It was the whatever-eth anniversary of Elvis’s death. I was a kid, the nightly news was on in the background. The reporter was asking the people in line, who were paying their respects at/to Graceland, if they believed The King was still alive. I distinctly remember one woman saying she had attended Elvis’s funeral, and answered the question with this unforgettable observation: “I kissed his cold dead lips and he was dead.” I also never forgot how she verbally italicized the second “dead” by wringing three whole syllables out of it.

There wasn’t a shadow of doubt in her entire being about Elvis having…left the building. Though I hadn’t previously thought Elvis was still among the living, I certainly didn’t doubt her. How could you?

There are lots of things I believe in just as strongly, but they can’t be verified through the senses. Various religions, philosophies, every branch of the sciences, and enthusiastic hobbyists have all tried to quantify some of them. M. Scott Peck slots into several of these groups. His books, The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie, reaffirmed something I already knew but didn’t know how; that a personified evil exists — or as his friends call him, the Devil. Peck, a psychiatrist, became so convinced that some of his patients were exhibiting tangible symptoms from this unseen reality that he suggested possession should be DSM-worthy — a scientist was saying this!

Reading Peck led me to his late mentor, the notorious Irish priest, Vatican insider, and exorcist, Fr. Malachi Martin, and his book Hostage to the Devil. Martin was a frequent guest on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM radio show back in the day, and I was an instant fan. He could spin a tale, talk theology, gossip about the Pope, and handle live callers, all the while charming the pants off the cynical host. Dr. Peck once described Fr. Martin as an “extraordinary man” and “often a liar,” and I wouldn’t disagree. And yet, one thing I completely believe about Fr. Malachi Martin was that he believed in God and the Devil with every fiber of his being. Fr. Martin also knew, from experience, what happens when you insert yourself between this type of evil and its victim. He said as much to retired NYPD-sergeant-turned-demonologist, Ralph Sarchie, who in his book, Deliver Us From Evil, recalls Fr. Martin’s mood shift mid-conversation:

No longer looking at me, but at something far away, he suddenly spoke in an achingly sad voice. “Ralph, I got my ass handed to me in Cairo.”

“Cairo” referred to an intense and personally scarring exorcism Martin participated in as a young priest/archaeologist in Egypt. He never forgot it, even as an old man. He also died an exorcist. I find that persuasive.

The recent Netflix documentary, all about Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil, rekindled my interest in the topic. I had questions I couldn’t answer. Having the privilege of knowing an embarrassing amount of verifiably wise people, I figured I should start with the wisest, the Van Helsing of Mockingbird, the Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl. Here is his answer to my question, “What exorcism-themed movies would you recommend that have streaks of redemption running through them?” I’m an American — all-important research starts with the movie version! 

Well, I would recommend the original The Exorcist, to tell you the truth. We initially regarded it as depicting a kind of defeat of God at the hands of the devil, because Fr. Damien died. But repeated viewings discern its strong Christian intentions, and its actually powerful and willing sacrifice of the main character. William Friedkin, the director, intended it that way. I give it an A+.

I’ve thought a lot about Exorcist III, the one with George C. Scott, and think it’s very good; but the ending is a little too downbeat. Therefore I put to you as my second recommendation the 1977 The Sentinel. I realize I’ve talked that one up before, but it is an overwhelmingly awesome depiction of ghostly, possessing evil and the sacrifice of the heroine that repels the hordes coming up from the “Dark End of the Street.” Also, I believe it’s the actor George Kennedy who plays the hero-priest at the end, who carries the Cross into the fray with such power. The Sentinel is also a much (now) needed Christian response to anyone who’s being convinced that the world has a point concerning assisted suicide. You could never seriously watch The Sentinel and ever or ever again desire to take your own life, under almost any circumstances.

I checked around for anyone else who I should talk to about what exorcism looks like in light of grace, which is a bit — niche. Word on the street was that Calvary-St. George’s rector, Rev. Jacob Smith, the dragon-slayer himself, was the person to ask.

I did.

Buckle up!

I still find exorcism and demons something fascinating to think about and I do believe in some cases they are legitimate. I was involved in two exorcisms when I was 22 and took a dip in Pentecostalism. The first, I believe upon further reflection, was more psychosomatic, brought on by the dualism that is so often found Pentecostalism. The other, which was completely B.S., was when I was supposedly exorcised of the “Demon of Smoking.”

That lasted for about 20 minutes.

When it comes to the demonic, I believe the church has the tendency to go too far in one of two directions, and they are both spiritually dangerous. The first is, as in my Pentecostal experience, looking for demons under every rock and besetting problem. The second is, as I see in the mainline, denying their very presence. The best analogy that I have for explaining the demonic and possession in these last days is the rats we had in the basement of our first place in NYC.

Mel and I had a serious rat problem down in the basement of this brownstone we were living in. We had some huge F’ing rats down there and they were real, scary, and harmful to us. So I called an exterminator who went down there and laid down the biggest…

Editor’s note:

At this point in Rev. Smith’s email, the pixels appeared to be  — inexplicably — partially chewed. The reconstructed fragments seemed to be a lost David Cronenberg script or an impressive pastiche of Scanners, The Fly, and Naked Lunch. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a rat mat,” “F’ing,” “Dead,” “Smell,” and then, disturbingly, “Hissing,” were the only words recovered from the damaged section.

He continues.

I immediately ran upstairs, terrified, and turned off the light and waited for the exterminator to return and deal with that disgusting situation. The point being is that like with the demonic, most of us are not qualified to deal with it. We need an exorcist and we need to remember Jesus has dealt with it.  The rat’s fate had been sealed, and although it could screech and hiss, and, if I got too close, bite me and do some real damage, it was as good as dead. It was, at that moment, harmless to me. Christ has already destroyed the principalities and powers of this dark age. So from a distance I can realize what it is, a scary public spectacle; however, if I deny it or give it too much credence, real harm can occur.

The most shocking thing in retelling these frightening stories of people possessed by evil, real and fictional, is that there are people who not only willingly face evil, but they pay a price in ways both seen and unseen, then do it again. This only makes sense if you understand that they already know how this ends. Exorcism is a reminder of this reality for all parties involved. This ain’t a nail-biter, folks. Jesus won. Devil’s left the building.