Ariana Grande has released three number one singles, won a Video Music Award, and starred on three hit TV series, but for years her comments about demons have haunted her. The controversy stems from a 2013 Complex interview, where the pop star describes seeing a fly and smelling sulfur in her car as symbols of a demon's presence. She goes on to tell the interviewer that she used to keep a computer folder called "demons." Since then, bloggers have used Grande's comments to insinuate that she might be a little off, but she isn't crazy—she's just from Boca Raton, Florida, where most young women believe in demons.
I grew up in South Florida. Throughout my 18 years bouncing between Palm Beach County (home to Boca Raton), South Beach, and Fort Lauderdale, I met tons of girls who looked and acted like Ariana Grande. They had names that sounded like Starbucks drinks and shopped exclusively at Hot Topic and dELiA*s, creating a look very reminiscent of Grande's crazy-goth-meets-mall-rat style. Most of these girls also believed demons possessed their Mediterranean-style houses.
One summer, for example, my friend Ariel called me because her mother, Barbie, had hired a ghost inspector to cleanse her house of evil spirits. I thought Ariel was joking—she was the kind of 15-year-old Florida girl who had Nightmare Before Christmas bed sheets—but after I drove through her housing community's gates, I found Barbie in the front yard screaming.
Ariel considered this normal because her family had always believed in spirits—she even remembers seeing demons as a toddler. "I used to see a panther/tiger/lion watching over my bed at night," Ariel recalls. "It had red eyes. I think it was nice, though. I also thought God said goodnight to me."
Ariel believes Florida girls worry about demons because of the state's fluctuating weather. "One minute it's sunny, the next it's pouring down rain and thundering," Ariel says. "There is something kind of mystical about that." She is not alone. Over the course of my reporting, several native Floridians said the state's swampy, bipolar weather was the root of their superstition. Alex, a 24-year-old Jewish girl from Fort Lauderdale, remembers mistaking her brother's babysitter for a monster. "If it was stormy out, I would be more scared," she says.
Yevgeniya, a 26-year-old Miami native, believes she feared demons due to her quintessential Florida upbringing. Like many millennial Floridians, Yevgeniya lived with her immigrant parents and grandparents. In her case, her family came from Russia. At Miami-Dade County public schools, she also interacted with kids from all over the world who believed in malignant spirits. Within the state, you'll find large populations of Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Southern Baptists, and Scientologists.
"Growing up in South Florida, where voodoo and Santeria [were] always kind of there in the background, was interesting," Yevgeniya explains. "I definitely believed in being able to jinx something and [in] certain superstitions, but Russians have their own brand of that as well."
In her book, Finding Mr. Righteous, Florida native Lisa De Pasquale recalls believing in the supernatural as a child. She grew up in northern Florida, with Southern Baptist parents. Although De Pasquale wasn't afraid of demons specifically, she assumed she needed to fear spirits because of her Southern Baptist religion. "Since Southern Baptists believe in being born again (getting baptized when you're older), I thought being scared of not being baptized was how you knew you were ready," she says. "I told my mom that I couldn't stop thinking of fire and brimstone. I pretended to be scared because I thought that's what I was supposed to be."
Some Florida girls give their religion, ethnic background, and their home state's weather as a collective basis for their superstitions. For example, I went to high school with a Colombian Catholic girl who we will call Cara. Cara attributes her demon fears to her heritage, Catholic upbringing, and Florida's heat. "It's like the gates of hell, but it's Florida," Cara says.
During her teen years, Cara often acted like a demon possessed her. She wore American catsuits to gay strip clubs—in retrospect, she resembled Ariana Grande—and would go from sweet to evil in a second. One time, for instance, a girl told Cara, "You look like a Sarah," and Cara responded, "Aw, really? You look like a cunt."
In Florida, superstitions and demon behavior are everywhere. Perhaps Cara sums it up best when I ask her why she believes in demons: "Because I was born in Florida and grew up in Florida, so there is no other way I could feel."