With a title like Teenage Exorcists, you would expect a documentary to be part of the trashy fare that BBC 3 is prone to host on week nights (Bizarre ER and Snog, Marry, Avoid come to mind). The Vice documentary in question, however, is actually compulsive viewing.
It joins a group of Evangelical teenage exorcists as they embark on a tour of Ukraine. The three girls huddle together backstage and bless each other: “God, I ask you to put Satan on notice, that we are coming, and I ask you to put those demons in torment”, says red-haired Brynne. The drab walls of the corridor, the cheap fold out chairs and farcical nature of the show remind me of Spinal Tap. But the girls do not get lost backstage. Instead, they are announced on stage and surge through the middle of a clamouring crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. Metallic crucifixes poke out of their skinny jeans and they clasp onto Bibles and smart phones. Halleluiah! Praise be to god! Raise those hands to high heaven because this is the holiest of holy stick ups!
Brynne, Savannah and Tess are three home-schooled eighteen-year-old girls born and raised in Arizona. They are all black belts in karate, enjoy horse riding, and, naturally, are on a mission to save the world from the demons currently occupying millions of people worldwide. The sisters talk excitedly over each other and finish each other’s sentences. But they are not talking about their favourite bands or films; they chat animatedly about “casting out demons”. If you’ve ever indulged in a one-night stand, taken drugs, or been seduced by the Harry Potter series, you need their help.
Bob Larson, curator and orchestrator of the whole spectacle, hypes up the crowd from his position of power on stage. Larson is Brynne’s father and a questionable character even by the standards of self-righteous, money-grabbing Evangelical Christians.
Larson began his career in the 1980s as an anti-rock Evangelist and wrote over ten books that explored the evil and corrupting effects of bands like Mötley Crüe, The Dead Kennedys and, of course, the notorious Fleetwood Mac. On his radio show Talk-Back with Bob Larson he further voiced his distaste for no-good-rockers and the “pro-pot, pro-abortion ‘Clinton crowd’”. It was on this show that he coined the phrase “doing what Jesus did”. He then copyrighted the term – because we all know Jesus’s views on intellectual property. His hopes of being a televangelist were shelved when a video of him attempting to exorcise the “demon of homosexuality” from a man went viral.
Bob and the girls have completed a number of world tours and are now visiting the New Generation church in Pershotravensk, Ukraine – a backwater town remarkable only for coal mining, high levels of drug addiction and strong beliefs in the supernatural. As usual, Larson runs the show and plays to the crowd. He orders the audience to watch as he paces the stage slowly, holding a silver crucifix in front of him. It is no swinging watch, but Larson is certainly trying some brand of pseudo-hypnosis. He address the crowd in dulcet tones that belie the intensity of his message: “many of you in this room have suffered sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, by a parent or a lover, and it’s eating you up inside.” People line up beside the stage, already weeping in anticipation.
The first woman in the queue is welcomed on stage and then restrained by two burly Ukrainian men while Larson attends to her: “I want to talk to little Marsha, I want to talk to the little girl who Daddy beat” he says. The woman starts to cry, scream and then growl before a wild, almost demonic glare emanates from her eyes. A shouting match commences between Larson and the ‘demon’, ending with Larson ramming a Bible into the small of the woman’s back. The teenage exorcists step in and push Bibles under her chin and on the top of her head as her knees buckle.
Olga, a woman who had originally attended the service to get help for her varicose veins, ended up telling Larson and the audience that her uncle had once raped her. Whether these people are going through some kind of catharsis, reacting to the intense presence of an intimidating priest, or merely feeling the pressure to perform under the lights, remains to be seen.
Larson seems able to extract a reaction from any audience participant. Demons emerge in everyone – although not the kind from Milton’s Pandemonium. Instead, anxieties and frustrations surface from the dark depths of the fawning crowd. It seems like a collective offloading of troubles onto something – or someone – supernatural. Olga certainly felt some kind of relief: “I felt joy, as if this burden that I’d been dragging for all this time – for 22 years since it happened – it just went away in an instant. I felt light.”
Larson is at pains to ensure the exorcisms are well recorded. At one point he interrupts his flow to instruct one of the girls not to stand in front of the camera; he’s clearly annoyed at their mistake.
It is Larson who has branded these home-schooled girls ‘teenage exorcists’ and realized their potential to become globe-trotting saviours. Indeed, one attendee at the New Generation church said: “My first association was with Spice Girls, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. The girls certainly occupy a middle ground somewhere between these two reference points.
The expanding media presence around the girls and Larson is staggering: radio, television, a multitude of editorials and documentaries. The fact that these are laced with doubt and cynicism does not seem to harm Larson’s reputation or his ability to make money – on the contrary, he continues to tour the world with his three protégés, claiming to have performed over 15,000 exorcisms.
So, what exactly is a demon and what are the signs of possession? In the FAQ section of boblarson.org he offers a definition of a demon: “Demons incite every kind of sin in the hearts of the morally weak”. He claims that the major cause of demonic possession is sexual abuse, but that there are myriad ways to leave “the umbrella of God’s protection” and leave yourself open to demonic possession. Promiscuous sex is a definite no-go area, as Brynne explains: “So many times we’ve dealt with men who’ve gone to prostitutes and they’ve got demons. Just like you can get a sexually transmitted disease, you can get a sexually transmitted demon”. The GUM clinic cannot help you this time. Better book in for a Skype session with Bob.
Speaking of Skype sessions, lets talk money. Even during his early radio performances, Bob was pleading to people for money. Anyone who donated $1000 or more was awarded the status of “Champion”, and any lesser donations would win you the title “Hero for the Hurting”. The silver crucifixes sported by Bob and the girls are, by the way, available through Bob’s website at $100 a pop. Bob’s signed novels can be yours in return for a $100 “suggested donation”, and a twelve-week spiritual coaching program is run for $99 a week. The spiritual coaching program may seem like good value for money in the grand scheme of things, until you realise that this course involves only a twenty-five minute phone conversation with the great man once a week. The main event, the exorcism of a demon, will set you back $200. The words of Scientology’s founder Ron L. Hubbard should be ringing in your ears: “If you want to get rich, start a religion”.
The whole concept is farcical and tragic in equal measure. The suggestible people found at these events are emptying their hearts and their wallets to a false prophet. Who can blame them for wanting to offload their anxieties and failings onto a supernatural fiction?
Another concern is the teenage exorcists. Larson, when asked if he thought it was safe to train teenagers to perform exorcisms, replied, “We think it’s OK to train teenagers to get drunk and have sex, but to do moral things for God, oh, let’s not train them to do that”.
Putting aside the discussion of what is going on during an “exorcism”, there are studies proving that physical changes occur in the brain of the exorcist and the person being exorcised. Dr. Andrew Newburg, an American neuroscientist, claims, “when we have done studies of people who engaged in these kind of practices, where people have these incredible experiences, there are all kinds of changes that are going on inside these people’s brains and inside these people’s bodies which can make them think things, hear things, feel things that are not actually there.” What’s more, it is clear that these girls have been forced into the business. Perhaps they have not had their arms twisted, but they have been subjected to a culture and a brand of extreme Christian rhetoric from a young age, which has set them on a dangerous and marginalised path. The influence of Bob Larson and the culture he is part of has not allowed the girls to make informed decisions about their own lives and beliefs.
The kicker to this unfortunate situation, and what makes it hard to pass judgment on the teenage exorcists, is that Brynne, Savannah, and Tess are undoubtedly sincere. It is clear from their interviews that they truly believe in what they do and that they are helping people. This places them in that grey area of morality – that of misplaced good will. One thing is clear, though: all attendees of these events would be better off exorcising Bob Larson from their lives, and demanding a full spiritual refund. Better get back the cash as well.
Images by VICE