This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Evidently, a lot has changed since the Middle Ages – we don’t joust or burn witches at the stake anymore – but one tradition has survived the centuries: exorcism.
Andrew Chesnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, claims the demand for exorcisms has boomed globally over the past few decades. Although the dubious practice is synonymous with the Catholic Church, he estimates most devil-banishing rituals today are being performed by what he claims are relatively inexperienced Pentecostal and Evangelical priests in Latin American and African countries.
In Europe, the service is provided by some Catholic and Protestant priests (although non-Catholics prefer to call it “liberation”), and is free of charge. One of those priests is Beat Schulthess, a pastor in the Salvation Army in the small Swiss town of Uster, near Zurich. Schulthess says he has been exorcising the demonically-possessed for three decades, and also offers exorcism training courses via his School for Liberations and Spiritual Warfare, where he taught 180 students in 2020.
I asked Schulthess what it’s like to come face to face with evil.
VICE: How do you think you can tell if someone is possessed by a demon?
Beat Schulthess: People who have come into contact with satanic forces generally display very abnormal behaviour. We initially ask the person how they related to feelings of anger, fear and greed, as well as to addiction. If they are Christian, we ask them their opinion about the Assurance of Salvation [the belief you’ll go to heaven if you have faith in God] and their sexual desires. Many people seeking help practice bestiality, for example.
Then we use their family tree to work out whether their family has been cursed. If it’s not the case, we ask them if their home is haunted. For example, if the possessions happen at night, we ask if they hear noises like knocking, or doors opening and closing on their own.
Aren’t many people who turn to you actually mentally ill?
Of course, anger and depression aren’t always caused by demons. But some people have already received medical or psychological help and want to know if they’re dealing with a demon.
If you talk to them and find out, for example, that they’ve experienced severe sexual abuse, you cannot simply send their demons away – they need help. We usually put them in contact with doctors and healthcare professionals if they haven’t been treated before.
Why do you believe in spirits?
Twenty-eight years ago, I was called to exorcise a woman who could not say the name of Jesus out loud. We were with her for a long time. One day, she said she was sent by an occult group to give my son leukaemia. Suddenly, the woman disappeared and my second-oldest son became terminally ill. I called a pastor who performed an expulsion ritual according to Matthew, 18:18. Within a week, my son was healed. Doctors couldn’t explain it. After this experience, my wife and I had to accept that supernatural forces can affect life and death.
How do you drive out the devil?
If you’re possessed by evil, we usually start by saying a prayer": “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, I renounce all occult burdens.” We say “of Nazareth” because there are demons who call themselves Jesus, while Nazareth is a protected term, even in the invisible world.
Sometimes the demon then shows itself through the person. It is important that nobody is exposed to it, especially when there are physical manifestations. People scream, squirm, stomp, vomit or fall over. That’s why we do everything in a small enclosed space.
Two weeks later, you check in to see if the person is feeling better. Otherwise, we make another appointment. If you’ve been successfully liberated, we decide if you need more pastoral help or trauma-focused therapy.
We often hear stories about people being assaulted during an exorcism. What do you think about it?
I despise it. Yet I cannot always prevent these incidents from happening in the cases my team works on. To me, something is abuse from the moment we are doing something to someone who doesn’t want it. Participants have to sign a form where they agree to our pastoral care. The pastors also sign a code of 27 points and a confidentiality clause.
We only touch their heads or armpits. I wouldn’t be comfortable with anything else. And you should always ask in advance.
Have you ever made a mistake?
When you do an exorcism, something has to change in the end. For example, if someone has physical symptoms, like a pain in their kidneys which could not be treated by doctors, but the pain does not go away after the liberation, then you’ve probably misdiagnosed them and have to apologise. You should never assume you’ll always get it right.
What does a demon look like?
They take different shapes. Demons belong to the dark army of the devil, and the devil is the mastermind. In the Bible, these powers are often represented as animals, and you sometimes encounter them in that form. I've been attacked by powers, too. It's difficult to describe.
Do you perform exorcisms on children?
We get asked to do that from time to time, but we are very, very, very careful. We don't normally do it. You have to be sure the child won’t mentally suffer from it.
How much does an exorcism cost?
It’s all free. But we do take donations.