The Devil and Mr. Hernandez

A man possessed, plumber turned amateur exorcist Paul Hernandez wants to get the Hell out of Phoenix.

In 1999, for the first time in its 160-year history, the Archdiocese of Chicago hired a full-time exorcist. The New York diocese currently has four exorcists on staff. In Italy alone, the number of official exorcists has grown from 20 in 1976 to more than 300 today.

Last year, the Vatican updated its exorcism policy for the first time since 1614, and it has been widely reported that Pope John Paul II himself performed an exorcism on a young woman last September.

Exorcism has also become a lucrative business for pop-culture gurus like Bob Larson, a Colorado-based, nationally syndicated radio host who performs mass exorcisms at "spiritual freedom conferences" around the country.

Colorado-based radio evangelist Bob Larson performs mass exorcisms at packed convention halls around the country.
Colorado-based radio evangelist Bob Larson performs mass exorcisms at packed convention halls around the country.
Perla Beltran, a motel manager who asked Hernandez for help, believes the billowy white light in this photo is a manifestation of the spirits that plagued her.
Perla Beltran, a motel manager who asked Hernandez for help, believes the billowy white light in this photo is a manifestation of the spirits that plagued her.

Say what you want about Hernandez; his crusade doesn't seem to be based on trend mongering. He says he's never heard Larson's radio show, and expresses disapproval of anyone who makes money off of exorcism. And his chief comment about The Exorcist is that its depictions of Linda Blair's head making a 360-degree spin were slightly exaggerated. "I've seen heads spin, but not like that," he says.

Ultimately, what's unique about Hernandez's exorcism work is that unlike Catholic priests -- who have the authorization of the church behind them -- or Larson -- who's got the power of the airwaves behind him -- he's a renegade, who seems bolstered by nothing but his own unrelenting obsession with Satan.

Such obsessions are often derided by modernists as "spiritual paranoia," and Hernandez frequently does sound more than a little paranoid. For instance, when discussing the legal problems of his 22-year-old son, who has been busted for offenses ranging from methamphetamine to concealed-gun possession, Hernandez proclaims: "The devil hates my boy real bad." Similarly, he blames demonic influence on his ex-wife's decision to leave him nine years ago, and on his car's occasional failure to start.

Experts generally agree that the feeling of being possessed is a real one, but question whether its origin is an external demonic force, or merely an internal psychological reaction to everyday problems.

"Most academics would say this is some kind of structure of the mind that is elicited by people's fears, by their expectations, and their interactions with other people," says Michael Winkelman, Arizona State University professor of anthropology. "And once that gets elicited, it's very hard to make that go away."

Some science-based thinkers are less charitable, branding exorcism a medieval superstition run amok in a postmodern world.

"It's an example of the dumbing down of society," says Charles Griffin, a local consulting engineer and mathematician, who is also a vociferous critic of the current exorcism boom. "Exorcism was nearly nonexistent 40 years ago. There's no excuse for its growth, at a time when we've made so many scientific advances."

Nonetheless, Hernandez has his adherents: Liam Tierney, an ex-cop from New York who says Hernandez rid his home of demonic influence after objects had begun flying around the house; Cage Keller, a chronic juvenile delinquent who says he was haunted by voices telling him to mutilate himself and others, until Hernandez stepped in; and Perla Beltran, a motel manager who says demons physically and psychically attacked her in bed for two years until she met Hernandez.

But even some of his supporters offer noticeably less exciting accounts of his demon-busting efforts than he does. For all his braggadocio about going toe-to-toe with the man downstairs, his work usually amounts to little more than sprinkling around a little holy water and saying a few prayers. Most often, what he defines as exorcism sounds more like a placebo for the psychologically distressed.

Despite his tales of being brutalized by Satan, Hernandez says he doesn't fear for his safety, because he's convinced he's got a lot of spiritual firepower behind him. Besides, he's not the kind of guy to back away from a confrontation, even an imagined one.

"No matter how violent this gets, you understand Christ is always in control," he says. "You may take a pounding, or get some infections, but you just go in there. Either you throw down, or you pick up your panties and go home."

Hernandez wasn't always so dedicated to Christian ideals.

As a kid, growing up in a small, wood-frame house in a predominantly black southwest Phoenix neighborhood, he regularly attended Sunday Mass, at the urging of his godmother. But his preoccupations were decidedly secular.

"I was a rough and rowdy kid," he says. "My friends and I would go out and try to date the girls from St. Mary's and get run off over there, go to Phoenix Union football games, and drink and carouse. We'd go fight downtown by the old Woolworth's building."

The 12th of 15 children born to Ysabel and Isabel Hernandez, he was particularly close to his mother, a Mexican immigrant who he describes as a "beautiful, cultured, refined person." He says, however, that the atmosphere was constantly tense because his father was a high-strung man prone to physical and verbal abuse.

Hernandez's eldest sibling, Betty Vargas, now 70, recalls that their father would sometimes come home at two or three in the morning, wake up all the kids, and tell them to get out of the house. She says they would scatter like scared cats, spending the night with friends or godparents.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets