The Devil Went Down to Texas: A supposed surge in “diabolical cults” and demonic possession in the Lone Star State (and across America)

I still feel like a new Texan even though next month will mark three years since I moved here from my home state of Missouri. But given my personal and authorial focus on religion and horror, maybe I’ll begin to feel more fully at home now that serious talk of demonic possession and official Roman Catholic-sponsored exorcisms has started erupting out of the San Angelo area. It’s a city and a region that I’ve visited many times. In fact, my family and I almost settled there. But nothing led me to expect that it would become a mini-Ground Zero for talk about a nationwide epidemic of supernatural evil.

I first caught wind of the whole thing last month, when the CBS television affiliate in Odessa ran a story with the eye-catching title “West Texas Exorcisms” and a dateline of San Angelo, June 21:

You’ve seen exorcisms in movies and read about possessions in books, but Bishop Michael Pfeifer of the San Angelo Diocese says demon influence is very real and spiritual warfare is happening right here in west Texas. . . . In the past year Pfeifer says he has seen more demonic possessions in the area. “There are possessions I’ve had to work on, which were very frightening, I can’t really talk about it,” he explained. “There are diabolical cults in West Texas most people don’t know about, its secretive and underground, but exists.” He says these frightening cases pushed him to call for the help of Father/exorcist Dennis McManus, from the Archdiocese of New York to speak to hundreds from across west Texas and local priests.

After that, a little digging easily turned up more info, including article from the Midland Reporter-Telegram titled “Exorcism seminar draws in crowd of hundreds.” Note the repeated emphasis by Bishop Pfeifer on a “demonic influence in West Texas”:

A conference on evil and the unknown compelled hundreds to gather at a weekday presentation offered by the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo. About 700 individuals from all over West Texas traveled to San Angelo Monday for a seminar on exorcism and diabolical influence. “It’s one of the best presentations we’ve ever had,” said Bishop Michael Pfeifer with the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo. “It’s something very, very unique. The people were enthralled, and they had so many questions to ask”. . . . The seminar was led by the Rev. Dennis McManus, whose appointed ministry with the Archdiocese of New York is exorcism. Priests, deacons and lay people attended the free and public presentation Monday; the seminar then was extended for clergy throughout Tuesday and Wednesday morning. . . . “It’s a very frightening and difficult experience,” Pfeifer said. Though he said he has participated in exorcisms in West Texas, he would not disclose the number of cases or details about the experiences. Ritual prayers and sacraments such as holy water are used, he said. Pfeifer said he believes there is demonic influence in West Texas manifested through cults and Satan worship, but more so through secular things in the world that can be used for good, such as the Internet.

San Angelo’s Standard-Times carried an especially informative report: “‘I cast you out’: Exorcism expert elucidates demonic possession.” I found the following parts particularly striking:

McManus warned of fascinations with the occult that can hook someone with special, supernatural knowledge β€” Ouija boards included. He also said groups may slowly and subtly drag people into covens, which McManus called groups of usually 12 affluent and powerful people dedicated to a single demon in exchange for power and influence. He told of one priest in California who kept up with covens and said they were becoming more numerous than all of the missions, parishes and some other Catholic ministries combined. The same is true of the city where he is based out of, McManus said. “People say, ‘That’s the movies.’ No, that’s New York,” McManus said.

Pfeifer said movies, however, are one reason his diocese had chosen to invite McManus. He said he has seen more demonic activity in recent years, that there are diabolic cults throughout West Texas and that the issue of demonic possession has been in the mainstream media more often, as he recently saw in “The Rite”. . . .

Another attendee was struck by McManus’ encouragement of having strong, active families to keep youth away from the fascinations of the occult. “The first thing is to help our children,” William Tarn said. He said he wanted to return regular prayer to schools. . . .

Pfeifer said he may assign a few priests to the ministry of exorcism. Only a bishop can make that assignment, Pfeifer said. “It was a tremendous teaching experience for our priests,” Pfeifer said. “Our priests were thrilled with the information he [sic] received, about how to deal with a creature from another world.” Pfeifer said priests from around the diocese came and were taught the specifics of exorcisms. Demon possessions are very rare, although they do happen, Pfeifer said. He said he couldn’t give the number of exorcisms that have happened in his diocese because of confidentiality.

If anybody actually needed more evidence for the profound, inextricable linkage in today’s society between mass entertainment and “real life,” then this surely fits the bill. Pfeifer isn’t the first or the only Catholic priest who has linked the resurgence of exorcism as a popular topic in Hollywood to a real-world resurgence of interest in it, and even to the actual practice of it and the reported increase in cases of demonic possession. It seems we’re now living inside a Hollywood version of America and planet earth.

I also find it fascinating to observe how the possession-and-exorcism phenomenon has come to serve as a kind of fulcrum or focal point for the epic, shocking, collective reversal in modern-day attitudes toward religion that’s taken place over the past 40 years. As I discuss in my “Angel and Demon’ essay (published in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural and then in my Dark Awakenings), in the early 1970s The Exorcist splashed down into a culture where secular attitudes were warring with supernatural or religious ones, even inside the Roman Catholic church. Many priests were embarrassed by Pope Paul VI’s frank affirmation of the reality of supernatural evil in a 1972 speech, because their attitudes were more in tune with the secularist, demythologized tenor of the time than with what they viewed as the mythological belief system of pre-Enlightenment Christianity. By contrast, in the last decade and two we’ve seen an increasing number of reports about the revival of exorcism as a mainstream practice within the Church. For just two recent and prominent examples, see The Telegraph, March 30, 2011: “Surge in Satanism Sparks Rise in Demand for Exorcists, Says Catholic Church,” and The New York Times, November 12, 2010: “For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism is Revived.”

In a less exalted but no less revealing vein, Bishop Pfeifer of the San Angelo Diocese is now making headlines again because of his entirely supernaturalistic call for a collective, public, ecumenical prayer for rain: “Church congregations, prayer groups and individuals in West Texas have been praying for rain now for months. With the need for rain reaching critical levels, Bishop of San Angelo Michael Pfeifer, OMI, believes a larger, more public and inclusive demonstration of prayer is in order. . . . ‘We will gather together as a community, regardless of your religious affiliation or your social standing,’ he said. ‘The whole community needs rain. Jesus said whatever you ask our Heavenly Father in my name will be granted. We take Jesus at his Word. We will go out and ask God to send the rains.'” (The prayer gathering was held last Saturday.)

For people like me who are veritably consumed by an interest in supernaturalism, religion, and horror — both individually and collectively — this certainly is an interesting time to be alive.


Photo credit: “The Last Exorcism” by Walt Jabsco, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 20, 2011, in Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Wish I had known, I would have gone to the seminar just to gather material for future work! It comes as no surprise to me that the Church is implementing a ‘demonizing’ campaign. After all, it’s managed to have such an impact on the masses for the last 1500 years by merely uttering the word.(Fear is a fabulous control method).
    Statistically churches have been losing members of their ‘flocks’ in the last decade or so as many people become increasingly disillusioned with the faith’s backward stance on many social platforms. Hence, many of the ‘popular’ spiritual movements are often more female/nature friendly and /or socially conscious. I think it’s a reflection of our society that people want to maintain a belief system but they want it to ‘fit’ modern views and attitudes. I also think it’s a typical tactic by the church to use popular culture as a way to round up some of those wayward flock and bring them back to the safety of the fold.
    And just as a side note: If they are looking for bad ju-ju they need to go no further than Waco. (IMHO)

    • Funny that you would mention Waco, Autumn. For obvious reasons… πŸ˜‰

      Speaking of which, preparations are now underway for this year’s Dark Mirror horror film festival in Waco, scheduled for October 28 and 29 at MCC. The topic I’ve chosen in collaboration with my Baylor media prof colleague, Jim Kendrick, is “horror and the soul.” This was chosen before all of the West Texas exorcism stuff came to light. And appropriately enough, one of the films we’ll be showing is The Exorcist.

  2. Benjamin David Steele

    What caused you to move from Missouri to Texas? Have you ever written about the differences of the cultures of the two states or about observations you’ve made? I’m always curious about comparisons of different regions.

    I’m not that familiar with either Missouri or Texas. Is religion in Texas treated differently than in Missouri? If you happen to know of the data: What is the percentage of Protestants vs Catholics? What is the percentage of mainline Protestants vs evangelical Protestants?

    I live in Iowa which is largely Catholic, especially in rural areas, and also plenty of mainline Protestants. Plus, we have quite a few Quakers as well. And, of course, this is Amish country. Religion here is vastly different than in the South or in the Bible Belt. You’d think with all the Catholics that there’d be strong interest in demons, but I haven’t noticed such interest.

    • I can’t comment for Matt, he may have the statistical numbers. I grew up in southern Missouri also and was raised in a rather conservative evangelical home (Pentecostal). This environment is (to me) pre-occupied with all the mystical/magical aspects of the faith. Demons, being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and speaking in tongues were a regular part of my daily life growing up.
      Being in a rural area, I was very familiar with our Mennonite neighbors (eschewed electricity but drove cars) and the Amish who eschewed all technical/industrial innovations and travel by horse and buggy to this day. I didn’t even know we had Catholics in the area until I was in my teens because my environment was so heavily dominated by the evangelicals. I remember it being a shock when a new family moved to town that were, >gasp< Mormons.
      What I find intriguing are the similarities and differences of daily life and teachings within the various faiths. Being female, I focus a lot on how women are perceived/treated in the church and how that extends to their home life. I've (informally) studied/observed the methods used by religion to affect the collective mind-set of their followers.
      To me, Texas and Missouri are just different degrees of the same conservative scale.

      • My experience has been the same as Shelly’s, in that I haven’t noticed Texas being markedly different from Missouri in its overall religious-cultural character, although perhaps more people on a daily basis are a bit more intense in their religiosity. I never thought such a thing would be possible, since I grew up in orbit around Springfield, Missouri, which is the world headquarters of the uber-conservative Assemblies of God denomination, so that church with its Pentecostal/charismatic emphasis is all over the place. Springfield is also the world headquarters of the even more uber-conservative and totally fundamentalist Baptist Bible Fellowship. Both AG and BBF have colleges in town. And every town around Springfield has a church on every corner.

        But in Texas, people seem to be just more open and overt in their religiosity on a regular conversational basis, as when checkers at the grocery store will close the interaction not by saying “Have a nice day” but by saying “Have a blessed day” — something lots of other people do as well.

        I moved down here from Mansfield, MO, which is 10 miles from Seymour, which is one of Missouri’s main Amish outposts. So all of us — Autumn, Benjamin, me — have a healthy acquaintance with the Anabaptist tradition in its currently living guise in America today. Interesting.

        My family and I moved here partly because one of us has a doctor down here, and partly because of the increasing severity of the bad winter weather (and other weather; witness the recent Joplin tornadoes) in southwest MO. Of course, now, now we’re suffering through a historic drought down here in the Lone Star state. I figure inescapable bad weather is in all of our futures, no matter where we are.

      • Benjamin David Steele

        Thanks for the reply, Autumn Shelley.

        Yeah, we have some Mennonites here as well. But there are a lot more Amish and they do indeed use horse-propelled modes of travel.

        I find it interesting that living in rural Missouri you didn’t know Catholics were in your area. In Iowa, there is no way you could not know Catholics are in all areas. As a boy, I went to Boy Scouts in the basement of a Catholic church, but at the time I didn’t understand the difference between Catholics and Protestants.

        I remember for most of my life watching movies where Catholic families were living in cities. I never really thought about Catholics as living in rural areas. When I was a kid, I always lived in cities. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I traveled much around rural Iowa. I was surprised by how rural Iowa is absolutely dominated by Catholics.

        I’ve always found it interesting that a religiously conservative state like Iowa can be so socially liberal in many ways. Texas and Missouri are a totally different world. We Iowans have gay marriage, for God’s sake. There is a social justice Catholic priest who I’ve often seen write in the local newspaper. Iowa has the Christian Left triumverate of social justice Catholics, socially liberal Quakers, and egalitarian Unitarian-Universalists.

        I just now realized something. I grew up in the Unity Church which was founded in Kansas City, Missouri. Unity is probably the most liberal form of Christianity in the US. Unity came into existence during the Populist Era when states such as Missouri and Kansas were more liberal and progressive; there were even communes in Texas in the 19th century. Unity comes out of the evangelical tradition, but evangelicals in the past weren’t equivalent to what we now call fundamentalists.

  3. Since you mentioned The Assemblies of God, you may be interested (if you didn’t know) that someone wrote a thesis comparing the aforesaid and the Ordo Templi Orientis: there were some similarities, and while the Assemblies people were very polite, the OTO was more fun (to the writer) – thesis is available on World Catalog.

    What I find interesting about “The Exorcist” is the fears about usa culture at the time (and still I guess) – there’s some interesting subtexts that you pick up watching carefully – I saw it when it first came out – there were long lines to get in, jesus freaks and fundies outside protesting, and it was an experience – it was like “gone with the wind” of horror –

    • The thesis recommendation is much appreciated, Joe. Sounds like something I’d enjoy reading. And I’ll offer a big 10-4 on the cultural subtextual qualities of The Exorcist. That movie is cinema-as-cultural-document if ever I saw one. I’ll be showing it at a horror film festival this fall at the college where I teach, and am looking forward to introducing it to quite a few people who have never seen it or only seen parts of it and never known the full cinematic and cultural context.

  4. Matt said…
    It seems we’re now living inside a Hollywood version of America and planet earth.

    so true Matt.
    This is absolutely fascinating. With the extreme drought and the rise in “Devil worship” in Texas, I wonder how long it will be until someone gets burned at the stake there for conjuring the drought demon???
    A really great article Matt.

  5. Benjamin David Steele

    Hey Matt – I meant to respond earlier, but I was distracted.

    “So all of us β€” Autumn, Benjamin, me β€” have a healthy acquaintance with the Anabaptist tradition in its currently living guise in America today. Interesting.”

    I’ve been fascinated by the Anabaptist tradition ever since I discovered it. I never thought of Amish as being in states such as Missouri. I was just looking at a map of Amish concentrations in the US:

    I knew they are mostly concentrated in the Northwest and Midwest, but I see there is a concentration of them on the border of Iowa and Missouri.

    “My family and I moved here partly because one of us has a doctor down here, and partly because of the increasing severity of the bad winter weather (and other weather; witness the recent Joplin tornadoes) in southwest MO. Of course, now, now we’re suffering through a historic drought down here in the Lone Star state. I figure inescapable bad weather is in all of our futures, no matter where we are.”

    I see. Personal reasons and impersonal forces compelled you to migrate to the Lone Star state. Besides the heat, weather hasn’t been bad in Iowa this year. We had a beautiful spring and early summer. More importantly in farm country, we’ve had regular rain that has come in spurts keeping the soil from getting too wet or too dry. However, if global warming happens as predicted, the best farming country will move to Northern US and Southern Canada.

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