These Valley exorcists want to save your soul.
The elderly white-haired woman writhes in a chair, growling and grunting at the two men restraining her by her arms.
Looming over her, three teenage girls clutch ornate silver crosses in their outstretched fists. Eighteen-year-old Brynne Larson steps close to the afflicted figure and presses a Bible against her forehead.
“Who told you to come here?” Brynne hollers.
Arizona exorcist Reverend Bob Larson. (Photo Credit: Mark Susan)
“Satan!” the woman hisses, her eyes widening and expression grim.
Savannah Scherkenback places her cross on the woman’s chest, while her younger sister, Tess Scherkenback, waves a silver scepter filled with holy water.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Tess says, flicking droplets onto the tortured face. As though scalded with acid, the woman recoils, shrieking in horror.
This isn’t a scene from the latest scary movie—it’s a real life exorcism performed right here in the Valley on a grandmother allegedly possessed by a demon.
Arizona schoolgirls Brynne, Savannah and Tess are trained exorcists who—in between beauty pageants, karate classes, homework and shopping—claim to slay demons.
Armed with just a Bible, crosses, holy water and a hatred of all things evil, the girls have performed more than a hundred exorcisms across the county. They say you don’t need to be a priest, or even Catholic, to be an exorcist. All it takes is the power of prayer.
“It’s not us overpowering the demon, it’s God. It’s God’s power, His strength and love that overcomes the evil,” says the girls’ exorcism coach, Scottsdale evangelist Reverend Bob Larson. “We are there as human instruments to do what Christ asked his followers to do.”
Widely rejected by mainstream religions, the rite of the exorcism has gone rogue, with a handful of self-proclaimed exorcists across the state performing the ancient ritual. They believe they’re soldiers in humanity’s holy war and are fighting to send the devil back to hell.
It’s not easy finding a good exorcist these days.
A few centuries ago you couldn’t chuck a stone tablet around a churchyard without hitting an exorcist. Early Christians pretty much blamed all sickness—both physical and psychological—on the devil. And the cure-all treatment for everything from schizophrenia to PMS was to exorcise the demons.
Then some scientist created lithium, and Lucifer took a back seat to modern medicine.
By the later part of the 20th century, even the Catholic Church had put the kibosh on exorcisms. In 1999, the Vatican officially changed exorcism guidelines for the first time since 1614. Those claiming the devil made them do it had to be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness.
While the Catholic Church does train some priests as exorcists, only an elite few actually perform the ritual, especially in the United States.
The teenage exorcists have been busy kicking evil’s ass. In the past year, Brynne Larson, 18, Tess Scherkenback, 17, and Savannah Scherkenback, 20, estimate they’ve purged about 100 demons from the possessed. Pictured from left: Brynne, Tess and Savannah. (Photo credit: Times Publications)
These days if you approach a priest about an exorcism, you’ll probably be referred to a local therapist. Yet the number of people who believe they are possessed has not diminished, says Matt Baglio, author of “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.”
“A lot of people out there think their problems are caused by evil spirits,” he says. “Lots of people believe in spirits and the ability of demons to manipulate us.”
To meet market demand, a collarless crowd has risen up to take on the plight of the spiritually challenged. Deliverance ministries—claiming to bump the Beelzebub out of body and soul—have emerged across the country. In Arizona alone, several exorcists are working the field and say they can barely keep up with demand.
Some of these so-called exorcists are hucksters who prey on the vulnerable, according to Baglio.
“The problem is not finding people who claim to be exorcists, it’s finding credible people,” he says. “In this world anyone can claim to be an exorcist.”
One such self-proclaimed exorcist is Reverend Bob Larson, founder of Spiritual Freedom Church and author of more than 30 books on the occult and supernatural phenomena.
Larson has been performing exorcisms for 30 years and reckons he’s demolished about 15,000 demons. When the Vatican changed its exorcism guidelines, he says he noticed a sharp increase in exorcism requests, about half from Catholic clients.
“They all said the same thing, ‘I couldn’t find a priest who would do an exorcism,’” he says. “It’s a bureaucracy. The Church has lost sight of what it’s really all about—saving people’s souls.”
The devil is real, and he’s really wreaking havoc on humanity, says Larson. He estimates that nearly half the population is infected by demons. And these soul-suckers can lure otherwise good people down the wrong path.
Demons are the root of most bad behavior, including alcoholism, drug abuse, rape, vandalism and murder, according to Larson. They’re also typically the cause of mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.
Fortunately, Larson can purge the demons from the possessed—for a fee. Costs vary depending on the amount of travel involved and the difficulty of the exorcism, but oustings run upward of $500. Those unsure whether their problems are indeed demon-related can take an online quiz for $10.
Larson even performs exorcisms over the Internet. “It really works well on Skype or Facetime because I can view them online and see what’s happening,” he says.
For Larson, exorcisms have become a family business. About a year ago, his daughter Brynne, who grew up watching her father perform the rituals, decided she wanted to get in on the action.
She, along with her two best friends, sisters Tess and Savannah—whose family attends Larson’s ministry—approached the reverend about learning the trade.
“It took some convincing,” says Brynne. “It’s a lot of time, a serious commitment, but we really wanted to because we saw this gaping hole in society and in our lives, and exorcism fills it.”
So the girls entered Larson’s exorcism school, where he personally trained them on how to spot demons, evict them from their hosts and send them straight back to hell.
The training involved Latin lessons and role playing, with Larson often acting the part of the possessed. The girls also learned the classic signs of possession, which include speaking in unknown foreign languages, unnatural physical strength and a sudden aversion to spiritual staples like holy water and the name of God.
After graduating Exorcism U, the girls got busy kicking evil’s ass. Because they are still learning, they don’t charge for their services.
Though casting out demons can be dangerous at times—people who believe they are possessed are typically aggressive—Larson says he and his exorcism interns are doing God’s work. “It can get very vicious and violent. If it’s a demon, it’s not hard to tell. It’s very dramatic, it’s very real.”
The Devil and Bishop Barry
Bishop Barry Thompson adjusts the purple stole draped over his long black robe and tightens his grip on a jewel-encrusted gold cross.
“Be gone, Satan!” he commands, reciting from a scroll of traditional Catholic prayers. “Oh Lord, grant us the power of protection.”
On this Saturday afternoon, Thompson is performing a “simple exorcism” at a Glendale home to cleanse the property of ghosts that have been bedeviling the homeowners. Though he may dress the part and recite Catholic prayers, Bishop Barry is not a priest. He runs a private ministry out of his house.
“I use the uniform to let them know I’m here for them. I’m like a vessel for Christ,” he says. “I’m not there to socialize. I’m there to do God’s work and say the prayers.”
Bishop Barry Thompson evicts demonic spirits from Valley homes. (Photo credit: Times Publications)
Five years ago, he began working with local paranormal investigations groups as the team’s resident exorcist. Arizona is home to at least 50 different ghost hunting groups that try to capture proof of the afterlife using cameras and recorders, explains Rob Koller, a Valley electrician and member of the Phoenix Arizona Paranormal Society.
“People who are having spiritual issues, a lot of times they think they’re going crazy,” says Koller. “They contact us to see if we can perform an investigation. We’re like detectives; we look for evidence of the afterlife.”
If the investigators discover the spirits are evil, and the homeowner wants them gone, Bishop Barry is brought in to perform an exorcism of the property.
Although he also exorcises demons from possessed individuals, most of his work is dedicated to blessing homes, which he does at no cost.
“I rarely do the full rite. It’s really rare to find someone who is totally possessed,” he says. “The ones I’ve done where that spirit has taken hold of them and the entity is in control of them, they’re just totally a different person.”
During a recent exorcism, however, he encountered what he believed was a demon-seized 15-year-old girl. He sensed a dark presence as soon as he walked into the Valley home.
“I walked by the daughter and she was just laughing at me,” he says. “And her eyes were really dark. The pupils in her eyes didn’t look right.”
As Bishop Barry approached the parents, the girl sprang from the couch and lunged at him. Her father and brother grabbed the flailing girl and—using packing tape and towels—bound her to a kitchen chair. Then Bishop Barry began reciting the prayers, flinging holy water around. After the demons listened to an hour of rituals, they appeared to call it quits.
“Everything cleared up when I left there,” he says. “She was even thanking me by the end. It was like night and day. The darkness in her eyes had left.”
Usually his work is not quite so dramatic. In the majority of cases, he says, the individuals are not actually dealing with demons but a psychiatric condition.
“If I feel there’s a need for a deliverance, I will go ahead and do one. If I feel they need more counseling or maybe there’s a medical reason, then I let them know they should see a doctor,” he says. “It can be tricky. It’s really hard to discern what problem they are facing.”
Living on a Prayer
Deciphering the difference between demonic possession and mental insanity is difficult for even seasoned exorcists. Often the victims display similar symptoms—violent outbursts, incoherent babbling and delusional thoughts. In some cases, a patient can actually suffer from both conditions, says Dr. Gary Schwartz, a University of Arizona professor of psychology who has conducted extensive research on the afterlife.
“It’s not an ‘either/or’ that the person is either psychotic or that they’re possessed. People can actually have both. They can have mental illness and also be prone to—and hurt by—spirits,” says Schwartz, author of several books on the afterlife. “Or their psychiatric problem is literally their response in coping with the possible spirit connection.”
So how can an exorcist know if behavior is demonically driven?
Before agreeing to perform an exorcism, Reverend Larson interviews his clients to determine whether they are, in his opinion, demon possessed. The clients must fill out a questionnaire and give some personal history, including whether they’ve had a psychological evaluation.
“Many times it’s a mental health issue or a behavior issue,” he says. “I spend more time convincing people they don’t have demons than casting demons out of people who do.”
In some instances, however, Larson says an exorcism can actually cure common mental disorders.
“There are cases in which most of the person’s problems are demonic. So when the evil spirit is removed, they pretty much return to normal,” says Larson. “If you have a demon, as long as you have that demon, no amount of therapy or psychiatry or medication is going to work. You can’t medicate a demon.”
Exorcisms can be dangerous, and even deadly. There have been nearly 1,000 cases of documented exorcism deaths worldwide, according to WhatstheHarm.net.
Locally, there has been at least one exorcism-related death in the past five years. In July 2007, a 48-year-old Phoenix man, whom authorities say was choking his 3-year-old granddaughter during an exorcism, died after struggling with police officers investigating the scene.
But if the ritual is performed responsibly, an exorcism is essentially just a prayer—provided nobody is restrained. Sometimes just the ritual can have a placebo effect on curing the patient’s problems, regardless of whether a hell fiend is in the mix, says Schwartz.
“Even if you can’t be 100 percent sure about the diagnosis, the proof is in the pudding. You could still potentially have a spiritual de-possession treatment provided by a particular healer and then see if the person gets better,” he says. “If a person get better with this alternative medical, it’s not proof but ultimately what matters is the person gets better.”
Brynne, Tess and Savannah are like most normal young women. Savannah is a 20-year-old community college student who loves to travel and shop. Tess, 17, has been home schooled and is a big fan of musical theater. Brynne enjoys riding horses and is a regular on the beauty pageant circuit. And they are all black belts in karate. For the girls, exorcisms are just for fun.
“These girls are observably very normal. Other people can see they’re not weird, they’re not kooky people,” says Larson. “So how can they be so bright, beautiful, sociable and normal and do exorcisms?”
For Larson, exorcisms aren’t so bizarre, of course. While there is a lot of praying, yelling and holy water shaking, many times the rituals end up more like counseling sessions. Instead of dealing with demons, Larson and his band of Buffys speak to the troubled souls who ask for help about what real-life experiences are haunting them.
“Just talking to the people is a huge part of exorcisms,” says Savannah. “It’s not all just screaming and kicking and flailing about.”
Every exorcism is different—some take 30 minutes and others last up to four hours. At the conclusion, hugs are often exchanged, says Tess.
“There are times when the three of us are just grabbing the tissues, dabbing our eyes,” she says. “These people are so broken, and they’ve had to live most of their lives that way.”
Ultimately, whether the rituals are real or the individual is actually possessed, exorcists are usually working with disturbed people whose poor choices led them down a dark path.
Perhaps that’s the biggest life lesson exorcism can offer the teens, muses Larson.
“To get a person to the place where they take the extreme action of seeking an exorcist, there is an immense misery preceding that. Exorcisms are the knot at the end of the rope that people hang onto. It’s what they grab for when they feel they’re at the last resort.”
Exorcism is the act of driving out, or warding off, demons or evil spirits, from persons, places or things believed to be possessed, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Types of Exorcism
In the Roman Catholic Church, there are several types of exorcism.
• Baptismal exorcism: blessing an infant prior to baptism to cleanse it of evil resulting from original sin.
• Simple exorcism: blessing a place or thing to rid it of evil influence.
• Real exorcism: performing the Rite of Exorcism to rid a human being of diabolical possession.
Signs of Demonic Possession
• Speaking or understanding languages which the person has never learned.
• Knowing and revealing things the person has no earthly way of knowing.
• Unnatural physical strength.
• A violent aversion to God, the cross and other spiritual staples.