“There are often many complexities. Other help may be required but exorcism can be an important part in the process.”
He pre-counsels people and debriefs them.
“I’ve never known anyone who’s been delivered and regretted it.”
He emphasises that there is no need for any histrionics.
Exorcism can be done quickly and calmly. He has no great ritual that he follows other than to cover himself and cover the other people there.
“If a demon is coming out, you have to make sure it doesn’t come out through someone else.”
He also doesn’t like to see exorcisms done publicly.
“It’s not for public entertainment. It horrified me that someone would do it on TV. It’s not sensitive to put someone on display like that.”
If Hewat gets a call from someone who wants an exorcism he usually meets them in the church chapel.
“Satan knows he’s on your turf , there’s also lots of visual symbolism which can make people feel more secure.”
The level of demonic activity can vary from people having bad thoughts, who feel they’ve had a brush with evil, to total demonic possession.
Hewat wants people to be aware of the good deliverance ministry can do: “Given that a small number of people in our society do suffer the terrible affliction of demonic possession and will only find freedom through exorcism, it would be regrettable if the tragic experience of Janet Moses were to discredit what is a valid ministry of the Christian church.”