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Exorcism Is No Foreign Idea

Woman's fatal beating by Korean missionaries is not unique. America has a home-grown history of devil-wrangling.

May 04, 1997|WILLIAM CHITWOOD | William Chitwood is a language arts teacher and former entertainment reporter who lives in Glendale

"For an afternoon and later, well into the next morning, the men took turns pushing against her thighs, abdomen and chest--using their hands, a spoon and their feet in an attempt to squeeze out the devils."

--1997 newspaper account of exorcism

"Then he rolled over and over, wonderful fast, kicking things every which way, and striking and grabbing at the air with his hands, and screaming, and saying there was devils ahold of him."

--"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," 1885

Nearly everyone called it bizarre: a respected Glendale deacon and two missionaries, all Korean Pentecostal Christians, were involved in a fatal exorcism in Los Angeles.

The victim, a diminutive 53-year-old Korean mother of two teenagers, was systematically stomped in the chest until she died of blunt-force trauma that included 16 fractured ribs.

Citing the perpetrators' beliefs that they were doing God's work, a judge found the men guilty of involuntary manslaughter, not murder. The court, the media and other spectators viewed the tragedy as a mishap of cultural extremism--a foreign culture.

Home-grown Americans, of course, don't go in for that sort of extremist practice--or do we?

In fact, since the days of William Bradford and his Plymouth Colony, biblical literalists in this country have adamantly maintained that Satan and crew can and do possess people--typically women--for their own nefarious purposes.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne's 17th-century, paranoid Puritans of "The Scarlet Letter," to the 19th-century Ozark superstitions of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," to the modern-day novel and movie "The Exorcist," American fiction has immortalized our long-standing obsession with devils, witches and other supernatural evil.

Today, many traditional religious groups--including large, popular evangelical churches in the Valley--continue to believe and teach that evil spirits literally roam among us.

I will never forget the day that an American Baptist missionary who was on leave from Brazil was welcomed by the pastor of my childhood church as a guest speaker. Describing her "work for the Lord" to our youth group, she proceeded to recount her hauntingly lurid confrontations with demons deep in the Amazon rain forest.

The woman was a convincing speaker and--no doubt--a formidable exorcist; her stories scared the living hell out of everyone, including my little sister and me, who could hardly sleep that night amid fiery visions of Beelzebub and his lurking hordes.

Sadly, I also recall how, during a multi-church summer camp that was held years later, a terrified high school student had to be physically restrained after hearing a hellfire-spitting evangelist declare that Satan was loose in the hills above Redlands, possessing teenagers who hadn't repented.

Having avoided Christian fundamentalists as an adult whenever possible, it was deja voodoo when I surfed past KTBN-TV 40 (cable Channel 12 in Glendale) at 11:30 p.m. one recent Friday during the murder trial of the Korean exorcists.


Glaring at me from my television was Denver-based televangelist Bob Larson--a self-described "world authority" on Satan. Larson declared: "You are about to witness a live exorcism in action!"

A woman who was identified only as Linda was seated in a chair and was videotaped as Larson talked to and frequently insulted the "evil spirit" that was allegedly manipulating her body and voice.

Viewers--and one hopes they didn't include too many hapless children--watched as the "possessed" Linda twitched, writhed and babbled.

Every two minutes or so, the camera cut to a promo of Larson, who gave viewers such handy mantras as: "You can tell the devil what to do."

And, perhaps more tellingly: "This five-day, 30-hour exorcism can be yours--on videotape--for a tax-deductible contribution of $150."


This disturbing scenario wasn't the unforeseen byproduct of a few misguided, Third World missionaries mixing Asian shamanism and Pentecostal dogma in a Century City condo.

This was rank commercial exploitation by a white Protestant tele-exorcist, courtesy of Trinity Broadcasting Network, one of the most successful religious mass-media conglomerates in the United States.

In fact, demons and American religious broadcasting seem to go hand in hand.

Remember when televangelist Oral Roberts claimed that he had literally wrestled with Satan in his house? Roberts told viewers that the devil tried to choke him to death during a 1987 TV campaign to raise $8 million.

Far from being beyond the fringe, demon fighting--if not reverse demon exploitation--has become an essential element of mass-marketed American religion, especially when tax-deductible dollars are at stake.

When it comes to explaining the "bizarre" beliefs of those Asian ministers who have adopted American fundamentalist precepts, Americans distance themselves, blaming shamanism or some other exotic ingredient as the culprit.

Yet history indicates that from the Salem witch trials of 1692 to the mass-marketed exorcism videos of 1997, devil-wrangling has been a home-grown, highly bankable and ever-popular American institution.

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