While I was at uni, I'd wake up each morning to find my doormat covered in flyers. They were mostly promoting dirt cheap jello shots, or £1 wings, or Eksman's DnB Birthday Bash (Ladies Free B4 10PM) – all the usual suspects. But every now and then, among the pamphlets promoting activities bad for my general wellbeing, there would be the odd leaflet for "Islamic jinn removal services".
Jinn are supernatural beings mentioned regularly in the Qu'ran; entities made of a smokeless "scorching fire" that are said to be capable of inhabiting human hosts. They supposedly have free will, meaning – like humans – they can decide if they want to be neutral, or good, or evil, pesky bastards, floating around, constantly on fire, whispering in ears and leading benevolent souls to ruin.
Jinn removal, as you may have guessed, involves forcefully expelling one of these spectres (known as a "jinni" in the singular) from the human body – which seemed like pretty heavy shit to be going on in the middle of British suburbia.
At the time I saw these flyers as little more than an interesting cultural oddity: demon ousting services offered alongside promotional literature for my local Labour councillor. But thinking back to them a few years later, I realised there must have actually been a fairly steady stream of exorcisms to justify the effort involved in repeatedly posting leaflets.
The more I thought about it, the more my interest was piqued. I wanted to know whether or not these rituals went on across the UK, or if I just happened to be lucky enough to live near an exorcist, so I asked the internet. Turns out jinn removals are practised up and down the country, from metropolitan areas with large Muslim populations to little towns with an overwhelming Christian majority, like Bicester in Oxfordshire.
Naturally, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to attend a genuine exorcism, so I got in touch with a couple of jinn removers to ask if I could sit in on a session.
The majority of exorcists were reluctant to have somebody observe their work, which is presumably because they thought I was going to take the piss, or write some kind of damning exposé, decrying their services as the work of conmen exploiting religious mythology. But that wasn't my intention; if a subject truly believes they're having the evil removed from their body, and will then benefit from that conclusion, who am I to criticise their choice to pay for what some might consider to be a spiritual placebo? I just wanted to see what modern-day exorcisms are actually like.
Luckily, a Glasgow-based exorcist – who we'll call Ali – agreed to allow me to watch him, but first, he wanted me to undergo a test to see if I was possessed by a jinn myself. I was almost certain I wasn't, but figured it couldn't do any harm, so agreed.
The test involved listening to a half-hour recording of Ali chanting prayers and seeing if I experienced any visions. I nodded off halfway through the recording, possibly due to the melodic nature of the chanting, or maybe because I've got absolutely no attention span and physically can't sit through the same thing for half-an-hour without my body just giving up and deciding to fall asleep.
I had some pretty weird dreams, but none of them meant that I was possessed by a jinni, according to Ali. This was disappointing, because I'd have like to have experienced an exorcism firsthand. Still, it broke the ice and led to me being invited to watch Ali in action.
The problem was that Ali's clients tend to want their exorcisms to be private affairs – understandable, considering you're probably not looking your best while a fire demon's being wrenched out of your shivering body. They also pay £250 a pop for the privilege, so naturally Ali didn't want to do anything that might scare them off.
"Why don't you bring a friend with you?" he asked. "I can do a test for jinn on him. If he's got one then I can remove it."
This sounded good, but I live fucking miles from Glasgow, and persuading someone to travel three hours on the train to be the subject of an exorcism was going to prove difficult. "Sure thing," I told him, regardless.
I soon discovered that I was right: no one I asked was up for it. Even the most dedicated atheists I know didn't want to have any evil spirits removed from their bodies for a laugh. So I stuck an ad on Gumtree saying I needed a participant for an "alternative healing session". I figured I could clue the volunteer up on the true nature of what was required of him after he replied.
Most respondents ran a mile the minute I mentioned the word "exorcism", but eventually I found a young uni dropout named Emille who was game, so I booked a train to Glasgow and started mentally preparing myself for an afternoon of guttural screaming and lots of projectile vomit.
I assumed the exorcism would take place somewhere near Pollokshields, the heart of Glasgow's Muslim community. Instead, when I arrived, I found the address I'd been given was that of a beauty salon in the district of Partick. I didn't really fancy asking one of the nail technicians whether they also performed exorcisms, just in case I'd got the wrong place, so gave Ali a bell to double check.
"Yes, this is the place," he told me. "Come in and make yourselves comfortable. I'll be with you shortly."
We were ushered into the back by Ali's wife, who kindly supplied us with some tea and biscuits. The jinn removal room looked a bit like a cross between a dental surgery and your average basement home office. The walls were bare, apart from a small, blue ornament hanging on the wall in one corner, and there was a hazardous biological waste container in the corner. I later learned that this was because Ali also runs a hijama clinic there, hijama being a form of Arabic healing that involves making incisions in people's skin and drawing "bad blood" out via vacuums created by small cups.
Ali poked his head around the corner five minutes later and introduced himself to us. He seemed an easygoing, affable kind of guy. He asked me if I'd had a good journey, and then the discussion moved onto the jinn removal trade.
"Do you get much work from non-Muslims?" I asked him, partly in reference to Emille, and partly referring to the fact that I couldn't see how his business could remain afloat in such an overwhelmingly white area if he didn't. "I work with Muslims and non-Muslims alike," he told me. "More and more people are getting into alternative healing."
He was quick to differentiate himself from other spiritual healers who specialise in jinn removal, pointing out that while others will converse with jinn prior to removing them, he refuses to negotiate.
"My job is to get them out of there, not to have a chat with them," he told me.
After discussing the ins and outs of jinn removal for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, Ali prepared us for the task ahead. "I'm going to carry out a short test to see if you've got any spirits that we need to get rid of," he told Emille. "It's a simple process involving prayer."
Emille lay down on a surgical bed in the corner of the room and Ali draped a white sheet, black prayer mat and some beads over him. Headphones playing Islamic prayers were placed in Emille's ears, and Ali chanted verses from a prayer book. At first, Emille lay there with a serene look on his face, absorbing the double-dose of prayer, but then, about five minutes into the test, his eyes started twitching and flickering as if he was experiencing REM.
The spooky twitching carried on for about 15 minutes, at times becoming more intense, and at others subsiding slightly. After a while, Emille settled down and started to relax again. The chanting went on for around another 20 minutes, at which point Ali gently roused him and asked if he was OK.
Emille seemed dazed, but otherwise alright.
"Do you need the toilet or anything before I ask you what you saw?" Ali asked him. Emille replied that he wouldn't mind going for a piss, and while he was away Ali told us that the REM meant that there was a high chance of a jinni being present.
When Emille returned, Ali asked him if he had seen various different things while he'd been in the trance. One of them was an eye, which Emille replied that he had seen.
"Well, the good news is that you haven't got any jinn," Ali told him.
My heart sunk as I heard this. As glad I was for Emille, I'd spent that three-hour train journey hoping to see some kind of exorcism in action.
"You did have the evil eye, though."
I wasn't entirely sure what the evil eye was, but it still meant that I hadn't had a totally wasted journey, which was good.
"In all cultures and religions, the evil eye exists in some form," Ali explained. "It's when somebody casts a spiritual glance upon you that can make it harder for you to attract the things that you want to attract."
"So is the evil eye gone now, then?" asked Emille.
"Yeah, it's been got rid of it," Ali told him.
Emille looked relieved, and I was as well. I hadn't been able to witness an exorcism, but I had seen a curse being removed, which is better than nothing, I suppose.
So what did I take away from the experience? Firstly: that even for a non-believer like myself, sitting in on a test for jinn is actually quite a strange and unnerving experience. I'm sure, in retrospect, that it was just a combination of the chanting and eye twitching that had me asking myself questions for a minute – but in the moment, it was a surprisingly visceral experience.
Secondly: although faith healers are often portrayed as being eager to brand people as unwell so that they can charge them for cures, the reality is that it's actually pretty fucking difficult to get diagnosed with a jinn. Even when all the signs are there, it might just be a bad case of the evil eye.
More stories about exorcisms:
WATCH – Teenage Exorcists