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Paul Hernandez sits in a dimly lighted two-room apartment on the west side of Phoenix and prepares for battle.
Hernandez has no accomplices. He brandishes no firearms, no blunt instruments. His only weapons are a wooden crucifix, a bottle of holy water on a corner bookshelf, and a hardbound prayer book spread out on a small Formica dining table.
The 49-year-old Hernandez isn't primed for gang warfare or a confrontation with cops. He's a self-styled exorcist, a spiritual vigilante who's spent the past 19 years trying to smack Satan into submission.
This work can get dicey, Hernandez is quick to advise you. He says he was once rushed to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center after evil apparitions pounded his kidneys. He says that on another occasion, four cherubic-looking little demons restrained his arms and legs while he was reclining in a La-Z-Boy chair. He also recounts being plagued by a series of mysterious eye infections and foot ailments over the years.
If all this is true -- it's difficult to confirm most of his stories and those who have asked him to perform exorcisms describe much more mundane sessions than Hernandez -- why does he put himself through the aggravation? After all, he's not a priest or an appointed church official. He's a plumber by trade, better equipped to expel clogs from a drain than demons from a human body.
"It's because I hate evil that much," explains Hernandez, in a serene but dead-serious monotone voice that can get a bit spooky in big doses.
Dressed in his uniform of choice -- black tee shirt, faded blue jeans and tennis shoes -- Hernandez looks like any number of his compatriots in the local pipefitters union, a group that he himself describes as "a bunch of brawlers and bar fighters."
He has bronze skin, a bushy, black mustache and coarse, dark hair, sprinkled with gray around the temples. He's soft and pudgy in the middle, but his biceps have the ripples that come from nearly three decades of sweat-inducing manual labor.
Hernandez brings some of that brawling, pipefitter mentality to his exorcism work. Confronted with a person he believes to be demonically possessed, his first response is to disregard church piety and simply shout at the devil -- as he would at a lazy co-worker: "Hey, knock off the bullshit!"
For the past three weeks, Hernandez has been minding the home of an illegal immigrant and her young daughter. He says the woman was sexually assaulted in her sleep by some unseen force, and left with bruises all over her body.
To Hernandez, her story sounded like a classic case of demonic attack. So he offered to look after her apartment while she visited relatives in Mexico, and promised to punish those evil forces when they decided they were ready to rumble.
So on a Saturday night in mid-December, while many Phoenicians are getting sloshed at Christmas parties, Hernandez sits by himself in this sparsely furnished room, with nothing but a cheap boom box and a pack of Marlboro Lights to keep him company, endlessly waiting for heaven (make that Hell) knows what. But to hear him tell it, waiting is far more pleasant than the alternative.
Two weeks earlier, he says, this same room violently spun around on him for three minutes while he was lying on the floor, on the verge of falling asleep. The next night, he set his pager down on a nightstand, and says it disappeared by the following morning. A few nights after that, he says he suffered an injury to his right leg when a pesky apparition kicked him in a violent wrestling match.
Hernandez is quick to say that he'd rather not be doing this stuff. He used to have a normal life, he assures you.
He used to hang out with friends, go on hunting and fishing trips, barbecue on weekends, and enjoy domestic bliss with his wife and eight kids. He also made good money as a valued contract worker for the pipefitters union.
These days, he's a solitary figure: divorced from his wife, keeping his distance from most of his 14 siblings, frequently taking extended sabbaticals from work to concentrate on exorcism projects, and changing residences so often that even longtime pals have trouble finding him.
When a friend recently asked Hernandez where he was living, the self-appointed spiritual warrior cryptically responded, "I can't let people know where the Bat Cave is."
The allusion to a vaunted comic-book superhero is no accident. Although he insists that he's "very far from being a righteous person," Hernandez fancies himself a crusading American badass, sacrificing his own personal life in a never-ending grudge match against the forces of darkness. In much the same way that archetypal superheroes take charge when law enforcement can't handle the job, Hernandez contends that he's only doing what the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix -- which maintains a public silence on exorcism -- has failed to do.
Local church officials may be reluctant to discuss the issue, but exorcism is experiencing a profound resurgence of interest in Western culture. Dismissed for centuries as a barbarous, embarrassing relic of the Middle Ages, exorcism began to grow in popularity after the success of the 1973 film The Exorcist, and it has steadily gained favor since then. The September 2000 rerelease of The Exorcist-- which grossed an impressive $39.7 million domestically last year -- has only fueled the public's fascination with demonic possession.