Louisa Muskovits appeared to be having a panic attack. It was March of 2016, and Louisa, a 33-year-old with a history of alcohol abuse, was having a regular weekly session with her chemical-dependency counselor in Tacoma, Washington.
Louisa had recently separated from her husband, Steven. When the counselor asked about her marriage, she said she wasn’t ready to talk about it. The counselor pressed, and again Louisa demurred. Eventually the conversation grew tense, and Louisa started to hyperventilate, a common symptom of a panic attack.
The counselor rushed down the hall to get Louisa’s therapist, Amy Harp. Together they moved Louisa to Harp’s office, where they felt they could better calm her. But once Louisa was there, Harp recalls, her demeanor transformed. Normally friendly and open, she started screaming and pulling out clumps of her hair. She growled and glared. Her head flailed from side to side, cocking back at odd angles. In jumbled bursts, she muttered about good and evil, God and the devil. She told the counselors that no one there could save “Louisa.”
According to Harp, Louisa seemed to vacillate between this unhinged state and her normal self. One minute she would snarl and bare her teeth, and the next she would beg for help. “It definitely had this appearance where she was fighting within herself,” Harp told me.
Harp had never seen this kind of behavior before, and wasn’t sure what to do. But she knew that Louisa had occasionally experienced episodes in which she felt something indescribably dark overtake her, and that she would read scripture to beat back these states. “You need to read Bible verses,” Harp said. Her bearing still frantic, Louisa picked up her smartphone and began looking up passages. As she read, she started to calm down. Her flailing diminished; her frenzied affect ebbed. She vomited in a trash bin, and after that she was her old self again, full of apologies, her eyes wet, her face red.
The encounter left Harp baffled about what she’d just witnessed. For Louisa it had a more profound effect, prompting a search for answers that would ultimately lead her away from modern medicine and its well-worn paths for mental-health treatment, and toward the older, more ritualized remedies of her Catholic faith.
The conviction that demons exist—and that they exist to harass, derange, and smite human beings—stretches back as far as religion itself. In ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonian priests performed exorcisms by casting wax figurines of demons into a fire. The Hindu Vedas, thought to have been written between 1500 and 500 b.c., refer to supernatural beings—known as asuras, but largely understood today as demons—that challenge the gods and sabotage human affairs. For the ancient Greeks, too, demonlike creatures lurked on the shadowy fringes of the human world.
But far from being confined to a past of Demiurges and evil eyes, belief in demonic possession is widespread in the United States today. Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.
Perhaps as a result, demand for exorcisms—the Catholic Church’s antidote to demonic possession—seems to be growing as well. Though the Church does not keep official statistics, the exorcists I interviewed for this article attest to fielding more pleas for help every year.
Father Vincent Lampert, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told me in early October that he’d received 1,700 phone or email requests for exorcisms in 2018, by far the most he’s ever gotten in one year. Father Gary Thomas—a priest whose training as an exorcist in Rome was documented in The Rite, a book published in 2009 and made into a movie in 2011—said that he gets at least a dozen requests a week. Several other priests reported that without support from church staff and volunteers, their exorcism ministries would quickly swallow up their entire weekly schedules.
The Church has been training new exorcists in Chicago, Rome, and Manila. Thomas told me that in 2011 the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists. Today, he said, there are well over 100. Other exorcists I spoke with put the number between 70 and 100. (Again, no official statistics exist, and most dioceses conceal the identity of their appointed exorcist, to avoid unwanted attention.)