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Randall Sullivan’s Strange, Wild, Personal History with the Devil

Randall Sullivan’s Strange, Wild, Personal History with the Devil

In the summer of 1995, I was living in a country at war. Where I kept my billet, in the westernmost province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the worst atrocities had been committed two years before my arrival. Nevertheless, it was amid the blast craters and bullet holes of Mostar, a demolished city that now lay under a psycho-terror siege of random mortar launches and sporadic sniper shots, that I began to recognize “the problem of evil” as an obstacle to religious faith. 

The tales of horror I heard in Mostar were moral quicksand. I kept my head above the horror by floating the surface of it in a cracked shell of professionalism, refusing either to believe or disbelieve the story of those Catholic nuns who claimed to have been captured by a unit of so-called četniks, gang-raped until each was pregnant, then given a choice between abortion, suicide, and bearing a Serb bastard. For me, it was enough to dip my toes in the citywide seep of sadness that lingered after the very public deaths of a young Muslim mother and her two children, blown apart by a direct missile strike as they attempted to flee down the Neretva River in a rubber raft. I could deflect everything except the expressions of the orphans on street corners. Seven and eight years old, they stood smoking cigarettes and flipping off passersby with a stony insolence that you couldn’t have wiped off their faces with an assault rifle. Looking into their agate eyes, I knew it was too late for us all. 

Picking a path through the gigantic pile of scorched rubble that had once been Mostar’s city center, a place where two years earlier Catholic and Muslim survivors of the Serbian bombardment had fought each other with artillery at close range, I asked myself, as so many had before me, “How can a God who is all-knowing, allpowerful, and all-good abide such depravity?” And what about justice? Maybe God wasn’t who I thought he was. Maybe God wasn’t, period. 

It didn’t help my sleep that the most impressive people I met that summer made a point of telling me that the Devil, at least, was real. The first to speak these words was Mirjana Soldo, a religious visionary in Medjugorje, the Bosnian Croat “peace center” twelve miles from Mostar. There, a rapturous cult of devotion had formed around apparitions of the Virgin Mary that were already the most controversial and closely observed purported supernatural phenomena to appear on earth in at least a half century. As Mirjana urged me to recognize the Devil as an actual being who was determined to steal my soul, her pale blue eyes seemed to darken, and her expression became a discomfiting combination of pity and reproach. My sense was that she felt obliged to give me a warning she knew I wouldn’t heed. 

Rita Klaus was more successful in suspending my disbelief. A large, handsome, white-haired woman from Pittsburgh, Klaus was famous for her spontaneous healing from an advanced case of multiple sclerosis, the most celebrated and thoroughly documented of the many medical miracles associated with Medjugorje. Klaus had seemed to appear out of nowhere one afternoon in the village’s parish office. She sat down across from me, leaned over the table, laid a hand on mine, and introduced herself with these words: “Satan exists.” I felt as if I had been shot with some drug that causes a temporary paralysis. Klaus seemed to wait until the effect was complete before continuing: “The evil inside you comes from temptation. You have to make a decision, either for the good or for the bad. So the evil is inside us, as you believe, but it’s also out there, and believe me, it is very real and very pervasive.” Klaus then told me the story of a diabolic attack on her family that had begun when one of her daughters began to experiment with a Ouija board. The part that disturbed me most at the time, and that would haunt me later, involved a series of attacks on Klaus and her family by something that took the form of a large black dog with red eyes. “I don’t want to scare you, but I think you need to hear my story,” Klaus told me at one point. The emphasis she put on the word “need” troubled me. 

The person I admired more than anyone I met in Medjugorje was a Franciscan priest named Slavko Barbarić, spiritual adviser to Mirjana and the other visionaries. Shortly after my meeting with Rita Klaus, Father Slavko attempted to breach my skepticism with a phenomenological report. Slavko was, among other things, an intellectual whose multiple PhDs included one in psychology. He lowered my guard by admitting straight out his own reluctance to believe in supernatural evil, then described the series of events that had changed his mind. One experience that made a deep impression involved his participation in the exorcism of a woman who was able to distinguish consecrated hosts from those that had not been consecrated. He and the other priests participating in the exorcism each had left the room on multiple occasions, Slavko recalled, only to return a few minutes later with either a wafer that had been consecrated or one that had not yet been blessed. The woman who lay on the bed never reacted once when they came into the room with an unconsecrated host, Slavko told me, but went into paroxysms of writhing and cursing whenever a consecrated host came near her. “What in her could possibly have known the difference?” Slavko asked. In reply, I simply shook my head. 

I was to witness an exorcism myself only a few days later. I’ve attempted to deconstruct that experience many times in the years since, mainly in the hope that I would be able to put it out of my mind. Those I’ve spoken to about it always make reference to the “altered state” I was in at the time. I don’t deny this. That night and the days leading up to it were almost unbearable in their intensity. The Youth Festival Mass in which the exorcism occurred was the most fervid and enthralling religious service I’ve ever experienced. The thousand or so young adults who made their way to Medjugorje from all over the world had braved warnings from the United Nations and the European Union that the situation was especially unstable at the moment and that travel to the former Yugoslavia was “strongly discouraged.” The Croats were mobilizing for a final push against the Serbs, and the climax of the war was upon us. A sense that the armies of light were rallying against the forces of darkness imbued that evening’s mass from the moment it began. Father Slavko was as I’d never seen him before, ferocious in his ardor, swinging an enormous gilded monstrance and the consecrated host within like a holy weapon as he stormed through the crowd. Each time Slavko turned the monstrance in a new direction, repeating the words “Body of Christ,” I heard an eruption of bone-chilling noises from out of the crowd, shrieks of agony and gasps of terror, animal howls and loud, throaty curses. There were several raspy barks of “Fuck you!” The choir on the stage behind Slavko only sang louder, faces aglow with the conviction of imminent victory. As Slavko approached, his expression frightened me; the gaunt priest’s reliably warm gaze was replaced by a piercing glare. He pointed the monstrance directly at me and in a booming voice shouted, “Jesus!” It was as close as I’ve ever come to keeling over in a dead faint. The roars of rage and cries of pain seemed to be swelling around me. A young woman standing perhaps twenty feet to my left began to produce a noise unlike any I’d ever heard, a cough so dry and deep that it sounded as if she was trying to bring up a lung. It went on and on, like an echo that did not fade but rather amplified. She bent over, then shuddered uncontrollably, a white foam issuing from her mouth in a copious stream. She dropped to the ground, kicking and writhing, and began to scream obscenities. I heard “Fuck you, Jesus,” in very clear English, but also curses—or what I assumed were curses—in a variety of languages I did not recognize. The girl’s voice became impossibly deep and guttural, and the white lather continued to pour from her mouth. A crowd of people gathered around, reciting the exorcism prayer of Pope Leo XIII. At one point, the girl on the ground seemed to go still and silent, but then her screams started up again, louder than ever, gruesomely desperate. At the moment of what I could sense as a climax, she arched her back into a position that not even a world-class gymnast could have held, impossibly extended, with her weight resting entirely on her heels and the crown of her head, and let forth a hoarse, croaking expulsion of breath that must have emptied her lungs utterly. It was the smell, though, that shocked me, a ghastly stench that was like the exponential product of rotted flesh. In that moment I became utterly convinced that something was leaving her, that what I had just witnessed was not emotional or psychological or imaginary but real, whatever that meant. 

I remember very little of what happened next, just blurred images of the girl being helped to her feet and led away, of Slavko finishing the mass, of the shining faces of the choir as they sang. I have no idea how I made it back to the Pansion Maja, into my room, and out onto the tiny balcony where I awoke at dawn, sprawled on the concrete floor, shivering with cold and happy in a way that was completely unfamiliar. 

Two days later I was in Rome, on my way home. It was mid-August, and to escape the suffocating heat I sought the cooling mists of the Fountain of the Four Rivers on the Piazza Navona. I was leaning against the back of a bench when I noticed an elegantly dressed man walking through a sea of tourists, T-shirt vendors, and street performers that seemed to part before him. He wore a beautifully cut blue blazer with cream linen trousers, a bright yellow cravat, and sharp-toed loafers polished to a high gloss. “Quite the gent,” I thought, then drew a quick breath when I saw the man’s face. His aquiline features were formed into the strangest expression I’d ever seen, a sort of malevolent drollery that did not entirely mask the suffocating rage beneath it. Though all by himself, the man began to speak in a loud voice as he drew near me, in a language that was not Italian. Heart pounding, I glanced at the tourists nearby, baffled by their lack of a reaction. Not one of them seemed to have noticed this jarring oddity moving among them. It was as if, somehow, the silver-haired man and I had been isolated from the scene surrounding us. Suddenly, he let loose with a mad cackle and turned his head slightly to fix me with one eye. In that moment, I felt absolutely certain he wasn’t human. I knew it. An unearthly calm came over me almost immediately. Why I can’t say, but I reached inside my shirt to grasp the scapular medal I had taken to wearing that summer, stared back at him, and whispered, “You can’t touch me.” He responded with an obscene leer. I understood exactly what he said then: “I’ll catch you later.” 

After returning home, I spoke to no one about the . . . creature I had encountered on the Piazza Navona. In time, the indelibility of that summer began to fade. Within a couple of years, the only thing I understood better than before was how much of memory is conviction. And by then, the practical advantages all seemed to be on the side of doubt. To claim that I had encountered a diabolical entity on the Piazza Navona made me sound either crazy or foolish—even to myself. It wasn’t good for business. 

I was aided immeasurably in my will to forget by the television broadcast of a “live exorcism” on a network news magazine. The contrived staging and cornball theatrics of this TV event served only to highlight the abject need for an audience that drove not only the show’s producers but also the grandiose exorcist and his dim-witted subject. There wasn’t enough self-awareness in the thing to raise it even to the level of farce. I thought, “What if my own state of mind is the main difference between what I witnessed in Bosnia and what I’m seeing now?” Even to allow this as a possibility undermined my recollection of that night in Medjugorje. 

And because my numinous moments from the summer of 1995 were never repeated, it became easier and easier to tell myself that the extraordinary stresses and sympathies I experienced in Bosnia had induced bizarre perceptions of what were probably half-imagined shadows of a truth beyond my understanding. Or some such shit. While I didn’t really believe this new version of my story, I didn’t really believe the story I had come home with, either. It soon seemed both possible and preferable to shroud my memories in a haze of ambiguity. 

My four-year-old son chased me out of that cloud. Gabriel got into bed next to me one morning, then whispered in my ear that something terrifying had happened to him during the night. A big black dog with red eyes, he said, came into his room and bit his baby blanket, the silk-banded square of blue flannel he had slept with since birth. My little boy was shaking as he spoke these words. When I hugged him close and tried to tell him that sometimes our dreams seem so real to us that we think they actually happened, he went quiet for a few moments, then told me plaintively that it wasn’t a dream, that he knew it wasn’t a dream, that it was real. When I tried again to talk about how affected a child can be by the things he imagines seeing in the night, Gabe became angry and demanded to know why I was trying to make him think he didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. “The dog was real, even if it wasn’t a real dog,” he told me. I let it go then, though the subject continued to come up from time to time, always when my son raised it. He seemed to have a need to talk about it. I tried several other times to suggest that what he had experienced was a very vivid, powerful dream, but this inevitably infuriated him. When he was five, he saw a psychologist who told him about the night terrors that younger children often experience, and how these take place in a zone between waking and sleeping. Gabe seemed to find some comfort in this notion, but within the year he again brought up the black dog that had bit his baby blanket when he was four and insisted once more that what had happened was real, not a dream or even a night terror. I was ready for him this time, and answered with the suggestion that I might have told his mom a story I heard from a woman I met in Bosnia about a black dog with red eyes that had terrorized her family. He might have overheard this story when he was very young, I went on, and later somehow half-dreamed and half-imagined a similar experience. “So now you think I’m crazy?” he asked. No, no, no, I assured him: all our heads are full not only of thoughts we know about, what we call the conscious mind, but also of thoughts we don’t know about, what we call the unconscious mind, and when those two mix, we can have experiences that seem completely real to us but not to anyone else. “So you’re saying that it wasn’t really real,” my son accused. I didn’t know what I was saying and shook my head in confused frustration. “It happened,” Gabe told me. “I know it happened.” He gave me a measuring look that I’d never seen from him before. I knew it was a big moment for us both. “You believe me, don’t you, Dad?” my son asked finally. I stared into his eyes for some time before answering, “I believe you.” 

That was the last time we ever talked about it. It was also, for me I think, the beginning of this book.


Excerpted from The Devil’s Best Trick by Randall Sullivan. Copyright © 2024. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.