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Published: January 30th 2006
The curious and the converted meandered into the slick modern surrounds of the International City Church to witness and experience the fundamentalist exorcist Christian preacher, Bob Larson. After taking a seat near an aisle to ensure an uninterrupted view, I was approached by various friendly Christians who queried which Church I normally visited, and why I had attended tonight. My reply was “none” and “a church is a more appropriate place than a theatre for such an event”, which was my way of saying that I was a interested observer and that I refused to pay $40.00 to watch Bob repeat the same display the previous night at the Tivoli. This was to be my second exorcism in six months, for in India I attended the tantric temple in Balaji, a famous site for those possessed by ghosts - so I was eager to compare the two.
The church was packed to capacity, and by the time the service started, many were forced to stand and watch. The initial moments were filled with many young people singing devotional songs complete with a full band of guitars, drums, and backing vocalists. After this unexpectedly loud introduction to an International City Church service, Bob commenced by introducing himself, his entourage (they were members of DWJD or “Do What Jesus Did”) who espoused the salubrious benefits of exorcisms. Marginally disconcerting though, was when Bob introduced his daughter (who was about 10) and he boasted she was already assisting in expelling demons from people - a fact she proudly confirmed. Though showing a member of his family was intended to present Bob’s gentler side - it felt more like a case of spiritual paedophilia.
Bob then continued with a most impressive speech into the demons that afflict our lives - and how such demons manifest themselves in a detrimental way through either: our relationships with others; our relationship with God; and most importantly, our relationship with ourselves. Here was a presenter who obviously had perfected the technique of public speaking - a strong use of pausation, and a pitch and pace that reflected the message he was trying to convey - whether it was to rally the faithful by fiery and exuberant rhetoric, or more reflective moments by employing a quieter and slower delivery style.
Bob initially asked people to look inside of themselves and requested people to stand if they wanted “deliverance” from their demons. Probably one third of the congregation stood, and he wandered through the audience talking to some of them - a young lad with a liberal amount of tattoos and facial piercing, who was seated four seats to my right, was approached by Bob. I could see very closely how Bob spoke to him - fluctuating between a trust-building sensitive manner, and a firmer and berating discourse. The young lad was obviously very emotional about the whole experience, as he continued to gently sob long after Bob had walked away.
Most intriguing though were the number of people that started to cry and shake, almost convulsion like, when Bob approached them. It was truly amazing to see such a reaction elicited by the power of an impressive speech beforehand. After this initial foray into the exorcisms for the night, there followed the obligatory period of donation giving for the production of a documentary on the Australian tour (which I used as a convenient time to visit the bathroom). Upon resumption of my seat, Bob was talking to the lad to my right, and asking him that his opportunity for his deliverance could be upon him, whilst touching him around the shoulder area while he talked. Bob spoke without any microphone, so it was obviously a private audience. Once again, the reaction was a most emotional one, and when Bob passed me, he shook my hand, surprisingly gently, and gave me a warm smile, before he walked back to the stage.
Bob again took the microphone and asked those who wished for deliverance to step forward, of which approximately 60 did. Bob walked along those gathered, and brought people onto the stage. The first was a young lady who finally confessed, in a whispered tone, that her demon was bulimia, the young lad near me was also dragged up by Bob, and he confessed to being suicidal. Both of these had fairly muted reactions, just some sobbing and shaking. It became apparent later that Bob would continue to ask people to join him on the stage until he found someone who elicited a more substantial response.
He found this response in the third person he pulled from the audience - an auburn haired man of normal build around the age of 40, with a softly spoken voice. His name was Heath, and his demon was to be abandoned by his father before he was born. This was to prove to be a most incredible event, and I met someone two weeks later who had friends that know Heath. Supposedly, Heath was such a quiet and gentle person, which was a stark contrast to what was about to occur.
One sensed that Heath was going to be different from the other two, for as soon as Bob approached him, Heath’s face began to uncontrollably twitch and take on a contorted countenance. Bob knew that he had found the man that would deliver what the expectant congregation yearned for - a raw, abrasive exorcism. Bob commenced to goad Heath, and suddenly this inhuman shriek like a demented child issued forth. The reaction of the audience was palpable - people audibly drew their breath. Bob swung around to glare at the stunned faces and stated “That is the child within him wanting to come out”. Bob continued the goading, and the wailing continued.
Shortly after, this guttural voice emanated from Heath’s mouth - it was at least an octave lower than Heath’s normal voice and far more aggressive and menacing. As Bob explained during the process, this is the demon’s voice, and it is only when this voice (and not Heath's normal softer voice) is speaking, that the exorcism could continue. Bob responded by lowering his voice to a much deeper tone, which commenced by Bob saying to Heath “Get up, get up, get up” which was demanding that the demon be the one who responded, and not Heath himself.
The exorcism follows a series of antiphons, where Heath would repeat what Bob had said. One example was “I...reject…the…Covenant…of….blood….I…accept…the…blood…of…Christ.” I am sure that there is a difference between these two, but being not fully initiated into the machinations of the Christian church, left me a trifle confused. Whilst Heath was forced to struggle with these words, he face became more twisted, so much so that Bob, asked the videographer to “come around here and get a face shot”. Bob Larsen the showman was ensuring that he caught every single moment of this exorcism so that he could flaunt it to the world.
However, all was not so easy, for at this point Heath began to struggle with a strength that was extraordinary. Bob had to call up helpers from the audience (two of whom had been exorcised the previous night) to restrain him. At one stage, Heath kicked his leg to an amazing height which struck Bob in the head, sending him reeling. This necessitated the addition of more helpers, and finally, Heath had seven people hanging onto him - only one was smaller than him, whilst three would not have looked out of place in a rugby scrum. Yet despite this overwhelming physical impediment, Heath was able to successfully struggle against his captors and move around the stage. I have never seen such a demonstration of physical strength before, and I have witnessed two super-heavyweight weightlifting finals at the Olympics! Where Heath garnered this strength from will forever remain a mystery, and it is this one aspect that any detractors of this event as a fraud will have the most trouble dismissing.
As the exorcism continued, Heath became more violent and more abusive. Heath strung together expletives that I never know existed, and his violent struggle against the helpers continued with a vengeance. During a break in the exorcism, Heath said (in his normal voice) to one of the helpers “Please hold me tight, I don’t want to hurt anyone” - here indeed was a man at the extremities of his being. Unfortunately for Heath, he ended up doing more damage to himself, at one point he head-butted the microphone (after biting off the microphone cover earlier) which caused a trickle of blood to appear on Heath’s head. It was shortly after this, encouraged by members of the audience holding their hands aloft and saying “Jesus is with you”, “God loves you” and other typically Christian sayings of conviction and commitment, that Heath had to speak the critical words “We…all…go…down… to…the…Pit” - the “we” meaning the demons inside Heath. However, Heath was not so easily convinced - “Never!” was the retort he spat. Bob again repeated his demands; “We…all…live!” was the venomous reply, which elicited much reaction from all around. By this stage, the trauma was too much for some parishioners, and a few people had to leave the church. Bob again addressed the audience by saying that this was one of the most difficult exorcisms he has ever dealt with, and that he would stay in the church all night until his task was complete. After more rantings and repeated exhortations from Bob including “Say it! Say it!” Heath was finally able to report that his demons would indeed be returning to the Pit.
The final step of that Bob getting the demons to acknowledge that it was there time to leave Heath, and since it was an ‘agreement’ between demons and God that once this acknowledgement has been said, it was definitely time for the demons to leave, the exorcism was near an end. Bob extracted each demon one by one - firstly the demon of abandonment, then the demon of anger, followed by the demon of guilt. However, one final demon, that of murder, refused to go “I will stay! I have one more life to take!” was greeted by an expectedly vicious reaction from the congregation, to which Heath spurted out “Satan is my master!” Some members of the audience quietly shrieked before a stunned silence covered the audience like a shroud. This was the sort of statement that belonged only in movies - or so I thought. After another prolonged period of struggle and abuse, this demon also gave his reluctant consent, and the audience erupted into applause.
Bob gave Heath a bible to hold in his hand, whilst Bob gave the last blessing, but it was given in such a way (by exerting pressure on Heath’s shoulder) that Heath, now feeble after his experience, fell to his knees with hands outstretched, with Bible in full view. The sight of a poor soul kneeling, dishevelled, and clutching the word of God - thus acknowledging God’s power in his deliverance from demons - was a brilliant piece of theatrics. I turned to Fi (who informed me about this event and accompanied me to the night) and said “great choreography”. This moment, more than any other, encapsulated the way in which Bob aroused such a fervent following from his audience.
After an exorcism of over 100 minutes, the service was at an end. The majority of audience members looked exhausted, and conversation was sparse as people reflected on the experience of the night. The helpers who restrained Heath were in a worse state of mental and physical exhaustion - most were sweating profusely, whilst some were emotional to the point of tears. Heath, from what I learned afterwards, was a very changed man, happier and more positive about life - so if nothing else, Bob’s release of the ‘demons’ inside of Heath did make a positive difference to at least one person in the church that evening.
Whilst walking away, I pondered this experience in comparison to the one in India - Bob’s exorcisms would be described as a violent, confrontational performance, which pandered to the assembled congregation and manipulated every action and word for maximum value. By comparison, the Hindu temple in India possessed a brooding, simmering intensity that was unmatched by the Christian version. In India I was totally immersed in a most visceral experience, whereas here, I was a voyeur into the soul of a man, stripped naked for all to see.
Sir Thomas Browne once wrote, “The heart of man is the place the Devils dwell in”. Whether Bob Larson is the exorcist his claims I cannot definitively ascertain. However, there is no doubt that whether the demons harboured by people like Heath are real or otherwise, Bob is able to convince adherents to look deep inside themselves and evoke reactions far beyond normal behaviour. It could be that hypnotism is involved, or maybe the trauma of people facing their most sacred feelings causes such a disturbing display - whatever the reasons, a journey into the public life of Larson’s world allows one to glimpse the practice of exorcism - a practice that raises far more questions about the essence of the human psyche than it answers.
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