Bob Larson furrowed his brows at the screen. He’d been commanding my demon to tell him its name for about five minutes, and it hadn’t made a peep. “I torment you!” he said, for the fourth time, thrusting a silver cross at my head. He held it there, not breathing, waiting for the demon to say something. Nothing. He finally moved the cross out of the view of his webcam and grabbed a small, clear vial.
“I think I’m gonna use a little more oil.”
Once upon a time in ancient Jordan, Jesus and his apostles came across a man who lived in the caves outside of town. The man was possessed by an evil spirit, a demon strong enough to break any chains and tear any shackles. Day and night, the man haunted the caves with his screams, cutting himself with stones until he bled. Upon seeing Jesus, the man pleaded, in God’s name, for Jesus not to torture him.
Jesus, recognizing that the man was possessed, asked the man’s name. “My name is Legion,” his demon replied, “for we are many.” Jesus cast Legion into a large herd of pigs grazing nearby; all two thousand of them rushed into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.
This is the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, the biblical justification for Christian exorcism and the religious foundation of the work of the Reverend Bob Larson. Larson is the head of the Spiritual Freedom Church of Scottsdale, Arizona, and describes himself as “the world’s foremost expert on cults, the occult, and supernatural phenomena.” He has written more than thirty books, appeared on Oprah, and exorcised, by his count, more than 20,000 demons from suffering souls around the world. Despite his position as Satan’s number-one enemy on Earth, he has his work cut out for him–by Larson’s estimation, there are still more than three billion people around the world beset by demons, curses, and the Devil.
Now, Larson is peddling his ancient wares with 21st-century technology: namely, Skype. Using the same camera-friendly combination of scripture, sympathy, and screaming as he has in churches around the globe, Larson can now treat those possessed by demons from the comfort of his North Scottsdale office. The cost of a one-hour exorcism session: a $295 “suggested donation.” Cheaper than an hour with a decent Manhattan therapist, I thought. So I made a deal with the devil.
Bob Larson was raised in McCook, Nebraska, a postage-stamp town of around 7,000 people and 23 churches. As a young man, Larson tried his hand at the guitar as the lead singer of a band called The Rebels before settling into preaching, drawing from his experience as a musician to preach against the industry’s use of suggestive lyrics, mysticism, and drug references in popular music.
His fixation on the demonic occurred at the same time as the so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, when children from California to New Zealand accused hundreds of daycare providers and teachers of engaging in the satanic rites of a worldwide cult devoted to pedophilia, devil worship, and cannibalistic infanticide. Years passed before nearly every conviction was vacated—most of the child witnesses had been coached into describing the fantastical ceremonies and abuse—but Larson and other demon-wary preachers profited indirectly from this climate of fear. His so-called “deliverance ministry” grew to half a dozen locations throughout the United States, with another dozen affiliated churches scattered around the U.S. and five countries. In 2012, Larson was on the verge of Jimmy Swaggart-level success as a televangelist-cum-exorcist with a Lifetime Channel show called The Real Exorcist–until an excruciating video leaked of his “exorcism” of a gay man.
To most of the world, 30 seconds of this purported exorcism was enough evidence to dismiss Larson’s ministry, despite the ritual’s relatively mainstream presence in most Christian sects (ever been baptized? Congratulations–you’ve had an exorcism). The leak was a blessing in disguise for Larson’s ministry, however. The putatively possessed saw something in the groans and screams of Larson’s “filthy, stinking sex-demon,” coming out of the woodwork and pleading for Larson to free them from their afflictions. And they were willing to pay.
Most of Larson’s “possessed” are survivors of sexual abuse. According to Larson, “The biggest cause of demonic possession in the Western world is sexual abuse. More than 50 percent of the people we deal with have been sexually abused.” Rape, and the accompanying shame, hatred, and depression, weaken one’s connection with God, giving Satan and his legions an easy in. Larson’s YouTube channel hosts more than 100 videos, all showing Larson and Brynn, his earnestly beautiful daughter, violently casting out demons responsible for depression, addictions, witchcraft, and homosexuality. Most of the “demons” speak in hoary stage whispers, like Phyllis Diller in a shitty community theater production of The Exorcist.
With Larson’s allegation that half the planet is currently experiencing demonic possession, his Skype exorcism business is a potential trillion-dollar business. While the world’s possessed upgrade their WiFi, Larson is profiting from their torment, real or imagined, the old-fashioned way. His website’s online store offers books like Larson’s Book of Spiritual Warfare ($19.99), tests to determine whether or not you are possessed ($9.95), and videos on performing exorcisms ($44.95). You can even buy your very own “Cross of Deliverance,” the same instrument used by Larson and his Teen Exorcists—a trio of comely lasses who channel Buffy the Vampire Slayer to help Larson defeat demons. It costs $100.
You would never know that Larson was infamous in evangelical circles for his bombastic showmanship by talking to him. Over Skype, wearing a blue button-down and Apple earbuds, he looks like any other stay-at-home dad in North Scottsdale. “So, what brings you here today?” he asks amiably. I explained that I’d seen his ministry online, and that it was clear that he was a man whose practices people had found hugely helpful. I discussed teenaged depression, incidents where I had shouted at slow-walking pedestrians on the streets of New York, and other biographical details that, according to him, left me open to a “demonic presence.” This included a drunken Halloween in college when a group of friends and I held a séance to raise the spirit of Elihu Root, the 38th Secretary of State and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. (It didn’t work).
Larson has no academic or professional medical training, and is careful to note this on his site. “In just one hour you can the life you’ve always wanted,” the site promises. “This isn’t counseling. This isn’t therapy. This is intervention to get answers NOW!” Despite this, he quickly diagnosed me as a potential sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder, a largely discredited psychological condition wherein a traumatized person creates an alternate personality, or “alter,” to combat trauma that would otherwise incapacitate them. It is within these alters that demonic presences frequently make their homes.
Nonetheless, much of our time felt like a rather effective therapy session. Larson is warm, authentic, and funny. It’s easy to feel comfortable and open up to him. He comes across as genuinely interested in your mental and spiritual salvation, particularly by emphasizing the Christian tenets of forgiveness for victims of trauma. “One of the most difficult things that Christ taught us was forgiveness, unconditional forgiveness,” he says, citing the Sermon on the Mount. Larson is quick to quote scripture–to prove the Biblical precedent for our long-distance exorcism session, he cites the Book of Matthew. “One of the greatest exorcisms Christ ever did,” says Larson, “was of the Canaanite woman who came to him, and said that her daughter had demons. She was some distance away, we don’t know how far.”
Larson doesn’t deem any particular Christian sect the one true faith. When I commented that he was surprisingly ecumenical for an exorcist, he smiled. “Look, I’ve been to a hundred countries. People worship God in the Christian tradition in all different ways. And you know what? I rejoice wherever people seek God.”
His apparently sincere desire to help me deal with my problems made his transition to Exorcist Bob all the more jarring. For the first fifty minutes of our Skype call, I just felt like I was talking to a particularly Jesus-centric therapist. But after Larson had anointed my forehead with holy oil—on the screen, anyway—the tone of our conversation shifted dramatically. Holding a Bible in front of the webcam, Larson “separated” me from any of my alters, within which he positive my demonic presence was hiding.I gulped. “Bring it on—let’s get the Hell out.”
In a sharp voice, Larson commanded the attention of my demon. “I confront you by the blood of Christ. Any spirit of anger, rejection, shame, hate, even murder. Look at me. Any evil spirit that’s there… I confront you by the blood of Christ! And by the power of the cross! And I torment you! Torment you! I torment you!” Larson was intense, scary, almost violent; I would have been terrified if we’d been in the same room. In person, Larson usually has a few bouncer types to hold down his sex-abuse survivors while he shoves crosses and Bibles against their foreheads. Unsurprisingly, victims of rape respond emotionally to being restrained by large Ukrainian men.
While the snarling, spitting possessed are pinned, Larson screams at their demons, alternately mocking them and commanding them to leave their host. Occasionally, he will use the Bible as a sword, “stabbing” the possessed in the back to force the demon to engage. All of this takes place in English. (Contrary to what my preparatory viewing of The Exorcism of Emily Rose led me to believe, Satan isn’t a polyglot. My demon was completely silent. This isn’t the first time Larson has attempted to exorcise someone who wasn’t entirely convinced of his own possession. Necrobutcher (né Jørn Stubberud,) of the Norwegian black metal band, Mayhem met with Larson for an exorcism. It didn’t go well.
The third time Larson reached for his silver cross, I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. “I feel like I’m… good. Or, at least, I feel like this was, uh… Going by what you said, like, and this is, again in the spirit of one-hundred percent honesty, I’m not equipped with the faith, right now, necessary, I think, to be productive.”
He nodded. “Your faith is not where it needs to be.”
I nodded in return. “That seems… a fair characterization.”