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By Jessica Thompson
When I was 16 years old, I witnessed an exorcism. Or, I think that is what you would call it. We referred to it as “it,” “that thing that happened,” or, with a whisper, “demonic activity.” No one vomited or had their head spin around and there wasn’t a priest or even crosses involved, but it was still pretty surreal.
I grew up going to a Protestant church in the Midwest. I think it was average as far as Protestant churches in the Midwest are concerned. During summertime we’d hold “Vacation Bible School” camps in people’s yards. At Christmas I’d sing in the church choir. The focus was on loving your neighbors and forgiving your enemies -- lessons I’ve carried with me until this day. Ours wasn’t the type of church to focus on fire and brimstone. Church was a pleasant experience overall.
When I was in high school, my church partnered with an international youth missions organization for the first time. This partnership allowed a group of about 30 high schoolers to spend Spring Break in Mexico building a church and working with children. Naturally, I signed up.
The trip was great, at first. I enjoyed the autonomy of being away from my parents for a week while spending time with friends and learning about a new culture. The night before we were going back home, however, “it” happened.
The youth mission leaders who lived on the “base” in Mexico called us all to the dining hall that final night for a farewell. Tables and chairs were cleared out and we sat on the floor. We took turns sharing what we had learned over the week about ourselves and each other. We sang songs, thanked friends, confessed secrets and made prayer requests.
It was after one such prayer request that things changed. One of my friends and classmates -- we’ll call him Doug -- kneeled down and put his head on the floor. His position was similar to what I now know from yoga class as Child’s Pose. A group leader walked over to Doug and rested his hand on Doug’s back. He then prayed aloud for Doug to give himself over to God completely. He prayed for Doug to release any “footholds” on his life, including pride.
At that moment, an extremely loud screeching filled the air. It sounded like an urgent squealing of tires, as if a major car wreck were happening so close that cars were burning rubber on asphalt while careening toward the building we were in.
I instinctively looked up toward the front door expecting a vehicle to hurtle through it even though that didn’t make sense -- we were in a rural area surrounded only by land and a gravel road. There was nothing nearby for tires to screech against.
Once I looked up, panic set in immediately. People were freaking out and scattering in all directions. A few bolted outside, while others standing near the door ran toward the middle of the room. Some dove to the floor as if to avoid a drive-by shooting.
After what felt like minutes but was probably just a few seconds of scanning the scene, I again noticed Doug and the group leader huddled on the floor in the midst of this chaos. It dawned on me that the very loud, high-pitched, non-human sound was coming from my friend.
His hands and fingers were balled up in a way you would only see on a 95-year-old arthritic. His jaw was clenched, but open, and his eyes were closed. The muscles in his neck and face were taut and his veins bulged.
The youth leader from our church still prayed aloud for Doug. Another classmate -- one who was not a member of our church and had just come along for the fun of it (Oops!) -- stood erect next to the two, like a soldier at attention except with his eyes closed. My intuition told me that he needed help. I ran to him and hugged him tightly while praying and saying reassuring things. In retrospect, maybe I hugged him more out of comfort to myself than for his benefit.
Minutes later, the screeching stopped abruptly. People slowly sat back down quietly, in shock. The leaders from the youth mission explained that we had just experienced demonic activity. They said although it could be “intense” to witness, it was a good thing. It meant that Doug and possibly others in the group had been plagued by a demon or two, which were now gone.
The next day on our long bus ride to the airport I hopped around from seat-to-seat questioning people in an attempt to satisfy my curiosity about this strange event. Most of the group seemed relatively calm and accepting of what had occurred the night before, while I felt greatly disturbed and confused.
Doug told me that several of the guys had talked to him about “it,” and that while he did not think any of them had a reason to lie, he had little to no memory of the event. The idea of him screaming and then not remembering it confused him, but he said he woke up that morning feeling as if he had enjoyed the most peaceful sleep of his life so he wasn’t too concerned about it.
I talked to the classmate who had been standing next to Doug. He had no memory of the event either, but unlike Doug, he refused to believe it had happened. He thought we were playing a trick on him and, not surprisingly, wanted nothing to do with our church after that trip.
A month later, church leaders held a meeting to discuss “what happened” in Mexico. It was awkward. Us high schoolers wanted to pretend nothing had happened. It’s not exactly a normal “Spring Break” experience you come back home and brag to friends about.
The adults seemed nervous and as if they weren’t quite sure how to handle the situation. They conceded that demonic activity is real, but that “spiritual warfare” was not a common occurrence in our church or denomination.
I believe witnessing “demonic activity” or whatever it was I witnessed 15 years ago gave me post-traumatic stress disorder. I began having panic attacks every time I attended church, worried that what previously seemed like a peaceful prayer could trigger a screeching attack within me. Those panic attacks spread to any formal group situation.
I feared I would lose control in some way, perhaps by fainting, going crazy, or screeching loudly. After reading that demonic activity is prevalent around 3 am (How would that work? Are demons aware of time zones?), I found myself unable to properly fall asleep until that time had safely come and gone on the clock. I mean, I didn’t want a demon to latch onto me while I was asleep and at my weakest.
In my mind, 4 am was the safest time to lie down and turn off the lights. School started at 7:40 am, unfortunately, so this added sleep deprivation to the situation.
For months, my life was secretly overrun by fear. I didn’t mention my panic to anyone because I feared they might suggest prayer was the remedy I needed. I became hyper self-aware of my thoughts and behaviors, over-analyzing every detail of myself in an effort to notice any demonic attempts to control me. When I realized that fear itself might be the avenue a demon was taking to get to me, my mind about turned inside out.
All of my attempts at using logic to work my way through the fear lead me to a disbelief in Christianity. At first that seemed like another sneaky demonic attempt to thwart me, but with time I developed a faith -- faith that if there truly is a loving God,he/she/it would not want me to live a life of fear. That a loving God would want me to believe what I authentically felt convicted to believe, not what I was driven to believe out of sheer terror.
Although I am secure in my belief system now (a vacillation between agnosticism and a self-created spirituality) and have been for years, I still feel spooked when talking about the “exorcism.” I don’t believe demons exist, but I never found a way to explain “it.”
If Doug were a stranger or even an acquaintance, I would’ve thought he was faking or insane. Doug was a close friend I had known since elementary school, however. He was not the type who would try to trick 30 people with an elaborate demon hoax. As far as I know. he never showed signs of psychosis or severe mental illness before or after the incident.
I guess it’ll always be a mystery.