The phenomenon of demonic possession has been around for centuries. It seems that every so often there will be evil forces that seek to invade our lives and indeed our very bodies for inscrutable reasons we will probably never understand, and which leave us terrified and baffled. For almost as long as humans have been around there has been talk and lore on demons in some form or another. These entities take on many forms across cultures, and one theme that can be found in various far-flung places is that of demonic possession. Throughout history there have been tales of these insidious things trying, and sometimes succeeding in, invading our bodies and taking over our minds for their own nefarious purposes, often leading to exorcisms in many forms to try and banish these dark forces. Such cases seem to spread out across people from all walks of life, and never cease to be frightening at the very least. In some instances, this all becomes even more terrifying when efforts to drive out perceived demonic forces go too far, leading to injury and death.
In our first case, 54-year-old Ralph Vollmer owned ran a small piggery near Dimboola in western Victoria, Australia. He was known to locals as rather an oddball, known for being extremely religious, part of a breakaway Lutheran sect, and often spouting fire and brimstone sermons to whoever would listen to him. This had taken its mental toll on his wife Joan, to the point that she had suffered mental breakdowns on top of her diagnosis of having schizophrenia, which had all been brought on by her husband’s zealousness and controlling manner. It was perhaps this mental distress that contributed to the strange series of dark events that was about to play out.
On January 26, 1993, Vollmer came home to the sight of his wife in quite a state. She was out in one of the fields barefoot and “doing some sort of a war dance and making strange noises.” Vollmer called a John Reichenbach, who was a member of the same sect, and when he arrived he quickly came to the conclusion that Joan was in fact possessed by a demon. They recruited Reichenbach’s wife and some other church associates to form an exorcism team, spending the next few days trying to drive the demon out through Bible readings, holy water, singing choruses, and commanding the demon to leave, during which time the afflicted woman would curse, froth at the mouth, and lash out at those around her to the point that she had to be physically tied down to a bed oriented east-west so that she would not be able to draw strength from what they called the "evil spirits of the north.” Vollmer would say of the possession of his wife:
She was possessed by eight or ten demons, including "the spirit of abuse", "the spirit of filth" and Jezebel, who would try her hand at enticement. At other times she was Legion, the demon from the Bible with the strength of 2,000, and she would be so powerful we could hardly hold her. Then she was a pig and a dog and would make sounds and pull faces, and then a shearer who spoke in a rough voice.
In addition to all of these demons, she was also supposedly inhabited by two evil spirits called "Princess Joan" and "Princess Baby Joan," which they claimed had attached themselves to her when she had been just a toddler, and which they said were largely responsible for her mental issues. For three days they performed their exorcism, but when this didn’t work they resorted to more extreme measures, calling in a purported expert in exorcisms by the name of Matthew Nuske. When he came to the scene, Nuske immediately ordered them to destroy all of Joan’s possessions, and then had the group hold her down and press on her stomach while shouting at the demons roiling within her and holding her mouth and eyes open. This went on for two straight days, and the woman finally let out her last breath and died. This seemed to have not phased Nuske, who calmly told them not to worry, that “God would bring her back to life shortly.” For the rest of the day and into the next they prayed over the body waiting for her to spring back to life. She didn’t, and when the death was finally reported Vollmer and Nuske were found guilty of unlawful imprisonment, while Reichenbach was convicted of manslaughter.
Also in 1993 is the story of 22-year-old Farida Patel, of Ilford, East London. She came to believe that she was being taunted and possessed by supernatural entities from Islamic lore called Djinn, which she claimed were threatening to cut her tongue out if she were to pray to Allah. She began displaying odd behavior such as speaking in a man’s voice and she would walk around hunched over like an old lady. Friends of hers said that her face had become “distorted,” and she would often complain of being slapped, pushed, and prodded by the Djinn. In December of 1993, her worried family called in a Sunni Muslim teacher and exorcist by the name of Mouna Rai, who recruited her friend Siraj Tutla, Farida’s sister, Rabiya, and her brother, Hafiz to help carry out an exorcism to drive the offending spirits away. Their methods were a bit unusual, to say the least. They started by ferociously beating Farida with a plastic vacuum cleaner pipe as they read passages from the Koran, interspersed with sessions during which Rai would jump up and down her stomach and chest with great force. This would go on for two days, during which time Farida incurred nine fractured ribs. The down side was that this led to Farida’s death, but at least the Djinn were gone. Rai, Tutla, and Hafiz would be found guilty of manslaughter, pleading innocence and insisting that Farida has really been possessed by the Djinn and that there had been no other way. This did not go over well in court, and Rai got a sentence of seven years, Tutla three years, and Farida’s siblings one year each, while Hafiz’s sentence was cut to three months on appeal.
An equally tragic, and also very bizarre case happened in New Zealand in May of 1994. Janice and Lindsay Gibson were members of the fundamentalist Apostolic Church in the small North Island town of Inglewood. The group was big into faith healing and were known for being very hardcore and old school, but Janice perhaps took things a bit too far. She began thinking that she was in fact a direct conduit of God, something her husband Lindsay seemed to believe as well, and she soon began to suspect that her 2-year-old daughter Emily was under the influence of the Devil. This brought out some rather extreme methods from Janice to try and drive the Devil out, including slapping her across the face for 10 straight minutes and holding the toddler down while her older daughter, 17-year-old Darlene, kicked her. When a worried co-worker came by to check on what was going on, Janice allegedly ordered him to kneel before God and blurted out “I can feel Jesus in the tips of these fingers!,” before accusing him of being possessed, grabbing him by the shirt,slapping him repeatedly, and punching him in the stomach while commanding him to vomit.
When the co-worker was able to pull himself free and get out of there, he immediately contacted the police, who quickly arrived on the scene with a social worker, a doctor, and a mental health professional. They were not well-received by the unstable Janice, who snarled and hissed at them and told them that they were possessed. The police just sort of shrugged their shoulders, wrote her off as crazy, and left the scene without arresting her. After this, Janice and her husband went absolutely bonkers, ranting about how they were surrounded by demons, burning all of their possessions, and decapitating two pet mice that they were convinced were possessed. They also forced their children to vomit constantly and left them out in the cold barely clothed. Their 12-year-old son Dane got the worst of it, for it was he who Janice deemed to be the most potently possessed. She went about restraining him and beating him with a concrete block, breaking his wrist in the process. When worried neighbors came to investigate the screaming, they found Dane barely alive, his mother on top of him beating him over and over again. The other children were unharmed. Sadly, Dane would die from his wounds and his mother would shout at a paramedic, "We killed him, you stupid man, like the first Jesus!
In 1995, 25-year-old Kyong-A Ha, a Korean woman from Emeryville, California, was suffering from severe bouts of insomnia that did not respond to any medication. When the young woman was brought to Jean Park, the minister of a 15-member sect called the Jesus-Amen Ministries, it was deduced that the insomnia was clearly because she was possessed by demons and so an exorcism was arranged. The exorcism consisted of a ritual in which Ha was struck continually on the chest for six hours straight, causing ten broken ribs and killing her. After she died, Park told all present to leave the body where it was, because the woman’s spirit would come back after a trip to the “great heaven.” Ha stayed dead and all those involved were arrested. The following year, another Korean woman, Kyung Jae Chung, of Century City, California, was claimed to be possessed by demons and suffered a similar fate, with two three-hour sessions of beatings giving her 16 broken ribs and collapsed lungs, killing her. The ones responsible, Methodist missionaries Jae Whoa Chung, 49, who was also her husband, Jin Choi, 46, and Sung Foo Choi, 41, were convicted of manslaughter and given prison sentences.
Moving up to the year 2008, there is the disturbing case of 6-year-old Evelyn Vasquez, of Waukegan, Illinois. It began with the girl’s chronic sleepwalking problem, during which she would often go to her mother’s room and stand by the bed at night. The mother, Nelly Vasquez-Salazar, 25, would later claim that she had been spooked by these episodes, and had come to the conclusion that her daughter was possessed by a demon. The answer? Why, stab the child 11 times with a butcher knife. On April 14, 2008, Nelly appeared at a neighbor’s house in a state of disorientation and with slashes to her hands, arms and wrists. When authorities arrived, they found Evelyn’s body on the floor of her bedroom with multiple stab wounds to her neck and upper chest, as well as a religious painting featuring St. Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, which had been slashed with the knife as well. During initial questioning, the mother claimed that she had acted in self-defense when her daughter had come at her with a knife, but she would later break down to admit that she had feared she was possessed by the Devil and was trying to drive it out.
In a similarly tragic story from that same year, the bodies of four children ages 5 to 16 were discovered decomposing in a row house in Washington, D.C., where they were estimated to have been rotting away for four months. Their mother, Banita Jacks, 33, would claim that they had all been possessed and died in their sleep, but police disagreed. Brittany Jacks, 17, had three puncture wounds consistent with a stabbing near the neck, while the others had injuries consistent with strangling and blunt-force trauma. Jacks, who had lost her husband to cancer and had been considered a recluse, had been spiraling into depression and increasingly withdrawing from the public, but although she was odd, neighbors had not detected anything truly amiss. There is yet another case from 2008, this time from Ghaziabad, India. In April of that year, three brothers and their cousin punched, kicked and beat their mother to death with a rod when they became convinced that she had been possessed by a dead relative. They then tried to sacrifice a sister-in-law in an attempt to bring their dead mother back to life, and also beat up and injured their sister, her husband, and the husband's father and two sisters in an orgy of violence. Rohit Kumar, whose wife, Renu, is the sister of the three assailants would say:
My mother, Banso Devi, had died two months ago. Soon after that, my brothers-in-law claimed my mother's spirit had possessed their mother, Shashi. On Saturday, they told us that we should perform a havan to exorcise my mother's spirit. We agreed just to make them feel good. But about 8.30pm, the brothers phoned me to say Renu was very ill. When I reached there, their mother was having a fit. And the three brothers and their cousin, Kuldeep, 25, were shouting, 'Banso Devi, let go of our mother'. Soon Shashi Devi, who was around 55, died because of the beating.
The foursome had then decided that in order to bring the mother back, they needed to sacrifice someone, and that someone was Kumar's sister, Ruchi, who would say of the terrifying events:
The brothers had become ferocious. They decided that a human sacrifice was needed to bring their mother back to life. They decided I was to be sacrificed. Even as their father, Ranvir Gautam, my sister, Lalita and sister-in-law, Renu, tried to intervene, they pulled us all into a room and latched the door from inside. They beat us all with rods. My left arm broke and I received head and body injuries. We survived because around 10.30pm, neighbors forced open the door to rescue us. The police also arrived about the same time.
It was very shocking news, especially considering that this happened in an affluent area and the brothers were all well-educated. Rohit Gautam, 28, was an engineer in a multinational production unit, Navneet, 26, had recently completed his MBA, and the youngest brother, Ashwini, 24, was doing a course in electrical work from a polytechnic. How were these normal, well-educated people get drawn into this spiral of demonic possession, exorcisms, and death? In all of these cases we are looking at extreme reactions to a perceived supernatural threat, which seem like they can overtake even the most normally rational of people. In many ways, in some respects it seems that in some cases very old-fashioned notions of fear of the unknown and superstition have managed to worm their way into the modern age to take on extreme forms of expression. It would seem that exorcisms and demonic possessions are very much alive and well even in the modern era, and sometimes they can take a sinister turn indeed.