“Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
-Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
by Sean Herman
As I sat and watched in horror, I could hear nothing but the consistent thud and crunch on the concrete as the man smashed his head, repeating “But what now?” over and over again, yelling in a distorted voice that sounds like, not just one, but a group of people. His forehead was now gathering blood, dripping down to collect in his eye socket, the scrawled homemade tattoos that covered his body now exposed, he appeared more undead than alive. My eyes cut to the stranger, whose unfamiliar eyes are cutting through the man on the ground, repeating louder and louder, “In the name of Jesus, get out…” The phrase was shouted over and over, with the thud on the concrete growing louder and harsher, intensity reaching a boiling point.
“In the name of Jesus, get out…”
“In the name of Jesus, get out…”
“In the name of Jesus, get out…”
Until the thuds stopped. There was silence.
Reverend Bill French was a pastor in Irondale, Alabama, who started Advocate Ministries in 1974. He was an evangelical exorcist and claimed to cast hundreds of demons out of people. French’s methods were less akin to the film “The Exorcist”, and more a laying of hands and authoritative prayer, the more evangelical southern way. Though French did once say, “I've seen everything that was in the movie 'The Exorcist' except somebody's head turning all the way around." His son, the Rev. Michael French, said. "He dealt with people most folks wouldn't want to stop and talk to.” Those typically consisted of people with multiple personalities, some manifesting as growling voiced demons, sometimes becoming violent. His son recounts one situation:
"He was praying with a lady coming out of witchcraft. They were sitting in folding chairs. She was about 5'2", 120 pounds. He was six feet tall, 220 pounds. She flicked her foot and kicked him 10 feet into the wall."
French was performing exorcisms during the heyday of “Satanic Panic”. In 1985 an ABC-TV "20/20" show about satanism set off waves of panic and media attention that culminated in Geraldo Rivera's "Devil Worship" special in 1988. Other "Geraldo" segments in 1988, 1989 and 1991 followed up. Sally Jesse Raphael did episodes on "Baby Breeders" in 1989 and "Devil Babies" in 1991. Oprah Winfrey did programs on the subject in 1986, 1988 and 1989. Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder wrote a book in 1980 about women bearing children for satanic sacrifice, called Michelle Remembers, the first satanic cult survivor story. Maclean's Magazine in Canada did an expose on Michelle Remembers, interviewing relatives who lived with Michelle Smith during the period she described but that were never mentioned in the story.
"I believe there are frauds, but they've reached some wrong conclusions," French said at the time. "There are frauds here and there. That doesn't take away from the real incidents that are taking place all over this country."
“All possessions were sacred dramas. They were performances. The demoniacs and the exorcists, who were trying to drive out the devils, were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. And these scripts were widely known, you have some of them in the Bible, but you also have all these accounts of other possessions that people read at this time. And once it was suggested that someone might be demonically possessed, you know they had fits or something like that, they would follow that script. […] Certainly the anxiety was real, and they are responding to it.”
Brian Levack, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West
You Would Be a Great Evangelist
As a transplant to the South, I didn’t grow up with a religious background. We weren’t the family going to church, it wasn’t part of any upbringing I had experienced. Once I moved to Alabama, I was met with constant questions about my “relationship” with Jesus. I was befuddled and confused, and for a long time. I just smiled awkwardly and went on my way. Eventually I became involved with a church through skateboarding with a close friend of mine. They began to encourage my ability for public speaking and my interest in research. “You’d be a great evangelist,” I would hear, which led me to believe that this was the road I wanted to be going down. I always struggled with the idea of a connection with the God that I read about, but I loved the idea of positive public speaking, and working to help a community. In high school I started working for a local church and eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee to do mission work with inner city missions.
We would walk through the neighborhoods that typically you were warned about, going door to door, and letting people know that we were with “such and such” church and that we were doing summer programs for their kids. Most families viewed it as free babysitting, which was fine with me. I was glad it was a guaranteed meal for these kids, as I was all too familiar with ignoring stomach pains by going to sleep. I found myself now being a confused teenager, trying to constantly work to prove my faith to myself, constantly searching for concrete answers to questions that I grappled with. I would read in the Bible that to be closest to God you would need to serve others. Easy enough, so on my off days I would go downtown and overzealously “spread the gospel” to the men and women that called the parks and benches home. One by one, I would approach groups of people, and come face to face with them about their religious beliefs. In my ignorant zeal, I thought this was helping people get closer to “God” and closer for myself to finally find some answer about my relationship with the divine, and my lack of feeling connected to it. This was where I found myself one July morning, on a gazebo in rundown park in Memphis.
The man had been sitting, knees bent up, head tucked down, when I walked up to the concrete gazebo. I started with some ambiguous greeting, followed by silence on his part. He was quietly mumbling to himself, repeating the same phrases at different varying speeds, all while never looking up. I tried to make small talk, to no avail, and began with the gospel push, thinking that would crack his shell. No real exchange was happening, me jabbering on and him uttering under his breath. When he finally looked up, it was more out of nowhere than any response to my words. His hair was matted, with tones of grey, and wiry like a horse’s mane. His mouth gaped open, exposing teeth just filling in random spots. His skin was poked and marred with the scars of time, and his eyes were empty. He looked at me, more through me, the whites of his eyes greyed over, never blinking, as if I wasn’t there. Real life hit me for an instant, and then I heard the brakes of a bike squeak next to me.
A clean cut man, probably in his late 30’s, dressed what would be considered somewhat young and hip, was parking his bike. He had a Bible in his hand (one of the “modern” translations that were covered in neon and probably said “rad” somewhere on it). We exchanged a few words, realizing we were there for somewhat the same reasons. He attempted to get a response from the man in front of us, but there was none. The man continued to stare through us, mumbling under his breath. After some time of engaging in more of a monologue than a conversation, he began to look towards us and finally said the first words meant for our ears, “your god sounds wonderful, but he is not here”. These ominous words completely went over my head, thinking he was referring to the fact we weren’t in a church. He then looked up at us, and said, “That is all well and good”, referring to the message being preached to him by the two of us, continuing, “but these, what will your god do about these?” He ripped his tattered shirt open and exposed a body covered in homemade tattoos, all consisting of scrawled words, covering his entire front torso and spots on his arms. It was obvious he was the one who had done these to himself, with some being upside down, and only in places he could reach. The tattoos were just words, all words that he then claimed were “the devil’s names, his names are on me…they are me”.
I had gotten myself into a situation that was escalating in uncertainty, and I had no clue what my next move would be. I found myself dumbfounded and silent, lost in an empty gaze with a man that stared through me, one that wasn’t operating on the same plane as myself. I was in a dangerous situation, and out of the mouth of the bicycle preacher I heard, “He’s possessed, we are going to have to drive that demon out.” WHAT?!? Drive that demon out? That wasn’t part of the program that I knew, that wasn’t in my Christian vocabulary. We would discuss the theological theories on possession, but that wasn’t something that was a reality. The words came out of his mouth as simply as if he were to say, “Looks like we are going to have to get you a new pair of shoes.” I was now face to face with a world I had no comprehension of, and no idea of what perils it could cause.
You Have to Be Strong
In 1998 the Open Door Church outside of Birmingham, Alabama was destroyed by a tornado. Members proclaimed a miracle on sight, saying they were saved by angels holding up parts of the crumbling building. The Rev. Rick Cooper is the pastor of the church, and often speaks on demon possession.
"I believe there is mental illness," Cooper said. "The brain is an organ like any organ. Also I have met people where there was definitely a force behind the things they did. If Jesus believed in it, we need to believe in it. There is a spiritual warfare going on. There are demons and entities that stand against us."
Cooper continues saying, ”In some cases it is; in some cases it's a presence of evil," Cooper said. "It takes a very special person to deal with such hard mental and spiritual problems. You have to be strong."
I Want To Be Free...
We began praying, with the bike man claiming to have identified the name of the demon, stating it by name, and telling it to be gone. I found myself, confused, befuddled, and in over my head. I went along with what he said, and began saying the same words, feeling like it was the only possible action to take. We put our hands on the man’s shoulders, and told this demon to leave him. I could feel the dirt and insect life that resided on the man as my hand touched his bare shoulder, scarred with home made tattoos. With every prayer and chant he seemed to almost be coming out of a haze. He said, “I wish…I want to be free…I want…” and with that he threw himself back and then forward, slamming his head hard into the concrete. Crying out, he continued to beat his skull, over and over, almost as if not under his own control.
Like a horrid beating drum, he hit his head into the ground. He screamed “No!”, in a voice that sounded like a group of distorted voices, all escaping his throat at the same time. This sound followed every wail, like an abusive fight inside of him. He would gaze upward, greyed eyes staring up into a bare sky, his body trembling, and now blood began to trickle from the wound he was creating on his forehead. Almost like music to the same beat, he would look up, cry out, convulse, and slam his damaged head into the ground. With every beat, we increased our phrasing intensity, never ceasing, continuing over and over, “In the name of Jesus, demon be gone…”. Over and over this continued, intensity increasing, his cries growing thunderous, the distorted voices growing louder, taking over all sound that broke free of his withering body. My pounding heart was growing louder and louder in my ears, almost to the same beat as the abusive thud of his head meeting the concrete.
Then, it stopped.
Those Were Lost in the Battle
Exorcism has caused a number of real-world tragedies over the years, including several ending in death.
Pentecostal ministers in San Francisco pummeled a woman to death in 1995, as they tried to drive out her demons.
In 1997, a Wisconsin woman successfully sued her psychiatrist after he diagnosed her as diabolically possessed, and having 126 personalities, including the bride of Satan and a duck. She later claimed that the experience left her suicidal.(1)
In 2015 in Russelville, Alabama, four people were arrested after what Sheriff Shannon Oliver called “an exorcism gone bad”. When deputies arrived, they found the front door wide open, with a Bible lying on the front porch and saw a brawl inside. There they learned about the dispute when George and Wahl accused their mother, Diana Brewer of being Satan. Officials said that the daughters held a mirror in front of Brewer and told her to look in and see that she was Satan, and that they were going to perform an exorcism to drive Satan out. (2)
One famous example of an exorcism case is that of Anneliese Michel, which the films “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, “Requiem”, and “Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes” were based on. Anneliese Michel was born in Germany on September 21st, 1952. By the young age of sixteen, Anneliese Michel already had a history of epilepsy and mental illness, resulting in treatment at a psychiatric hospital. Anneliese became suicidal in 1973, but what followed was far more than what her family was used to seeing from her. Anneliese began to hear voices, followed by drinking her own urine, and having severe contempt for religious artifacts. (3) When medicine could not change the situation, young Anneliese is said to have begged her family to bring in a priest, for she believed she was possessed by demons. Young Anneliese was a devout Catholic, coming from a family that was somewhat extreme in their Catholic faith. It was here that things took a tragic turn. Though the exorcism was rejected by the church, two local priests, Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt, began treating her with exorcism rites in secret. At the same time, her parents ceased all treatment of her epilepsy and mental disorders. Annelise said that Judas, Nero, Hitler, Cain, Lucifer and others were inside of her. She fought this “battle” with demons for eight tragic years, during which they performed 67 exorcisms, all reportedly condoned by Annelise. After suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration, she finally passed away on July 1st, 1976. (4)
There was nothing but quiet, as the man’s body slumped over onto the ground, arms out stretched, bits of blood around his head. As we sat for a moment, I was overcome with panic and thought to myself, “He’s dead, we have driven this man to his death.” Then, out of nowhere, he slowly looked up at me, now eagerly making eye contact with me. I looked in disbelief and noticed that the grey in his eyes had turned white, they were now clear, crisp even. His mouth opened and quietly, in a clear single voice, one I had yet to hear come out of him, he said, “Thank You.” He got up, his actions now smooth, not jerky and weak like before. This was not the same man, everything was different. He spoke clearly, made eye contact, moved with assurance. Was this all an act, what just happened?
The bike exorcist told the man and myself that he worked at a Christian camp, and that the man could have a job if he wanted to come with him right now. With that, they walked off into the distance. Just as quickly as I met these people, they were gone, forever. I stood dumbfounded for a moment. What happened? Was this “the power of God” exercised in human form I had studied about? If this was true, if I had been in the presence of divine, where was the connection I had read about, the assurance? I now felt even further away from the answers I was searching for before, lost in a world that was now even more unreal to me. I thought to myself, “I just wanted to help…”
I Just Wanted to Help
When speaking about his father, Michael French said, "There was something that stirred in him, caring and loving people. That gave him the strength for the deliverance ministry that he did. One of the things I learned from him was it's more important to help other people reach their destiny than your own. He always saw what people could be."
French wrote a book to explain what he did. "He wanted to say, 'This is why it's real. This is why not to be afraid,'" Michael said. "There are imbalances in the brain. Everything is not a demon. But there can be combinations. Some people are sick. Some things are demonic. He believed in psychiatry and psychology too. He helped a lot of people. It was a joint effort between the medical and spiritual community."
At the time of her passing, Annelise Michel was starved, bruised, disfigured and deranged. She had completely quit eating shortly before, thinking it would lessen the demons’ grip on her. Later, her death was labeled as negligent homicide, with access to the horrific recordings of forty-two of the exorcisms being given at the trial. The jury was forced to see the effects of the “battle” that lasted six years. Was Annelise suffering from a possession all that time, or did her epilepsy lead to symptoms of schizophrenia, along with an already diagnosed dissociative disorder? In the end, was she just sick, or was it a combination of the two “demons” haunting young Annelise? In 2013, a fire broke out in the house where she lived and although the local police said it was a case of arson, some people attributed it to this case.
So I found myself alone, sitting in a park in Memphis, being beaten by the late morning July sun. I ran over all that had just happened, trying to make sense of something that seemed unreal. A suffering man was now supposed to be free, but at what expense? Were we to blame for contributing to a mental breakdown, creating a demon that will forever haunt him? Or was this man now free of the demons that haunted and tormented him for so long? I look down at the red blotches on my hands as I touched the pavement and realized that in the throws of the exorcism, while the suffering man was uncontrollably beating his head on the concrete, bits of his blood must have landed on me.
I sat, lost in a daze, staring at my now blood stained hands, and find myself left with no explanation.
- 1. http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92541&page=1
- 2. http://www.theknightshift.com/2012/02/four-arrested-following-botched.html
- 3. http://www.spiritscienceandmetaphysics.com/6-fascinating-real-life-exorcism-demonic-possession-cases/#sthash.f2GTLQBr.dpuf
- 4. http://www.historicmysteries.com/the-disturbing-exorcisms-and-death-of-anneliese-michel/