Exorcism and the City: Everything You Need to Know About Demon Expulsion
A look at modern–day exorcism, from possessed "ghost realtors" to New Age entity removal specialists.
Photo by Ashley Campbell via Flickr
Not a fan of the horror genre, the first exorcism I witnessed in pop culture was on the popular Comedy Central television show, Nathan For You, in which the comedian Nathan Fielder poses as a marketing expert and "helps" real Los Angeles small business owners "revive" their struggling companies. (On paper, Nathan For You is a prank show, but its plots and jokes develop out of absurd A–to–C rationale, rather than a straight–forward Punk'd–style, mean–spirited hoax. Fielder might be most widely known for his Dumb Starbucks stunt, which went viral before its origin story premiered as the fifth episode of the show's second season.)
Characteristic of the show, Fielder's on-screen exorcism was the result of a logically insane plan, which he posed as completely logical. The comedian–as–marketer approached a real estate agent named Sue Stanford with an idea for how to stand out in "LA's competitive housing market": she should, he suggests with a straight face, rebrand herself as a "ghost realtor" and provide a guarantee that all the houses she lists are ghost free. Stanford, out of politeness and presumably eagerness to be on a reality TV show, agrees.
What follows is the pair's elaborate attempt to make good on that guarantee. Using a professional psychic, Ron Bard, they find that one of Stanford's houses that was built in 1902 does in fact contain a spiritual being. But it's not a ghost—it's a far more malignant entity, and they have to call in an exorcist named Brother Carlos.
"I had no idea who Nathan was or what the show was all about. When they first said I should be a ghost realtor I thought it was ridiculous. Now everyone at my office still calls me the ghost realtor," Stanford tells me over the phone. In hindsight, Stanford has a good-natured view of the show and how she was portrayed, although she was somewhat embarrassed immediately following the experience. But after the show aired she received some press as well as an onslaught of inquiries into whether her experience on the show was "real"; one of her colleagues even made her a Twitter page and Stanford also filmed a pilot with the hope of turning "The Ghost Realtor" into a TV show.
The spin-off show, however, as well as Stanford's career as a ghost–busting realtor, is on hold for now while she tries to find a replacement for Bard. "I'm looking for a new psychic to work with to make sure we know for sure if there's entities in the house or not before we go any further. I wouldn't want to be wrong," Stanford says. "The psychic that was on the show with me is very involved in Japan right now. He actually predicted their last tsunami, so now everybody in Japan wants to see him. He's consulting with a lot of businessmen there as well."
"I believe in it, of course, because it happened with me," Stanford continues. By "it," of course, she is referring to a paranormal experience. That's the episode's unscripted twist: Stanford has had contact with spirits before. When the exorcist arrives to cleanse the house, he also cleanses Fielder, to comical results, and Stanford, who has a genuinely visceral and emotional reaction on camera. She was so visibly shaken by the presence of an entity that she spontaneously cried and fainted.
"When the exorcist started pointing at me and hollering, and saying all these things, I just went into another world, she says. "When I threw my head back and started crying it was like I knew that I was doing it, but I didn't really have control of it. I just kept thinking, 'How could I be going through this?' Sounds were just coming out of my throat and when it finally ended I was exhausted. Then, still in awe of the whole thing, I turned to a member of the crew and said, 'Oh my god, I think I know what just happened.'" Stanford theorizes that when she lived in the Fiji islands with her husband and children, a jealous woman who had fallen in love with her husband put a hex on her. "I think that I was releasing all this energy that was put on me. That was the first thing that came to me," she says.
"As a person I feel lighter. I think it did help me, which is great," Stanford says when I ask her if she still feels relief from the exorcism.
The only thing I know for certain about the nature of reality is that we each experience it subjectively. In the ghost realtor's case, spiritual entities exist and exorcisms are cathartic. Ditto Rachel Stavis, an author and part-time exorcist who believes that exorcisms can heal trauma. Stavis is also based in LA.
"I'm not religious in any way," she prefaces our conversation. "Personally, I don't think religion has any defining ideas over exorcism. We always associate the church with it because there's all these movies about priests having Christ compel demons out of people's bodies. But—this is what I always tell people—entities date back to Ancient Sumeria, so it's really hard to believe that just Christ can compel an entity out of someone's body. To me, exorcism is more of a science that hasn't been proven yet," she says.
Indeed, the Catholic church has exorcisms on lock. In 2001, ABC News reported that Catholic–affiliated exorcisms involving crucifixes and prayer are on the rise. "By conservative estimates, there are at least five or six hundred evangelical exorcism ministries in operation today, and quite possibly two or three times this many," Michael Cuneo, a sociologist at Fordham University and author of the book American Exorcism, told ABC. In another report, the news organization announced in 2014 that the Vatican now legally recognizes The International Association of Exorcists, a group of priests who perform the ritual.
However, what Stavis does is more New Age than Holy Water. She's even been called an exorcist to the stars. "I work in energy," she continues. "That's how entities really work. I don't even call them demons because not every single one is malignant," she says. "There are different kinds of entities. The least invasive kind is what I like to call an amplifier—if someone is depressed, this type of entity will make them suicidal. A lot of people come in with those and don't even know they have them." From there, entities range all the way up to the movie–style behemoths, Stavis says.
Here in Los Angeles, it's not uncommon to see a homeless guy screaming on the streets—and all of a sudden I can see who he's screaming at.
"What normally brings an entity to the table is past traumas or pains," she explains when I ask how she can tell if someone actually has an entity within them. "When we have past trauma or pain, we emit a lower frequency, unless we're really, really good at bringing ourselves back, which most people aren't. It's those low vibrations that actually bring entities because they feed on that energy," she says. (She also adds that mental illness and entities aren't mutually exclusive.)
The real tip-off, Stavis says, is that she can physically see them, a skill she claims she has had since she was a child. "I got to the point where I was able to mute the entities and I didn't have to see them if I didn't want to. But about five or six years ago, it all started flooding back. Here in Los Angeles, for example, it's not uncommon to see a homeless guy screaming on the streets—and all of a sudden I can see who he's screaming at. I couldn't will it to go away anymore," she says. That's when she decided her supernatural sense must have been given to her for a reason. She's since been performing exorcisms as a way to help friends, and friends-of-friends, who are struggling with entities as well as clients she's received through word-of-mouth.
After locating an entity, the next step is to take it out. For this, Stavis has set up a "spirit room": "It's set up in a very specific way," she says. "I have lanterns in specific places, and I have certain herbs that have to burn during that time to make it safe." And where, exactly, does an entity go after it leaves the body? If successful, when an entity comes out it's sent back to a "source," Stavis explains. "We pull the energy out and the energy is not allowed to stay here, let's just put it that way."
Exorcism, of course, has a dark side—and it is well known. A website that asks "What's the Harm with Exorcisms" clocks the total of deaths incurred during entity removals at 368,379. Just last week in Germany, a woman died from an exorcism that involved severe tactics such as beating and, essentially, torture. To help mitigate this danger, the Catholic church released a guideline for exorcisms in 1614 and updated it in 1999.
Since Stavis claims to be able to see entities, she says that all she has to do to remove them is lay hands on an affected person, making her exorcism technique much more benign. She attributes exorcism deaths to unskilled exorcists who might be out of their league when attempting to expel a powerful entity. "Essentially, I place my hands in the areas where I see an entity and energetically pull them out. Other things are involved, but those are personal to each client," she says. She's also never seen the devil, and all her clients have walked out of her charge alive, she adds with a laugh. All in all, Stavis's practice—insomuch as it can be—seems normal.
Three months ago, Stavis says, she had a client come to her who didn't say much about her reasons for coming in. So, no questions asked, Stavis proceeded to lay hands on where she saw the client's trauma. By the end of the session, her client started crying. "She asked me, 'Why did you keep touching me in this lower left area on my stomach?' and then she revealed that she had been trying to conceive for many years. She told me that her doctor said she would never have a child from that ovary because it was destroyed," Stavis says. "I told her, 'No way. I can absolutely feel that this ovary is working' and it was the entities that were stopping her from conceiving." Four weeks later, she says, her client was pregnant.