RALEIGH, N.C. — Days before Halloween, the demons already were loose in this southern town of tall pines and steepled churches.
Bob Larson, an evangelical minister who has honed the art of exorcism into astonishing public performance, was facing down the demon of witchcraft in Karen Ward, a 42-year-old medical administrator. Or so the guttural voice that emanated from the woman identified itself.
Before a standing-room-only crowd in a Hilton hotel here, the voice growled that it had gained a foothold in Ward by cursing her bloodline 10 generations ago, had pushed her into evil sex and intended to keep her in its grasp.
Oh, yeah? Larson snarled, brandishing a Bible in one hand and a microphone in the other. "Witchcraft, face me!" he bellowed. "We break every curse! I now call down to you the wrath of God. Go now to the pit!"
"To the pit!" the crowd chanted.
At once, Ward's contorted face relaxed. She hugged Larson as she called out thanks to Jesus for her deliverance. The crowd went wild. Later, she said the healing was genuine and all her demons were "completely gone."
The ancient ritual of exorcism, which fell out of favor in the Age of Reason, is once again flourishing in the Age of the Internet.
End-of-the-world fears? A desire stoked by Hollywood occult films? Ministers looking for new lines of work?
Whatever the cause, hundreds of exorcism ministries now exist--some with names like Demon Stompers that offer personal deliverance testimonies and toll-free lines for convenient counseling.
Along with the heightened public interest in exorcisms has come a passionate debate on the nature of evil and the proper role of the ritual among Christians.
"It's a sensational, fast-food solution to long-term problems that absolves you of any responsibility for your vices," says Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute in Santa Margarita. "I call it Flip Wilson theology: 'The devil made me do it.' "
Counters Larson, whose Colorado-based ministry offers exorcisms by radio and conferences nearly every week: "Critics can take all the cheap shots they want, but we are genuinely trying to do something about the suffering of people."
Exorcisms are nearly as old as human civilization, practiced from antiquity by Babylonian priests, tribal healers and Jesus, himself. But, according to historians, exorcisms declined in Western churches about 200 years ago only to begin resurfacing in the 1970s.
Recent growth seems brisk: An international exorcism association established by the Vatican's chief exorcist attracted just six practitioners to its first conference in 1993, but drew more than 200 exorcists and their lay assistants this summer.
In the United States, the Catholic Church has quietly increased the number of appointed exorcists from just one in 1990 to between 15 and 20 today, according to Michael W. Cuneo, a Fordham University associate professor and author of a soon-to-be published book, "American Exorcism." Moreover, he says, countless maverick priests are performing bootleg rites without their bishops' required permission.
The Chicago Archdiocese made international headlines last month by confirming that it had appointed an official exorcist a year ago for the first time in its 160-year history.
Cardinal Francis George made the appointment after repeated requests for the ministry from Catholic prayer groups. The unidentified exorcist has so far conducted one ritual, deemed successful, says Robert Barren, a theology professor and archdiocesan spokesman on exorcisms.
(In the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the exorcist position is vacant, according to a spokesman.)
Some Cases Involve Beatings, Death
But the number of Catholic exorcists pales next to those in the world of charismatic and evangelical Protestantism. Among theologically conservative evangelicals alone--those who don't believe in speaking in tongues and other Pentecostal gifts--Cuneo says exorcism ministries have skyrocketed from a handful in the early 1980s to more than 600 today.
The Fordham scholar has personally witnessed more than 50 exorcisms--most of them performed out of genuine spiritual compassion with no demand for fees, he says.
But people have been beaten and even killed in exorcisms, including a Korean woman in Los Angeles who died after a six-hour ritual in 1996.
And experts say the psychological dangers of what some see as playing with people's minds and telling them they are possessed can be great.
"When anything and everything can be demonic, you are setting yourself up to be a spiritual paranoid," says Father Mitchell Pacwa, a Jesuit priest and University of Dallas scholar who has studied exorcisms for 25 years.
Cuneo attributes the apparent rise in exorcism requests to popular culture. From the 1973 release of the movie "The Exorcist," which was re-released last month, to Harry Potter books today, an endless string of films, books and TV talk shows has made the occult part of general discourse, he says.