The cross of St. Benedict, exorcist (serav/Shutterstock)

I’ve had these two stories open on my browser for a few days now. I’m going to go ahead and post them as a preface for something very strange.

The first one is about a rash of cattle mutilations out in rural Arizona:

A cow and a bull were both killed overnight. An ear cut off. A section of hide detached. The scrotum and penis carefully removed. The vaginal cavity gone. The blood drained.

No discernible tracks were found near the carcasses, which were lying near an infrequently traveled road. Little blood was found on the ground and the cow was wedged up into a tree as if trying to escape from something.

In his decades of living in the scrubby pinyon-juniper forests north of Williams, the 66-year-old Mahan has raised horses and small herds of cattle and seen animals killed by predators such as mountain lions and coyotes. He has witnessed scavengers such as ravens and vultures picking at carrion, but never has he witnessed the deliberate dismemberment he saw last week.

“For people to come out and purposely kill and mutilate an animal for their own pleasure is just unreal. It’s sickening,” he said as he tucked his weather-beaten hands into his well-worn pockets.

The state inspector who is investigating this said this isn’t random:

“The people who are doing this, I would say are professionals,” he said. “They know what they are doing.”

The second item is this description of a new show coming up this month on Netflix, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a darker take on the Archie comics teenage witch character. Excerpt from a feature story about it:

The series, which stars Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) as the titular orphaned daughter of a warlock and a human, begins with Sabrina Spellman’s 16th birthday on the horizon, a milestone for witch-kind in which, like a demonic bat mitzvah, every witch or warlock must participate in a ritual that includes signing your name in blood in Satan’s autograph book and subsequently going off to what is essentially Hogwarts from Hell. For Sabrina, however, the choice becomes a dilemma: she’s half mortal, too, and while her father was a powerful, respected warlock in their world, she’s not sure whether her dead parents even wanted her to sign up to do the devil’s bidding.

The new teaser certainly drives home the fact that this darker redo of the cheerful ‘90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch is coming from the makers of Riverdale: the dark streets, old-timey cars, and trio of cool girls in matching outfits (in Riverdale, it’s Josie and the Pussycats; here, it’s a clique known as the Weird Sisters) all keep it in the same universe as the hit CW show. But now, Beelzebub is here in the seven-foot-tall-angry-goat flesh, and, thankfully, animatronic Salem has been replaced by an actual cat. Hail Satan.

OK. The mainstreaming of Satanism in pop culture — whether you believe that this has to do with spiritual realities, or is merely symbolic, it is undeniably culturally significant. The Guardian, being The Guardian, suspects that this new wave of pop-occultism — of which Sabrina is only one example, is a manifestation of the political:

Harkness agrees that witchcraft can offer a sense of control in a world that seems to be spiralling beyond our grasp. “When there is social, political and cultural turmoil and the world feels like a very unstable place, people want a sense of control and normalcy again,” she says.

Spellbound, an exhibition about witchcraft, opened last month at Oxford’s Ashmolean museum. Among the exhibits is The Discovery of Witches, a 1647 work by the notorious “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, which inspired the title of Harkness’s novel.

More:

But, for Christina Oakley Harrington, a practising witch and the founder of Treadwell’s, one of the UK’s leading occult bookshops, witchcraft is a feminist issue.

“These films are an answer to what is happening in society,” she says. “As the world of Instagram has shown, young women are speaking out with autonomy more than ever, embracing feminism.

“It makes perfect sense to find role models: none is more apt than the witch. The witch is the disobedient woman, the ‘bad’ woman. Her ethics are her own, not society’s and as a creature on the edges of society, she sees injustices that others don’t care about. I am struck by how much today’s teen witches are activists for not only feminism but for the ending of animal cruelty, racism, homelessness.

“When you break society’s conforming rules, as young women are, you are punished. The witch is an icon to help young women be strong in the face of the pushback they get every day. So for me, these new shows are heartening – yes, even the horror films.”

Well. I agree with Harrington that the occult boom is a sign of the times. What it signifies is another matter, I’d say.

Now, that’s a set-up for me to tell you about a strange telephone call I received yesterday. I’ve hesitated about whether or not to blog about it. The caller, an old friend from whom I hadn’t heard in a decade or so, gave me permission to blog about it as long as I kept names and identifying details out of the story. He said others may draw hope from it. He wasn’t exactly sure why he felt the urge to call me about the matter, but he did.

Background: “Nathan,” as I’ll call my friend, is a devout Catholic who lives in a major US city, and who works in a sophisticated professional milieu. He is in early middle age, and a husband and father. He and his family go to mass daily, and confession weekly.

Nathan started his story with a jaw-dropping line: “For the past year, my wife has been under the care of an exorcist.”

I don’t Nathan’s wife as well as I know him, but I can tell you that she is worldly and sophisticated, even as she is devout. She is one of the last people you would imagine having a problem like this.

Nathan told me the story of how things came to this point. I won’t give you too many details, out of an abundance of caution. It turns out that his wife had an eating disorder as a teenager, and tried to kill herself twice back then. Now, in the middle of her life, depression returned, but with certain strange characteristics that seemed … off. She began to despise religious things, in an inexplicable way. When she went to a “healing mass,” there was a manifestation that indicated something dark and alien was at work in her.

Catholic exorcists today work in a professional way, ruling out all other medical possibilities to explain the behavior before they start. The exorcism of Nathan’s wife has not been a single event, but has required multiple sessions, which are still going on (Father Gabriele Amorth, the late chief exorcist of Rome, has explained in his books how this works.) Nathan has been part of the rituals.

He told me that eight different spirits have manifested themselves through his wife. He’s been at this long enough now to discern which one is which. They revealed through the rituals that they entered into his wife’s family through her grandfather, who was involved with the occult in a ritualistic way. Nathan said that depending on which evil spirit manifests in a particular moment, his wife’s face contorts into expressions that he has never seen in her, despite their nearly two decades of marriage.

Mind you, Nathan is one of  the least woo-woo friends I have. Again, he works as what you might call a “symbolic analyst” in a very worldly occupation, and lives in one of the biggest and most secular cities in America. He’s been a faithful Catholic for as long as I’ve known him, but not especially interested in that mystical side of the faith.

“Once you’ve seen reality through the eyes of spiritual warfare,” he told me yesterday, “you can’t go back. It’s everywhere.”

He told me other detailed stories, including accounts of bizarre, poltergeisty things happening in their apartment, and his wife being unable to stand the presence of blessed objects (a classic sign of possession). Again, readers: if you knew these people, Nathan and his wife, you would be even more shocked by all this than you are now. This is the kind of family that takes European vacations, and lives a sophisticated cosmopolitan life. And yet this horror has overtaken them. The wife goes through periods in which she hears foul blasphemies, and feels compelled to commit suicide. In the exorcism sessions, Nathan says the demons, under compulsion from the exorcist, speak of these things — in particular, how they intend to destroy Nathan’s wife, and her family life.

When will she be free of them? The exorcist can’t say. The fight continues, in regular sessions. In our long phone conversation yesterday, Nathan says that this ordeal has taught him about the power of prayer, and of the Church’s weapons against these things. He knows that his wife is not his enemy, despite the things that sometimes come out of her mouth, and he is resolved to hold firm to fight for her, through his prayers, and to help her be free of these malicious intelligent spirits. He recommends this lecture by Father Chad Ripperger, a Catholic exorcist.  This is the reality Nathan and his wife have been living for the past year.

Nathan, the sort of man who would have been played by Jimmy Stewart or Jack Lemmon in a 1950s movie, told me that having entered into this world, he has learned that more and more ordinary people like him and his wife are turning to exorcists. He has come to see that the demonic attacks on marriage and family are increasing — and he wants people to know that there is hope. But laying claim to that hope requires recognizing the nature of the battle.

I don’t know how I would do if I were in a situation in which I would be lying in bed at night, and my wife blurted out, “I hate you!” and then started growling in an otherworldly voice. That’s Nathan’s reality now. He is not afraid. He has to play his part in rescuing his tormented wife (who, I should say, fully consents to the exorcism; she wants to be free of this too).

Take this as you will. Laugh at it if you want to. I don’t laugh at it; I have had too much personal experience in this area to dismiss it. There will be some of you who read this who find in Nathan’s story something you need. I hope at least some of you recognize in this account a warning never, ever to dabble in this stuff. There is no such thing as innocent involvement with it. This past summer I watched a local friend who had been briefly free of it surrender to it again in a particularly tragic way. It’s not a joke. It’s not a game.

What Nathan’s wife is going through now is like what director William Friedkin — a non-Christian — witnessed and filmed in his recent documentary, The Devil And Father Amorth. (Friedkin, of course, directed the feature film The Exorcist.) The trailer for the documentary is below. Here is his chilling 2016 Vanity Fair account of the experience. Excerpt:

Rosa’s body began to throb, and she cried out, before falling back into a trance. Father Amorth placed his right hand over her heart. “INFER TIBI LIBERA.” (Set yourself free.)

She lost consciousness. “TIME SATANA INIMICI FIDEM.” (Be afraid of Satan and the enemies of faith.)

Without warning, Rosa began to thrash violently. The five male helpers had all they could do to hold her down. A foam formed at her lips.

“RECEDE IN NOMINI PATRIS!” (Leave in the name of the Father.) Rosa’s features slowly altered into a mask of despair, as her body continued to writhe. She was trying to rise and, clearly, to attack.

“SANCTISSIMO DOMINE MIGRA.” (Let him go, O God Almighty.) Rosa did not speak or understand Latin, but she thrust forward and screamed in Father Amorth’s face: “MAI!!” (Never!!)

A low buzzing sound began, like a swarm of bees, as the others in the room prayed quietly. “SPIRITO DEL SIGNORE. SPIRITO, SPIRITO SANCTO SANCTISSIMA TRINITA.” (God’s spirit, Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity. . . . Look after Rosa, O Lord, destroy this evil force so that Rosa might be well and do good for others. Keep evil away from her.)

Then Father Amorth called out the satanic cults, the superstition, the black magic that had possessed her. She reacted, growling, and screamed “MAAAAAAIIIIII!!!” The scream filled the room.

Another voice from deep within her shouted in his face: “DON’T TOUCH HER! DON’T EVER TOUCH HER!!” Her eyes were still closed. Father Amorth yelled, “CEDE! CEDE!” (Surrender!)

She reacted violently: “IO SONO SATANA.” (I am Satan.)

Here is a part of the story in which Friedkin interviews Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute:

LIEBERMAN: I’ve never believed in ghosts or that stuff, but I’ve had a couple of cases, one in particular that really just gave me pause. This was a young girl, in her 20s, from a Catholic family in Brooklyn, and she was referred to me with schizophrenia, and she definitely had bizarre and psychotic-like behavior, disorganized thinking, disturbed attention, hallucinations, but it wasn’t classic schizophrenic phenomenology. And she responded to nothing,” he added with emphasis. “Usually you get some response. But there was no response. We started to do family therapy. All of a sudden, some strange things started happening, accidents, hearing things. I wasn’t thinking anything of it, but this unfolded over months. One night, I went to see her and then conferred with a colleague, and afterwards I went home, and there was a kind of a blue light in the house, and all of a sudden I had this piercing pain in my head, and I called my colleague, and she had the same thing, and this was really weird. The girl’s family was prone to superstition, and they may have mentioned demon possession or something like that, but I obviously didn’t believe it, but when this happened I just got completely freaked out. It wasn’t a psychiatric disorder—you want to call it a spiritual possession, but somehow, like in The Exorcist, we were the enemy. This was basically a battle between the doctors and whatever it was that afflicted the individual.

ME: Do you completely disregard the idea of possession?

LIEBERMAN: No. There was no way I could explain what happened. Intellectually, I might have said it’s possible, but this was an example that added credence.

Read the whole thing.

Here is the trailer: