Caught in the middle are growing numbers of Americans.
The devil, it seems, has stepped out of the movies and into the living room. Demons are blamed for everything from headaches to shyness. And more people are calling upon exorcists, the Red Adairs of the supernatural world, to fight back.
Exorcism, also known as deliverance, has gained such cachet that even a handful of Christian psychologists use it. Still, it remains outside the majority of mainstream religious and psychological practices. Most believers are American charismatics.
Critics warn that the practice can cause people to shirk responsibility for their own actions-or push them into mental illness. In a few isolated instances, exorcism has resulted in death. Skeptics also point to the lack of scientific or medical proof that demons exist, much less possess humans.
Nevertheless, practitioners estimate that thousands of exorcisms take place each year. In some quarters, demon dueling has become the spiritual equivalent of acupuncture. Can’t quit smoking? Maybe it’s an evil spirit. Insomnia? Don’t expect sleeping pills to help.
The current use of exorcism is unprecedented, says Jeffrey Burton Russell, a University of California, Santa Barbara historian who has written several books on the devil in Christian history. Traditionally, exorcism has not been applied to correct bad habits or immoral behavior, he says; it was used only to free people believed to be under complete demonic control.
But unconventional ideas seem to be a hallmark of modern-day exorcism:
* Frank Sumrall, an evangelist in South Bend, Ind., claims that crime victims can force demon-led criminals to drop their guns by invoking the name of Jesus.
* In rural Connecticut, veteran devil-chaser Ed Warren refrigerates a basement full of voodoo dolls, Ouija boards and other demon-filled artifacts because evil spirits “don’t like the cold” and require heat “to manifest their presence.” His collection includes a Raggedy Ann doll, enclosed in a glass case, that reportedly slashed one man and attacked others. “Don’t touch anything,” Warren tells visitors, as if demons could be picked up like germs.
* Watts preacher Ed Bynum says evil spirits talk to him on a first-name basis because he is famous in hell for demon-busting.
* A British surgeon-psychiatrist, Dr. Kenneth McAll, claims he and several Anglican clergymen used deliverance in 1977 to break a curse causing strange disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. In his book on exorcising ancestral demons, McAll says the curse was lifted after Communion services were held for the souls of thousands of African slaves thrown overboard by slave traders.
Perhaps the most unexpected endorsements of exorcism come from a psychiatrist’s couch. M. Scott Peck, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and author of the best-selling “The Road Less Traveled,” has predicted that demonic possession will be an accepted medical diagnosis by the mid-1990s. Peck also has said he converted to Christianity after taking part in two exorcisms. He now declines interviews, saying his views are thoroughly covered in his book “People of the Lie.”
Another supporter is John Lambert, a psychotherapist on Long Island, who says he uses deliverance-but with caution. His prayers to cast out demons are often silent, he says, because if you start talking about devils to someone already on the edge, they might slip into psychosis. But he says exorcism can make his job easier: “Once Satan leaves, I know I’m dealing with a human.”
Douglas Schoeninger, a clinical psychologist at the Institute for Christian Counseling and Therapy near Philadelphia, resorts to exorcism when traditional methods reach an impasse. Sometimes, he says, people are blocked in ways moved only by deliverance.
In Southern California, at least 10 mental-health professionals occasionally use exorcism with patients, says a local spokeswoman for the Assn. of Christian Therapists, an international organization of 1,100 psychologists, counselors, physicians and nurses-most of them Catholic, some of them clergy.
One Los Angeles-area member, a licensed clinical social worker who identified herself only as Judy K., says she has three patients on whom she performs exorcisms nearly every time they visit. She described another client who underwent an exorcism and “began to vomit and heave and said, `There’s a snake coming out and lots of baby snakes.’ ”
And one Los Angeles Unified School District psychologist says that for her own safety, she uses unspoken prayers to cast out evil spirits whenever she deals with troubled youths, such as gang members.
Exorcism’s critics contend the practice poses dangers even in a therapist’s hands. The idea that demons can control human behavior is the ultimate denial of personal responsibility, says Rex Julian Beaber, a clinical psychologist and attorney in West Los Angeles. People cannot conquer unwanted behavior unless they confront the causes within themselves, he says.
Father James LeBar of New York, who works with several exorcists nationwide, agrees: “People have free will. The devil can’t do anything without permission.”
Beaber calls exorcism a cult version of a New Year’s resolution-a dramatic event giving a person permission to change.
He also refers to studies showing that people see and act in accordance with others’ expectations: “People in psychoanalysis have Freudian dreams; people in Jungian analysis have Jungian dreams.” And, he says, people into exorcism are also playing a role: “If it’s played dramatically enough, they believe it. And if they believe it, then it has power.”
Beaber’s argument might be corroborated by a story told by Jerry Bodine, a Garden Grove evangelist skeptical of exorcism. He recalls watching a deliverance at which the recipient “came in with a four-quart plastic barf bucket, some towels and all the other paraphernalia . . . then he shook and he rattled, he jumped and he writhed and he tried to vomit.” Bodine found the apparent role-playing “so disgusting that I left.”
Likewise, an exorcism recipient from Orange County, who says demons spoke to him and projected evil thoughts into his mind, acknowledged that his symptoms began only after he read “Satan Is Alive And Well On Planet Earth” by Christian author Hal Lindsey.
Critics point to other risks, as well.
In West Germany in 1970, a theology student starved to death while undergoing an 11-month marathon of exorcisms to cure her epilepsy. The two Catholic priests involved said they thought the woman was inhabited by demons of Hitler and Nero. The priests and the woman’s parents were later indicted for negligent homicide.
Skipp Porteous of Massachusetts, a former Pentecostal minister and exorcist who has since abandoned his faith, says he knows of two or three people who committed suicide after exorcisms because they should have received psychological help instead: “It wasn’t a spiritual problem; it was a mental problem.”
Despite such drawbacks, some therapists and others continue to experiment with demon-busting. The latest twist involves something called family tree deliverance, which is used to heal seemingly hereditary predispositions and behavioral problems.
The idea is that demons who plagued an ancestor can be passed to succeeding generations. The dead person’s spirit clings to the soul of a blood relative, bringing demons with it, says sister Anne Tubman, a nun and licensed counselor in the Bronx, N.Y.
During the past seven years, Tubman has performed about 500 family tree deliverances. Her patients have included an alcoholic woman whose problem was traced through three generations and a chronically depressed youngster whose family tree was filled with suicides, she says. Once the offending ancestors were ferreted out, Requiem Masses were held for their souls.
Historian Russell calls family tree deliverance “bizarre” and says it’s unheard of in church history. Father Thomas Bermingham, a consultant to the book and film versions of “The Exorcist,” agrees: “I’d have to see real evidence before I felt you could do something as staggering as actually getting back into a family tree.”
Today, exorcism is a smorgasbord of theories about demons and methods for dealing with them.
Take, for example, the question of how evil spirits gain influence over a person. Rock music, holding a grudge, Ouija boards, greed and fear are among the many inroads cited by exorcists.
“I’ve seen these lists, and some include mayonnaise and peanut butter,” quips Jack Peere, an associate pastor at the 7,000-member Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim.
A few items, however, turned up on everyone’s inventory.
One was persistent disobedience of God’s commands. Lutheran minister Philip Gehlhar of Westminster tells of a woman in his congregation who said an “ugly, grotesque creature” entered her bedroom, threw her on the mattress, then pointed at her and laughed. The woman brought on the demonic attack, Gehlhar says, by having an affair.
Some ministers command the demons to identify themselves because that supposedly makes it easier to expel them. Usually, the spirit’s name matches the behavior it inspires-lust, anger, fear of elevators. But some exorcists report encountering demons with names such as Scott, Phil, Nutrition and Inordinate Love of the Chinese.
The two dozen exorcists interviewed for this story agree that occult experimentation-holding a seance or seeing a fortuneteller-is an invitation to Satanic influence. A few warn that even reading a newspaper horoscope is risky.
But demons also reportedly invade in circumstances over which the victim has no control. Episodes of emotional trauma or overwhelming fear, perhaps occurring in childhood, can establish a connection with demonic forces by weakening a person’s normal mental defenses, exorcists say.
No one seems sure, though, why demons attack in some cases but overlook others.
“It might be like running a red light,” Gehlhar theorizes. “Sometimes you don’t get caught.”