Every career choice comes with physical risks, some more than others.
Police place themselves in harm’s way day in and day out in order to protect and serve. Anyone who’s ever worked in an industrial setting can tell at least one traumatic story involving machinery. Hell, I’ve seen Starbucks employees sent to the hospital for severe coffee burns. We weigh these risks before we take on a job, calculating our chance for injury, deciding if the risk is worth the pay, and measuring how great the insurance is. Most of the time, with a level head and a watchful eye, we can go our entire lives without a severe workplace injury, and certainly, there are always those jobs in which the risk isn’t much more than a caffeine headache and carpal tunnel syndrome.
But what about those few people who make it a career to deliver the mortal souls of sinners from the grip of evil? What of exorcists, demonologists, and ghost hunters with a flair for the dramatic and a reality show audience? Is there a risk in placing yourself between a negative spirit and it’s prey? Surely the religious will believe that it’s your own soul at stake, but do the scars of spiritual warfare have a physical manifestation? What I’m asking essentially amounts to one question:
Can the pursuit of evil spirits affect your heath?
Over the past few years, I’ve seen many of these spiritual warriors fall ill, and regardless of the diagnosis, from old age to cancer to unhealthy lifestyles, the whispers persist that the evil spirits which they’d spent their lives chasing had finally decided to fight back. It’s because of these hushed conversations, and my own morbid curiosity, that I felt this topic deserved a fair shake; not just from a religious standpoint, but also through medical, metaphysical, and practical investigation into the possible dangers of chasing down negative entities, no matter what your personal beliefs entail.
The belief in evil spirits has existed almost as long as we have, spanning thousands of years and countless religions. While individual beliefs may vary from culture to culture, they generally have one thing in common: if there exists an evil spirit, there exists a way to combat it. Often times, the battle is left between your prayers and a higher power, but for the vast majority of belief systems, there are designated spiritual protectors tasked with the saving of souls; pastors, priests, monks, shaman, witch doctors, each of them with their own rules of engagement. More recently, many of these battles are being taken up not by holy men, but by paranormal investigators looking for a glimpse through the ether, or at least a good chapter in their next self-published book.
No matter the faith, it takes a certain kind of person to intentionally, and often exclusively, pick fights with evil spirits. Many believe they are chosen by a higher power for this purpose, while others simply do it for a thrill. Some feel a moral and spiritual obligation to cast demons from their fellow man. Others are content to do it for ratings. Some are thrust into this world, yet others choose to dive. Bravado or ego, concern or cash – it takes a certain kind of person.
In order to establish the effect that negative entities may or may not have on your health, we must first look at the people who could have had their health affected; individuals who in one way or another, have made it their life’s work to chase down, or run from, negative entities. The following list is in no way complete, it is merely a shortlist of notable personalities who claim to have been affected by the grip of the damned.
This list comprises only a small cross section of a wide group of individuals who believe they have affected by intervening in the agendas of evil spirits. I’d wager that those of you who run in ghost hunting circles could name a few people you know personally who have told stories of being scratched, pushed, pulled, or made ill by unseen forces. In fact, one need only take a stroll down an aisle of board games to see the effect that widespread belief in demonic influence has had on society. Just several days ago, I was publicly accosted by a woman who insisted that my purchase of a vintage Ouija board would be my downfall. While my own beliefs don’t match up to hers, I couldn’t fault the woman for trying to save my soul. After all, she very clearly believed that I was purchasing a cardboard portal to hell.
But what if she was right? What if the forces of evil are all around us, hellbent on wreaking havoc on the human race and punishing with crippling illnesses those who would dare mock them? Could there be any truth to demonic afflictions or could these illnesses be caused by something equally as strange?
From a purely religious perspective, there’s not much point in trying to dispute the idea that evil spirits and their intentions are very clearly laid out in the Judeo-Christian faiths. Biblical stories of demonic influence almost always begin with descriptions of physical ailments attributed to spiritual oppression. Upon having their demons cast out, the afflicted are suddenly free from their sicknesses; the blind can see, the crippled can walk, and the lepers are healed. For those who believe that evil spirits are the literal soldiers of Satan, for people like Malachi Martin, Ed Warren, or Ryan Buell, the dangers of dealing with these forces are so crystal clear that they need no further explanation. After all, the rite of exorcism has not fundamentally changed in hundreds of years, so why question the biblical explanation that malevolent forces can, and do, cause sickness? Father Martin would often talk about how with each deliverance performed, a bit of that priest’s life was lost. The priest’s gradual decay was considered a kind of sacrifice in the service of God. To the devoutly religious, the price of spiritual warfare is not even a question.
But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who don’t believe that negative entities are a product of some greater evil? What about those of us who just plain don’t believe in demons, evil spirits, or, for that matter, don’t believe in run of the mill spirits to begin with? Are we supposed to accept that these individuals have actually suffered for their work? Well, if recent medical studies are to be believed, they very well may have.
In a 2009 report presented in New Scientist Magazine, researchers claimed that results of a series of global studies indicated that negative thoughts can have a measurable and verifiable effect on one’s health. These studies ranged from subjects suffering medication side effects when given only sham treatments, to finding out that the more someone believes that they won’t make it through surgery, the more likely they are to die on the operating table.
In an interview with The Daily Mail, Dr. Clifton Meador, of Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, said fear can and does have a very real effect on the body.
“Bad news promotes bad physiology. I think that you can persuade people that they’re going to die and have it happen. I don’t think there is anything mystical about it. We’re uncomfortable with the idea that words or symbolic actions can cause death because it changes our biomolecular model of the world.”
In an even more recent example of how negativity can influence the body, a brain imaging study conducted last year at Oxford University showed that when a patient expects to receive poor treatment, that person’s belief alone can actually override the effects of potent pain relieving drugs. In other words, those more prone to negative thoughts are more likely to experience negative effects not only mentally, but physically to boot. This phenomena has become known as the nocebo effect, the lesser known opposite of the generally favorable placebo effect.
As a final, extreme example of the nocebo effect, consider the man in the 1970’s who was diagnosed with liver cancer and given just a few months to live. Although the man died within the determined timeframe, the doctors who performed the autopsy found only a small, non-threatening tumor. Even though his diagnosis was incorrect, the man so strongly believed that he was marked for death that his belief killed him.
You might be asking yourself what any of these studies have to do with being attacked by demons, but consider for a moment how fervently these spiritual warriors believe in what they claim to be fighting against. If the power of belief is enough to render robust opiates ineffective, then it doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to see that those who place themselves in the mindset of a spiritual, emotional, and often physical battle with the forces of evil might suffer at least some of the wear and tear they anticipate. Much like the man with the misdiagnosed cancer, the scars of spiritual warfare can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, even if there were never any demons to begin with.
I don’t mean to say that someone like Ed Warren never came face to face with dark forces that severely impacted his life. I also don’t mean to say with any amount of certainty that it was his unwavering belief in these forces that killed him. I never had the opportunity to know Ed while he was alive, so for me to make any kind of judgement on how or why he fell ill would be foolish. Most of these theories are nothing but speculation, rumination, and conversation. I mean only to look at the evidence presented, and ask whether or not dealing with the demonic can, ultimately, kill you.
But while I can’t give you a definitive answer regarding the existence of the demonic or deaths by negativity, what I can give you is yet a third possible theory on the cause of the strange (or not so strange) sicknesses that have befallen so many exorcists, demonologists, and ghost hunters; a theory that lends itself to the practicality that only someone as jaded to the paranormal community as I could reach:
The hours are complete shit.
For those of you who aren’t terribly familiar with how the paranormal circuit works, let me drop some knowledge on you. Chasing monsters, as a general rule, is not the cash cow you might think it is. Unless you’re part of long running television show like Ghost Hunters, you are seriously hustling to make a buck off your paranormal prowess. A moderately successful paranormal celebrity is, at any given time, traveling across the county to appear at any number of paranormal conventions, organizing paranormal tours of famous landmarks, writing a book (or three if you’re Nick Redfern or Rosemary Ellen Guilley), “filming a pilot”, recording a podcast, building a ridiculous ghost detection tool, and occasionally cheating on their husband with Zak Bagans. They do all of these things because they have chosen to pursue the paranormal as a source of monetary compensation. Remember that the next time you pay $25 for an autographed photo that they printed for 15 cents at the Kinkos around the corner. This is their job, and selling their stories to you, convincing you that they are more special than you are, is how they make their money. Like any good hustler, they work all the angles for insane hours, often times only pulling in a few hundred bucks a week. Why? Because they don’t want to work a normal job.
I’ve known, and do know, many people who have attempted to make this scene their primary source of income. As you can probably imagine, even just a year of living on the road, ghost hunting from 12-4AM with a 10AM hotel checkout time, eating at any greasy diner that’s convenient, deriving nutrients from Red Bull and coffee, it takes a toll on your body. Setting aside all the other bad habits that come with life on the road, I would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of these people who don’t smoke at least a pack of cigarettes the day. The life of a hustler, paranormal or not, is not a healthy lifestyle by any means. Does this apply to to everyone on the list? Certainly not, but I can clearly recall sitting right next to Lou Gentile as he chased a dripping cheeseburger with multiple cigarettes at one in the morning.
With a long enough timeframe, lack of sleep, unhealthy food, and carcinogenic vices are a surefire recipe for disaster.
The fact of the matter is that anyone looking to make a connection will find a way to do it. As humans, we’re hardwired to make the pieces click together, even if that means we need to mentally shave a few edges off. Here’s an interesting coincidence about our list of demon hunters: three of the six people mentioned are connected to the Warren’s investigations. Hell, a fourth actually is a Warren. Both Buell and Gentile claimed to have been mentored by Ed and Lorraine, while George Lutz worked with them on the Amityville case. One could make the assertion that there is curse affecting the Warrens and those who associated with them (in which case, keep an eye on Haunted Collector‘s John Zaffis, the Warrens’ nephew). Additionally, the more religious among us could imply that these sicknesses are a judgement from God. How? By pointing to biblical passages condemning the communing with spirits and the consultation of psychics. The number of connections we could make are only limited to the biases of the people making them. Hell, I’m sure that if I were to pose the question of demons to Fox News, they’d find a way to blame Obama.
But while our brains scurry to connect the dots, we must remember that the unfortunate reality of our world is that sometimes shit happens for no good reason. There isn’t always a readily apparent cause to the effect, and for some, there never will be. While it’s no secret that I’ve never been Ryan Buell’s biggest fan, the news of his aggressive cancer diagnosis shocked and depressed me. Regardless of how I feel about his career, Ryan is a young, 30 year old guy with a form of cancer that is so aggressive that over half of those diagnosed die within five months. That’s incredibly sad, and a terribly unfair situation for someone his age to be in. In fact, it’s unfair for someone of any age.
In 2007, approximately 10,400 children under the age of 15 were diagnosed with some form of cancer. These children are so young that they haven’t possibly had the opportunity to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, much less stir the anger of an ageless spirit of evil. Most 15 year old’s negative thoughts involve homework, not a life or death battle with darkness. These kids don’t deserve the trials they will go on to face, and they most certainly didn’t “have it coming”. Sometimes these things just happen.
In the cases of Ed Warren and Malachi Martin, one wouldn’t even have to argue very hard to prove that their age was a clear factor in their passing. Malachi was 78 and Ed was 79, both of them already beyond the average life expectancy for a man living in the United States (75.6, if you were wondering). Despite his tales of demon-induced hospitalization, Tom Robertson is a man in his mid seventies. People grow old, our bodies deteriorate, and no matter how many things you add or replace, eventually, we slow down, we fall, and we die.
George Lutz was only 59, but at the time of his death, he was still in the midst of a stressful legal battle with a powerful movie studio. An experience like that is rough even for someone in peak physical condition. Couple that with the fact that his case was a very personal one, one in which he was defending his name and legacy, and it’s easy to see how that situation could have been just too much for a man approaching his 60’s to handle. His official cause of death is listed as “heart disease”, a condition with clear medical links to stress.
These explanations may not be as exotic, terrifying, or heroic as a death in service to a higher power, but for those looking for a valid alternative to a supernatural explanation, they’re worth discussing. Even someone who doesn’t believe in demons could easily make an argument that it was, ultimately, Amityville that killed George Lutz.
As the number of self-styled demonologists, ghost hunters, and even exorcists continues to grow, as more people choose to earn a few bucks on the side by hustling the paranormal circuit, and most importantly, as the belief in spirits of any kind continues to rise, the conversation about malevolent forces, demons, or whatever you want to call them, is more relevant than ever. Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, a “spiritual warrior” or a provocateur, a ghost hunter or a grifter, the answer to our question is probably the same:
Can dealing with the demonic kill you? Sure.
But is it the battle with the dark forces of a deeper evil that will make you sick? Or is it the bubble of negativity you must surround yourself with to even get into that kind of head space? Is it the work of Satanic forces when your heart gives out? Or is the result of long hours, late night bacon cheeseburgers, and two packs a day? When you’re diagnosed with cancer, are you going to blame it on your heroic intervention between demons and their prey, or bad genes and shitty luck?
No matter what you choose to believe, just remember – every job has risks; it’s up to you to decide if those risks are worth the paycheck.
So what do you think? Is the demonic threat real? Or are people literally scaring themselves sick? Do you know a paranormal investigator who claims to have been affected by screwing around with demons? Have you been affected yourself? Is there an Amityville/Warrens/Paranormal State curse that we don’t know about? We want to hear your stories and opinions. Let’s have a conversation in the comments section.
Special thanks to Robyn Montella, Tim Weisberg, Lou Castillo, Candice Berlanga, and the fine folks at the PSICAN discussion group for the stimulating conversations that helped form this post.