A couple of nights ago, BBC3 (the network’s “youth channel”) broadcast Dan Murdoch‘s observational documentary Teen Exorcists, the latest example of media fascination with Brynne Larson and her two friends Tess and Savannah Scherkenback. The trio come across as personable, good humoured, and bright – yet they are committed to the beliefs and worldview expounded by Brynne’s father Bob Larson, a man who has been a familiar figure in US media for years with extravagant tales of Satanic cults and of exorcising thousands of people who he says have been spiritually oppressed by demonic powers.
The programme showed us the Larsons’ (rather plush) home in Scottsdale, and the three young women in action at services in Pasadena and at a New Generation church in Pershotravensk, Ukraine, but for the most part the documentary is about a mission trip to London. Highlights include a conversation with a bemused elderly church guide at Waltham Abbey; a goth teenager being cajoled into sheepishly smashing up his self-made ouija board; and two case studies. The first of these was a troubled woman who believed that she had come under a black magic curse after eating a pie; she went away unsatisfied after Bob failed to induce any of the screams and convulsions that are associated with his exorcisms, and declined to pay the suggested £200 donation. The second woman, a former Anglican chaplain, kept closer to the script by manifesting a demon that claims to have been attached to her for seventeen generations due to withcraft.
The BBC Magazine has an in-depth summary here, and several newspapers carried articles about the show ahead of the broadcast; the girls’ view that spells featured in the Harry Potter stories are real and Satanic provided the lead-in for a piece by Rebecca Seales in the Daily Mail, while the Express came up with the prurient “The Sexorcists: These girls have been busy casting out STDs (Sexually Transmitted Demons)” as the headline for an article by Jon Coates. The Daily Mirror‘s Francesca Cookney, meanwhile, produced a spin-off article about a London church that also appears in the programme (although not affiliated with Larson’s Spiritual Freedom church grouping). Larson and the trio’s exploits in Ukraine were covered by Vice in July.
Bob Larson, as ever, came across as a showman who pays close attention to branding; his church’s slogan is “DWJD” – “Do What Jesus Did”, referring to the role of Jesus as exorcist in the Bible – and he wields a distinctive ornamental cross. This cross, along with his clerical garb and dog collar, appear to be a pastiche of Roman Catholicism, but it all plays into the popular image of what an exorcist should look like. Larson’s background is actually in neo-Pentecostalism: according to a footnote in Mike Hertenstein and Jon Trott’s Selling Satan (1), back in the 1960s he ran an “Action Center” for Morris Cerullo.
In 1971, according to Hertenstein and Trott, Cerullo created an “anti-occult ministry” with Mike Warnke and David Balsiger (2); Balsiger ghosted Warnke’s bogus Satan Seller ex-Satanist memoir, and Larson was among those who came to Warnke’s defence when the book was comprehensively debunked (3). Larson himself wrote a novel, Dead Air, which purported to be based on true events involving Satanism, although the publisher (Thomas Nelson) removed this claim when asked to provide evidence. The novel was somewhat odd Christian reading, containing a grotesque and pornographic description of a Satanic ceremony involving a naked girl being pulled through the rear end of a horse (4); this was all back in the heyday of “Satanic panic” – as fears about Satanic cults waned due to lack of evidence, exploded memoirs, and tragedies caused by false accusations, charismatic and neo-Pentecostal Christians have instead put a greater stress on “spiritual warfare” against demons.
These days, Larson does not appear to have links with wider neo-Pentecostal organisations or movements, such as C. Peter Wagner‘s “New Apostolic Reformation” – as the leader of his own church franchise, presumably he prefers to be the biggest fish in his own pond, although he clearly benefits from being part of a general milieu. The link to New Generation is interesting; as well as his visit to Ukraine, the BBC documentary briefly features visitors had flown in to London from Latvia to see him, and I suspect these are likely to be New Generation members too. The church group – which is known for its aggressive anti-gay view – has its base in Latvia, and it has featured on this blog previously.
Writing on Twitter, Larson claims that the BBC programme is a “Huge witness for The Lord”.
One unexpected oddity in the programme was that Larson has managed to get himself photographed standing alongside various world political figures, and the results are displayed in his office: the line-up includes George HW Bush, Colin Powell, Gerald Ford, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher… and John Major:
In the case of Thatcher, Larson explained to Murdoch that a friend had arranged a “private dinner”.
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