I’ve poked a lot of fun at Destination America’s Exorcism: Live! for a number of different reasons. The exclamation point. The hashtag. The fact that a real-life television executive greenlit a live two-hour special in which a Bishop, a psychic medium, and a paranormal investigation team attempt to banish evil from the demon-riddled house that inspired The Exorcist. You know, all the usual stuff.
Somehow, news of my coverage reached the ears of Exorcism: Live! creator Jodi Tovay and the psychic medium who will perform a live, on-air seance, Chip Coffey. (Ms. Tovay, I assume, received the news by email and Mr. Coffey by the whisperings of someone’s long dead cousin). Ms. Tovay and Mr. Coffey invited me to breakfast in midtown New York, for an opportunity to discuss all things Exorcism:Live!, and maybe for a chance to convert me to the side of the believers. Against warning signals brought on by 12 years of Catholic education, I accepted.
Look, I’m a skeptic for sure. But over an hour-long conversation that covered everything from demons to the Devil himself, to Mr. Coffey’s intimations that anyone and everyone involved in this show – including me – are in danger of pissing off hordes of vengeful hellbeasts, well…I don’t know. It’s up for you to decide. Just in case, though, if I start typing in Latin mid-sentence do not trust what I say.
Part One: What’s In The House?
“The thing inside my head said, ‘We’ve got your grandmother.'”
Most of what we know about the exorcism of Roland Doe (not even his real name) comes from the diary of Raymond Bishop, one of the attending priests. Allegedly, in 1949 a boy in St. Louis demonstrated such obvious signs of demonic possession, the Church sanctioned an exorcism witnessed by 48 people. In 1971 William Peter Blatty published The Exorcist, based on Roland Doe’s story. Two years later, director William Friedkin’s The Exorcist hit theaters.
Forty-two years after that, psychic-medium Chip Coffey walked into Roland Doe’s former house in St. Louis and heard some awful things about his grandmother.
Observer: Chip, you’ve already been inside the house correct?
Chip Coffey: I have. Whenever I encounter anything demonic they sound in my head guttural and masculine and slimy and smarmy. [Producer] Andrew Knock was asking me questions and the entities in the house were getting peeved at him. And he asked the question ‘Why are they still here? The exorcism took place in 1949, 66 years ago.’ And the entities were already PO’ed at him. And the energy in my head, and I’ll try and do my best impression here [demon voice] “Is he really that f’ing stupid? We’re here because we can be here.”
They did not know Andrew was married, but they proceeded to threaten his wife in LA, to threaten my cousin who lives with me in Atlanta and our dogs. I noticed in the bedroom upstairs that there was an iron bed frame that looked very much like a bed in my maternal grandmother’s bedroom. The thing inside my head said [demon voice], “We’ve got your grandmother.” They’ll lie to you, try and get at your weak points. My response to them was, “F you, my grandmother is where God is.”
Oh, wow. So what do you think is still there?
Coffey: I think it’s a low level demonic possession at this point. I don’t think they felt the need to leave any of the heavy hitters there. Just like in the angelic realm, there is a hierarchy of demonic entities. I believe whatever is there is low level. Again, they don’t need a reason to be there. Who’s to say they haven’t lain in wait for us? That for 66 years they see into the future and think ‘We’ll just wait for those stupid fuckers to come in here with cameras in 2015.’ I hadn’t even thought about that until just now. I just freaked myself out.
You just freaked me out, Chip.
Coffey: You want to know something really scary? When I was in my 20s, I don’t know what the circumstances were because it’s been a million years, but something inside my head said ‘At some point in time you will come face to face with the devil.’ I’ve thought about that a lot recently. We’re talking 40 years ago. They didn’t add the part where it’s going to happen live on television.
Part Two: Preparation
“That is the worst case scenario when you’re stirring up so much energy, that someone gets possessed.”
In Jodi Tovay’s mind, Exorcism: Live! has been in development since 2013, when she first approached Mr. Coffey about the idea. Since then, she has worked tirelessly on a massive operation that is two-fold. On one hand, the show needs an incredible amount of technical planning that includes three live feeds being broadcast to TV, and six static cameras streaming on the internet.
On the other hand, the team also had to prepare for the possibility someone is possessed by a demon.
What are the logistics of the entire operation?
Jodi Tovay: On a live show you usually have the main feed, and then you have a back up feed. But if you have ghost activity you need a third feed, which is your backup to the backup. Which is even more expensive, it costs a lot to do it. But we’re pretty certain there’s going to be a lot of activity so it seems foolish to not have a backup to the backup to the backup.
And it’s all going to be directed by the viewers. We’ll have six fixed cameras throughout the house which will not be broadcasting on TV, they’ll just be streaming online. We’re hoping if these cameras catch any activity, we’ll get 20 or so Tweets and we’ll going to drop it and investigate.
Even beyond cameras and stuff, what measures do you have in case, you know, everything goes horrifically wrong?
Tovay: We’ve prepared for everything. Chip and our Bishop helped me understand what possession looks like…and that is the worst case scenario when you’re stirring up so much energy, that someone gets possessed. All the symptoms of possession, or demonic activity or even poltergeist activity, are physical. It’s extreme nausea, abilities beyond what you would normally know in your physical body,being sick to your stomach, extreme dizziness. We have a medical staff. We’re ready for that, and that is the worst case scenario.
Coffey: Or after the fact somebody gets followed home.
…does that happen?
Tovay: [Paranormal investigator] Nick Groff did an investigation at the house years back. He won’t go back in. He had a crazy experience where they followed him home and started affecting his family. Everyone was having concurrent terrifying dreams together.
Coffey: How do you know that when shit gets real, a camera person isn’t going to get knocked on their butt? A camera person could get possessed! You prepare as much as you can, but you better be ready to expect the unexpected.
Part Three: Jodi Sees an Exorcism
“Then he started screaming and speaking in a language I had never heard of. I still don’t know what it was to this day.”
Mid-way through our conversation, Ms. Tovay casually – and I do mean casually – dropped the news that her inspiration for Exorcism: Live! actually took place decades ago, when she herself saw an exorcism happen right in front of her eyes.
Did you say you saw an exorcism?
Tovay: Yeah, I was 15. I witnessed an exorcism when I was on a mission trip in Mexico. We were building homes and then we had a prayer service. One of the chaperones became possessed. It wasn’t as extreme as we’re talking about in the Exorcist house, it was probably more like a deliverance if you’re going to split hairs. The symptoms are very similar. It was really crazy to watch because none of us knew what was going on. We were 15!
Was it…was it successful?
Tovay: Yeah. One of the things that was scary for me was, I knew the person. I knew they weren’t crazy, and I knew they weren’t having physical problems because we had been building houses together. I think there’s something compelling, and there’s something in our society that is all about control. And possession is so out of control. It’s so primal. This person was completely out of control. We were in an air conditioned building and he was sweating profusely. He was angry, pacing back and forth. Then he started screaming and speaking in a language I had never heard of. I still don’t know what it was to this day. It’s a scary thing, to be completely out of your own control. You’re just a vessel.
Part Four: Addressing the Skeptics
“I’m a damn psychic and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Exorcism: Live! faces another hurdle, one probably more fearsome and terrifying than any demon – internet hate watchers. But Ms. Tovay and Mr. Coffey welcome the skeptics. They insist that paranormal activity or not, nothing will be faked, so anyone looking to dismiss their efforts must do so at face value.
What would you say to the skeptics?
Tovay: Everyone just wants authenticity. They want to know is this real, or is this bullshit? Most of [Exorcism: Live!] is going to be live. We have two hours to fill and only 25 minutes of pre-taped. So we can’t creep in sounds, we can’t pre-edit things. I trust Chip. The reason Chip is here is that he’s no bullshit, he’s not a liar. I’ve seen tons of quote-“talent.” If Chip said there’s nothing going on in that house, we wouldn’t have done it.
Coffey: I’m 61 years old, I have no reason to lie. Do I like eating and sleeping indoors? Yes. Am I ambitious and hard working? Yes. Do I need to lie about anything? Not at all. I don’t need the money that desperately. People ask me all the time if I’ve ever been asked to fake anything. No. One thing I learned a long time ago is If I don’t have my good name and reputation, I have nothing.
Tovay: I honestly think the hate-watchers will leave with a different perspective.
Coffey: There are a lot of people who are pre-judging us and we haven’t even aired a damn thing yet. Watch the show. Stop thinking you know what’s going to happen. I’m a damn psychic and I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Exorcism: Live! airs Friday, October 30th on non omnis moriar de gustibus non est just kidding…Friday, October 30th at 9 PM on Destination America. (This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity)