Teenage Exorcists

Marie Claire, Dec 2012

They’re home-schooled, have hardly met a non-Christian and in their spare time they cast out demons. Meet the Charlie’s Angels of exorcism.

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Portrait above by Steve Schofield, photos below by me

“Nooo! Aaargh!”

The screams of a young woman fill the office. Her name is Tiffany, a 29 year old from Arkansas, who at this minute is being pinned into a swivel chair by five men. She tries to writhe and kick free but she can’t, so she screams. And a man with a clerical collar leans in, thrusting a cross into her face and shouting.

“What part of the vow is not broken? Answer me! You want more holy water? It burns like fire doesn’t it?” He reaches for a bottle of Fiji on the table. “OK hold on tight now guys.”

We’re in the boardroom of an office in Phoenix, Arizona at about 8pm. A six-man film crew from Toronto is here to capture the whole thing, as is Tiffany’s mother, who stands quietly at the back holding a camcorder.

To Tiffany’s left, however, are three young girls clutching matching silver crosses and purple Bibles – two brunettes and a redhead. The priest beckons the girls.

“Teenage exorcists, come over here for a moment. Quick! Put your crosses and Bibles on this thing for a moment and torment it.”

So the girls swoop in, crosses first. “I smite you with the cross of Christ! I smite you!” they all say.

“What part of the vow?” shouts the priest, splashing the Fiji on her. “Torment! Torment!”

“I smite you!” say the girls.

And Tiffany screams. “Noooo! Aaargh!”

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As though it weren’t strange enough that exorcism is alive and well in modern America, now it seems teenagers are doing it – a made-for-TV trio at that, the Charlie’s Angels of exorcism, each one with a black belt in karate. There’s Tess Scherkenbach, 17, with the braces on her teeth, and her softly spoken sister Savannah, who’s 20. (Their father owns the office space; he’s also one of the men holding Tiffany down). The third girl and, by common consent the leader, is the redhead, Brynne, 18, the eldest daughter of the priest, Reverend Bob Larson. Brynne is the Beyonce of the group, the prettiest by far.

The Teenage Exorcists, as their website and Facebook page bills them, have been performing exorcisms with Reverend Bob for two years now. It’s not quite a full-time job – it has to fit around school – but, still, they’ve had plenty of practice. Reverend Bob is perhaps the most prolific exorcist in America. His ministry has been going strong for almost two decades now. He was in a rock band before he found Jesus (and renounced all rock music), and like a band he tours the country, coast to coast, performing public exorcisms in the style of a circus tent preacher during the Great Depression. And ever since Brynne was a toddler, he would bring her along too – exorcism is all she has ever known.

All three girls were raised in a strict Christian bubble – the Bubble Belt, if you like – designed by their parents. Step one, is homeschooling. Born-again families in America often club together and hire their own teachers at a fraction of the cost of a private school, and thereby ensure that science won’t include evolution, homosexuality will be curable and history will have the appropriate spin. But the girls weren’t pushed into exorcism – this was their own choice, as the girls and Reverend Bob insist.

“It started when one of our friends had demons,” says Brynne. She and Tess are classmates, and they wanted to do something to help. “So we asked my dad, ‘you need to teach us how to do this.’” Savannah joined in and they went through what she calls “rigorous training. It was at least once a week, with extra sessions working with real people. Exorcism is a hands-on thing.”

It wasn’t long before the media cottoned on. Brynne reels off some of the countries that have sent TV crews to interview them: “Brazil, London, Germany, Japan, Australia… And a lot of them compare us to Charlie’s Angels, it’s funny. We’ve been called Bob’s Angels. And God’s Angels. The best one was Hot Brides of Christ.” She giggles for a moment and then turns immediately serious. “We don’t do it for the media though. It’s a deeper calling.”

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Prior to the exorcism, at about midday, all the girls are gathered in Bob’s office in another bland business park in Phoenix. They’re getting ready for the Marie Claire photoshoot and are in high spirits. It’s fun to get your pictures taken, and your makeup done, not to mention the day off school. One could be forgiven for thinking that exorcism was quite a glamorous business.

“Oh it isn’t!” says Tess. “It’s actually quite dangerous. But anyway, none of us want to be full-time exorcists like Mr Larson.”

The others concur. They want to pursue other careers, and banish Satan on the side. Brynne wants to be a doctor, Tess wants to work in theater. Savannah, however, seems unsure. “I might be a public speaker and travel the world doing that,” she says. “But I’d really love to just get married and have a normal life.”

Normal life? That sounds rich coming from a teenage exorcist.

“Oh my god, we’re soooo normal,” says Brynne. “Let’s see – we love to go shopping, and go to the mall, just like anyone.” What bands does she like? “Oh goodness, I like Carrie Underwood, Toby Mack, Newsboys. They’re all Christian.” Favorite TV shows? “Dr Who and Sherlock – we love Benedict Cumberbatch!”

“And we go to the movies,” says Tess. “We like romantic comedies.”

What about exorcism movies?

They all shake their heads. “No way, we’re terrified of horror,” says Brynne. “Because it’s real! We’ve seen this stuff! We don’t need the mental images to go along with it!” She looks to the girls for support.

“Um, Hollywood makes what we do scary,” says Tess. “With heads turning around and bodies levitating. But the real thing isn’t like that.”

I’m still confused, so Reverend Bob chimes in. “See, I don’t think the girls have seen levitation. I have, but it’s not common. We actually did a live exorcism at one of the movies – what was it, The Devil Inside? I was the national spokesperson for that movie for Paramount. I did major media.”

“Yes that was awesome!” Brynne nods. “We didn’t watch the movie, we waited outside because it was too scary, but when we came in afterwards, the people looked really freaked out!”

“Mr Larson prayed over them,” says Tess. “He said, ‘is there anyone who wants special prayer?’ And the line was huge.”

“We cast the demons out of two people,” says Savannah.

Bob taps his Tiffany watch. “OK come on girls. We need to get moving. We’re supposed to start this exorcism at five. I don’t want to keep the film crew waiting.”

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The day starts off well enough. We head out into the desert to take photos of Bob and the girls. For some reason Tiffany, the possessed woman, accompanies Bob everywhere, travelling in Bob’s car while the girls travel in theirs. But everything is moving along nicely until we reach the office and we’re sitting around the boardroom table. Then things start to drag interminably. Bob begins the exorcism at about 6pm, but we sail past 8pm and then 9pm, and we’re still nowhere near the finish line.

Afterwards Bob explains that “it’s a complicated case”. Tiffany claims she was inducted into a Satanic cult as a teenager, at which time all kinds of demons entered her. She then left the cult at 17, turned to Jesus, and entered a marriage which ended a few years later when her husband cheated on her. Since then, she says, the blackouts started for which she blames demons.

Come 10pm, I was on the verge of blacking out myself. I’d not eaten anything since breakfast, and this exorcism was taking ages. It’s a tedious process, ultimately. The demons need to be summoned, engaged, forced to repeat various vows, and then banished. But, of course, being demons, they don’t do as they’re told. So there’s a lot of barking and repetition. It’s a long evening of Bob shouting out things like: “The blood of Christ!” and Tiffany not quite managing to repeat it.

“The…”

“Blood of Christ! Come on, you can do it! Blood of Christ!”

“Bl…”

“Blood! Blood of Christ! Say it!”

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There’s plenty of torture by Fiji water, but only little splashes, for hours on end. If only Bob would just pour the whole bottle over her head and speed things up a bit. Sometimes he fans his hands around her and says “the flames of hell”, but that’s not very effective. A Bible pressed into her forehead however makes her scream a fair bit. And so it goes, this dance of smiting and “angels of God, strike!” while Tiffany screams and wiggles, the cameramen mouth to each other “new battery” and the teenage exorcists, when not actually exorcising, check their phones, and laugh amongst themselves.

At the end of the night, the five men let Tiffany go for the last time, and she gets a big round of applause. She’s a small blonde woman, less than five foot tall who has been splashed so much that her mascara has smudged all over her face and her hair’s a mess from all that writhing. But she’s enjoying the moment nevertheless – wearing a bashful smile as everyone claps and steps forward to give her a hug.

“Now I don’t know how much of that you remember,” says Reverend Bob.

“Not much,” says Tiffany, shrugging. She looks exhausted. Her mother comes over, and shows her some of the footage she just shot. And Brynne, at the first she gets, rallies the teenage exorcists for a trip to a nearby drive through burger. She’s starving too.

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The following morning, Brynne is at home in her bedroom with Tess, and they’re getting ready to go to school. The Larsons live in a huge home in the scorching desert suburbs of Phoenix, protected by a gate and a big guard dog. Marie Claire is only allowed to visit on the condition that we don’t reveal its whereabouts because of what Bob calls “serious security concerns.”

Brynne’s room is perfectly chaste, a domain of cuddly toys and Christian wall hangings. One poster says, “I’d rather ride all day than dance all night”, referring to her love of horses. Another makes a ten point case for Creationism. No pinups though. Brynne’s 18 and she doesn’t have a celebrity crush.

“We’re not like huge fans of any celebrity,” Tess says, speaking for her friend. “We’re more fans of the characters they play.”

“I like Captain America, what’s his name?” says Brynne.

“Chris Evans,” says Tess. “Yes, we love his character.”

When I ask about boyfriends, Tess again speaks first. She’s the politician of the bunch. “We just don’t have time. We have plenty going on with the ministry and the riding and…”

Brynne smiles sweetly. “Yeah, we don’t lack for activities.”

Her mother appears at her door, looking concerned, so we talk about college for a while, the prospect of maybe leaving home for the first time, perhaps even leave a fully Christian environment. Evidently, the only time Brynne has ever been exposed to non-Christians is when she had a temporary job in a mall over Christmas.

Will they continue their exorcism while at college? The girls nod. “Of course!”

Would they consider making a reality show out of it, thought? Bob told me yesterday, that they’d had “hundreds of offers from basically everyone. But it’s up to the girls. They need to pray on it.”

So I ask Brynne: she enjoys being on camera, she believes in spreading the word of the Lord, she’s perfectly photogenic. Can we expect the Teenage Exorcists on TV any time soon? She looks at her mom and looks at me. “It’s not up to me. It’s up to God. Ultimately, it’s what God wants.”