Disturbing Exorcisms That Went Horribly Wrong

Exorcisms are a tricky topic. When you request an exorcism in the Catholic Church, you must navigate a path that includes a church-led investigation, which might require psychiatric evaluations, physical exams, and the sign-off of at least the local bishop, not to mention a carefully monitored exorcism — if it ever even reaches that stage. Likewise, the Anglican Church has an official Deliverance Ministry that was formed in the wake of a violent 1974 exorcism that left one Yorkshire woman dead at the hands of her own husband.

Why all the caution? That's because some exorcisms can go very, very wrong. A person who's seemingly in need of some demon-banishing might actually be mentally ill and in need of psychiatric treatment that a local priest or pastor is unqualified to provide. Left untreated, they could represent a very real danger to themselves or even other people. In a similar vein, the effects of an intense and poorly monitored ritual might leave the afflicted in a dangerously weakened state. That, in turn, could lead to serious injury or even death. In some cases, exorcisms performed by the untrained or incautious have even transformed into what can only be deemed torture sessions. 

Unfortunately, not everyone has been so concerned about getting this spiritual cleansing ritual right, leading to some seriously disturbing exorcisms that have gone horribly wrong.

Anneliese Michel died after months of exorcisms

Born in 1952 Germany, Anneliese Michel first began to endure terrifying experiences starting in the late 1960s. These occurrences included nighttime paralysis, blackouts, and intense fear. A neurologist suggested epilepsy, but treatment proved difficult and, despite four years of treatment, the young woman began experiencing depression, anxiety, and delusions that connected with her family's devout Catholicism. She claimed to see and hear demons and began to act as if she were under their control, barking, engaging in repetitive movements, and consuming odd things (including spiders and her excretions).

Eventually, the Michels began to rely on the help of priests alone. Those priests faced the young woman — who sometimes couldn't bear the image of Jesus and spoke in the voices of Hitler, Cain, Satan, and other evil figures — and performed 67 exorcisms over about six months.

During this time, Anneliese largely stopped eating and spoke of atoning for humanity's sins, when she wasn't flinging curses or growling in the voice of Judas Iscariot. Finally, her body gave out — when she tragically died aged only 23, she weighed only 68 pounds, ravaged by dehydration, malnutrition, and pneumonia. Two priests, as well as her mother and father, were charged with negligent homicide. They were convicted, but their sentences were suspended. Michel's mother, Anna, told The Telegraph in 2005 that she still believed her daughter had been possessed and was in need of an exorcism. "I don't regret it," she said. "There was no other way."

[Featured image by Offenbacherjung via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 3.0]

Walter Zepeda was subjected to brutal treatment

Nineteen-year-old Walter Zepeda was a seemingly quiet young man who worked an obscure restaurant job near his Ontario home. But at some point in late 2001, his devout Pentecostal parents saw Zepeda's behavior begin to morph in ways that sometimes seemed like standard teenage rebellion, but sometimes felt demonic, as when he spoke nonsense in front of a church group. Then, Walter tried to escape his family. Was it because he was possessed by the devil, or was he increasingly aware of the dangerous possession narrative drawing in around him?

On January 2, 2002, his father and another man from their church restrained the young man in the family apartment. Tied to a chair, Zepeda struggled to the point of bruising himself, which was taken as further confirmation that he was possessed. Exorcisms were conducted at all hours by the Reverend Guillermo Fabian and attended by other members of the family's church. His family claimed to have offered him food and drink, but Zepeda allegedly refused. Then again, the Zepedas also initially told the police that their son had been tied up for just three days when the truth was that he had been restrained for about a week. Eventually, Walter Zepeda died of dehydration.

In 2003, his mother, father, and one church associate were initially charged with first-degree murder by a court. Having already served time, the father and family friend pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were given an additional 15 months of prison, while Zepeda's mother was freed.

Israa Zourob was supposedly haunted by a djinn

Christianity hardly has a lock on exorcisms. The idea that humans can be infested by evil spirits that need to be driven from their bodies is an ancient one shared across cultures and religions. Jewish folklore speaks of the dybbuk, while members of Muslim communities might worry about djinn (otherwise known as legendary genies) sneaking their way into someone. To that end, the belief in demonic figures and the need to kick them out of a person can even sometimes unite typically divided Christian and Muslim communities. Sadly, there was no such togetherness for the unfortunate Israa Zourob.

Zourob was a Palestinian teenager who, in February 2014, died after an Islamic exorcist and her family attempted to expel a djinn from her body. As her family told Al-Monitor, she had been in ill health for many weeks. When doctors had difficulty pinning down the problem, the Zourobs turned to a spiritual solution and took her to an Islam-focused clinic in Gaza City. There, exorcist Abu Khalil al-Zamili forced Zourob to drink salt water, though the young woman resisted. She then collapsed and died, though it's unclear if she was ultimately the victim of salt toxicity, drowning, already poor health, or some combination of the above.

Kristy Bamu died after an impromptu exorcism

The dark combination of murder and demonic possession makes for a truly awful time, and this particular combination of the two also happens to be a frightening holiday murder. On Christmas Day 2010, 15-year-old Kristy Bamu drowned at the London apartment of his sister, Magalie Bamu, and her partner, Eric Bikubi. Kristy and his four siblings were visiting from Paris when Bikubi began to accuse them of practicing witchcraft. He proceeded to physically attack the Bamu siblings and even attempted to force them to jump from a window and fly. Kristy and his siblings were also subjected to forced fasting over three days. Bikubi then forced Kristy into the bathtub where the young man drowned in a ritual meant to exorcise the evil from his battered body.

Magalie Bamu reportedly joined in the assault and told her siblings that they deserved the violent treatment. She later told the courts that she was forced to beat Kristy and her other siblings by a violent and unstable Bikubi. While witchcraft is part of the folk belief of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Bamus and Bikubi were from, Bikubi's defense team claimed that the real culprit was a brain injury he had sustained years before.

Both Magalie Bamu and Bikubi were found guilty of murder and sentenced to decades-long prison terms by a British court in 2012. Bikubi was handed a sentence of 30 years while Magalie Bamu received a 25-year sentence.

Michael Taylor may have been driven to murder by his exorcism

In 1974, Yorkshire man Michael Taylor was in a difficult situation. His wife, Christine, had grown suspicious of Taylor's participation in the local Christian Fellowship Group; in particular, she was less than keen on the relationship between her husband and the group's lay leader, Marie Robinson. That tension seemingly broke out when Taylor got into a violent screaming match with Robinson. "I felt evil within me," he later claimed of the incident. "I fought it — but it overcame me" (via "Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media").

Though they made up, Taylor continued to act strangely. It wasn't that he was speaking in tongues — that was actually encouraged — but Taylor's growing instability so alarmed others that he was subjected to an exorcism, which the group termed a "deliverance." The all-night session conducted by a group of Anglican ministers seemingly worked, but they allowed Taylor to go home despite believing that at least three violent demons remained within him.

Upon returning home, Taylor brutally murdered his wife, then took to the streets unclothed and bloody. A psychiatrist who testified at Taylor's trial argued that the exorcism exacerbated his wavering mental health, and the man was sent to the tightly controlled Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. In response to the Taylor case and growing interest in exorcism, the Church of England established a more formalized Deliverance Ministry that now requires an investigation and psychiatric evaluation before an official exorcism takes place.

Joan Vollmer died after a tortuous four-day exorcism

Starting in 1992 in the rural Australian town of Antwerp, 49-year-old Joan Vollmer began to act strangely, uttering obscenities and flailing about. Her pig farmer husband, Ralph, eventually claimed that she occasionally turned into a swine or dog, at least spiritually speaking. As he later told the Associated Press (via Deseret News), Joan had taken part in unspecified occult activities since a very young age, perhaps opening herself up to a dangerous possession decades later. To Ralph's mind, Joan desperately needed an exorcism.

First, Ralph tried to do the rite on his own, locking her in their basement and then tying her to their bed. Then he called on neighbor Leanne Reichenbach, who telephoned religious figure Leah Clugston for guidance. On Clugston's advice, they tied Vollmer to a chair and held a four-day prayer session meant to exorcise an estimated 10 demons. Other religious community members joined in, forcing Joan to stay awake, denying her food and drink, destroying her belongings, and brutally beating her. During the final exorcism, in which the group crushed her chest and throat, the severely weakened Vollmer suffered a fatal heart attack.

The group held out hope that she would resurrect, praying for two days. When another minister was finally called, he alerted a doctor, who then contacted authorities. Ralph received a conviction of false imprisonment and reckless injury but was given a suspended sentence and served no prison time. Other participants received mere months in prison.

Bridget Cleary was killed by her husband

Though Bridget Cleary said she just had a cold, her husband, Michael, believed she was a fairy changeling, an imposter who needed to be exorcized for the real Bridget to return. Perhaps things were heightened because they lived in 1895 Ballyvadlea, Ireland, a time and place where the folklore of fairies was often a serious matter. And there were a few odd details — Bridget was educated and independent, and she had walked near a so-called fairy ring while making a delivery.

Then, Bridget showed symptoms of a cold. A local doctor treated her, but Michael became increasingly suspicious. As he later claimed, the Bridget in front of him was "too fine to be my wife. She was two inches taller than my wife" (via Folklore). Some of his associates helped restrain Bridget and make her drink an herbal mixture. After repeated struggle and questioning, he seemed satisfied, but the process resumed again the next morning. Eventually, he covered her in lamp oil and set her dress on fire, killing Bridget. The group hastily buried her, but Bridget's remains were uncovered days later.

Michael still reportedly believed that he had killed an imposter and waited to collect his real wife. No one seemingly gave him a formal mental health evaluation before or during the subsequent trial. Or did jealous members of their community egg him on? Whatever happened, Michael was convicted of manslaughter and served 15 years in prison before immigrating to Quebec.

A religious group in Panama has been linked to a deadly mass exorcism

In January 2020, three people arrived at a Panamanian hospital claiming that a religious group, the New Light of God, had taken over their rural town of Alto Terrón and was brutally attacking local Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous people. When authorities made their way back to the village, they found a series of disturbing scenes. In one structure, which had been put into use as a church, they found the remains of a sacrificed goat, along with bladed weapons and a naked woman. They also uncovered a mass grave that held the remains of seven people, including the pregnant Bellin Flores and her five children. The group was headed by her father, Mario Plátano González.

These people were victims of an exorcism, kicked off when New Light of God member Rafael Baloyes purportedly received a divine message: Cleanse the community of evil. If anyone resisted, they had to die. The message's effects were difficult to deny. Many members of the village were held against their will by sect members, who beat victims, sometimes with Bibles, and struck some with machetes. 

"They came for my family armed with wire and machetes and they rounded them up like chickens," Flores' husband, Josué González, told The Guardian. Besides the deaths, 14 more victims were tortured, with some having to be airlifted from the remote area for medical treatment. Ten people were arrested in the aftermath.

Maricica Irina Cornici died in an exorcism gone wrong

The 2005 exorcism of Maricica Irina Cornici may have seemed fairly secure at first. Cornici was an Orthodox nun whose exorcism was held in a Romanian convent and overseen by her fellow nuns and a priest, Daniel Petre Corogeanu. Yet Cornici was in treatment for schizophrenia, a mental disorder that can dramatically affect a person's perception of reality and may include hallucinations, delusions, and odd behavior among its symptoms. After a stint in a psychiatric hospital, doctors noted that the voice of the devil Cornici heard speaking to her could easily be a symptom of her disorder. Yet she was released for what was supposed to be a 10-day visit to the local Holy Trinity convent.

There, Corogeanu was the convent's attending priest and would be Cornici's attempted exorcist. In the rite, Corogeanu and four nuns tied her to a cross and failed to give her food and water. Cornici, who was sometimes also gagged with a towel, eventually died of suffocation and dehydration. Corogeanu told authorities that Cornici would rarely drink water and was so violent that she had to be restrained. He later claimed that paramedics had accidentally given Cornici a fatal dose of adrenaline. He and the four nuns were charged with aggravated murder anyway. In 2007, a court found them guilty and sentenced the nuns to prison terms from five to eight years, while Corogeanu received a 14-year sentence. He was released on parole in 2011.

Vilma Trujillo died in remote Nicaragua

Vilma Trujillo was sick — that much was obvious. The 25-year-old Nicaraguan woman had been suffering from hallucinations and her family members wanted to help. Yet getting mental health treatment in their rural, impoverished community would take almost impossible effort. But Trujillo's evangelical church, Celestial Vision, and its preacher, Juan Rocha, might work. Trujillo consented to go to their church on February 15, 2017 — at least at first. Eventually, she started to resist, at one point wielding a machete in an escape attempt.

By the sixth day of her confinement, a church member claimed to have received a message from God: Demons could be exorcized via flames. So Rocha and about 12 congregants tied Trujillo to a tree and built a fire next to her. It's unclear what happened next, but Trujillo was soon surrounded by flames. Despite the woman's screams, church members said Trujillo would be fine, with God's help. Eventually, however, one told Trujillo's teenage sister — who witnessed the whole thing — to get help.

Trujillo's father was fetched and found his daughter with burns over most of her body. Despite an hours-long trek through the jungle and an airlift to the capital, Trujillo died. Five participants, including Rocha, were put on trial. In May 2017, they were sentenced to 30- to 36-year prison terms. The case remains the source of high tension, with some alleging that Trujillo was killed in part because she was an unmarried woman who had children with multiple partners.

Arely Naomi Proctor was killed in a family-led exorcism

The sad truth is that children are common victims of exorcisms gone wrong. Though beliefs vary from church to church and between individuals, common (and developmentally appropriate) misbehavior amongst young children, like striking others or defying authority, may be interpreted as evidence of a demonic spirit that's taken over. That seems to have been the case in the death of 3-year-old Arely Naomi Proctor, who died of asphyxiation during a September 2021 exorcism at her family's small Pentecostal church in San Jose, California.

"If you read the Bible, you'll see that Jesus casts away demons and made sick people healthy again," Rene Huezo (also known as Rene Trigueros Hernandez), pastor of the church and Proctor's grandfather, told The Mercury News in May 2022. "The preacher is like an instrument of God; what we do is what God says." Yet the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner deemed the young girl's death a homicide, alleging that her mother, Claudia Hernandez-Santos, denied food to the girl, attempted to make her vomit, repeatedly injured the young girl, and put pressure on her neck during the exorcism. Court documents obtained by KRON4 indicate that the rite lasted a tortuous 12 hours. Hernandez also reportedly waited over an hour to call 911 after it was clear that her daughter had died.

In May 2022, Hernandez, Huezo (pictured), and the girl's uncle, Rene Aaron Hernandez-Santos, were all arrested and charged with child abuse leading to Proctor's death.

If you or anyone you know needs help with mental health, may be the victim of child abuse, or is dealing with spiritual abuse, contact the relevant resources below: