The Dark Backward: Demons in the Real World


February 14, 2009


“The lunatic is on the grass.”

It was an hour before midnight. Ten-year-old James was in his bedroom, alone, when he was suddenly gripped by terror. A Pink Floyd song rang out through the empty room. The radio turned on by itself.
“The lunatic is on the grass. The lunatic is in the hall.”
James lay paralyzed, locked in that helpless state that is itself as terrifying as whatever causes it. He wanted to move or cry out but couldn’t. So he just listened.
“The lunatic is in my head. There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”
This was James’s first direct experience with evil, but it wouldn’t be his last. “That would become something that would be common,” he remembers. “I’d have a feeling of something scary being present. Then something weird would happen.”
First the presence, then the strange thing. It would recur that way throughout his life. This is the first phase of demonic activity, the devil’s first tentative steps into a life. For all the victims of demonic activity I spoke with, this sort of thing is common. And like James, they all wished to remain anonymous.
One victim felt the evil presence as a physical weight; another saw a grotesque person. One saw nothing — literally — in one part of a room, “like a pitch-black sheet had been pulled down.”
Another victim — a well-known Catholic leader respected for his pragmatism — said, “My most frequent encounters involve black shadows and figures that I see out of the corner of my eye…. I’ll see something in my peripheral vision. It’s almost always in motion. When I turn my head, the figure will melt quickly into a fluid-like shadow and then flow away through the edges of the room or along the ceiling. I see these things frequently, almost every day.” His encounters are cinematically frightening, involving infestations of crows, carpets of spiders, cats gathering to stare at him from his front porch, objects flying through rooms in his house, and inhuman figures standing in darkened hallways.
The evil presence manifests itself through senses other than sight, as well. “I occasionally hear things, voices sounding far away and choppy,” one victim said. “I sometimes get overwhelmed with a sulfury smell,” described another.
A friend of one of the victims listed these manifestations: “He’d get an oppressive feeling. Sometimes he’d see a grotesque, impish figure, a short, really nasty-looking demon. When he described it to Rome’s exorcist, Father Gabriel Amorth, he said, ‘Oh, that guy.’ Other times, he’d just hear screaming. Deafening noise. I don’t know what you’d want to call it. The wailing of the damned.”
But there was one phenomenon that all the victims have experienced: “I could feel something there, looking at me.”
James felt that presence again on a visit home from college. He was awakened at 1:30 a.m. with the feeling that someone was approaching the front door. He went downstairs, and soon one of his sisters walked in, drunk. He talked to her in the living room, warning her about drinking too much.
That’s when the presence came. Then the strange thing.
The phone rang, and he picked it up. A female voice said, “Don’t even try to talk to her. Just leave her alone.”
He hung up and talked to his sister anyway. But, before long, the presence returned.
“I knew the phone was going to ring,” he said. He reached for it. “Then it rang.”
It was the same voice, but distorted, “like she had marbles in her mouth.” Emphatically, the voice commanded, “I told you not to talk to her!”
He cut his lecture short.
James’s parents consulted the Jesuit Rev. John Hardon about his case.
“He told me that there are three orders of reality,” said James, whose family confirms the account (Father Hardon died nine years ago). “There is the divine existence. Just below that is the preternatural world, the world of spirits, angels good or bad. Then there’s the natural world, where we live. But human beings also participate in the preternatural.”
Father Hardon told him that some people are more attuned to the preternatural world. “They kind of sense things better,” James said. “Things like what I just explained to you.” Things like demons.
He Wants to Be With You Forever
When I agreed to do a story about demonic activity, possession, and exorcism for Crisis, I thought it would be fun — a spooky thrill. I’d write the article, warn about being too preoccupied with the subject matter, and be done. Instead, I got sleepless nights, horrifying conversations with those who have been involved in exorcisms, and a new point of view on the demonic world.
Skeptics have fought a losing battle against belief in the devil for years. “What are the Church’s greatest needs at the present time?” Pope Paul VI asked in November 1972. “Don’t be surprised at Our answer and don’t write it off as simplistic or even superstitious: One of the Church’s greatest needs is to be defended against the evil we call the Devil.”
There’s an age-old battle between philosophers and poets about the nature of evil. The pope sided with the poets. “Evil is not merely an absence of something but an active force, a living, spiritual being that is perverted and that perverts others. It is a terrible reality, mysterious and frightening.”
The Vatican has issued updated norms of exorcism as recently as 1999.
Demons are an inescapable part of the Old Testament. They are even named there: Lucifer in Isaiah, Asmodeus in Tobit, Satan in Job. And the New Testament can almost sound like the story of Christ the Exorcist, come to earth to end the reign of that strongman, Beelzebub. In St. John’s words, “The reason the son of man appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
Some manner of belief in demons is part of every religion in every age, and the diabolical world haunts moderns with no religion, too. Most horror movies work by suggesting that there’s another layer to the world — one we don’t often see — that is filled with darkness. Puncture it a little, and chaos pours out.
Some of the stories I’ll tell involve contorted bodies, glowing eyes, levitation, and other Hollywood aspects of demonic activity. But I decided to focus on James’s story, which is terrifying in a more typical way. It’s filled with ambiguity, punctuated occasionally by bursts of darkness. And it has left him spiritually weary. Because the truth is, the victims of demonic activity don’t live in carnival haunted houses. They exist at the edges of a malaise. They’re anxious or depressed, disoriented in their spiritual lives or slowly losing their minds — always wondering if the thoughts filling their heads are really their own.
“I don’t experience them as clever ‘fallen’ angels,” said one of the victims I spoke with. “I’m not sure I sense a great deal of intelligence there, at all. It’s like they’re working on some kind of animal instinct.”
Catholic writer Mark Shea has pointed out that the devil, in rejecting the ultimate good that is God, rejected secondary goods, like intelligence, as well. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t clever — the late exorcist Malachi Martin once said that the one thing an exorcist must never do is try to reason with the devil. But as a conversationalist, he’s probably not like the demons in the Screwtape Letters. He’s more like the captured alien in Independence Day: a highly developed insect who answers the president’s careful negotiations by saying, simply, “Die.”
So why dwell on the diabolical world at all? Paul VI explained, “This matter of the Devil and of the influence he can exert on individuals as well as on communities, entire societies or events, is a very important chapter of Catholic doctrine which should be studied again, although it is given little attention today.”
In three different ways, I found that to be true.
First, the stories I collected add up to a giant neon sign saying “Stay away from witchcraft” and other occult practices. When I asked exorcists if witchcraft is a gateway to more serious demonic activity, they were incredulous. Gateway? It’s directly dealing with the demonic! Nearly everyone they treat has been exposed in some way to Ouija boards, spells, hexes, “white magic,” or tarot cards — the stuff your local chain bookstore fills its shelves with because it sells so well.
Second, even if you’re never tempted by witchcraft, recalling the nature of the demonic world can be a moral “Scared Straight” lesson. Try this: The next time you face a temptation, remind yourself that you’re cooperating with the malevolent will of a highly developed insect that hates you yet wants to be with you forever. You’ll find your old reliable sins lose a little of their allure.
And third, I found that these aren’t simply horror stories. Horror stories work by attacking hope. But we aren’t helpless when we face the devil. “The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature.”
Modern-day saints like Blessed Mother Teresa fought the devil and won. The devil tried to possess Mother Teresa when she was sick in the hospital, Father Amorth told the National Catholic Register. An Indian exorcist kept him at bay.
We can take comfort in the fact that God never allows more for a soul than it can handle and that it’s only after we invite demons in that they cause us serious problems.
Or when we leave ourselves wide open to them by spending time with witches, like James did. Because if the first phase of demonic activity — the presence of evil — comes at the devil’s initiative, the second phase comes at our own.
There are two common ways the devil enters a person, one exorcist told me. “The basic one is through sin. The person turns away from God and commits sin frequently. The devil finds a willing victim. He finds a friend. Conversely, there’s the person who is good, and the devil goes after him. The devil tries to wear the person down.”
‘He’s Ready to Meet You Now’
“This is not a pleasant story,” James began.
He was 20, at home near St. Louis on winter break from college, when he had a frustrating experience at a meeting of a Catholic community (in charity, we’ll keep its name out of it; it’s not a well-known group). He felt out of place and unfulfilled at the meeting, so he left early to go to his friend Vanessa Jabali’s house and take her out to a movie. But when James arrived, he found her mother had other plans.
James had known Vanessa since the fifth grade. The Jabalis were an all-female household — Mrs. Jabali and three daughters — who seemed wealthy even though the father was absent. If you asked their religion, the Jabalis would tell you that they study their ancestry and then would refer to the “Yahwist” accounts in the Old Testament, the stories of animal sacrifice and scapegoats.
Mrs. Jabali told James to wait while she made cookies. Vanessa’s sister, Isabel, joined them. “She spent 20 minutes preparing them, but they were not warm,” James said. He ate them, though no one else did.
“She started talking to me about Moses and how he was a woman, and how Moses had horns like in the sculpture, and all kinds of really weird stuff,” James said. At one point, Mrs. Jabali put both of her hands in front of her face, palms out, not touching, and said, “All of the sudden you open your eyes and you see what’s going on.” She waved them apart.
“I was sort of entranced,” James said. To this day he doesn’t know if the cookies were drugged. “She keeps talking this stuff, and I’m getting confused and disoriented.”
Vanessa planned to drive James to the movie. But they did not go to the movie.
“We went to a house,” James said. As he sat in the strange building with Vanessa, he felt a strong presence of evil. Soon Mrs. Jabali and Isabel arrived, and James was in the same company he had been in before, only ten miles away, in an unfamiliar house.
Mrs. Jabali turned to James and said, “He’s ready to meet you downstairs if you want.” She didn’t explain who “he” was. James tried to pray, but couldn’t. His mind was distracted. But he said there was no way he was going downstairs.
They sat longer, making small talk. Mrs. Jabali looked at ease. But she would occasionally repeat her invitation, more insistently.
“He’s ready to meet you downstairs if you want, James.”
“Finally, after about five more invitations to go downstairs and meet ‘him,’ we left that place and went to a movie,” James said. But he doesn’t remember the movie at all… except for one part, “where they cut a goat’s neck and started dancing around it.”
At the end, he stumbled into the car. “Did you like the part about the goat?” asked Vanessa, laughing. Then she said, “We’re going back to that house.”
That was too much for James. “I had an inspiration to order her, not ask her, but tell her, ‘Vanessa, take me home.’”
“No,” she said.
“Vanessa, take me home,” James repeated.
Vanessa turned to her sister and, as if James wasn’t even there, asked, “Well, what do I do now?”
“You have to do whatever he says,” Isabel said.
“Well, what do you do when this happens with Joel?” Vanessa asked, referring to her sister’s husband.
“I just beat him with a bat,” Isabel said. They sounded utterly serious, as if they were trying to scare James.
Vanessa took him home. But the strangest part of the night was still ahead for James.
‘Forget God’
As soon as he got home, he decided to drive back to the religious community where he had started out, on the other side of St. Louis. “It was late at night,” his sister, Caroline, told me. “He said goodbye, and it was the sort of goodbye that seemed to mean, ‘Goodbye forever.’”
James was barely in a condition to drive. “I don’t know if I was drugged or cursed,” he said. “Cars were whizzing by me. I was just trying to drive straight. By the time I got there, I was really scared.”
He woke the priest and laypeople who lived at the community and told them, “I think God wants me to live here.” The priest explained that people don’t receive vocations out of fear and left to get some clothes for James to change into: He had wet his pants.
James sat staring at a crucifix on the wall, getting more and more agitated. Finally, he shouted, “Forget God!” and ran out into the hall. He pushed past three men and headed toward the chapel.
There, several men of the religious house witnessed James stand on a pew and do a back-flip. They yelled for others to help them, and then called the police. James made a dash toward the sanctuary, breaking the chapel’s Epiphany statues on the way. The men intervened.
“I went after the tabernacle,” James told me. “I wanted inside it. I just wanted to get to Jesus in the Eucharist.”
He never did. Six men held him down. He broke free from them. They held him again. Soon, a police van arrived. James was put in a straitjacket and thrown into the darkness of the vehicle.
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“In the paddy wagon, I was certain I had died and gone to hell. That was the deepest, worst psychological thing I’d ever experienced. It was so heinous and evil,” he said.

“But I could still hope. And I could pray.” His Catholic education told him that would be impossible if he were really in hell.
The next thing he remembers is the psychiatric ward, sitting in front of a blue light. “They put some drug in me and said I’d be asleep within ten seconds. I spent that night in a rubber room. I didn’t sleep at all.” Usually in such a case, a patient will spend months in the hospital. But a Catholic doctor interviewed him and gave him a clean bill of mental health — a diagnosis that Father Hardon would soon affirm. James was in the hospital for only a week.
I shared these and other details of James’s case with Rev. Herman Jayachandra. Father Jayachandra, 59, is pastor of St. Martin de Porres parish in Boulder, Colorado. A priest and exorcist from India, Father Jayachandra is quick to point out that he is not the official exorcist of the Archdiocese of Denver, but that he only helps victims of diabolic activity with the knowledge of the archdiocese or at its request. The archdiocese vouched for him as a priest in good standing.
Diabolic activity generally falls into one of four categories, he told me. The mildest forms are infestation (as in haunted houses) and obsession (when a person is harassed by the devil either by intense temptations or in a particular area of a person’s life). Oppression — an external attack by evil spirits on a person — is worse. “The spirit could cause discouragement or weariness,” said Father Jayachandra, “or it can put up external shows to frighten the person, such as shaking a person’s bed during his sleep at night.”
The rarest and most serious form is possession. “Partial possession means in a certain part of the body,” he said. “Full possession means the devil takes control over the consciousness of the person. It uses the mouth of the person to speak. It uses the hands and legs of the person to do violence. It uses the mouth of the person to abuse and blaspheme.”
There are three kinds of exorcisms. First, there’s the liturgical exorcism that is incorporated in every baptismal ceremony. Second, there is so-called private exorcism, or simple exorcism. It can be performed by any of the faithful and can be as simple as the words, “Be gone, Satan.” The third kind of exorcism is the solemn, “public,” or formal exorcism. This ritual is only carried out with the specific authorization of a bishop. It’s a serious matter, but it’s a sacramental, not a sacrament. That means its effect is not infallible, and it may have to be repeated more than once.
One internationally known exorcist spoke with me but asked that his name not be used. His is a scary line of work. He told me he does a lot of research before suggesting a formal exorcism. “If the psychiatrists and the medical doctor have all said the same thing and given the person a clean bill of health,” the priest said, “I will do what’s called a provocation. I’ll provoke the devil into manifesting himself, if he’s there.”
He has a few chosen methods of provocation.
“Most commonly, I’ll put the Blessed Sacrament in a pix,” he said. “When I go into the room to see the person, unbeknownst to them, I will carry the Blessed Sacrament. If the person is possessed, they know right away that I have it. They’ll say, ‘No, no! Go away! I can’t go near you! He won’t let me! He won’t let me!’ Or, with a prayer, we’ll sprinkle holy water. The person will react and say, ‘Stop that! Stop that! It burns! It burns! Don’t do that! Don’t do that!’”
James was never possessed. After all, he went toward the tabernacle, not away from it. He was probably oppressed by a demon, Father Jayachandra said, and it was likely caused by witchcraft. James’s case reminded him of one exorcism he performed on an intermittently possessed person.
“It became very violent at a certain point. The possessed person jumped into the sanctuary and pushed down the statue of the Blessed Mother,” he said. “I ended up putting iron grills around all the other statues.”
James was exorcised, too. Many years after the incident with the Jabalis, and after other episodes, James’s brother brought him to a priest who performed a simple exorcism on him. Without ever mentioning the devil, or using the word “exorcism,” the priest asked James questions, gave him some tests, and then, almost as if it were an afterthought, said some prayers over him, including prayers in Latin. Father Amorth pointed out that since an exorcist doesn’t want to encourage dark thoughts in a subject, he’ll often perform his work in an almost casual way that won’t alarm the victim.
I also talked to Andrew Walther, who has brought two different people for treatment to Father Amorth, author of An Exorcist Tells His Story. He told me about one of them, whom we’ll call Leonard. Father Amorth thought Leonard’s case was brought on by a witch’s hex, too. Walther knew Leonard as one of the many college students abroad that he was working with. But Leonard started reporting strange incidents.
“He told me he was having a nightmare, and when he awoke he was completely unable to move, because there was a demon sitting on top of him, with glowing eyes.”
Leonard prayed, and the demon went away. But eventually, it returned. Leonard called it “an aggressive, depressing presence.”
Walther brought him to Father Amorth, and with Walther present, the exorcist performed a solemn exorcism.
“Father Amorth removed a bottle of holy water, a St. Benedict cross, a vessel of oil, and a stole from his briefcase, then, touching Leonard with the stole, he began to pray in Latin.” The prayers included the litany of the saints. At one point, the exorcist demanded that the demon reveal itself. The rite lasted about ten minutes, and Leonard felt greatly relieved afterwards.
“Father Amorth told Leonard he wasn’t possessed, but that he might be afflicted by a weak hex and that he should come back the next month,” Walther said. “He wanted to know if there was witchcraft in the family. He said not to be distracted by the devil’s harassment, but to pray before the Holy Eucharist — especially if he could find it exposed — to pray the rosary, and to go to Mass and confession often.”
According to exorcists, possession often happens through some form of witchcraft. In India, Father Jayachandra said, “I had many cases of witches casting spells and hexes over people. People became obsessed, and some became possessed.”
He was eager to point out that witches have no real power over the devil, though. “The devil, after using a witch to the best interest of both, eventually will kill her indirectly,” he said, driving her mad so she’ll die quickly in an accident or slowly from not being able to care for herself.
Rev. Charles Carpenter, 58, a priest in Alamos, Mexico, told me he used to be very skeptical about claims of demonic activity. But 25 years in Mexico changed his mind.
“People frequently consult what are called ‘adivinos,’ and ‘brujos.’ At first, I gave very little credence to the power of these persons,” he said. “But then, over the years, I saw the effects in certain persons who consulted them.”
‘Am I Crazy?’
Shaking beds, shrieks from the underworld, glowing eyes. Exorcists have seen it all. But they haven’t seen it often.
Usually, they encounter patients like James. Harassment and oppression are the most common form of demonic activity and, in a way, the most frightening. The devil doesn’t enter at some definitive point in time and then make a clean departure.
He hangs around, untiringly, for months — or years.
After James’s back-flip incident, his sister, Caroline, was working as a dispatcher for a security company, sitting up late by a phone that never rang… except when James was talking to her on one line. Then, she got interrupted frequently by calls on the security line, strange calls — adults laughing like children, nonsense words in weird voices, or ominous noises that are hard to describe.
Father Jayachandra told me of victims he treated who answered the telephone to hear, “I am with you.” Or, in a deep, odd voice: “I’m going to help you.”
“Perhaps the devil uses a human person under its control” to make the calls, he said.
Demons hound the victim, never letting him rest. Never letting him forget. James (and a witness I spoke with) described how, months after his incident, a grotesque person, a homeless woman with blank eyes, approached him.
“I have a message for you,” she said ominously, then relieved herself, making a puddle under her dress. James took it as his tormenter reminding him of what he did that horrifying night.
His life is filled with such stories. They are frightening but nonetheless leave a doubt: They could be explained without any reference to the demonic world. Is he hexed, or is he paranoid? Is he being harassed by demons, or is he losing his mind?
He’s not sure. That’s the kind of triumph the devil usually claims: not destruction, but the misery of self-doubt.
Mental illness is not diabolical activity. Yet there is a relationship between the two, Father Jayachandra said.
“Smaller psychological problems, if not taken care of, can cause mental illness,” he said. “But in my experience, demons could aggravate somebody’s psychological problems to cause mental illness.” And vice versa. “Mental illness, in my experience, leaves someone more likely to be oppressed, though not necessarily possessed.”
Each of the victims I spoke with said the same thing: “I thought I was crazy.” And in each of the cases — I admit — I wondered the same thing. All the same, one exorcist told me, “I’ve never found a person who needed an exorcism in a psychiatric hospital.”
James’s sister Caroline wanted to be sure I pointed out that most people who know James see nothing at all wrong with him. But James suffers greatly, she told me. “There are times when he’s very angry at God for letting this sort of thing happen to him,” she said. “He’s wanted to be a priest but figures there’s no way.”
James’s case shows the devil’s true nature. Satan is an oppressive, energy-draining weight on the spirits of those afflicted by him. He isn’t into artful repartee, he doesn’t play the fiddle, and he can’t make you a rock star. He won’t keep his promises. And he hates you beyond imagination.
How to defend against him? “Grace is the decisive defense,” Paul VI said.
Perhaps the best approach is the one James’s brother Glen takes. He allowed James to take shelter one night at his house. All the doors were locked, then appeared to unlock on their own. Didn’t that scare you?, I asked him.
“I never had any fear,” Glen told me. “I know that, basically, as long as you’re in a state of grace, God’s going to give you anything you need to get by.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Crisis Magazine.  


  • Tom Hoopes

    Tom Hoopes is writer-in-residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Previously, he served as editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine. He is the author, most recently, of What Pope Francis Really Said (Servant, 2016).

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