This week sees the introduction of a new entry into the "found footage" sub-genre: the exorcism film. The Devil Inside (which opens in theaters January 6th) follows a young woman on her quest to find out the truth about her mother, who killed three people during an exorcism many years ago. Was her mother possessed by a demon, or was she just mentally ill?
The movie may be fiction, but depending on your beliefs, exorcisms may be fact. So we chatted with a real-life exorcist, Rev. Bob Larson, of the Spiritual Freedom Church of Phoenix, about some of the scary stuff he has experienced during exorcisms, and how it compares to movie magic.
What was your involvement in The Devil Inside?
I was not involved in the movie per se. They brought me in afterward because of my expertise in the area of exorcism to address the plotline, the authenticity, the reality of this movie. I was happy to do. Out of all the exorcism movies [I have seen], this one comes the closest to getting it right, as far as what possession actually looks like and how it operates. The film was finished by the time I came in, so my role was really to see if they got it right. To my pleasant surprise, they have done the best job that I've seen yet. There are a couple of aspects of the film that are a little bit different. One of them is this business of "demonic transference." It was hinted at in the original The Exorcist, but in other films like The Rite, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, it was not fully developed. Without giving it away - I don't want you to miss that opportunity to get kicked in the seat of the pants - they do deal with that. It is always a danger, anytime someone is involved in exorcism. We have more than 100 trained exorcism teams, thousands of people all around the world that we have trained. We do not put anyone into an exorcism until they are highly trained and know what they are doing, lest that sort of thing happen.
How many exorcisms have you personally been involved in?
Over a period of 30+ years, I have been involved in over 15,000 documented cases.
That's a lot, but you have to understand, I do this six to seven days a week, many times a day. Unlike the Catholic church, which tends to portray [exorcisms] as a very rare phenomenon, we see it as quite a frequent phenomenon.
Why such a difference between the way your church does exorcisms, and the Catholic church?
The requirements really aren't that different. The challenge is they can't train people fast enough because they will not let go of the presupposition that [possession] is rare. In fact, they know it is not rare. I know the pope's "so-called" exorcist, the man who actually started the school of exorcism that is portrayed in [The Devil Inside]. I've spent time talking to him. He and I are in complete agreement on this, that it is far from rare; it is all too common in our culture. We don't tend to think of it until there is some great tragedy.
Take what has been going on this weekend in Los Angeles [for those who don't know, between December 30th and January 2nd, an arsonist was on a rampage through the city, setting over 50 separate fires in the span of four evenings - ed.] I saw the guy when they arrested him, with this silly grin on his face, after having started all those fires, and I thought, "There's a case of demonic possession." This is one of those things you look for in possession: inexplicable acts that are so outrageous that unless a person is profoundly mentally disturbed or under the strong influence of drugs, it is hard to imagine that they could have done that. So to see this guy smiling at the cameras after terrorizing so many, you have to wonder: is there some innate evil that drove him to do that? I'm telling you: give me five minutes with that guy, and I can find his demons.
How do you identify if someone is mentally ill, or if they are actually possessed?
That's one of the good things about this movie: it portrays the quest. On the one hand, you have the doctors who say it is all psychological, then you have the daughter who thinks it's not, and she has these two priests who are entertaining the possibility that it is indeed demonic possession, and they are going to use their exorcist and scientific skills to try to figure that out. What we do, for example, is that we train the people we work with in all the possible psychological ramifications of emotional instability: borderline, dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, and so forth. The reaction of a demon is very different than psychosis. If someone is psychotic, they might say, "I'm Jesus Christ," or "I'm Napoleon." But in a demonically-possessed person, another voice is going to take over and speak through their body, and it's not going to say crazy things. It's going to say very rational things, evil things.
The common thing for a demon to say is, "I own this person, they belong to me. I'm not leaving, and if you try to make me go, I'm going to kill you." I cannot tell you how many times I have had demons threaten to kill me. The gore in this movie is nothing compared to the things the demons have said they would do to me. But they haven't been successful.
No! Because I m protected by God and I don't give in to the fear of it.
Can you take us through the steps of a "typical" exorcism?
You generally begin by profiling and doing an examination of the person's personal, psychological, and medical history. Try to determine if there are any medical reasons, any psychological difficulties... Most important is how they were raised, and what the circumstances of their life were that could lead to a possession. Then, if you feel there is a reasonable possibility of a possession, then you begin to "taunt" the demon with holy things: The Bible, holy oil, the crucifix. You do those things and you watch for a reaction. If there is a demon, you will get a reaction. Sometimes I will take my cross and just touch the forehead of the person and all hell breaks loose. That's all that it takes because of their aversion to all things which represent God. Once that happens, you determine the name of the demon, how he got there, and what he is holding on to inside the person's mind. You bring resolution to that, and cast the demon out. That sounds simple, but it's pretty involved.
When you cast the demon out, where does it go?
That's an important question! This movie brings up the question of demonic transference. The young men in this movie are very zealous, they are do-gooders, but they are learning and they haven't figured out all the potential problems yet. One of the things I do at the beginning [of my exorcisms] is tell the demon, "You are not going anywhere except where I tell you to go." The demon will try to bargain. I've had demons ask if they can come into me - which is pretty ridiculous. Or they will ask if they can go into that person over there. You simply say, "No, you cannot. You will go to the pit or the abyss of hell. You will return to hell, where you came from."
What are some of the scariest things you have ever seen during an exorcism?
One time I had a demon say he was going to kill this person, and I would be held accountable for his death. He actually stopped this person's heart, stopped their breathing - they turned blue. It was a pretty scary moment. This was back when I first started. We just continued to pray, and to trust God that he was not going to let this evil get the upper hand. We asked God to bring life back into this person and he slowly began to breathe again.
I've learned since to become very careful. For example, if I go into a house that is haunted, I first ask where are the knives, where are the guns. I want to see them because somebody put a knife to my throat. The demon said "I'm gonna cut your throat." And I said, "If God lets you cut my throat, then you will. If he doesn't let you cut my throat, you won't." Obviously he didn't! But there have been some very touchy moments like that. I had a woman try to strangle me just a week ago. Took me by surprise because she was actually a psychologist. She has a PhD. This was not a kooky person, but she knew she had demons, and she came to me for help. I didn't expect her to jump off this couch, jump on me, and grab me by the throat. But those things happen. It's the hazard of doing what I do.
Are you always successful with your exorcisms?
One can only be successful if the person wants to be free of the demon. As long as the person cooperates with the process... but sometimes you can't succeed because somewhere along the line,the person gives up. The torment is so great they don't continue in the process. Looking at the backstory of The Devil Inside, the question that is unanswered in my mind is, why did it get so far? I have to guess that they didn't know what they were doing. The fascinating study of actual possession and the kind of things that happen during an exorcism.