deliverers from evil
meeting Bridgeport residents Larry and Debbie Elward for the first time are
usually at their worst.
heavily depressed. They suffer headaches. They have the luck of someone hit by a
truck three times in the same day. They're addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling
can't clean, pay their bills or work.
they smell really bad.
they hear voices that tell them to do things like, "Eat a roll of quarters
and wash it down with some bottle caps. Burn down the house. Carve a pentagram
in your arms and chest. Kill yourself."
conventional wisdom would direct these poor souls to the doorstep of a
psychiatrist, Larry and Debbie Elward recommend an alternative therapeutic
intervention: Find an exorcist it just might help.
for the uninitiated, is the medieval Catholic ritual of driving out the devil
and his demons from possessed persons. Its practice has been relegated to the
church's notorious past, along with indulgences and the Inquisition.
growing number of Protestant denominations including Pentecostals, Baptists and
other charismatic groups are reviving interest in demon expulsion, forming the
core of what is known nationally as the "deliverance movement."
'liberal' exorcism It is a religious subculture that emerged out of the New Age
fascinations of the 1960s and has grown steadily over the decades, pushing out
from small town middle America into mainstream culture.
proponents believe Christians regularly fall captive to indwelling demons that
specialize in particular sins, geographic locations, objects and age groups.
These groups' co-option of the Catholic ritual of exorcism and their liberal use
of it say as much about the conflict between medicine and metaphysics as they do
about belief in the supernatural and demonology.
felt there was a great need for this," says Debbie Elward, a practicing
Roman Catholic and a eucharistic minister at a Bridgeport area church.
had been going to psychiatrists who couldn't find anything wrong them. Their
symptoms would keep changing
week it's bi-polar disorder, the next it's schizophrenia. People needed other
avenues to investigate, to see what's wrong with them."
Larry Elward, "Exorcism was helping the vast majority of these
say skeptics, who believe the Elwards and other exorcism groups are simply an
offshoot of New England's historical infatuation with ghost-hunting and other
these groups do is they investigate people and places. Whatever they find there
they deem a haunting or a possession," says Dr. Steven Novella, a
neurologist and founder of the New England Skeptical Society. "They find
their anomalies and make no effort to explain them in simple or prosaic terms.
It's the essence of pseudoscience."
no body of scientific evidence exists to establish possession as a legitimate
phenomenon or substantiate exorcism's merits. But the growth of deliverance
ministries, believers say, shows science can explain only so much. As a result,
people are more willing to entertain the spiritual.
this century, more people are open to more possibilities," Debbie Elward
says. "In this crazy world more people are trying to get back to God."
Larry and Debbie Elward are paranormal investigators, or professional "ghostbusters,"
as they call themselves. Three years ago, they left behind their careers in
health care and started the Aware Foundation, a deliverance ministry run out of
their Edna Avenue home.
Elward, a Protestant convert to Catholicism, has what she calls the power of
"spiritual discernment," the ability to sense entities in persons,
places or objects. She also claims a talent for psychic photography, often
capturing images of orbs and strange fogs that she says are otherwise invisible
to the nonbeliever's naked eye.
Elward, also a devoted Roman Catholic who earned his master's degree in
theology, is studying to be a priest in an independent California-based church
called the Home Temple, which ordains men and women, both married and single, to
the priesthood. Under the guidance of the church's bishop, Lewis Keizer, Larry
hopes to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a full-time exorcist in an
then, it is only fitting that the couple met during an exorcism five years ago
before tying the knot and launching the Aware Foundation in July 2000.
"Everybody else meets in bars," Larry Elward says. "Why can't we
meet in exorcism?"
ministry, they say, is not-for-profit and survives entirely on the donations of
the people they help.
now work strictly as paranormal investigators and are collaborating on a book.
Their ghostbusting takes them all over the country at their own expense, from
Alabama to California, though they do ask for donations.
might expect the Elwards to look out of the ordinary. But to the casual
observer, they appear to be anything but. They are polite and sunny, well
mannered and educated, charming and articulate.
they talk of exorcism and paranormal encounters, they exude authority, passion
and reverence. What makes them different from everyone else, apparently, is that
Debbie Elward sees ghosts and Larry Elward has tussled with demons.
spinning heads Contrary to the popular view of exorcism spinning heads,
levitating objects, guttural voices, superhuman strength and projectile vomiting
most modern-day exorcisms, Larry Elward says, are nothing more than ecstatic
prayer sessions, with bursts of growling, spasmodic movements and blasphemous
remarks by the possessed person. Far fewer are violent, he says, though some
possessed people have been known to strike at the minister performing the
of all ages, ethnicities and religions are embracing exorcism, setting aside
their personal beliefs, the Elwards say, to get rid of the evil entities that
of the Elwards' clients, they maintain, have included Muslims and Jews who were
willing to embrace Jesus Christ to be cleansed of demonic influence. And many,
not surprisingly, have diagnosed mental illnesses, which, they say, is
exacerbated by a spiritual presence. "We're out to help people, not convert
them," Larry Elward says.
mental health experts and religious figures say people like the Elwards may be
doing more harm than good. One Detroit clergyman who studied multiple
personality disorder patients found exorcism harmed the vast majority of these
people, especially those who endured sexual abuse at a young age.
popular culture has developed in which some Catholics, if confronted by
phenomena that confuse or frighten them, will immediately diagnose the phenomena
as demonic and begin a process of ordering an evil entity to leave the
person," said the Rev. Joseph Mahoney in a self-published research paper
entitled, "Exorcism and MPD from the Catholic Perspective."
believe it to be a situation that is spiritually dangerous, psychologically
dangerous and abusive, and scandalous."
motives of those who engage in such activities, Mahoney says, can vary. Some may
believe they have the best intentions, he says, while others may be
"motivated by grandiosity, a fascination with the dramatic or the
attraction of having psychological control over another human being."
McGann, a social worker and behavioral health program supervisor at Catholic
Family Services in Ansonia, says the lure of exorcism groups is powerful for
people with chronic mental illnesses, offering them a cure for what modern
groups offer a support system for them and an answer. It's not the answer I
think that's correct, but an answer nonetheless."
power of faith To such critics, the Elwards defend their actions by saying
exorcism is just prayer. "We make sure they don't stop taking their
medications, or we won't touch them," Debbie Elward says. "Would a
doctor stop a person from going to church on Sunday?"
an exorcism to work, Larry Elward says, a person has to want it; the power of
exorcism resides in the faith of the person submitting to it. For instance, he
says, the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Bridgeport Diocese might have been
averted had pedophile priests submitted to exorcism.
don't know if it would have helped them, but it sure as hell wouldn't have
hurt," he says.
the motives of deliverance ministers, exorcism can be hard work. The Aware
Foundation, the Elwards say, is a 24-hour endeavor. The couple often get calls
in the middle of the night from people seeking spiritual guidance and God's
like ambulance drivers," Debbie Elward says. "We act more as spiritual
counselors, psychologists and mothers and fathers. We take them by the hand, and
they become like family."
many of these "family members," exorcism has worked miracles, the
Elwards contend. The Aware Foundation's Web site [ www.angelfire.com/scifi/deliverances] lists
a number of its successful battles in spiritual warfare, giving a blow-by-blow
account of their clashes with demons.
power of the film Arguably the country's foremost expert on the subject of
exorcism is sociologist and Fordham University professor Michael Cuneo, who
believes the rise of deliverance ministries and the broader phenomena of
demonology can be credited almost entirely to the entertainment industry.
prior to the late 1960s was virtually dead and gone in the United States, a
fading ghost long past its prime," says Cuneo in his 2001 book,
"American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty."
then in the early to mid-'70s," he says, "untold numbers of Americans,
many of them staunchly middle class, the kind of people you might chat with at
the supermarket checkout counter became convinced that they or their loved ones
were suffering from demonic affliction."
surprisingly, the hysteria that Cuneo describes and the subsequent demand for
deliverance ministers coincided with the 1973 release of William Friedkin's
classic horror film "The Exorcist," a fictitious portrayal of a little
girl's struggle with demonic possession.
influence of that film on the mass psyche cannot be denied. "I slept with a
Bible for a week after that movie," Debbie Elward says. "It's both
triggered fascination in exorcism and put a stigma on it."
factor in the renewed popularity of deliverance ministries, psychologists say,
is the power of suggestion. Often, it is much easier for troubled people to
believe their problems are the result of demonic infestation than weaknesses of
character or chemical imbalance.
the mind welcomes the suggestion of demonization, it falls into the open arms of
another suitor: the desire for exoneration," reports Agnieszka Tennat in an
August 2001 article in Christianity Today. "Many Christians would rather be
known as objects of demonic harassment than struggling sinners."
people with serious mental illness like schizophrenia, telling them the devil is
to blame can have devastating consequences.
you validate and play into their delusion, that is very counterproductive,"
says Novella of the New England Skeptical Society. "It's like telling them,
'You're right, the CIA is out to get you.'"
ministers, he adds, are "intervening in a way that conventional wisdom says
is doing nothing at all or, at the very worst, is harming [these people]."
The society has investigated a dozen exorcism cases since 1996, including one
televised on ABC several years ago that involved a young girl who, Novella says,
was clearly psychotic, at best.
the Elwards and other deliverance ministers are quick to point out their success
stories. Take, for instance, the time the couple performed an exorcism on a
young schizophrenic child who heard voices telling her to eat rolls of quarters
and bottle caps.
the ritual, the voices dissipated and the girl stopped eating objects, they say,
though her schizophrenia remained.
we perform a lot of exorcisms on people who are mentally ill, but we tell them
we're just going to pray, and it relaxes them and they feel better," Debbie