I’m not one for God, but I suppose if ghosts exist then there’s a possibility He might. Regardless of my opinion, the relationship between science and religion has always been tense, so when Strother decided that one of our investigations would be on a young woman claiming to be possessed by a demon, I think we were all shocked. I get why he’d chosen it. How could a scientist as arrogant as him refuse the opportunity to disprove the existence of demons, and by extension God?
As you’ve probably realised, my sight only extends to humans. I’ve never seen a demon, or an angel. At least, I don’t think I have. So, in this particular case I was going in as blind as everyone else. It made me really uncomfortable. I know ghosts, and even though my knowledge back then was limited, I knew enough to get by. Demons, if they existed, were completely foreign to me. I hadn’t even seen The Exorcist.
I’d never understood the obsession with demon possessions. How could people believe in it so much that they would call in priests and other holy leaders rather than doctors to try and help? When did superstition win over medicine? This case was one of the only times I was ever on Strother’s side of an argument. These incidents must have some kind of psychological or neurological explanation? Right?
That’s the frightening thing. The double-edged sword. If ghosts exist, if there is life after death, then what else is there? What other folklore and mythical tales are actually true? I grew up in Scotland, I’ve heard the stories about fairies and kelpies, but I’ve never seen anything. But where I can see ghosts and no one else can, can there also be people who see other things that I can’t?
Anxiety stems from ignorance, from the unknown, from the potential to be true. I couldn’t say demons weren’t real. Surely if there were ghosts, then there was also room for there to be demons? I was filled with trepidation going into this case, and I didn’t like it.
Surprisingly, Strother was a well-connected guy, and somehow he knew a catholic priest. I’m not catholic, and either was anyone else on the team, but we had all been brought up Christians and in the wake of many demonic possession films that hit the box office in quick succession. Going into this neutral was impossible.
Strother told us that the priest had got in touch with him after two failed exorcisms on a young woman in his parish called Heather MacQueenie. She’d had an average upbringing, attended church on Sundays, and by all accounts was pretty normal. She’d left for university and after she’d returned for the summer at the end of her penultimate year she’d begun to act strangely. She went from bright and happy to serious and angry. The slightest thing pushed her into a rage. At first her parents thought it was the stress of her honours degree getting on top of her, but when she started to speak in different voices, saying horrible things, they began to think differently.
Being religious their first thought was to call the priests. After talking to Heather a few times, or rather the demon inside of Heather, they announced they’d do an exorcism. After the second time one of the priests called Strother.
What was unusual about this case was that Strother never offered up any possible explanation beforehand. Usually he was always quick to dismiss the ghost stories, the mediums and psychics, by giving alternative diagnoses, but this time he was quiet. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve said they were the only things he believed might be real.
As for my younger self I couldn’t understand it. Things like this didn’t happen in real life, not in modern times with the internet and mobile phones, or at least if they did it was in America. It frightened me that it was happening on my own doorstep. I know Scottish people can be superstitious, even I’m guilty of it, but superstition and demonic possession were very different to each other.
I wasn’t the only one affected by this case, even before it started. The drive to the small parish where Heather MacQueenie lived was the most silent of the entire study. It was like nobody wanted to discuss it because they didn’t have a quick explanation. It was different to psychics and mediums who defrauded people for their own gain, Heather wasn’t gaining anything, save from the attention of catholic priests, which I can’t imagine you can use as the deposit on a seven-bedroom house.
Their silence unnerved me more, and reading the emails the priest had sent Strother only compounded my worries. Along with possible multiple personalities, objects were reported being thrown about, even at people. Her parents and the priests also claimed she now spoke fluent Latin.
It all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Guttural voices, flying objects, mastery of defunct languages. I felt like we were walking onto the set of a film rather than real life. I was almost disappointed when we arrived and didn’t see the crew.
As part of the church’s bid to protect Heather’s privacy, we weren’t allowed to film, only record audio and take notes. Strother didn’t seem to mind this even though we would’ve been the first researchers to film a genuine possession, if it was genuine.
The more I read about the phenomena the more reluctant I became to participating. Hundreds of people around the world have died because others thought they were possessed by demons. The most recent, as you probably know, is Anneliese Michel, a young woman who was mentally ill but thought to be possessed by a demon. After numerous failed attempts to exorcize whatever she was possessed by, she died. Most of the people involved were charged with negligent homicide. I really wish I hadn’t read the story before seeing Heather.
Rather than staying with the MacQueenie’s we had rooms in the local hotel and drove to the parish where her family stayed. Instead of going straight to the house, the priest who had contacted Strother asked if he could speak to us first.
Father Alan McClintock was a very typical priest, which might not be saying much. He was in his fifties, perhaps older, with shocking white hair and a kind smile that begged anyone who spoke to him to trust him with all their secrets. He was very welcoming and invited us into the church. In his rooms he began to explain the events surrounding Heather.
By the time we visited, Heather’s symptoms had been going on for almost 9 months. It’d been small things at first. Snapping at her family for trivial things, skipping meals, random things breaking in the house, and over time it’d worsened to physical and verbal attacks, different voices, different languages, and belongings flying across rooms without being touched. We all sat in silence listening to Father Alan’s experiences.
The man looked haggard to me, exhausted from trying to solve a problem he wasn’t equipped to. According to him the first thing Heather’s parents had done was take her to the doctors, who’d referred her to a specialist and given her a prescription. One that didn’t work. Then the church had become involved, and the Bishop of the diocese had sent in a trained exorcist. That hadn’t worked either. With all solutions producing no results they were all at a loss on what to do.
It was then that I became curious as to the reason he’d contacted Strother. Was it so he could use it in the study as the first piece of evidence demonic possession was real, or was it to diagnose and treat Heather once and for all? Was that why Strother had been uncharacteristically quiet about possible explanations?
It never became easier to know what Strother was thinking, and I admit this was another time I wanted him to be his vocal, opinionated self. It would’ve made me feel a lot better. When a priest, of any religion, tells you about a young woman who may be possessed by a demon, it’s really hard not to take everything at face value. I’m not saying he was lying, but because he thought demons were real in the first place means he wasn’t an unbiased source of information. It was very likely he was moulding the facts to his beliefs, which we all do.
The picture of Heather MacQueenie that you have now is probably the exact same as the one I did at the time. On the journey from the church to their home I had images of a girl strapped to a bed to prevent harm to herself and others. Of a woman speaking in a voice that wasn’t her own, or things being hurled across rooms of their own volition. Of Heather herself I saw an emaciated shadow of a person with dark circles under their eyes and a gaunt, haunted look cast across her face.
That’s why I was so surprised when Heather opened the door. What Father Alan had failed to mention during his horror stories was that Heather MacQueenie looked completely normal. By that I mean how any young woman in her early twenties might look. Medium height, thin, long hair tied in a bun, light makeup with jeans and a t-shirt. She looked like any university student. I think all of us were taken aback as even Strother became tongue-tied.
There was a moment when I thought we might’ve been tricked, or rather Strother might’ve been tricked. If you’ve gleaned anything about him from these stories of mine it’s that his attitude and way of speaking gained him a lot of critics. It’s not surprising one might want revenge. But there was no reveal, no laughing and pointing at hidden cameras. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a prank.
It was all a bit surreal after that. We were all shown in and introduced to Heather and her family. Her mum and dad were polite, average looking people, and her sister, who was just about to start university, was friendly and helpful. The atmosphere wasn’t what I, or probably any of us, had imagined when we were back at the church.
But, once the niceties and chitchat stopped, there was something in that house, something that hung in the air like carbon monoxide, and almost as deadly. If you looked close enough you could see the strain lines on Mr MacQueenie’s face, or the frantic glances Mrs MacQueenie kept giving her eldest daughter, as if expecting her to flip out at any time.
We all sat down and had tea whilst listening to the MacQueenie’s experiences. It was much the same as Father Alan’s account. Everything had been fine, and then slowly the descent into possession had begun. We all listened intently as we heard the stories again, with Strother, Steph, and Ken scribbling down occasional notes.
There was definitely an expectation from the family that we were there to help, rather than to test and observe. They never signed a consent form for the study. Instead, Strother explained to them the tests he could carry out on Heather to find out what was going on.
Mr and Mrs MacQueenie nodded their heads eagerly, even before Strother had finished speaking. However, Heather was an adult, and her consent was the only one that mattered. During tea and our talk Heather was very matter-of-fact, almost as if she was speaking about someone else. She’d kept a log of her experiences, when they happened, how long, what she’d done. It was very logical, almost too neat for someone claiming to be possessed by a demon. But, my own views on what demon possession was is shaped by what I’d read and seen during my research. There are case studies in other parts of the world where Christianity isn’t dominant, that report demon possessions by something as little as low mood and a string of bad luck. Demon possession in itself isn’t precisely defined.
Heather consented to have the tests done and Strother asked if there was a room where he could set everything up. The McQueenie’s said we could use their room as it was the largest. Father Alan stayed as moral support, whilst the rest of us set up the room with the EEG and other neurological testing equipment. Strother wanted the session recorded, and he asked if I could sit in.
Heather and I were almost the same age, and in case anything happened, he wanted a witness in the room with him. Steph and Ken remained downstairs with Mr and Mrs MacQueenie and Father Alan. I sat and spoke with Heather whilst Strother did his final preparations. Before we began he went to get a jug of water.
He’d probably been gone a few seconds when the door slammed violently shut. I jumped up in fright and as soon as I did I began to feel dizzy, like a bad case of headrush. My entire head felt heavy, my vision distorted, like looking through glasses with the wrong prescription. I turned around to Heather and her face wasn’t in focus. She had a cold look to her features, but she was smiling, a crooked, bent smile that made me feel ill at ease.
“Sarah” (*long drawn out*)
She began, as if calling my name across a playground. There was nothing playful about her tone. One moment it looked like Heather, and the next it looked like someone else, a man. They were just flashes, an overlay of a stranger, but the malignancy I felt in that room was something else.
“I know what you are. I know you can see me. I know that you’re a witch.”
The voice was not Heather’s, yet it was. She turned to look at me then, directly into my eyes, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of another human being as I was of her. I was so scared I couldn’t process what she saying to me.
“Witches should burn, witches are the devil’s consorts. You think you can stop me, you think you can help me. You’re wrong.”
Strother opened the door in that moment. I whirled around to look at him for a brief second, not even enough time to blink, but when I turned back around to Heather, she was herself again. Strother asked me why I’d shut the door, and I couldn’t answer him.
I managed to get into the laptop. I won’t tell you the details, but let’s just say my current social circles are a lot wider than they were back when I was an isolated PhD student.
I’ve spent the last day scouring through every file, email thread, and picture that was on it. And I finally think I may have found answers, or at least the beginning of them. In Strother’s meticulously organised email inbox there was a folder named Inverlewis. When I began to read the emails, I noticed they were from a finance manager at Inverlewis limited. For those outside of Scotland, Inverlewis is one of the largest trading companies in the country. According to recent statistics something like 1 out of every 5 things on the shelves of supermarkets is there because of Inverlewis.
In the emails Strother attached brief interim reports of the study’s progress, like you would do for a funding body. I think Inverlewis funded our study, and I have no idea why. Why would a trading company be interested in the paranormal? What do ghosts and psychics have to do with buying and selling products to the masses?
So, I asked. I emailed the person who’d been in contact with Strother for the entirety of the study, but an automatic reply came stating the address has been defunct for a number of years. But you can find anyone these days if you know how and where to look, and I wasn’t about to give up now when I’m just starting to find answers.
The search is still ongoing as I’m recording this, I just thought I should keep you updated. I won’t disclose their name for the same reason I won’t disclose Katherine Philips’. I don’t know what kind of rabbit hole I’m about to fall down, but I don’t have a right to drag others into it with me.