The horrifying truth about exorcisms

The horrifying truth about exorcisms

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A. C. Grimes

The Son of Man, whose mother was a virgin, was arguably the granddaddy of exorcisms. As New Testament professor Greg Carey explained, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus removes “unclean spirits” like a divine Dirt Devil. Carey notes that Jesus doesn’t just give demons the heebie-jeebies. He also mends fractured relationships. In the story of the Gerasene demoniac, for example, a horde of demons called Legion possesses a man, who ends up living alone “among the tombs” where he strikes himself with stones. Christ powerfully compels the demons to leave, allowing the man to reclaim the relationships he lost.

Carey likens the possessed man’s seclusion to the desolation and loneliness endured by those in the throes of mental illness. The horrifying irony is that exorcisms have long bedeviled the mentally ill. Attempts to exorcise disorders deemed demons have often been demoralizing, immoral, and morbid. In other instances people who simply seemed abnormal have endured abominable treatment in the name of healing them. In such cases the quest to beset evil actually begets it.

The lesion of demons

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The aforementioned tale of the Gerasene demoniac is rich with subtext when taken in historical context. According to Professor Greg Carey, the demons’ name, Legion, doubles as a reference to the Roman army, which sacked Jerusalem around the same time the Gospel of Mark was written. Then there’s the exorcism. When Jesus drives out Legion, the demons “drive 2,000 pigs into the sea.” Pigs allude to the presence of non-Jews, and ancient Jewish imagery linked the sea with encroaching Romans.

Seen metaphorically, the Legion of demons represents Roman legions, demonic possession points to the dispossession of Jews, and exorcism symbolizes the desired expulsion of the Romans. Seen from Daniel Kfoury’s perspective, a legion of demons was an actual army of demons with actual army ranks. In 1985, Kfoury believed “up to 2,000 demons” formed this legion and resided inside his Virginia roommate, Robert Bloom. To beat them, he reasoned, he needed to beat them out of Bloom one by one.

That legion, however, was actually lesions. The Washington Post explained that Bloom had brain damage from getting hit by a truck. The collision had a lasting impact, impairing his speech, gait, and cognitive abilities. Bloom’s buddies abandoned him. Lonely, he joined a church in Virginia where he met Daniel Kfoury. Demons occupied Kfoury’s thoughts, and he thought they occupied Bloom. One day in 1985, he tried to beat demons out of Bloom for seven hours, killing him. Kfoury received a 10-year sentence for manslaughter.

When in Romania, do as the Romans did

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As psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton observed, humanity has long linked mental illness with insidious spirits. When you consider a condition like schizophrenia, it’s easy to see why. Per the Mayo Clinic, the mind-fracturing disorder causes hallucinations, delusions, chaotic thoughts and speech patterns, and “unpredictable agitation.” That sounds like hell crammed in a cranium. Understandably, religion informed remedies for such ailments throughout the Middle Ages. That tendency tapered off during the Enlightenment as people reasoned that mental illness was a matter of the mind. But not everyone has seen the light.

In 2005 a Romanian priest got medieval on a schizophrenic nun. CBS reported that Maricica Cornici began hearing wicked whispers in April. A psychiatrist later revealed that the nun believed Beelzebub called her “a sinful person.” Cornici sought refuge at a psychiatric hospital. After receiving medication for schizophrenia she visited a Romanian convent where cleric Daniel Corogeanu pronounced her possessed and had her crucified.

In a moment reminiscent of the Romans offering Christ wine before crucifying him, Corogeanu implored Cornici to consume holy water. After she, like Jesus, refused to drink, the priest and four other nuns chained her to a cross, stuffed a towel in her mouth, and starved her for three days. Cornici died of dehydration. Corogeanu was unrepentant. In fact he hailed her death as a “miracle” by God and thus “entirely justified.” A Romanian court disagreed and sentenced him to seven years behind bars.

The sound of science

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Madness has many forms, and failure to conform to norms is sometimes treated like a symptom. Take, for example, the classification of homosexuality as a mental malady. Originally seen as a sin, same-sex mating was deemed a psychological pathology by the late 19th century, per UC Davis. While therapists departed from theologians in terms of explanation, their treatment of homosexuals sometimes overlapped. During the 1950s and ’60s various therapists implemented what was arguably a secular version of gay exorcisms. As Psychology Today detailed, doctors showed pics of nude dudes to gay guys “while giving them electric shocks or drugs to make them vomit.”

Psychology has since largely abandoned such homophobic practices. But their underlying ideas live on in Christian-driven gay conversion therapy, which has been paired with exorcisms. Moreover, in some parts of the world people can be sent to psych facilities for being gay or have their gayness prayed away. Case in point: Chechnya, a mostly Muslim area of Russia where homophobia’s so rampant, the region’s leader won’t admit homosexuals live there.

In 2018 the BBC reported on an anonymous Chechen lesbian referred to as “Marko.” Marko’s Muslim family disapproved of her gayness and gave her an ultimatum. She could be killed, locked in a psychiatric hospital indefinitely, or undergo an exorcism. Marko went with the exorcism. A mullah held her head and recited Koranic verses for two hours to straighten her out. Marko pretended her lesbian demons left until she left Russia.

No sympathy for the bedeviled

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Many people associate exorcists with the movie The Exorcist, wherein a teenage Linda Blair pukes pea soup and tells a priest his mom sucks. Others might picture the parody Repossessed, wherein an older Linda Blair pukes more pea soup and tells a priest that Peewee Herman sucks. Either way, Linda Blair becomes a vessel for the devil and hurls sick burns. Real exorcisms tend to lack that levity. In Nicaragua, for instance, instead of receiving sick burns, an exorcist burned a sick woman to death.

Per the BBC, in 2017 Nicaraguan villager Vilma Trujillo began having hallucinations, talking to herself, and weeping hysterically. Trujillo’s aunt recalled: “She told her sister she would not give birth to a baby but to a serpent.” As Trujillo unraveled, her tightknit family decided to help her. Since the nearest hospital would take nearly a day to reach, they reached out to Pastor Juan Rocha (above).

Rocha believed Trujillo had Satan inside her, so he and four congregants dragged her to a cabin where they tied her up, beat her down, and denied her nourishment. According to court testimony (via The Telegraph), Rocha told Trujillo’s relatives “not to feel any love for her because it was just the devil.” According to Rocha, God instructed him to fight hellfire with fire-fire. So Trujillo was tied to a tree beside a pyre where she burned for five hours. She later died. Rocha was condemned to 30 years in prison and possibly an eternity of burning.

Exorcising good judgment

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Because demonic possession is a matter of life and afterlife, some exorcists consult a higher authority before dueling with the devil. Reuters reported that the Vatican offers exorcism courses that teach priests how to outfox evil and even expel spirits via cell phone. As exorcist instructor Friar Benigno Palilla warned Newsweek, “A self-taught exorcist certainly meets errors.” In 2015 religious officials in Germany’s Catholic diocese of Limburg voiced similar sentiments after a family of would-be exorcists killed a relative.

The tragedy transpired at an InterContinental Hotel in Frankfurt. Per The Local, a group of South Korean relatives started staying there amid fears that their rental house in Sulzbach, Germany, was haunted. Things took a turn for the twisted when one family member –- a 41-year-old woman –- began hitting herself and behaving aggressively toward the others. Convinced that fiendish forces were afoot, five of the victim’s relatives –- including her teenage son –- held her down and pounded her torso for at least two hours.

As it turned out, the family regularly used beatings to combat demons. They held Christian views infused with shamanistic beliefs. To them, German press reports explained, “spirits play a powerful role in the world.” Luckily, so do laws. A court convicted the quintet of deadly bodily harm. One (shown above) received a six-year sentence. The rest received suspended sentences.

What should Jesús do?

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In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Mexican priest and exorcist extraordinaire Cesar Truqui declared that “Christ was the first exorcist.” In a sense that makes every Christian exorcist a Jesus tribute band. Tribute bands seldom excel like the originals, but Truqui claimed to have hit the right notes during more than 100,000 exorcisms. Perhaps part of his alleged success lies in his willingness to acknowledge that mentally ill people seeking his services might be better served by psychiatric help. It’s unclear whether Jesus would have made that distinction, but Jesús Hernández Sahagún certainly didn’t in 2012.

As The Local elaborated, Hernández Sahagún was the official exorcist of the city of Valladolid, Spain, and purportedly performed over 200 exorcisms. In 2012 the priest waged a crusade to save a teenage girl with anorexia. She was already getting medical care, but her parents believed demons tormented her. Hernández Sahagún criticized the amount of medicine the girl was taking and conducted 13 different exorcisms.

The priest tied up the teen and hung crosses over her head. These rites had the wrong effect. The girl was so traumatized she later attempted suicide. Hernández Sahagún denied wrongdoing, placing the onus on the devil for possessing the girl. It was a new spin on the old tried-and-false “devil made me do it” defense. Unfortunately for the priest, demonic possession isn’t nine-tenths of the law. In 2015 authorities jailed him for gender violence, causing injury, and mistreating the teen.

The power of heist compels you

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Regardless of the origins of exorcists, the notion of noxious spirits has existed across cultures for forever. The Telegraph noted that before 19th-century Christian missionaries swept New Zealand like a biblical flood, Polynesian New Zealanders known as the Maori already believed in a form of demonic possession. Their version was caused by a catastrophic curse called makutu. Sadly, devotion to that notion had catastrophic consequences in 2009.

It all started when Janet Moses’ sister stole a stone lion from outside a building. Soon thereafter, Moses –- a 22-year-old mother of two –- “began acting strangely.” A Maori elder advised her family that she would only recover once the statue was recovered by its rightful owner. Moses’ relatives returned the lion, but she didn’t return to normal. A relative later told the press that Moses was cursed for her sister’s crime because she was “the weakest person in the family.”

Moses’ family rallied to rescue her from demons they believed possessed her. On a fateful October day, 40 relatives filled a room and surrounded her. Some chanted incantations, restrained Moses, and gouged her eyes. To wash away the wickedness, they poured water into her eyes and down her throat until she drowned. A teenage relative who also seemed unwell also suffered eye gouges but survived. According to Radio New Zealand, a court convicted five relatives of manslaughter but sentenced them to community service and counseling.

Predator and pray

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Reverend Thomas Euteneuer made out of righteous indignation. On television, onstage, and online he wore his sanctimony like a face tattoo. As the Palm Beach Post summarized, the reverend once chastised Fox News host Sean Hannity for considering birth control better than abortion. The Post also recounted how Euteneuer took potshots at Harry Potter, Twilight, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch for their sinful subjects. He even supported performing exorcisms on abortion clinics, which he lambasted as “temples of a demonic religion.” However, his holier-than-thou persona may have been made out of whole cloth.

Court documents reviewed by the Washington Post in 2012 revealed that Euteneuer exploited a Virginia woman during an extended exorcism.” The victim, identified as “Jane Doe,” reached out to the reverend in 2008. As part of their arrangement, she allegedly signed a pledge of “complete cooperation.” Unbeknownst to her, she was making a deal with the devil.

Reportedly, Euteneuer corruptly caressed Jane Doe and “[blew] the Holy Spirt into her” by kissing her with the passion of an antichrist. He promised to “pray over” her but preyed on her instead. After two years of this, Jane Doe alerted church officials. Euteneuer resigned from Human Life International, a nonprofit pro-life group he had directed for a decade. In an official statement Euteneuer confessed to “violating the boundaries of chastity” with a woman under his “spiritual care.” In the spirit of not getting publicly sued, he settled that matter out of court.

Dr. Jekyll and Minister Hyde

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A physician’s main mission is to shorten your afterlife as much as possible. They battle Legionnaire’s disease, not legions of demons. Granted, there are likely instances in antiquity where doctors diagnosed urine infections as pee demons and instructed patients to use holy crappers. But in the context of modern medicine doctors should use modern medicines. Yet one 21st-century physician in Staffordshire, England, chose piety over professionalism.

As The Telegraph detailed, family physician and avid Christian Thomas O’Brien worked at a community health center where his duties included not indoctrinating patients. In 2012 a woman –- referred to as “Patient A” –- approached O’Brien for medical help. A colostomy surgery had left her in agony and considering suicide. The physician fished for information, discovered Patient A was nonreligious, and reeled her in using her pain as bait.

O’Brien promised a pain-free, painkiller-free existence. To reach that Promised Land, she had to give up antidepressants and blood pressure drugs and give herself to God. The doctor made house calls, quoted the Bible, babbled about the devil, and programmed Patient A’s TV to play the Gospel Channel. While spreading the word of God, O’Brien told her not to say a word to her psychiatrist. He further warned that if she contacted authorities, “she would be cursed,” per Birmingham Live. The icing on O’Brien’s proselytizing was a four-hour “testimony” at a Pentecostal church that included an exorcism. Patient A eventually spoke up, and in 2015 O’Brien was fired.

Child witch trials and tribulations

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According to neuroscientist Beau Lotto, human brains evolved to see meaning in everything. That propensity protects people from unseen risks in an uncertain world, he argued. Evidence certainly suggests this. As the American Psychological Association asserted, “because people are quick to believe that someone or something is behind even the most benign experiences, they may perceive the sound of the wind rustling leaves as a potential predator” like a lion. Similarly, blaming perturbing events on spiritual threats might serve as a defense against disturbing uncertainty.

Disturbingly, sometimes extreme uncertainty drives people to place faith in indefensible ideas. This might explain the plight of accused child witches in countries like Nigeria. As UNICEF spokesman Martin Dawes remarked, “It plays into traditional beliefs that someone is responsible for a negative change … and children are defenseless.” One of those defenseless children was a 9-year-old boy who died after his father tried to force-feed him acid during an exorcism. In the decade leading up to 2009, roughly 1,000 Nigerian children suffered similarly horrifying fates.

Nigeria’s not alone. In 2008 UNICEF estimated (via the BBC) that 20,000 accused child witches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, were “living on the streets.” Self-ordained exorcists starved, slapped, and burned suspected witches with hot wax. Such children are a testament to the tragic folly of following unchecked beliefs. So if you’re thinking of putting someone through a hellish exorcism, you’d better have a damned good reason.