Rachael Hilyard had asked a friend: Where could she get an exorcism? Her friend told her Pastor Terry Fox.
A few days after Fox visited Hilyard’s home and blessed it, police say Hilyard decapitated 63-year-old Micki Davis in her garage.
Fox was traveling when he heard the news. He said he hadn’t been able to tell during his visit whether she was possessed or whether she was just depressed.
“We were in the process of trying to evaluate her situation to see if it was mental or demonic,” Fox said.
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“We were only working with her a few days,” he said. “If we would have had an opportunity to get to her, I believe we could (have helped). ... I think if we would have had more time, perhaps we could have made a difference. It broke our hearts.”
Fox, the pastor at Summit Church in Wichita, said he has been doing exorcisms for more than 30 years and outside of the Catholic Church, he is the most experienced exorcist in town.
Fox is known for leading a push to prevent gay marriages in Kansas when he was pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church. But in the past five years, he said his attention has turned elsewhere: the paranormal.
The ministry is called SPI, Summit Paranormal Investigators. And Fox said he currently has cases from 17 states. Sometimes he travels to them; sometimes they travel to him. He said he serves doctors and lawyers, as well as the homeless. He has enough work to do it full time, if he wanted to, and is writing a book about it.
The inquiries don’t stop. On Monday he said he got three calls and on Tuesday he took five more.
So it wasn’t that unusual when Hilyard showed up at Summit, he said. Fox met with her and later made a visit to her home in south Wichita.
The first step in paranormal investigations, he said, is to assess whether there’s really a demon involved. Some people are just looking for attention. Others just have psychological issues. Sometimes, he said, the demons can lead to psychological problems.
He tries to ascertain whether they’ve had dramatic changes in their personality or if their voices have changed.
Frequently, he said, they will talk about being sexually violated by the demon – not a person, Fox clarified. Sometimes they will have scratches on the body, afterward. He’ll look for cuts on their body or demonic tattoos.
Fox asks the people who ask for help if they have been practicing the occult and tries to figure out if they show abnormal displays of physical strength.
In one of the very first exorcisms Fox said he participated in in Texas, decades ago, the woman broke windows and tried to use the glass to cut herself. After the exorcism, he said, she became a famous beauty pageant winner in Texas and is going to write a testimonial in his upcoming book.
Fox learned early on about the biblical basis for the paranormal world from a couple of his mentors who he said are well known in the paranormal world. In one famous Bible passage, Fox said, the 12 disciples came to Jesus because they couldn’t get rid of some demons and Jesus told them that these particular demons could only be defeated with prayer.
“There are lots and lots of references in the Bible to the demonic and spirit world you can’t see,” Fox said.
Although Catholics have long dealt with the paranormal, Protestants have shied away from it, he said. Although some pastors in Wichita will pray with people, he doesn’t know any pastors in town as educated and as experienced as he is in the paranormal. He has a library of 75 books about the paranormal in his library, some based in theology, some not.
“I personally used to be more critical of other pastors that chose not to do this,” Fox said. “Who wants to get up in the middle of the night and go to someone’s house and fight demons? I don’t, I’ve done it for years. It’s a tough ministry.”
He meets every couple of months with a large group of pastors in Wichita and said he is planning to offer training for them on how to minister to people whose lives are tormented by the paranormal. Most Bible colleges don’t teach how to minister to people haunted by demons, he said.
Fox said he worked for law enforcement in Texas years ago and saw that, occasionally officers would report the demented things they saw. But many times they would leave it out of their reports. He recently read a story about two children in Indiana who took a friend into the woods and knifed their friend, who he said, were later diagnosed to have been haunted by demons.
There’s a reason, he said, that so many people watch shows about ghosts and ghost hunters, he said, but most Protestant sects have been pretending it isn’t a problem.
“It’s easier to preach a sweet sermon on Sunday and go home,” Fox said. “But the reality is that there are a lot of things that happen in Wichita, Kansas that people have no idea what goes on.”
Fox has begun to promote his paranormal work more, including recently creating a Facebook page. The Facebook advertising combine classical images of people throwing spears or shooting arrows at devils, with a modern woman walking through a burned out building with flames.
He knows Christians who work for paranormal hobby groups with sophisticated equipment and video evidence. Usually those paranormal groups will discover that the demon is real, but then not doing anything to help, he said. Sometimes they refer clients to him.
“We’re not ghostbusters. We’re not out there chasing, looking for ghosts. I don’t have time to do that,” Fox said. “We deal with people who are calling us that are saying ‘We’re in trouble here.’”
Many times the people he helps are not Christian, he said. They are so desperate, he said, because their kids are acting out or their marriage is on the rocks, or they’re thinking suicidal thoughts that they’ll come to him anyway.
He’ll also look for clues in their home. One clue can be an upside down cross. Another can be images of the devil. Or he said he’ll take note of a painting that looks demonic. He said these “dark objects” are pretty obvious to most people.
“There was not enough (in Hilyard’s home) to make us think that,” Fox said. “In her house she didn’t have upside down crosses. There wasn’t physical evidence.”
Often times people will say they see flying objects, or hear noises. He’ll ask them if they are being treated by a psychiatrist or if they are taking medication. Or if they have a history of violence.
Fox said Hilyard didn’t mention or show any signs of violence toward himself or others. Although his business is confidential, he said, because of the stigma in society toward talking about demons, he tells his clients that he has to report threats of violence.
“She was not aggressive to hurt anyone or herself. Had she been I would’ve reported it,” Fox said. “If I thought she was a danger to herself or someone I would’ve reported that.”
Hilyard wanted a full-blown exorcism, Fox said. He didn’t do that but they did “pray over her house.”
The exorcism itself isn’t that different from what’s portrayed in the movies, he said. The movies will add a lot of special effects but the basics aren’t wrong. “A lot of the things that inspire the movies is absolutely true,” Fox said. “I wish I could say it’s all silly, it’s Hollywood and there is no truth in it. I cannot say that. My experience has been the opposite. There are some very dramatic things that happen.”
In the extreme cases, the exorcisms can get violent. He said during one case five different demons threatened him and his church and struck him physically, even though the person in whose body the demons were acting, didn’t remember anything about it.
Violence is always a threat, Fox said, because the work is so volatile. He always tells someone where he is going and they call to check up on him while he is there.
That’s why, he said, most people in his church don’t want to help with the paranormal ministry. His son, Tyler, went on an exorcism with him once. Now he prefers to run the social media side of the ministry.
But unlike the movies, Fox said, exorcism can take years to finish. Sometimes a demon will leave and then return. Sometimes he’ll make significant progress and then have setbacks. He said he has had miraculous success and other times couldn’t help at all.
The church doesn’t charge for exorcism, Fox said, but sometimes people will make an offering so they can offer the service to others in the future.
Fox knows that many people will say he’s crazy. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people he’s right, he said, because he’s so busy. He thinks because his church has credibility in the community, it has allowed him to venture into areas other churches are afraid to go.
“I’m telling you this stuff is real,” Fox said.
Business will keep booming, he said: The Bible predicts that there will only be more demonic activity as time goes on.
He hasn’t reached out to Hilyard yet but, he said, if she expressed interest, he would be willing to minister to her in jail.
“If what she is accused of is true,” he said, “she is still a human being, and our heart goes out to her.”
Exorcisms in context
Although exorcisms are not typical in most evangelical churches, they are becoming increasingly common because of the rise of Pentecostalism, according to R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has an endowed chair in Catholic studies and who has written extensively about the rise of the Pentecostalism.
Fox’s church references Southern Baptist beliefs on its website. But the church’s emphasis on paranormal spiritual warfare, baptism in the Holy Spirit and the prevalent role of the devil, indicates at least a strong influence of Pentecostlism, Chesnut said.
“Typically Southern Baptists don’t practice exorcism so he’s going out on a limb there,” Chesnut said. “That’s historically been one of the big distinguishing characteristics between Southern Baptists and Pentecostals is the whole world of holy spirits and exorcisms.”
Chesnut said that, after reading the news accounts, Hilyard’s social media posts could be interpreted in the evangelical context as a sign of demonic possession. But he said her history with drug addiction and mental health issues could also explain her behavior. The signs that Fox was looking for to identify demonic possession were typical of other pastors and priests who perform exorcisms, Chesnut said.
But Pentecostal pastors are more likely to perform exorcisms, he said, in part because any pastor can proclaim they are moved by the Holy Spirit but in Catholicism the local bishop has to approve it.
“Catholic priests are much quicker to make diagnoses that have to do with mental health problems and say you should go see a counselor or a psychiatrist,” Chesnut said. “Whereas I think Pentecostals have a much more overarching supernatural view of the world and are more likely to say the mental health issue is being caused by the demonic possession ... so, some of these exorcisms that end in death or injury, tend to be much more performed by Pentecostals than by Catholics.”
Fox is right that interest in the paranormal is increasing, Chesnut said, in part because Pentecostalism is growing so rapidly in Latin America and Africa. Often times the exorcisms function like an alternative to mental health assistance in parts of the world or in populations that are too poor to afford it.
“And for those folks who believe they are under assault by demonic experience,” Chesnut said. “It can be a liberating experience and I have witnessed it first-hand. For those who really believe in that, it can be a positive experience.”
The growth of Pentecostalism could cause other denominations to start adopting some of its beliefs and practices, like exorcism, just to keep up, Chesnut said.
The recent opioid crisis in the U.S. could be leading to increased interest in exorcisms here as well, he said.
“Methamphetamine addiction makes a lot of people act in denomic ways ...,” Chesnut said. “We Americans are only 5 percent of the global population but we consume 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply. So I think there is this nexus to the opioid addiction crisis that we’re seeing.”