exorcism then and now
Reading Time: 8 minutes This was billed as a medieval painting of "the exorcism of Martha Brossier," a 16th-century woman who achieved fame by acting possessed.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hello and welcome back, everyone! It being Monday (and I’m in rare form here with remembering exactly what day of the week it is), we turn our attention to our regular feature, a long-form review of Frank Peretti’s 1986 novel and moral-panic kindling, This Present Darkness. In this installment, we briefly consider how the exorcism of Bobby Corsi perfectly fits the pattern that evangelicals confirmed and expanded during the Satanic Panic. Today, Lord Snow Presides over exorcism, and the strange way that evangelicals’ art confirms their beliefs — and also extends it outward.

exorcism then and now
This was billed as a probably-early-Renaissance painting of “the exorcism of Martha/Marthe Brossier.” She was a 16th-century French woman who achieved fame in her youth by acting possessed in a way over-the-top manner. Her father exhibited her as a freakshow for money, quite successfully too. Eventually, the king ordered an investigation — which obviously discovered (through a fake exorcism) that she was a fraud. Afterward, we know little of her fate. One source has Brossier and her father dying in “a hospital at Rome,” which was likely some kind of asylum, but doesn’t say how or when. Ultimately, Christians learned nothing from this incident.

(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions. Also, any page numbers cited come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book. Quotes come from the book or other noted sources, unless I let you know otherwise.)

The Exorcism Itself.

In Chapter 26, the demon-possessed Bobby Corsi races on foot into Ashton after beating Bernice Krueger to within an inch of her life. Some angels guarding Ashton notice him and herd him over to Hank Busche and Andy Forsythe, who’ve been making a habit of walking around town and praying. The two men realize Bobby’s in very serious shape. However, instead of taking him to the police station or hospital they decided to take him to Hank’s TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church.

There, two other members of their little group, “the Remnant,” meet them to help: Ron Forsythe (Andy’s son, who was exorcised already by Hank) and someone I can’t remember called John Coleman.

Once we’re back at the ranch church, the exorcism proceeds along the usual and expected lines.

First, the exorcists demand the names of the demons clinging to Bobby, and of course the demons oblige them — reluctantly, but still they obey. (I guess their names are like a police officer’s badge number. So Peretti’s demons haven’t figured out to put black tape over their identification so they can do whatever they want.)

Once our exorcists have acquired the demons’ names, they order all them all to leave. Because this is a Christian fantasy book, the exorcism goes precisely as planned.

Also, we find out that Bobby was the weirdo who threatened Hank’s wife Mary in the parking lot earlier.

The Magical Formula.

Obviously, once an exorcist determines a demon’s name, then he only needs to order it around. He accomplishes this goal by using a specific magical formula:

(form of address/name) + (demand) + (proper invocation of divine authority) = obedience

The order of elements can certainly vary, but all three must be present. Of course, the demand can take the form of “binding” or “rebuking,” which sets the demon to a generally compliant mindset.

Here are a selection of exorcism spells from this book:

“Spirit,” said Andy, “I command you to tell us who you are in Jesus’ name!” (p. 241)

“In the name of Jesus I bind you and command you to come out!”

“[implied ‘you’] Come out in Jesus’ name!”

“Witchcraft, in Jesus’ name, come out!”

And again, this exorcism formula always works — at least temporarily.


The end of the scene is funny, but not in the way its author intended. In it, the exorcists have one last demon to command in their exorcism: Rafar, the demonic leader of this little clutch of demons in Ashton. This last task is a toughie, requiring much thinking-at-the-ceiling of the exorcists.

So an additional element comes into play with this last demon: the humans must work themselves into a proper lather of euphoria to make this one last exorcism spell work.

The praying continued. Witchcraft [the last demon] began to gasp for breath. He cried out.

“Rafar,” Bobby cried. “Ba-al Rafar!”

“Say that again?” [asked an exorcist]

The demon continued to cry through Bobby, “Rafar . . .Rafar. . .”

“Who is Rafar?” Hank asked. [. . .]

“Rafar is the lord of Ashton. Rafar rules Ashton.”

Andy tried a hunch. “Is he prince over Ashton?”

“Rafar is prince. Prince of Ashton.”

“Well, we rebuke him too!” said Ron.

HAW HAW! Amirite?!?

Can I hear an amen, y’all? HAW HAW!

A Rich Cultural History, Regurgitated.

Everything I describe here runs along a very familiar pattern, one laid down in the years well before this novel was sharted out. Indeed, this scene comes to us from a rich history based almost entirely in horror movies and occultic literature. The idea of demons’ names being so important, for example, has been around since at least the 1300s!

Heck, I even think Frank Peretti drew from Christian pop songs like Amy Grant’s 1984 hit “Angels,” which contains imagery similar to his book (for example, angels accompanying the singer everywhere and creating car trouble to save her from trouble)

Evangelicals drew upon this rich history of occultism for the entire Satanic Panic, mixing it with their own contemporary unease with changing social and cultural mores — especially as they saw it happening in their own kids.

Once something enters evangelicals’ canon of beliefs, it never leaves. Thus, the pattern Frank Peretti helped lay down in the 1980s took hold forever after. 

The Pattern.

Even nowadays, when evangelicals suspect that someone’s possessed by demons, they look for certain confirming signs. These include:

  • Weird behavior, out of the ordinary
  • Bizarre heights of rebelliousness
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Constant use of profanity
  • Displays of blasphemy
  • Affection for ickie music like “Black Heavy Metal” (according to Pat Pulling, in this link) and other similar media that older evangelicals dislike
  • Involvement with tabletop roleplaying games, especially Dungeons & Dragons
  • Property crimes, like defacing walls with graffiti
  • Shows of contempt for religion
  • Weird sleep patterns, especially being awake all night and sleeping all day
  • Over-the-top reactions to displays of religiosity
  • Inappropriate reactions to news of tragedies or criminal acts

Evangelicals thought that anybody exhibiting any of these signs (especially if it was a lot of them) was far more likely to commit very serious crimes like murder. You know, because literal demons inhabited them and pushed them that way.

Obviously, these totally-for-realsies symptoms could apply to a vast number of people. But that’s just part of the fun with demons.

More importantly, the more people fit the list, then the more demon-possessed people there are. And the more demon-possessed people there are, the bigger the threat really is. Thus, the more necessary SPEERCHUL WARFARE becomes as a response and the more essential that response becomes.

Feeling Important In A World Gone Mad.

In so many ways, This Present Darkness represents evangelicals’ swan song: their cri de coeur, their cosmic yawp across the rooftops of the world. Spiritual warfare, as a concept, plays into evangelicals’ greatest need, self-importance.

In the real world, they’re not important; a great many people detest them. Very few people outside their rapidly-shrinking tribe accord them the obedience and hushed deference they feel is their due. Worse, their entire brand has only deteriorated further in the modern days of pandemic, what with TRUE CHRISTIANS™ becoming known far more for their belligerence, hatred, lawlessness, and callous insistence on putting nonconsenting people at risk through their behavior than for doing all that boring stuff Jesus ordered them to do and be known for.

Ah, but in their dreams they are free indeed. There, safe and sound from the bite of reality, evangelicals let themselves go in downright lavish — if not even prurient — fashion.

There, oh there, their stalwart spiritual warriors don invisible armor of God, take up invisible swords of the Spirit, and march out to do spiritual battle in their minds against all the invisible princes and principalities ruling over this present darkness for the very real fate of the entire world. And they exorcise demons, casting them out, claiming new ground even in the battle!

Face it, the majority of evangelicals, especially its men, will find this imagery way more appealing than that of the humble and lowly servant Jesus ordered them to be: someone who refuses to lift a finger in his own defense even when struck, over-burdened, and unfairly maligned.

The Rewards These Spiritual Warriors Ache to Earn.

In these wild dreams, the people evangelicals protect and rescue not only don’t recognize the great danger erupting all around them, but often deeply resent and fight against their brave protectors and rescuers. They even mock these “Prayer Warriors for Jesus.”

And that’s all right, in evangelicals’ eyes. Yes, it most certainly is. That’s part of what goes into being a protector and rescuer, to them. It’s what they sign up for with the gig.

After their god has finally won all the battles, he will praise them for their essential help: Well done, my good and faithful servant.

And on that happy day of final victory, their commander promises to crown them with all the pretty princess tiaras they have earned over their finite lifetimes, and to make them the masters “of many great things.” They will “share [their] master’s happiness” — forever.

So in addition to the purely earthly rewards evangelicals gain from being bad-asses for Jesus, they also get rewarded forever with extra crowns and more power than all those mediocre, lesser servants can expect. And that expectation, too, becomes another earthly reward they savor in the here-and-now.

A Modernized Exorcism for a New Tribe.

In This Present Darkness, Frank Peretti alludes to all that I describe here and more. He not only reinforced the general blueprint of exorcism and Catholic occultists’ centuries-old conceptualizations of demons, but he gave evangelicals a way to feel effective and powerful in modern culture.

But the book goes further than that, even. He gave evangelicals a moral panic — a serious need for their unique services — and then the tools they needed to fulfill that great need. Evangelicals didn’t think of demons as they’re presented here before this book.I know, because I was an evangelical the year this book was published — and thus well before it went viral a year or two later. I don’t remember anybody talking like this in the earliest days of my participation in that end of Christianity.

But once This Present Darkness went viral across evangelicalism, pretty much everybody thought of it like that and conceptualized their prayers as spiritual battles.

In its way, then, the book almost represents a weird kind of accomplishment.

Exorcism: Another Pyrrhic Victory.

Evangelicals have a decades-long history of making deals to gain advantages in the short term that turn out to be disastrous for the long term survival and dominance of their tribe. This fascination they have with spiritual warfare and exorcism definitely represents one such example of that history. And we’re looking at the possible roots of that fascination in this book.

As we read it, then, keep in mind the frustrated evangelical who wrote it after his all-too-brief foray into secular culture.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over a book that drew from evangelical fantasies and then extended those fantasies outward into strange new levels of wingnuttery.

NEXT UP: A hypocritical TRUE CHRISTIAN™ gets caught out as a hypocrite — and exposes another crack in a very favorite cottage industry of the tribe. See you soon.

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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow presides over a suggested topic for the day, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures! The series was named for Lord Snow, my sweet white cat. In life, he actually knew quite a bit.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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