The Devil You Know

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Note: The following is an short excerpt of a longer piece published by marie claire InternationalAlso, the names of the allegedly possessed women in the article have been changed to protect their identity.

The various demons currently possessing the body of Eve Hammer are annoying the hell out of the Reverend Bob Larson.

It is the end of the first day of the world’s first International Exorcist Convention, a kind-of industry trade show for professional demon hunters held in the strip-mall-soaked suburb of Lakeland, Florida. Larson, a former conservative radio talk show host and current YouTube televangelist, is perhaps the world’s most famous exorcist, and certainly the most controversial. His steady, deep-set eyes are offset by his slight built, slicked back ginger hair, and salt-and-pepper beard, all of which is packaged in a simple outfit as black as a murder of crows; together they project a picture of calm and steady strength. Larson has been on stage all day, giving lectures and hawking official Bob Larson Certified Merchandise. We attendees are told these treasures are specially priced today, just for us, likely at a loss to Larson himself but generously extended nonetheless as a sort of gathered TradeMarked and CopyRighted alms, all of which seem almost comically expensive.

Critics say Larson is a grifter looking to make a quick dollar preying on people at their weakest and most vulnerable. But the hundred or so convention attendees believe him to be a once-in-a-generation holy man, moved by the divine hand of God Himself. They are True Believers, each and every one, and Larson has so far rewarded their faith with his personal blend of charisma and unflappable charm. Except that now, here at the end of the our day, Larson’s charm appears to have suddenly become flapped.

Larson has chosen to conclude day one with an actual, real-life exorcism, performed live on stage on the middle-aged Eve Hammer. Eve is woman from a local Episcopal parish who has long-suffered from mental illness. Her parish priest had heard about the convention in advance, and has decided to take a chance that an exorcism by Larson might well be the key to Eve finally finding a measure of peace.

Before starting Eve’s exorcism, at a little before 8:00PM, Larson had explained to the crowd that he needed to leave for a previous engagement at precisely 9:00PM. Autograph seekers and exorcism groupies, he apologized, would have to wait until the next morning to chat him up or shake his hand. But that was almost an hour ago, and now it is 8:50PM, just ten minutes before Larson very much wants to leave the building, and the demon he is trying to exorcise from the raven-haired Eve isn’t cooperating at all.

In order to cast out a demon, it has been explained to us that day, an exorcist must learn the name of the demon, the moment it first entered the victim’s body, and the sin the victim committed that gave the demon its “legal right” to be in its host’s body. Once an exorcist knows these three things, we are told, the demon is required by whatever bylaws govern possession to exit the host and return to Hell. Most of an exorcist’s job is discovering the demon’s name and this history; the ability to do so quickly is what gives an exorcist street cred amongst his peers. If his YouTube videos are any indication, Larson can usually do this in about five minutes, ten minutes tops. Eve, however, is proving to be a far tougher nut to crack, and it’s clearly irritating Larson.

It might be that Eve has just been introduced to Larson and doesn’t know the drill, or it might be that there really is a demon inside of Eve, but it’s especially dimwitted and doesn’t understand its job. Either way, no matter how many times Larson throws holy water upon Eve’s face or jams his silver-plated cross across her forehead or chest, Eve (or her demon) just doesn’t get that she’s supposed to verbally agree with Larson’s leading questions. And now it’s getting close to 9 o’clock, and Larson is clearly miffed that thanks to Eve (or her demon), he might have to miss his evening appointment.

Finally, just when it seems like he will have to stay at the convention later than he had hoped, Larson pulls a rabbit out the hat.

“Let me just take a wild guess,” he says to Eve (or Eve’s demon), in what appears to be an attempt to bring everything to a close. Larson proceeds to hurriedly rifle a long-winded and somewhat tortured guess that what is possessing Eve is none other than a tag-team of the demons Murder and Jezebel, and that Murder and Jezebel have been in Eve’s family for 17 generations, and that they originally entered an ancestor of Eve’s that was made pregnant by a Vatican priest, and that they did so because she (Eve’s ancestor) had sex with that priest out of wedlock, and that because the priest didn’t want to be caught as a fornicator he murdered her (Eve’s ancestor) and her unborn child, and thus Murder and Jezebel been traveling through the family bloodline of that woman and her unborn child conceived in sin ever since.

As wild-ass guesses go, Larson’s is bizarrely specific. It’s also not particularly well thought out, as murdered fetuses as a general rule don’t go on to pass on their bloodline down to future generations. Still, credit where credit’s due. Larson either manages to guess correctly or Eve finally gets the hint, because within minutes Eve exits the stage, euphoric and demon-free.

Moments later, as he is walking by me on his way out the building at exactly 9:00, Larson stops, turns, and looks me in the eye. “Now that,” he says with a wink and conspiratorial smile, “is the way you do an exorcism.”

And then he is gone, as quickly and completely as the demons he cast out of Eve. In his wake he leaves a trail of dozens of ‘professional exorcists’ and groupies, each and every one of them down on their knees, thanking God and Jesus for Bob Larson and the true miracle they had just witnessed.

*       *      *

All around the world, and especially in the United States, the practice of exorcising the devil out of sinners is on the rise. Since 2010 the number of church-approved Catholic exorcists in the U.S. has skyrocketed from 15 to 50. Indeed, it might surprise you to know that after the infamously conservative Pope Benedict all but outlawed the arcane practice, the liberal Pope Francis has shepherded the number of Catholic exorcisms back to numbers not seen in over a century.

Growing faster still is the so-called Deliverance Movement, a loose affiliation of Evangelical ministries and churches devoted to the exorcism of their parishioners’ demons. Because the Deliverance Movement lacks a governing body, the actual number of ministries is unclear, but experts estimate that in the past decade their number has gone from the hundreds to the thousands, and perhaps the tens of thousands. Larson’s explanation for the growth of exorcisms is simple: he claims the number of demon possessions is increasing exponentially.

ReverendBobLarson 2“The world is getting more evil every day,” Larson tells me. “The movement toward permissiveness is like a beacon to a demon looking for a way out of Hell.” Larson also credits multiculturalism with this rise in wickedness, a belief that likely explains why, at least in the United States, the Deliverance Movement is almost entirely white. “Brown people, for economic reasons or the way they’re raised of whatever, are becoming more violent. Fifty years ago brown people didn’t have any real problems.”

Another likely reason for the recent rise of exorcism is the Internet. Twenty years ago, it never occurred to most people that the problems in their life might be caused by the Devil. Now, however, googling for Christian solutions to any troubling life issue — from the profound to the mundane — will eventually bring you to the possibility that your real problem is demons. If anything, today’s Deliverance Movement operates as a kind of cure-all self-help industry. If you can’t get that big promotion at work, if you struggle with time management, or if that hot guy from the gym you have your eye on just looks right through you, members of the Deliverance Movement will tell you that your likely problem is demon possession.

Or, at least, they will tell you that if you are a woman.

The vast majority of exorcisms performed by the Deliverance Movement are conducted by teams of male exorcists on women. There is no official explanation from movement leaders for why this might be, though unofficially most of the men at the convention agree that it comes down to what they see as a difference in the sexes’ mental capabilities. Protecting yourself from demons, I was told repeatedly, requires the ability to be both disciplined and clear-thinking. In the world of the Deliverance Movement, those are seen as inherently male traits. As one attendee explained to me, “women tend to be flighty” and “easily distracted by shopping and things, which can make it easier for a demon to enter your body.”

“It makes sense, when you think about it,” reasons Larson. “Who goes to therapists more, men or women? Women, obviously, so it makes sense they would have more exorcisms too.”

Another likely reason for this gender disparity is that the most common way to be possessed is to invite the demon Jezebel into your life. And if you are a woman, avoiding Jezebel is damned tricky. Jezebel will invade you if you have sex outside of the marriage bed, or even if you simply think lustful thoughts. Even trickier, women also invite Jezebel into their bodies by not fulfilling their carnal duties to their husbands on demand. Jezebel can even enter you if you are a woman who receives unwelcome sexual advances from a man other than your husband. In other words if you are a woman, Jezebel pretty much gets you coming and going.

Despite their skittishness about female sexuality, the Deliverance Movement’s exorcisms themselves seem to an outsider to be an overtly sexual affair. They usually involve burly men holding a woman down while she moans and writhes in her chair or on the floor. The exorcist will often induce greater writhing and louder noises by holding his cross between the woman’s breasts, or against her lower abdomen. It should be noted that none of the people I spoke with saw any of those things as being even remotely sexual, or believed that anyone reasonably could. Still, it is hard to walk away from a weekend of exorcisms and not feel like you’ve just witnessed some kind of fundamentalist cosplay.

For their part, however, every woman I spoke to who had gone through an Deliverance Movement exorcism says that it changed her life for the better. When their demons are purged, they say, they feel calmer, happier, and more confident. Most enjoy it so much that they become repeat customers. They treat their exorcist as many would a therapist, returning whenever their life takes a turn for the worse.

And, just like traditional therapy, exorcism can be hell on one’s bank account.

One example of just how expensive exorcism can be over time is Melissa Flowers, who has come to the International Exorcism Convention to have yet another demon cast out of her.

Flowers is a slight, wiry 25-year-old part-time model with a megawatt smile, infectious laugh, and strikingly dark and soulful eyes. Flowers is an unassuming person, more likely than not to be dressed in a plain tshirt and jeans, and one who struggles to make ends meet financially back at her home in Pennsylvania. Flowers has been to see Larson several times over the past couple of years, and every time she does so, she says, she leaves with a renewed sense of hope — a thing she desperately needs these days.

Flowers has serious anger issues. Serious enough that she’s been diagnosed with a serious mental illness (she won’t tell me which one) that requires medication. She says she doesn’t need her meds anymore, because Larson has shown her that it was just a bad case of demons all along. It’s really much better now, she insists, except… well, except that the demons keep returning. She’d like to visit Larson more often, she laments, but she just can’t afford it. When I ask her how much she pays for these exorcisms, she tells me $2,000.

“You make less than minimum wage and you’ve paid $2000 for exorcisms?” I ask, not able to hide my surprise.

“No, not $2000 total,” Flowers corrects me. “Bob charges me $2,000 for each session.” After seeing the expression on my face, she quickly backpedals. “Oh, no, it’s not like that,” she says emphatically, “Bob’s actually really generous.”

And then, because I seem unconvinced, Flowers continues, “I’ve recently had some really bad health issues, including cancer. I don’t have any insurance, and I’m having a hard time getting enough money to treat them. Bob knows that, and he’s been amazing.” Flowers busts out a beatific smile at the memory of Larson’s munificence. “So this time he’s agreed to only charge me $1,900.”

“Hey, I have a big operation with a lot of expenses,” Larson explains later when I ask him about his seemingly exorbitant prices. “You want a cheap exorcism? Google around, you can find one. You want one by the man you see on YouTube and television? Well, that’s going to cost you extra.”

*       *       *

Whether you are a believer or skeptic, seeing an exorcism in person is a profoundly intense and disturbing experience.

A great deal of an exorcism looks like you might expect: there is the speaking in tongues and lashing out at the exorcist by the possessed, the tossing of holy water, and of course the drama. In fact, almost everything in a real-life exorcism looks and sounds exactly like an exorcism from the movies, except without anything overtly supernatural like levitating furniture or spinning heads. Which raises the chicken-and-egg question, did Hollywood movies copy exorcisms of old or do people being exorcised today copy Hollywood movies?

Incredibly though, despite its decidedly dramatic flair, the world’s first International Exorcism Convention is perhaps most notable for its banality.

It’s not even a convention so much as it is a weekend-long infomercial. Each individual lecture, all of which are given by Larson, is really a just a spiel about an item on sale at the convention merch table. The convention itself is a pitch to get people to sign up for the new “graduate program” at the International School of Exorcism, an online college owned by Larson. I am told that the school is actually fully accredited, which is surprising until you learn that the organization that accredited it is Spiritual Freedom Churches, Inc. International, a for-profit business also owned by Larson.

None of this bothers the conventions attendees, who line up en mass to spend their money each time Larson gives them the opportunity. The way they see it, they’re being given the chance to save the world with a man they truly see as a prophet.

“I used to be into the New Age movement,” says Jerry, an attendee and newly minted exorcist. “But Bob showed me how the people who lead that movement are all just conmen. I don’t even want to tell you what some of them got me to pay for healing crystals.”

I am standing with Jerry during a break as he waits in line to buy an Official Bob Larson Deliverance Cross. Before the break, Larson had explained that word travels fast in Hell, and demons have learned that an exorcist wielding a Official Bob Larson Deliverance Cross meant business, and that it might just give you the edge when facing an especially dangerous fiend from Hell. Jerry lets me hold the cross after he purchases it. He says he was told it’s solid silver, but it’s obvious from the lack of weight that it is neither. Later, I will find similar crosses on line for a couple of bucks. Larson is charging Jerry $100.

“God Bless Bob Larson,” says Jerry, fighting off a tear as he slips his new cross into his merch bag.

maxresdefault 3Of course, the central question at the heart of Bob Larson— is he a prophet or conman? — is one that can only be answered by Larson himself, and even then only if you are inclined to believe him.

“I do what I do because God tells me to,” Larson contends. “It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not.” And in a way, he’s right.

Belief in the power of exorcism is an act of faith, in both directions. You might believe it’s all real, or you might believe the various and decidedly non-supernatural explanations about the Deliverance Movement given by social sceintists. Whichever way you lean, you do so in faith, because it’s impossible to prove the negative that demons don’t exist, or that Bob Larson doesn’t cast them out of the bodies of sinners. Who knows who’s wrong and who’s right, where the supernatural and the divine are concerned? Regular exorcisms, along with a collection of Bob Larson’s books and certified paraphernalia, might indeed be all that separates you from the that elusive happiness you’ve always desired but never found.

If you can afford it, that is.

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