issue 237 - November 1992
COLIN DAVEY / CAMERA PRESS
No-one can be a Catholic saint without having shown their paranormal
power by performing a miracle. Yet the Christian view is usually that the
paranormal is too dangerous an area to mess with. Here Australian
writer James Danson recalls taking part in an exorcism.
It was in my mid-twenties that I came face to face with destruction personified. I'd been a Christian for half a dozen years, and had come to see how God's concern for the oppressed and hatred of injustice were the substances for which my own embryonic concerns were vague shadows. I was able to accept that 'miracles' had happened 2,000 years ago in a dry and dusty Palestine, but about almost anything else paranormal I remained a sceptic.
At the end of each year summer camps, concerts and youth activities are run by Christians all along the Australian coast. There's nothing strange in that; most Aussies are skilled at avoiding them! But one year, for some reason, my team of unsuspecting Christians was visited by a group of renegades, who called themselves 'Satanists'. As the days and nights unfolded, they informed us that their aim was to ruin us (or, in their more flamboyant moments, to destroy us). This would have been quite laughable if it had not been for their very tangible presence.
Initially their behaviour, though erratic, was 'normal' enough. They spread rumours among both the team and visitors about corruption and immorality. They peddled hard drugs. In the quieter moments of concerts they would stand and shout abuse, obscenities and curses. Their language was not just foul, but vehement and poisonous. Yet all this was of little more than nuisance value. It was only when we started to talk with them away from the crowd that an altogether different picture emerged.
Only a few of the Christian team had encountered Satanists before. Most of us, when we first heard, merely raised an eyebrow and said 'Oh'. The team had encountered pimps, beggars, street-fighters and many highly disturbed individuals, so why should we be unable to deal with Satanists?
There were three angry Satanists, five tired Christians, none of whom had any experience with this level of 'paranormal' activity. The encounter began with a heated argument about some moral issue. Violence ebbed, as did tempers and frustration for all of us. The argument never became more rational. Despite the weariness of our bodies, we decided to sit it out - and did so for three nights.
For whatever reason each of our antagonists' faces looked tired, dark-eyed and harrowed. They were the embodiment of discontent, moving spasmodically in large twitches. There was torment in these people's lives. There was no doubting they were angry. There was no doubting they felt trapped. But not by us Christians. In many ways we provided plenty of scope for them to leave; they chose to stay. They felt compelled, in their own words, to serve Satan.
Then there were the voices. Two of the three, in the course of the evenings we spent together, spoke in multiple voices, each representing a different 'persona'. This, I know, can also be evidence of psychological distress. Yet each of the voices used by an individual were uncannily different, not just in intonation and volume, but in grammar, choice of words and levels of anger and bitterness. There seemed to be different 'persons' within each person. Often they fought violently with each other for supremacy, or merely the right to talk. Each of them had names; each of them spat venom; each of them knew who Jesus was but fought energetically when it was said that he loved them.
The nature of these personal battles was often tragic. But two things characterized our adversaries: first, their difficulty in accepting they were free agents; second, their urge to destroy.
The 'voices' seemed to know our weaknesses intimately, and sought to unsettle us at every opportunity. Surprisingly, and without any forward planning, these attacks were handled, each in turn, with relative calmness - and an acceptance of whatever truth there was in each of the charges made. But we knew we were not on trial, and felt confident that the struggles we were seeing were being carried out on another plane. This was not our battle, to be won or lost by our expertise or clever rhetoric. It was more that we were guides, sounding boards.
'We'll kill the lot of you. (Another voice) I hate your guts. I'll smash you to a pulp. You're all lousy idiots, and you're not going to get out of here. (Another voice) I hate you, you're all bloody hypocrites.' Then, in mock worship, 'Jesus, Jesus, lovely lovely Jesus'.
Many of their expletives were genital-based. Wherever there was a pause in our conversation, they turned it into a crack or crevice full of bitterness, doubt or chaotic outbursts and frenzy.
After the marathon hours, the Christians were tired. But two of the three Satanists showed signs of buoyancy. There was no head-spinning or floods of lime green vomit as there was in The Exorcist.
'You're lying!', 'Holy shit, you're crazy!', 'The spirit lies, the spirit lies', and 'You're dead, you're all dead, you're dead...' Another lunge forward, some repeated spitting.
Eventually, when the two were at a peak of animation, with flailing arms and flailing tongues, they finally seized on the liberation offered them by the simple words, 'choose God', 'resist Satan', and the words of exorcism: 'In Jesus' name, leave them'.
We couldn't quite tell what was happening. We weren't using Jesus' name as a mantra, nor as a talisman. We said it because, quite simply, we meant it. We knew this was the way of performing exorcisms in the Bible; there seemed to be nothing else to say. But our hearers or more precisely, their 'guests' - were wreathed in discomfort at Jesus' name. Wreathed, too, in resistance for minute after intense minute, until something snapped, and in a roar that would freeze a tropical sunset, the resident spirits fled.
At the end of these traumatic days and nights, the two made a complete turnaround: they chose to give up their association with Satanism and to follow Jesus instead. After our final night of struggling they became - without exaggeration - joyful; in their own words surprisingly 'free'. Their bodies, too, enjoyed a considerable change, and they even began walking with more of a spring in their step.
The third member struggled on, the embodiment of hatred and bitterness. We somehow slipped from being the target of his gall, his energies becoming focused on his recent peers instead. The abuse he gave to his former colleagues was depressing and often vile, but they pressed on regardless.
Sceptics will smile. They will say this was nothing other than a case of severely disturbed people coming to terms with some trauma. I can only say that through my father's work as a psychiatric nurse, I had seen many deeply disturbed people. Some claimed to be Christ or President Kennedy, but none of them showed the specific focus of these Satanists, nor their tireless desire to destroy.
I'm a down-to-earth Christian with liberal views and Satanic possession doesn't fit at all easily into my scheme of things. But I have no other explanation for what I experienced that summer on the coast: what I took part in was an exorcism.
James Danson is a freelance writer based in New South Wales.
The truth about voodoo
It goes without saying that the novels of Dennis Wheatley are far more potent than the anthropological researches of Melville Herskovitz in shaping public opinion of Haitian voodoo. Ever since the lurid descriptions of Haitian beliefs as 'brutalizing' and 'barbarous' by Spencer St John (British consul to Haiti in the 1860s), voodoo has been synonymous in the Westem mind with black magic and cannibalism.
Of course there is no smoke without fire and a satanic version of voodoo is undoubtedly practised in various localities across the land. I have myself come across zombies, or living dead, who have been given potions that have induced a kind of brain death. When the voodoo priest, the houngan, applies the antidote there is only a partial recovery and the resultant shambling wrecks are most pitiable to behold. But it would be as fair for me to suggest that stories of satanic and ritual sexual abuse of children is typical of British contemporary Christianity as it would to indicate that imprecatory and malign rituals are a fair picture of voodoo.
The voodoo religion is in fact almost entirely benign. It emerged from a variety of animistic belief systems that came over from Africa with the slaves and which have since been overlaid with Roman Catholic hagiography and ritual: Catholic religious objects are routinely found on voodoo altars alongside a skull or a bottled snake.
Voodoo belongs to the everyday world of all Haitian people. There are certainly some who deplore its prevalence and try to destroy it (usually US-led right-wing Protestants) but nobody denies its existence or pretends it's not there. It has the main elements of any religion and it gives Haitian people a sense of identity. They seek the mediation of the spirits in their communications with Granmètla (God, the Great Master). It is fatalistic, offering coping mechanisms rather than a revolutionary or transformatory vision. But its music, its picturesque language and its dynamic inspiration of successive generations of artists reveals a religion that gives expression to the deepest levels of Haitian self-awareness and culture.
There is no question that the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier used voodoo as one of the three pillars of his power, which helped to brutalize the nation into subjection during his 14-year rule. His speeches were redolent with allusions to the voodoo mind and spirit; he dressed so as to look a little like the dreaded Baron Samedi, the harbinger of death. But this cunning co-option of the popular faith should not be held against the voodoo religion itself - any more than the fantasies of Dennis Wheatley should be allowed to define a whole nation's faith.
Leslie Griffiths is an Anglican priest and broad-caster long acquainted with Haiti and its culture.