There are numerous accounts of demonic possession in history, many of which end either in the violent death of the individual or a church-sanctioned exorcism—the forceful eviction of the demon back to the netherworld. Interestingly, the age-old ritual of exorcism has made a huge comeback in the 20th century, and the ’60s and ’70s saw a 50 percent rise in the number of exorcisms performed. Is it all media hype? Are there malevolent beings that can force themselves into a human and take control over their body, or is the whole idea of demonic possession simply a myth perpetuated by hoaxes and overactive imaginations?
10The Perron Family
In 1971, the Perron family moved into their new home in rural Burrillville, Rhode Island, a sweeping farmhouse built in the 18th century. It was to be the start of a new life for the Perrons and their five young daughters; and it was, but not in the way they expected. After only a few nights in the house, Carolyn Perron, the mother, awoke to the specter of an old woman hung by the neck from her bedroom ceiling. Over the next few weeks, strange sounds emanated from the crawlspaces and cellar of the house, doors would open themselves and slam shut, food would sweat blood.
With the help of paranormal investigators, the Perrons discovered that a witch practicing in the 18th century had supposedly sacrificed her own child to Satan, opened the house to the devil, and then hung herself. The Perrons came to believe that the witch’s ghost—as well as a myriad of demons and the ghosts of further suicides on the property—were haunting them. One of the daughters, Andrea Perron, now in her fifties, still maintains that the story is completely true, and that her mother even became possessed at one point. She says, “The only time I was truly terrified in that house was the night I thought I saw my mother die. She spoke in a voice we had never heard before, and a power not of this world threw her 20 feet into another room.”
The Perron story is the inspiration for the film The Conjuring, but the film doesn’t tell the whole story—after Mrs. Perron was possessed, the family stayed in the house for about nine more years, and just sort of “learned to live” with the spirits.
Dubbed the “Yatton Demoniac” by the British press, George Lukins claimed to be possessed by seven demons that could only be removed by seven priests. His subsequent exorcism became one of the most infamous accounts of the 18th century.
Lukins’ condition was first noticed when a woman named Sarah Barber sent a letter to a local priest begging him to come have a look at her childhood friend. For the past 18 years, the letter said, Lukins had slowly deteriorated both mentally and physically, often breaking down into seizures and growling at the people around him. As the years went on, the fits got worse and took on a supernatural tone: “He declares in a roaring voice that he is the devil, who with many horrid execrations summons about him certain persons devoted to his will, and commands them to torture this unhappy patient with all the diabolical means in their power.”
On June 13, 1778, seven priests were rounded up and began a lengthy exorcism at the Temple Church in Bristol, England. As the priests opened the exorcism by singing hymns, George Lukins fell into a violent fit, barking and hissing at the men before shouting that his “torment of George Lukins would be a thousand times worse” for trying such a stupid thing as an exorcism. Following that outburst, Lukins cycled through seven demonic personalities, at the end of which he yelled that he was the devil himself. In the end, according to the account, the demons were sent back to hell.
8Robert The Doll
Robert the Doll is the ultimate child’s nightmare. On the surface it looks innocent enough, just a hand-sewn little boy in a sailor’s outfit, but at night it comes to life and attacks children. According to the story, the doll was given to a young Eugene Otto, the son of two artists who had just moved to Key West, Florida at the end of the 19th century. The gift-giver: A young Jamaican witch who was hired by the Ottos to be Eugene’s nanny.
Soon, the Ottos began hearing Eugene talking to the doll in his room. And another voice would answer. A few weeks later, Eugene began screaming in the night that Robert was trying to kill him. Neighbors reported seeing the doll moving in the windows of the house. Servants in the house gave terrified reports that the doll would giggle while their backs were turned. Sometimes they saw shadows as the doll ran across the room.
When Eugene grew up, he inherited his parents’ house and kept Robert the Doll close by. The doll continued to terrify visitors, although Eugene seemed to have a strange connection with it. He would get angry when his wife covered up the doll or put it in the attic, saying that Robert “needed a view of the street.”
After Eugene died in 1972, the doll haunted the new owners of the house for a few years before being placed in a museum in Key West. According to this perfectly normal website, you can go see the terrifying specter of the night for just a few bucks. He also, inexplicably, has a Twitter account.
At the time of this writing, Bobby Jindal is the governor of Louisiana. His political resume is nothing special, except for one tiny thing: In 1990, at Brown University, he cast a demon out of a classmate. He described the entire encounter in a paper he wrote for the New Oxford Review a few years later.
Jindal attended a campus prayer meeting with one of his close friends, a girl named Susan. She had recently learned that she had cancer, and a friend of hers had committed suicide just a few weeks before—mentally, she was in a rough place. Sometime during the prayer meeting, Susan suddenly collapsed in a seizure. The students gathered around her and Susan’s sister declared that she was possessed by a demon. Bobby Jindal, along with about a dozen other students, put his hands on Susan and shouted for Satan to leave her alone. Susan continued writhing on the floor for a few more minutes and then woke up and appeared to be fine.
6The Dibbuk Box
It all started when antiques dealer Kevin Mannis purchased an old wine cabinet at an estate sale in 2000. The ancient wooden box came with a story: It had originally belonged to the grandmother of the estate owner, who kept it hidden away so that nobody could open it. She had called it a “dibbuk box.” Dibbuks (or dybbuks) are spirits in Jewish folklore that latch themselves onto people and objects, bringing bad luck, misery, and death.
After leaving the newly purchased box at his office, Mannis received a hysterical call from his secretary. Someone or something was shouting and smashing things in the office. Someone had also locked all the doors. When he returned to the scene, Mannis found that all the light bulbs in the office had been broken and his secretary was curled up in a corner, sobbing. He proceeded to give the wine box to his mother as a gift, and she immediately suffered a stroke, leaving her permanently paralyzed. After attempting to sell or give away the box several times, Mannis took to keeping it in his own house.
Slowly, Mannis started to go crazy. He began seeing shadows out of the corners of his eyes, he would awake in the middle of the night feeling like someone was breathing on his neck, and his home became filled with the stench of cat urine and jasmine flowers. Finally, he posted the dibbuk box on eBay along with the story behind it asking for someone with experience in demonology to take it.
It was purchased by a student named Iosif Nietzke, who ended up posting it on eBay again after he began experiencing the same inexplicable occurrences as Mannis—strange smells, moving shadows, and a sudden invasion of cockroaches in his house. The dibbuk box is currently owned by Jason Haxton, a museum curator who collects paranormal curiosities. So far, his only curse is too many emails asking about the box.
Bob Larson is a fairly popular television evangelist who claims to have exorcised more than 15,000 demons, many of them live on his TV show. In 2006, he performed what might have been his most controversial exorcism to date—he drove the “homosexual demon” out of a gay man. The short video above shows Larson shouting at a “self-proclaimed homosexual,” and evicting the demon that brought about the “curse of homosexuality.”
Unfortunately, the idea of a “gay exorcism” isn’t confined to one church. A similar story took place in Connecticut in 2009, in which a 16-year-old boy was filmed thrashing about on the floor while members of the church congregation shouted commands to “rip it from his throat” and other members held him to the ground. Larson himself has performed multiple gay exorcisms in addition to the one in the video above, as well as exorcisms for “bastard demons” in women who have illegitimate children. On top of exorcisms, Bob Larson is also the author of several books on the influence of Satan in modern rock music.
4Son Of Sam
David Berkowitz, the self-proclaimed Son of Sam, was one of the most ruthless serial killers in US history. He began murdering people in 1976 and continued for a year before he was caught by the police. The murders were all similar: He would approach his victims at night, shoot them with a .44 revolver, and leave without saying a word. At one of the shootings, he left a disturbing note for the police, which talked about “Father Sam” who “drinks blood” and commands him to “go out and kill.”
Berkowitz’s real-life father was named Tony, so who was Sam? According to Berkowitz, Sam was the demon who had possessed his neighbor’s dog. When Berkowitz was arrested in 1977, he gave a full confession, claiming that the dog spoke to him and told him when to kill someone. Sometimes he called Sam a demon, other times he said that Sam was the spirit of an evil man who had lived 6,000 years ago and had found a conduit through the Labrador retriever living next door. Whether the story was fabricated to grant him an insanity plea at his trial or not, the combination of the macabre note and a demon-possessed dog is enough to send chills up your spine.
To most people, demonic possession calls up images of Catholicism—crucifixes, priests in robes, invoking the name of Christ—and indeed, most of this list deals with the Catholic ritual of exorcism. And it’s also true that possessions of this nature tend to be terrifying experiences—nobody really wants demons or ghosts living in them. But in Haiti (and many other cultures), possession by supernatural spirits is something to look forward to.
Voodoo (or Vodou) is Haiti’s official religion, which is sometimes practiced right alongside Catholicism. In Voodoo, there’s a pantheon of about 80 spirits, called “loa” or “lwa.” During a Voodoo ceremony, practitioners open themselves mentally and spiritually to let any one of those loa take over their body. If the spirits are not fed regularly, they will become weak. While possessed, a person might give a warning about the future or offer advice to someone in need (all of which comes from the loa). Their rituals serve to “feed” the spirits with energy, often drawn from the person who becomes possessed, though other times energy can be sent through the pounding of a drum, ritualistic dancing, or an animal sacrifice.
In 2008, Dr. Richard Gallagher, a psychiatrist and faculty member at the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Institute, was given a unique opportunity: He was asked by a bishop to provide a psychiatric evaluation of a woman who claimed to be attacked by demons. His experiences, which he published in the New Oxford Review, were somewhat startling.
During his evaluation, the woman, to whom he gave the pseudonym “Julia” to protect her identity, would be completely normal. But at random intervals, she would go into a brief trance followed by a rage during which she would begin shouting at Gallagher and the attending priest, screaming at them to “Go away you idiots! Leave her alone!” Objects fell off the shelves in the room, and Julia would start violently shaking. Then, like a light switch, she’d be back to normal with no memory of any of it.
After the evaluation, the decision was reached to perform an exorcism, which Gallagher also attended. As the ritual began, Julia again screamed and cursed at the priests, sometimes in Latin and Spanish. Three men held her in her chair while she struggled, and she screamed in pain when sprinkled with holy water. Allegedly, she also levitated 15 centimeters (6 in) off the ground for half an hour.
1Arne Cheyenne Johnson
The 1981 murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson was the first US case where a lawyer pleaded his client’s innocence on the grounds of demonic possession. It happened like this: About a year before Johnson stabbed his landlord to death with a pocketknife, his fiance’s younger brother began seeing a man with hooves and black eyes that appeared in his house at night. The demonic visions were accompanied by footsteps in the house, slamming doors, and voices that seemed to come from nowhere. He described the apparition as “a man with big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns, and hoofs.”
Soon, the situation escalated into full-scale possession. David (the younger brother) went into convulsions and bruises appeared on his wrists and neck. He shouted and hissed at the family in Latin. By this point, Arne Johnson was staying with his fiance to help David through the ordeal, and, exhausted from sleepless nights, began to taunt and threaten the demons, telling them to take over him instead. Over the next few days, Johnson went into a downward spiral, later saying that he had become possessed after seeing David’s demon and “looking deep into its black eyes.”
Johnson’s behavior became increasingly erratic and, during a small party at their house a few months later, it all came to a head. According to the witnesses present, Johnson suddenly went into a trance, growling under his breath, then walked slowly towards the landlord and stabbed him viciously in the chest multiple times.