In 1999, a man we’ll call Jacob Turner was 18 and on a mission trip in Trinidad and Tobago when he suddenly felt the sensation of something wrapping itself around him, constricting him and rendering him unable to breathe. He tried to ignore it, but it continued to escalate, as though a snake was wrapping itself around his torso, squeezing him tighter and tighter. He and his fellow Pentecostals had ventured into a part of the Caribbean nation where demonic activity had been reported. After about 10 minutes, Turner alerted his group to what was happening, and they began to pray over him. The pain and discomfort subsided immediately.
What Turner – who asked Rolling Stone not to use his real name due to his continued affiliation with the Catholic Church – experienced is a makeshift exorcism from what could be classified as “demonic oppression,” less severe than demonic possession, wherein someone can experience anything from a physical ailment to financial hardship due to an evil spirit or the devil himself.
Reports of exorcism requests have been steadily on the rise in the last century – a short time when you consider that the first instance of Christian exorcism was reportedly recorded in the year 253 in a letter from Pope Cornelius, with the first rite of exorcism allegedly being written in 1614. Though in the U.S. the practice is mostly relegated to Christianity, non-Christian religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism also have their own forms of exorcising. The Exorcist, which was released in 1973 and remains one of the most popular R-rated films of all time, certainly had its part in bringing the phenomenon outside of church doors and into public consciousness. But it’s more recent developments that have arguably had a greater effect.
Advancements in technology have made it easier than ever to submit an exorcism request
In 1999, the Vatican revised its exorcism regulations for the first time in more than 300 years to put more emphasis on working with mental health professionals to ensure that the allegedly possessed person’s feelings aren’t from a chemical imbalance or a psychological condition, such as depression or schizophrenia. But advancements in technology have made it easier than ever to submit an exorcism request.
The principle belief of exorcism separates the possessed person from the evil that is possessing them, making a clear distinction. Though there have been updates to the rites, the processes and rituals have, for the most part, stayed the same for centuries. There are varying recognized degrees of demonic possession – the less severe is considered demonic oppression, which is felt more as a weight on the oppressed person. Demonic possession is more severe, potentially causing the afflicted person to speak in a different voice or to become violent. (Homes and objects, like figurines or dolls, can also become possessed.) Likewise, the act of exorcising in the Christian faith takes on several forms, generally ranging from minor to major rites. It’s minor rites that are more commonly invoked, in the form of praying over a person, place or object. Often, this successfully banishes the “demon” after one concise session. Major rites tackle severe demonic possession, which is rare and may involve taking such measures as tying someone down so that they’re not a danger to themselves or others. These types of exorcisms can take years to complete.
Turner, now 35, always knew he’d be active in ministry. He was born and raised in both Baptist and Charismatic Pentecostal parishes around Atlanta, Georgia. These types of Pentecostal churches aren’t affiliated with other traditional Pentecostal churches – they can be made up of people from various Christian denominations such as Catholic, Methodist or Presbyterian. There’s a heavy emphasis on connecting with the Holy Spirit through things like signs, miracles, healings and speaking in tongues. He started out as a student at Atlanta Christian College (now Point University) majoring in Biblical Studies and Humanities. During this time, a combination of adolescent angst and his parents’ divorce prompted him to look outside of the Pentecostal church for religious roots. “If you had said that I was going to be a priest, I probably would have asked the question: ‘At what point did I fall away?'” says Turner. Priesthood was based in the Catholic tradition, and growing up he’d been told that Catholics were all going to Hell. Catholicism, as he was taught, “was heretical at best, and satanic deception at worst.”
Nevertheless, Turner felt called to pastoral ministry. He joined the Anglican church in 2004 and rose from a deacon to a priest. One element that linked his Pentecostal upbringing and his Catholic calling together was the practice of exorcisms. “You’d see and hear exorcisms quite a bit in Pentecostal church,” he says. “I have had quite a few experiences with malevolent entities that made me very cognitive of their existence.” In his role as a priest, he was often called on to bless people or items – a light form of exorcising, if you will. He began researching and studying the history of exorcism after realizing the church was receiving requests “pretty much nonstop.”
Bishop Bryan Ouellette’s path to exorcism was similarly circuitous. At 43, he serves as the presiding bishop at the Holy Nicholean Catholic Church, based in Cartersville, Georgia. A former Roman-Catholic-turned-Buddhist, Ouellette had what he calls a “profound religious experience” about 10 years ago when he passed out in his home for several hours, during which he heard a voice telling him he would become a priest. He returned to Roman Catholicism shortly after, but realized he was unable to become a priest as a married man. That’s when he found the Independent Sacramental Movement which lead to the creation of the Holy Nicholean, a church that serves as a sort of Catholic Island of Misfit Toys, wherein the highest-ranking bishop doesn’t have to report to a higher authority. One of the main markers of the HNCC revolves around exorcisms – which Ouellette can perform by virtue of being a Catholic bishop with valid orders and Apostolic succession, regardless of not being in union with the Vatican. The open nature of the HNCC means they got a lot of exorcism requests from people of varying religious backgrounds and practices. “They didn’t know where to go,” says Ouellette, “so they found us and said, ‘Could you help us?’ We help everyone who comes to us.”
On Order of Exorcists, a site run by the HNCC, people can fill out a form to “request an investigation” into whatever they feel is afflicting them – Ouellette says they receive about 12 requests a month. The Order of Exorcists is headquartered in California, with services offered in more than 35 states and more than 20 countries. “Not everyone has an exorcist on staff, but we have trained lay investigators all over the place that can go in and determine whether or not there is an actual demonic event taking place,” he explains. “If there is, and there’s no clergy assigned to that jurisdiction, they can sometimes try to find the closest clergy that can go and conduct the exorcism.”
Bishop Ouellette has seen things that give him no doubt demonic possession is real
The Order of Exorcists team is unique from more traditional Christian exorcists in that they use top-of-the-line “paranormal investigation equipment” to aid them in the process – digital voice recorders, structured light sensor cameras, electromagnetic field detectors, a SB7 Spirit Box (frequently seen on ghost-hunting TV shows), infrared cameras, the works. They bring this equipment to the person’s place of residence (they prefer to work in-house, where they also videotape the process) and, firstly, ask around 60 questions about what they’ve felt or witnessed to determine the legitimacy of the person’s situation.
Next, they’re tasked with determining which of the four stages the paranormal event is in: according to Ouellette, the first is demonic interference (a relatively normal temptation), then demonic obsession (where the event becomes visible and problematic for the person), then demonic oppression (wherein you begin to see physical signs) and, lastly, demonic possession (which exhibits through severe signs of aggression, changes in voice and other unexplainable symptoms).
Then comes the praying, which sometimes involves using oils, incense and holy water. A lot of the time, that’s all it takes. “Sometimes, I think it’s placebo effect,” Ouellette adds, “but in a lot of cases, I think it really does have a way of changing the environment spiritually, so that if there was anything there, it kind of just goes away.” If that doesn’t do the trick, the next step is to heal the property, which entails sealing the property itself, similar to the process of consecrating a building into a church, making it a holy ground.
Ouellette has seen things that give him no doubt demonic possession is real – books flying off the shelves, or a person with no visible injuries beginning to bleed profusely right in front of him, seemingly from their pores. If he and his team investigate a property two or three times and is unable to vanquish the demonic presence, the recordings and videos taken are sent back to headquarters, where its head, Archbishop Ron Feyl, Chief Exorcist of the Order of Exorcists, and his team of trained psychiatrists assess the situation themselves to determine next steps by reviewing the house call footage. “Exorcism’s not something that is one time and it’s done – it’s not like in the movies,” he says. “Sometimes, exorcisms can take months or even years with the strongest of demonic attachment. There’s a process to it. It can get very complicated.”
Bishop James Long knows plenty about these more complicated cases. In his 15 years of exorcising, he’s performed more than 25 Solemn Rite exorcisms, along with hundreds of more minor ones. The Louisville, Kentucky-based bishop was brought up in a Roman Catholic family and felt called to study demonology when he was just nine years old. “I just had a desire to learn about demons,” he explains. “I wanted to learn why anyone would turn against God.” Now, he’s a member of the United States Old Catholic Church, which he explains as being more inclusive than traditional Roman Catholic churches, with the same sovereign sacraments and lineages. Bishop Long is best known for performing the first-ever live televised exorcism in 2015 (on Halloween, no less), which took place in Bel-Nor, Missouri at the residential home that inspired The Exorcist book and movie. It was dubbed, fittingly, Exorcism: LIVE! and aired on Destination America. (Variety dismissed the two-hour special as “harmless, pre-Halloween fluff.”)
As with Turner and Ouellette, Long, too, found himself being pulled away from the faith of his upbringing, feeling in opposition to certain Roman Catholic beliefs, like women being banned from the priesthood. “I could not in good faith be a Roman Catholic Priest and preach against women ordinations,” he says. “That would be hypocritical – I just couldn’t do it. I believe that priests should be allowed to be married. I believe in gay marriage.” These beliefs led him to the USOCC, which was founded in the 1870s, and which he describes as a more inclusive group that doesn’t discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation.
Long is also the founder of Paranormal Clergy, purportedly the world’s largest paranormal organization. He started it to bridge the gap he saw between clergy and the paranormal community – the organization serves as a funnel that connects cases with investigative groups across the country. He’s since stepped away from his active role within the clergy, but still receives the emails. (When we spoke on a Wednesday, he’d received approximately 1,800 related emails since the previous Saturday.) He makes a point to emphasize the disparity between those thousands of requests every few days and the fact that he’s performed just over two dozen actual major exorcisms. What was performed during the televised exorcism was a minor rite on the house itself, which Long says was “a phenomenal experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
With exorcisms as popular as ever, it’s not surprising that popular culture has hopped on the paranormal bandwagon with more movies and shows that feature demonic possession – under varying degrees of legitimacy, of course. Turner implores those who feel afflicted to seek out knowledgeable, authentic exorcists. He also says it’s crucial for those with the power to exorcise don’t jump the gun – rather, that they remain steadfast about working with mental health professionals to ensure that the person gets the help they need, whether it’s through science or the church. “There’s a lot of hype,” he adds. “It’s very easy, I think, for even a priest to get caught up in the hype.”
Long agrees, adding that what he finds most egregious is the insurgence of “paranormal celebrities” who charge for this service. In 2014, the Daily Beast published a first-person account of a Skype exorcism that cost nearly $300 – and many, Long says, charge more. “That really is becoming a problem – as someone who has devoted my entire life to this ministry, I’ve never charged,” he says. “I have driven to almost every state in this country, but I’ve never charged a penny. This ritual is incredibly sacred, and for someone to take advantage of someone who is going through extreme spiritual distress to make a dollar, it’s an abomination.” He pauses. “I would really hate to be them when they meet God face-to-face.”