Performing exorcisms and saving souls is just all part of a day’s work for American preacher Bob Larson, writes Jill Stark.
It took six grown men to hold down a snarling John Safran when he underwent an exorcism on national television. In a skirmish of flailing limbs and gnashing teeth, the sardonic broadcaster seemed to succumb to forces beyond his control. It was disturbing viewing that visibly shook him and left his petrified camera crew praying for divine intervention.
But was he really possessed by demons, or just the victim of a clever hypnotist? Safran, born Jewish and now an atheist, remains cagey about the incident, but for the man behind the exorcism, there’s no doubt this was the devil’s work.
Bob Larson cites meeting Safran as the catalyst that now brings his supernatural talents to Australia – a country he describes as “spiritually vacuous”. The Arizona preacher (and a team of eager followers he’s “rescued” through exorcisms) arrived in Melbourne this week with plans to save Australia – one soul at a time.
“Australians spend 52 times as much on sex, booze and gambling as they do on God. That’s an astounding statistic, so I say I’m in the right place at the right time,” he explains. “You have this beautiful, prosperous country with so much potential, and it’s obvious religion isn’t an important factor in people’s lives. And so I hope by the stark contrast of good versus evil, I remind people that even if they don’t know it, there’s a spiritual war going on.”
Despite the vaudevillian-style showmanship, Larson is a surprisingly affable character who seems genuine in his belief that he’s doing God’s work. Countering claims the shows in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney are money-spinning ventures in the evangelical healing tradition, Larson made the events free.
Originally priced at more than $40 a ticket, the shows were opened to the public after a “miracle” visited itself upon him just hours before flying out to our shores. It came in the form of a very large cheque from a mystery benefactor.
As for the Safran incident, he denies any smoke-and-mirrors trickery. “I suppose he’s got some doubts, but if you see the video and you look at his eyes and you see his face, that’s not John Safran looking at you – the snarl, the evil, he could never put on that.
“I really believe that John was headed in a very dangerous direction, and it was stopped. I know that the evil in him was horrible and it wanted to kill him. He was flypaper for demons and he’s due for round two and maybe three or four.
“At least the really big dangerous stuff we got rid of, which, for his sake, I’m grateful. What happened to John is very common. I’ve seen a 95-pound scrawny woman take five or six men and just pick them up like toothpicks and throw them.”
Married for 12 years with three young children, Larson has been performing exorcisms for 30 years, training thousands of followers to do the same. He hopes to train Australians to continue his work when he moves on to his next mission – saving souls in Hungary and Romania.
At his Melbourne show tonight, audience members will be invited to go on stage to undergo live exorcisms. It’s led to claims that his unique brand of healing could turn into a freak show, attracting the city’s more vulnerable souls. But Larson denies any hint of Schadenfreude.
“Anyone can mistake mental illness for possession, but when you’ve done 6000 exorcisms and rejected twice that many people, it becomes pretty clear if someone’s out of touch with reality,” he says.
“I’m sure people will see me as a gimmick, but if they show up they’ll change their minds.”
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