Standing in the backyard of a nice bungalow in Van Nuys, I’m chatting with Rachel Stavis, published horror novelist, the woman who created "Lara Croft – Tomb Raider’s" backstory, and professional exorcist.
She’s laying out the ground rules for the procedure to come.
“No shoes , no metal at all so no jewelry," she says. "And electronics are at your discretion. We’ve had a few break.”
Rachel leads me into the guest-house, designed, she says, to create a “one-way vortex” so the demons she removes from people can go and never come back. And then she uses a word that makes me think she can also read my mind.
"As crazy as it sounds," she warns, "Everything you hear today is gonna sound insane.”
Maybe I should put this out there right now, I’m a rationalist. I honestly don’t believe any of this is real – which is why it was so nice of Rachel to let me sit in on an exorcism anyway.
“I don’t feel like my job is to prove it to anyone," she says. "[I] feel like people come to this from a skeptical point of view - not just about this but about life, sometimes, because they're afraid.”
Rachel says she could always see demons and entities, even as a child.
“I never meant it to be a business," she says. "I’ve been a writer most of my life and I do pretty well. I think it just sort of happened because once I could do it, people started coming, and people shared with other people. It’s actually so many people now I have waiting lists.”
The guest house is lit with five hanging lanterns and decorated with a variety of religious iconography, which Rachel says is really just to put clients at ease.
“I’ve never seen the devil," she tells me. "I don’t think Christ compels demons out of the body because some demons probably aren’t Christian."
The client this afternoon is actress Kristina Klebe. You may know her from the 2007 remake of Halloween. A victim of evil forces in that film, today Klebe is trying to reverse that trend in her own life.
Klebe is told to lay down on a covered mattress and close her eyes. There’s an incantation Rachel gives to summon various masters, teachers, and spirit guides to help her.
“I ask you to protect the body," she says, "but not the entities that do not belong.”
Herbs are lit on fire, giving the air an oily, gift shop kind-of feel. Kneeling beside her client, Rachel uses her hands to — as she describes it — pull entities out of Klebe’s body, almost like weeding a garden. There are also moments when she inhales the presence and blows it away.
As the exorcism continues, Klebe’s breathing becomes more intense. It’s clear she is going through some kind of emotional process. Her hands clench and unclench as she starts to cry.
Intense as it is, there’s no Hollywood stuff happening, no one throws up, although Rachel says that has happened in the past. The lights don’t flicker, nothing falls off the walls, although when the wind gently blew the door shut earlier, Rachel kind-of claimed that as one for her side.
At one point, an ornate dagger is carefully pressed to Klebe’s feet then used to cut ethereal ties over the body. A Tibetan gong signals the end.
The whole ceremony takes about an hour, and I’m struck by how intimate it is. It was like being a fly on the wall for a deeply, deeply personal therapy session – much of which I’ve chosen to leave out.
The end result, according to Klebe, is great.
“I bet you twenty years of therapy wouldn't have release that much abandonment, fear, anger," she said. "The closure felt immediate, it felt like a weight on my back was gone.”
All the major religious groups have their own forms of exorcism. Although the Catholic Church recently updated their rules for the procedure. They now take great pains to rule out mental illness in people who say they are possessed.
James Healy is a clinical psychologist who directs a community health center. In an earlier interview, he told me blaming patients' problems on possession could serve to reinforce a person’s delusions. But under the right circumstances, if the patient thinks it works, it just might.
“The placebo effect is another way of saying something is going on in the way people are thinking about their behavior, their problem," Healy said. "That's great if you can find a way to get people to think differently about their problems [...] you’re doing therapy at that point. For me, yes, if they're suffering less, then I’m pretty happy with whatever gets them there.”
“I guess you could look at it that way," Rachel says when I put that suggestion to her. "But whether you believe in it or not, it's helping people. To me, from what I've seen, I know it’s not the placebo effect. But for someone who can't see what I see, that's a good perspective."
The cost for a session runs around $150. And no, she doesn’t list her job as “exorcist” on her tax returns.
“There was a time when this was really embarrassing for me," Rachel says, "but the reality is, one day I decided this is who I am, and if people can’t handle that, it's fine."