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 — 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.
- “West Texas Exorcisms” — Jennifer Samp, CBS 7, June 21, 2011
- “Exorcism seminar draws in crowd of hundreds” — Sara Higgins, Midland Reporter-Telegram, June 23, 2011
- “‘I cast you out’: Exorcism expert elucidates demonic possession” — Matthew Waller, San Angelo Standard-Times, June 24, 2011
- “Praying for rain: Prayer group to ask for rain” — Denise Morris, Standard-Times, July 14, 2011
Photo credit: “The Last Exorcism” by Walt Jabsco, under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)