The Rev. Bob Larson sees his new show as a chance to educate viewers about the reality of demonic possession and deliverance. 'The Real Exorcist' premieres Thursday.
The Rev. Bob Larson has been circling the globe for decades, battling Satan and his minions with a Bible and a cross.
Now you can watch him cast out demons from the comfort of your couch.
Mr. Larson, who was in Toledo earlier this month to lead one of his Spiritual Freedom Seminars, is joining the ranks of such luminaries as Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, and Jessica Simpson as the star of his own reality TV show.
The Real Exorcist premieres in a four-hour marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel on Thursday night - not coincidentally, it's Halloween eve.
Mr. Larson admits it's an unusual combination of spirituality and entertainment, saying he can envision fans "throwing house parties with pizza and popcorn" while they watch him command demons to depart from tormented souls.
But he also sees it as an opportunity to show the world that evil spirits and demonic possession are real, and that people who are suffering can get help, he said in an interview with The Blade.
"I'm going to be in the bars and hotel rooms and bedrooms of America, where I could never get otherwise, with the people who need it the most. [People] who are tormented and who are afraid to talk about it," he said. "Who do you tell about these strange things that are happening?"
By watching Mr. Larson cast out evil spirits on The Real Exorcist and by witnessing the victims' lives being changed, people who think they have demon problems will feel as though they've been "given permission" to talk about their fears and seek help, he said.
"They don't have to go to church to get the help. Let's face it, a lot of people just don't like the church. They don't like religious institutions. So I'm able to connect directly with them and help them," Mr. Larson said during a lunchtime interview at a Bob Evans restaurant in south Toledo.
Wearing a sharp gray suit, with a full beard and swept-back red hair, Mr. Larson speaks matter-of-factly about his 25 years of experience delivering people from demons.
The 63-year-old minister, sipping a can of Red Bull energy drink, said he has performed well more than 6,000 exorcisms in 90 nations, and reports having been kicked, choked, and spat upon by people whose demons resisted the prayers of deliverance.
He has written more than 30 books and for 20 years hosted a nationally broadcast radio program, Talk Back with Bob Larson.
Mr. Larson's flair for the dramatic, his boldness, and his independence have spawned a legion of critics. Some say he may be genuine but his style is "over the top," while some skeptics claim he's made a lucrative career out of preying on vulnerable people and superstitions.
The Rev. George Barrett, pastor of Foundation Stone Church in Northwood, said he has "no doubt" that demon possession and deliverance are real, but he questions Mr. Larson's accountability.
"I think he's an extremist. Deliverance is certainly a valid ministry, there's no doubt about it. But I don't know if Bob Larson is under authority to any other pastors or ministries."
Mr. Barrett said he fears that people who watch The Real Exorcist may start looking for demons in washing machines and "anything else that is not functioning right." And he warned that confronting evil spirits "is not for the faint of heart." People who lack proper training could get hurt, he said.
The Rev. Roger Miller, pastor of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Maumee, said the Bible is clear about the existence of evil spirits and deliverance, but he doesn't think casting out devils is the kind of spiritual activity that should be televised.
"I just wouldn't see it as a show. I would see it as personal counseling and prayer time," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Larson is aware that his reality TV show is edgy, but he said he just went about his business with a film crew on site and let the producers worry about the entertainment angle.
He wanted nothing to do with the show's editorial content or decision-making, leaving that all up to the production company, Pilgrim Films, which also does Dirty Jobs, Really Big Things, and American Chopper.
"My job is to do the exorcism - find the demon and get it out. Their job was to make it look good for TV," he said.
Mr. Larson was not opposed to performing exorcisms in visually interesting places, including a haunted house in Savannah, Ga., a snow-covered rural cemetery in Pennsylvania, and the courtyard of a 1,000-year-old British abbey. A crew of 10 followed Mr. Larson around for five months, filming five days a week in 16 cities in the United States and England.
"It was an exhausting schedule," he said.
The demon-possessed subjects on The Real Exorcist were chosen from among hundreds of responses to an online posting at boblarson.org.
"We put a notice on our Web site basically saying, 'Do you think you have a demon? Would you be willing to undergo an exorcism with Bob Larson and allow it to be filmed?' " Mr. Larson said.
A casting department sorted through the applicants, "separating the cranks and the mental illness cases from people who sounded legitimate," he said.
Mr. Larson is creating a Web site, demontest.com, that has 21 questions for people to take and assess whether they have a low, moderate, or high probability of demon possession. Many troubled souls who come to him for deliverance are not possessed but have mental illnesses, he said.
Kenneth Pargament, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University and author of Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy, said belief in the devil is "quite normative in the United States."
But he said little academic research has been done on demonic possession and exorcism.
"When someone believes they are taken over by the devil, it is usually the sign of pretty serious trouble," Mr. Pargament said. "The question is how do you deal with it. The jury is out on effects of exorcism on people."
It's "a tricky area," he said, "and there's a bias against exorcism among health professionals."
The Real Exorcist's producers were looking for "not just a demon but a story, and a variety of stories cutting across all ethnic and social and theological barriers," Mr. Larson said.
The film crew arrived a day before Mr. Larson, filmed the person at home and work and with family and friends, to get the "back story," he said.
"It shows that this is a real person. This is not a hoax. This is not a set-up," Mr. Larson said, adding that he never met any of the people prior to the filming.
After arriving in the city, Mr. Larson spent a few days getting to know the person and to figure out why they have problems with demons. The episodes build up to the final shooting of the exorcism, he said, and the crew went back the next day to debrief the person.
"Television likes to tell a story, and so they have a story. Here's this person as they are now, tormented and weeping in front of the camera, 'Will somebody help me?'
"In rides the exorcist, guns blazing, and here's the happy face afterward," he said.
Four hour-long episodes of The Real Exorcist will be broadcast from 7 to 11 p.m. Thursday on the Sci-Fi Channel. The channel is owned by NBC Universal and is ranked No. 5 among cable entertainment networks for viewers 25-54, according to publicist Maureen Granados.
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