What to make of The Teenage Exorcists?

I don’t know if any of you caught the recent BBC documentary on ‘The Teenage Exorcists’ – three all-American girls who, under the mentoring of Pastor Bob Larson (father of one of the three), have a dramatic deliverance ministry. If you didn’t, you can watch it in full on YouTube (until the BBC finds out and takes it down).

Given my personal history with spiritual warfare, I found it extremely uncomfortable viewing. I was left feeling, I have to confess, disturbed and somewhat frightened. It even gave me nightmares.

Easy to mock

It would be very easy to mock these girls’ beliefs and practices, and I’ll admit that was my strong inclination. The Rev. Larson’s heroes include ultra-cons George W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher. The girls he trains have clearly been indoctrinated in right-wing Christian beliefs including 6-day creationism, and they appear to have an unsophisticated, even simplistic, theology based on a very literal or fundamentalist reading of the Bible.

They also have an unshakeable belief in the reality and power of Satan, and in his pervasive presence in people’s lives through his army of literal demons, who all have names like Jezebel and Abaddon.

We see the girls praying before they go horse-riding, binding spirits of things like ‘bolting’ or ‘stumbling’, and asking for protecting against a comprehensive list of every possible thing that could go wrong in what felt like an obsessive-compulsive form of prayer.

The girls are also convinced that Harry Potter is satanic and that the spells in the Harry Potter books are not fictional but derive from genuine witchcraft. Whatever the basis and validity of their other beliefs, I know this one to be nonsense. The spells in the Harry Potter books are dog-Latin made up by J.K. Rowling, and are effectively nothing more sinister than a wittier and more sophisticated version of ‘abracadabra’.

There also seems to be a slight inconsistency in the girls’ views and practices. They see Satan in everything and steer a hundred miles from anything with the least possibility of occult connections. Yet the three girls are all black belts in karate, a martial art which as far as I know has roots in Zen Buddhism and is therefore viewed with suspicion by many on the fundamentalist wing of the church.

Exorcism or stage show?

And then we come to their actual practice of exorcism, which to me looks for all the world like a magic show or a hypnotist entertainment. The girls are all glamorously dolled up as though for a stage show, and all hold elaborately decorative crosses which look like something out of a schlock-horror vampire flick. The Revd Larson hypes up the crowd with all the tricks of the trade, raising the audience’s emotions to a high state of excitement and expectation.

Then comes the actual exorcism. Someone in the audience ‘manifests’ (starts screaming or shaking violently). The girls move in, and forcefully confront the supposed spirit, calling it ‘filthy demon’ and ordering it to reveal its name and its ‘legal right’ to be in the person (which more often than not turns out to be something like witchcraft in the family umpteen generations ago). They then attack the demon (or the person) with Bibles, crosses and words, ‘forcing’ the spirit to return to hell whence it came.

And then in the follow-up to the whole performance there’s a flurry of book sales and financial transactions.

Genuine deliverance?

So, pretty easy for me to mock and dismiss it all, which is what I secretly wanted to do. Except that for at least some of the people delivered, it does genuinely seem to change their lives and set them free. And one or two of the supposed demonic manifestations do at least appear to be something more than mere play-acting, emotional response or psychological phenomena.

In particular there was one woman, Beth, who had been a Church of England chaplain, and had suddenly developed what sounded like ME-like symptoms. These were dominating and ruining her life, and she was convinced that they were the result of spiritual attack. When the three Teenage Exorcists came to England, she went to their meeting in Mile End hoping to be delivered of something demonic. She wasn’t disappointed.

During the meeting she started to shake violently and shout, and when the girls confronted the ‘demon’, Beth’s voice and face both changed dramatically to the classic demonic growl and grimace. It really was like a scene from The Exorcist. The ‘demon’ revealed via Beth that it had been allowed in through (I think) child sacrifice 17 generations ago. And after they forced it out, Beth did seem dramatically changed. She certainly genuinely believed she had been set free from a very real evil spirit.

Not wanting to believe

I find it hard to know what to make of this. I really, really don’t want to believe in demons, or in evil spirits inhabiting people. Everything in both my theological and my scientific worldview protests against it. It seems like a throwback to a medieval, superstitious, pre-scientific way of thinking. (Of course, atheists would argue that the whole of Christianity is equally a throwback, but of course I would disagree, and that’s another discussion.)

Above all, belief in a literal devil and literal demons is (for me at least) a potential source of fear and paranoia I could well do without. The world is dark, difficult and dangerous enough as it is. There’s no need to introduce an invisible army of malevolent beings intent on our destruction and able to influence or even inhabit us apparently without our consent or awareness. And the whole idea of people being possessed because of something that happened in their family several hundred years ago seems both bizarre and deeply unfair.

And yet, watching Beth’s ‘deliverance’, I do find it surprisingly hard to ascribe what I saw to anything other than an actual evil or unclean spirit, whatever exactly that might be. Perhaps it was just an extreme and bizarre psychopathological manifestation. Perhaps; I’d certainly like to think so. But I’m not sure I’d set as much store by that explanation if the alternative weren’t so unthinkable.

Jesus and unclean spirits

Of course, there are demons and evil spirits aplenty in the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Frustratingly, the Bible doesn’t ever really try to explain them; it merely assumes their reality. I’ve tended towards the view that most of the demonic manifestations in the Bible are the result of mental and emotional health issues, or else of medical conditions such as epilepsy.

But what are we to make of the spirits that apparently recognised Jesus as ‘The Holy One of God’, or in particular the ‘legion’ of spirits that Jesus cast out into a herd of pigs? If we accept these stories at face value, it’s not easy to ascribe them to psychological phenomena.

Accepting then for the moment the possibility that there may be some reality in some of these biblical spirits, I think there are a few important points to note about them. The first is that the Bible generally calls these spirits ‘unclean’ rather than ‘evil’. Biblical Judaism sees many things as ‘unclean’, including pork, shellfish, dead bodies, skin-disease sufferers and menstruating women. These are clearly not all evil, satanic or demonic, so ‘unclean’ spirits don’t necessarily need to be either.

Secondly, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus explicitly link these ‘unclean’ spirits with a satanic army of fallen angels from the pit of hell. There are a few references that might indirectly imply something of the sort, but for the most part the implication seems to be that these spirits are something more like unquiet ghosts than hellish demons or dark angels.

Finally, the deliverances Jesus carries out are not dramatic, showy or shouty performances. Rather he calmly addresses the spirit: ‘Be quiet. Come out of him’. There’s nothing aggressive or insulting, and nothing about ‘get back to the pit of hell’. It’s all quite understated really. Almost British.

So do demons really exist and possess people in the 21st century? Are the deliverances performed by The Teenage Exorcists genuine? I don’t know. Maybe a few are. For now I’m still clinging on to as much of my agnosticism and scepticism as I can, but perhaps just a tiny bit less confidently after witnessing Beth’s experience.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Charismatic, Controversies, Evil, Fundamentalism, Hell, Heresy/blasphemy, Mental health, Psychology, TV and film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to What to make of The Teenage Exorcists?

  1. I watched a short video on BBC News showing them talking about themselves and praying over their horseriding. It was bizarre. To sound like the Baptist that I am: what they were doing did not seem biblical (and that’s a word which gets bandied about all too easily but I’m going to use it here). More like Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets crossed with American Gimme All Your Money & I’ll Promise You ‘Blessings’ Televangelist.

    Grrrrrrr! Exploitation of vulnerable people makes me livid! It is the antithesis of my beloved Christ.

    Do I believe that this life is a spiritual battle? Absolutely – but this is a bluff. A red herring. Sleight of hand and trickery. It makes people lose focus of the beautiful Life with Christ – the divine masterpiece. All I need is His beautiful redeeming grace, through His sacrifice on the cross. The victory is already won, thank God.

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    • Yes, I agree with you to a very large extent. The only thing I’d say is that I’m pretty sure the girls themselves are good-hearted and sincere, and are genuinely seeking to free people from evil. I think they’re fairly misguided and I have very deep concerns over how they actually conduct their exorcisms, but I don’t think they’re consciously seeking to exploit the vulnerable. Mr Larson I can’t comment on though – I didn’t warm to him as a person and I strongly disagree with most of his views. However, I don’t know enough to say for definite that he’s deliberately out to exploit people.

      But yes, I do think this kind of deliverance-as-stage-show ‘ministry’ is a spiritual red herring.

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  2. Terry says:

    I saw the last ten minutes, when Beth was exorcised. It was interesting viewing. I’m not sure what to think, really.

    The television review person in the Church Times said something about the girls’ shades of lipstick being enough to intimidate the devil!

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  3. Maureen says:

    Having been an observer of McExorcist since he had his radio show in 1986, i feel I should mention a few things about Bob Larson in particular. Larson’s ” teachings” about exorcism come from ” deliverance ministry” and ( assuming exorcism is real) his so-called exorcisms have two main problems of not having paranormal phemomena associated with the ” exorcism” and the ” demons” don’t mention Larson’s various shameful sins — signs of a real ” demon possession”.

    Bear in mind he did ” live” via phone ” exorcisms” of callers on his radio show– while supposed “demons” waited through commercial breaks, did not violate FCC rules and did not simply hang up the phone.

    What Bob Larson is doing is nothing more than attention seeking exploitation. The ” teenage exorcists” ( one is 20 years old) are ” trained” much like brainwashed followers, not to actually think for themselves, so that they don’t realize their answers are simplistic and obviously scripted for them.

    The idea of teenagers as ” exorcists” , a supposedly hazardous, seriously draining occupation, ironically mocks the concept of exorcism. I doubt that Larson, in spite of his claims to the contrary, has ever met a ” real” demon. In fact, his failed “exorcism” of Necrobutcher and the ” Shirley Ghostman” vid and Rev. Motal’s ” Bob Larson vs. Spiderman” audiovid are evidence he cannot distinguish between someone faking it and a supposed real possession.

    It’s a shoddy trick, folks. He’s using the girls as lures to get people to enroll in his ” international school of exorcism”.

    Its crap, And the girls are his puppets.

    Moe

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    • Hi Moe, thanks for your comment. I think you’re probably right. I don’t know anything about Bob Larson except for what I saw on the BBC documentary, but I didn’t warm to him. Whether or not he’s a complete charlatan I couldn’t say for sure – I think his ideas and practices are pretty dubious, but he seems genuinely to believe in what he does. But it does all just seem a bit too much like a magician’s show, and I can’t believe that the majority of the exorcisms they perform are real (even if they believe them to be).

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      • Maureen says:

        ” Whether or not he’s a complete charlatan I couldn’t say for sure – I think his ideas and practices are pretty dubious, but he seems genuinely to believe in what he does. But it does all just seem a bit too much like a magician’s show, and I can’t believe that the majority of the exorcisms they perform are real (even if they believe them to be).”

        I honestly see him as a charlatan. In 1964 when he dropped out of college and became a ” traveling evangelist”, he might have been sincere then. I do not believe he genuinely believes most of what he presents. I have the advantage of listening to him when he had his radio show in America back when ” Bob Larson Ministries” was active, before his radio show died and he shut down BLM and set up his ” Spiritual Freedom Church, International.” Too much of his actions and words over the years are over the top ( and in some cases revealed to be misrepresented) for me to give him the benefit of the doubt.

        For example, he was caught ” exorcising” the same woman in different appearances in different towns. His excuse for his shill? he came up with the term ” progressive deliverance”. On his radio show, which I refer to as the ” Christian radio version of shock jock”. Larson on at least 50 occasions ” exorcised” callers live on the air– while the “demon” du jour didn’t violate FCC rules, waited through commercial breaks and never, ever, mentioned Larson’s sins. Funny how the infernal fiends fear the FCC.

        If Larson is a psychopath as Ken Smith says, he can fool people into thinking he actually believes in demons, generational curses, etc. Remember Ted Bundy fooled a lot of people before he lost control and was caught.

        The problem with his so-called exorcisms is that, according to other exorcism sources, the content of his ” exorcisms” misses a number of elements a supposed real demon possession has. For one, no supernatural event during the exorcism. Also the ” exorcism” is short, while ” real” exorcisms last hours, even days. And the “demons” the people display are more of what humans are taught to act as if they had demons ( which BTW is something Larson does at the start of his ” conferences”– he shows them videos of his ” exorcisms”), while in supposed authentic exorcism the malevolent spirit reveals embarrassing facts about the exorcist. No ” demon” Larson ” exorcises” mentions his sins.

        There is another factor to consider. Rev. Darrel Gene Motal (“The Paranormal Preacher”) attended an Austin conference and recorded Larson ” exorcising” ” Stanley” from a guy who claimed his ” father’s brother” died from ” spiders’. Yes folks, Bob Larson exorcised Spiderman.

        Motal also observed that Larson was using a form of stage hypnosis on the audience.

        IOW folks what McExorcist presents is not what actually IS.

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  4. dsholland says:

    The question I have is, “who gets top billing?”
    Asuming the crosses are an indication these activities are based on Christ’s authority, it would be reasonable to also assume The Father would have top billing. Without actually watching the vids, my impression from your post is He does not.
    A clue perhaps?

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    • It’s a good question, and I’m not entirely sure of the answer. Seems to me that God, the devil, the three girls and Mr Larson all get pretty equal billing, but I’m certainly not sure God quite comes out as top.

      However, I think the girls genuinely believe they’re doing it all for God’s glory and in Christ’s name. They seem to see themselves as warriors for Christ, actively bringing his freedom to people oppressed by the forces of darkness. I think they’re deeply misguided, but I’m not sure they’re anything worse than that. As for Mr Larson, I really don’t know.

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      • Maureen says:

        Simple. Observe how many times Larson refers to himself versus God/Jesus. I’ve noticed that rarely does he give Jesus/G-d credit for what he does, In fact he infers that his prayers have more power than most Christians and that when the suckers buy his ” cross of deliverance” he anoints it as if he personally can confer special power to the object. He also last year commanded his devout followers to do a three day prayer-fasting for him ( with the $ they would have spent on food be sent to Larson, OC). He mentions one passage about Jesus doing a public exorcism as justification of what he does, but otherwise he really doesn’t mention Jesus or God except in commanding God’s angels to torment demons in his ” exorcisms”. Right now he uses the TEs as the focus of attention but they are little more than lures to attract attention to what he does, gather crowds and use them as puppets to do their bully boitch gang type of ” exorcism” while he orchestrates the whole mess. He’s a control freak so the TEs sincerity is his cover he takes advantage of. In his books, particularly ” Demon Proofing Prayers”, he praises and glorifies himself. He even referred to himself as the ” general of the spiritual warfare army”– this form a guy who never served a day in his life in the military.

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  5. smellofburntwiggle says:

    Love your point about Jesus’ style of delivering people from demons being understated, almost British.

    I know God *can* use people who ofend my British cultural sensibilities 😉 but on the other hand just because people are sincere doesn’t mean they can’t do great harm.

    What about that poor sweet woman who came down on the train to be ‘exorcised’ for £200 and nothing happened? She is held in thrall to this delusion that she is somehow possesed since inadvertently eating cursed food and the whole exorcism concept just reinforces her ‘slavery’. She needs to go and get herself some professional psychotherapeutic counselling.

    I wouldn’t be too convinced by the depiction of Beth’s experience. The questions isn’t that she was sincere but we don’t know the first thing about her life except the couple of sentences she said to camera, and there could be many other explanations of the ME-like symptoms clearing up… besides, in Larson and co’s theology, how can a normal woman (who also happens to be a C of E minister) suddenly become ‘posessed’ one day completely out of the blue supposedly becuase of child/blood sacrifice in her family generations ago?

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    • Totally agree that sincere people can do huge damage, and yes, my feeling is that these girls are doing damage despite what I think is their genuine desire to do good.

      Also completely take your point about the poor woman (Emma) who was looking for deliverance from her supposed ‘black magic curse’ and didn’t find it. That was a really sad story.

      And yes, it did occur to me too that it was a bit odd for this ‘demon’ to suddenly pop up out of nowhere into Beth’s life, given that it was supposed to have come into the family centuries ago.

      Beth’s still the one I find hardest to explain though, and I’m not sure I can totally discount the possibility of a real spirit-thingy, but I’m still reasonably sceptical…

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    • Maureen says:

      Exactly right about ” Beth”, smellof!! The viewers/audience DOES NOT know where the woman came from, etc. When it involves McExorcist Bob Larson, what is presented might not be the truth, or even the whole truth.

      For example he and his TEs went on the American show “Nightline” and were filmed ” exorcising” a woman who while supposedly demon possessed tried to kick the girls. What was NOT mentioned to the Nighltine crew was that the woman was no stranger to the parents of the two girls. In fact the woman was a relative.

      I refer to Larson’s various appearances as ” wham bam scram” because even if these people being exorcised are not shills, Larson does not bother to follow up and make sure they are being helped after he leaves the vicinity.

      I forgot to mention Larson a few years ago did have a ” reality” series that aired on Virgin 1 called ” The Real Exorcist”. Two women who appeared on his exploitation series were interviewed by Rev. Motal. Both woman told of how they were used by Larson. There are two three parters ” Interview With the Victim of a Vampire” and another three parter about the woman who cried wolf on camera on Larson’s show. The details can be found here:

      http://www.youtube.com/user/TheParanormalChurch?feature=guide

      I found online where he had a ” casting call” for TRE. That pretty much tells you things are not what they seem with Larson.

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      • Hi Maureen, thanks for your many comments, and sorry for not replying sooner. You’ve clearly done your research! I can’t help feeling you’re right about Bob Larson, though of course it is still possible for God to use people who we disapprove of and who are not completely genuine in their ministry.

        I do suspect that most of Larson’s so-called exorcisms are fakes or the result of psychological suggestion. But for me the jury’s still out on whether there are such things as real demons and genuine exorcisms. I hope not, but I can’t rule out the possibility.

        All the best,
        Harvey

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  6. johnm55 says:

    Two points I think are worth making;
    1) as with most things using the principle of “Follow the money” will generally give you a good idea of what to make of it.
    2) ME is a very difficult disease even to define let alone diagnose and in some cases may have a psychosomatic element which could “treatable” by a process such as exorcism. I would be interested in knowing how Beth is coping six months down the line.

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    • Wow John, you’re even more cynical than me 😉 But I think you’re probably right about the money.

      I remember when I suffered quite badly with OCD about 18 years ago, I was convinced (as a new Christian) that it had a spiritual element alongside the psychological and possibly physiological components. I probably would even have thought that exorcism might be helpful at the time. These days I’d probably have quite a different perspective.

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      • Maureen says:

        In Larson’s case,” follow the money” is exactly how he got into trouble way back in 1991. Ken Smith found out that Larson not only lied to his donors/listeners about being in the red financially but his ” ministry” was firmly in the black by the end of the year. In his current exploitation, you in the UK probably didn’t see it but in America whenever he has his ” conferences” where he ” exorcises” people, he demands an entry fee for each person. One person on Youtube told of how he witnessed Larson make a scene at a church when he found out they were not charging admission. And ” Inside Edition” years ago secretly videotaped Larson ” suggesting” to his audience that they donate to him their land deeds, jewelry, etc.

        You should see where he lives. He lives in a mansion in Scottsdale, Arizona. Bear in mind that his first mansion in Vail, Colorado, he bought while basically raiding his ” ministry” coffers. And that isn’t all, kiddies. Larson likes to live the ” good life”. He never flies coach, for one. His income, judging by tax returns, is padded with all sorts of goodies his ” ministry” and his ” church” provide for him, so his quoted figure of $69,000 per year turns out to be quite a bit more in reality. His tacky ” Cross of Deliverance” ( the gaudy cross he and his TEs display, much like product placement) sells for $100 each. He has ” personal intensive” sessions with frankly stupid people at $495 per hour, prepaid. And he set up his ” church” accredited ” International School of Exorcism ( tm)” so that if you are going for one of three ” associate ” degrees, you end up paying at least $2,000 for what is essentially a useless bit of paper and hours watching vids of Larson teaching his garbage.

        For Larson it is all about the money and the media attention. He only does something for free if he can use it to advertise himself. I heard about his activities while in London– being a demonstrating PITA at a ” witchcraft” store, etc.,– and it sounds to me like he was doing a media attention blitz.

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  7. lotharson says:

    Hello, that’s really a nice blog! I am a progressive Christian who rejects the special inspiration of the Bible
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/
    but I am quite open to the existence of a supernatural world.

    Actually, I believe that for a SMALL minority of UFO and esoterism cases, we have good, normal (but not extraordinary) evidence that some form of deceptive non-human consciousness was involved.
    But if demons are active in the modern world, I think the Westboro Church and many fundamentalist churches are their favorite mansions,

    Friendly greetings from Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    Like

    • lotharson says:

      Actually you can delete my personal links if you want to, sorry if it bothered you

      Books from Jacques Vallee http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Vall%C3%A9e are very interesting for all of us who wonder if there might truly be spiritual creatures acting in our world.

      His mentor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._Allen_Hynek
      is also a very serious auhors.

      Reading these books led me to the conclusion that for a SMALL minority of UFO cases, a form of non human consciousness seemed to be involved and is very deceitful.

      I thin this is certainly relevant for the topics at hand.

      Anyway I am myself an emerging, progressive Christian and like your blog.
      I would love to discuss with you about many issues.

      Lovely greetings in Christ.

      Like

    • Hi Lothars Sohn, and thanks so much for your lovely comments! I’m really sorry I hadn’t approved them or replied before – it wasn’t that there was any problem, it was just that I hadn’t had a chance to log in to my account over the last couple of days.

      I also haven’t had a chance yet to read your post on the inspiration of the Bible, but I’ll be very interested to! My own view at the moment is that the Bible is ‘inspired’ (in a sense), but definitely not ‘inerrant’ or ‘perfect’ (which are human concepts, and human attempts to impose something on the Bible). And by ‘inspiration’ I definitely don’t mean divine dictation! 😉 I’ve got some posts planned on this subject but I’m still working on them – maybe I’ll get them online in a few weeks…

      I don’t know much about UFOs and I know nothing about esoterism! I used to believe that ‘alien abduction’ experiences were demonic or angelic manifestations, but these days I tend to the view that they’re mainly ascribable to psychological or physiological phenomena, e.g. the effects of narcolepsy.

      Very friendly greetings to you in turn! 🙂
      Harvey (‘The Evangelical Liberal’)

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  8. tonycutty says:

    I know this is an old post but I have just discovered it….my two penn’orth is that to say demons come from hell is incorrect, even should it be a real place. The Bible describes hell as the lake of fire reserved for the devil and his angels, in other words it is a place where they will be destroyed (or whatever) at the end of time. To depict hell as somehow being their home is just gain wrong. Still, if the Kingdom of God is advancing, and these girls are advancing it, then who am I to diss what God is doing? One of the characteristics of the Pharisees was that they were more interested in religious correctness than in seeing people healed or set free, and I’m not going to join them anytime soon!

    Like

    • Hi Tony, yes, I absolutely agree with you that I don’t want to join the Pharisees any time soon (though of course we can all too easily fall into the same trap in reverse – “I thank you Lord that I’m not like that self-righteous Pharisee over there!” 😉 ). I do agree that if anyone’s ministry is genuinely leading to healings and people being set free, then that must surely be good and I don’t want to knock it because it doesn’t fit with my theology.

      However, from what I saw of the Teenage Exorcists, it seemed to me that there was just too much potential for exploitation and for damaging people rather than truly delivering them. And if the girls truly are fighting a real Satan, then I think they’re being naive in their approach at best; and if they’re not, then the whole thing may effectively be little more than a self-deluding charade.

      But no, I can’t totally dismiss the possibility that it might be genuine and have some good in it. I just don’t like it!

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