“My name is Minga!”
If you were one of the 29 million people who tuned into the April 4, 1991, episode of ABC’s newsmagazine 20/20, those words undoubtedly struck you in some way, whether you found them chilling or reeking of bullshit. They were uttered by a 16-year-old girl identified only as “Gina,” who was presented as being possessed by a number of demonic spirits, including ones named Zion and, yes, Minga.
“When the subject is Satan, nothing is more provocative, more terrifying, more fascinating than the ritual of exorcism,” gushed 20/20 host Barbara Walters, leading into Tom Jarriel’s report on a 6-hour exorcism that had taken place in Florida. “Nothing like this has ever been seen on American television,” Walters added. Rev. James LeBar, who oversaw two exorcisms in the New York diocese in 1990 in addition to Gina’s, sanctioned the filming of the ancient ritual, which John Cardinal O’Connor and the Vatican had also signed off on, according to a story in the April 22, 1991 issue of People.
“We thought it was important for people to understand that the Devil does exist and, most important, that the church has a means to help,” LeBar told the magazine. “Why is the church allowing this?” asked Walters rhetorically at the top of one of the story’s several segments. “Father James LeBar, who we’ve been seeing in Tom Jarriel’s report, told us that many people don’t share the church’s belief that the devil is real. The church hopes that this may change some minds.” Lest you mistake this for anything but propaganda, Walters was there to set you straight.
Hugh Downs, Walters’s 20/20 co-host, reported that LeBar said another reason the church was allowing the exorcism to be broadcast was “to let the public see firsthand that the church can help those whom it feels need relief from evil spirits.”
Not everyone in the church agreed with the decision. Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of University of Notre Dame’s theology department, told Newsweek, “Televising this was indefensible. To sprinkle holy water over serious and complex problems is to trivialize them and ensure that they continue.” People quoted Jesuit priest and psychiatrist Rev. James J. Gill as saying, “Many in the Catholic Church feel exorcism is a private ritual,” and that televising this was like “the way it used to be in Europe, when psychiatric patients were displayed on Sundays for the entertainment of the spectators.”
Gina was, indeed, a patient. Miami Children’s Hospital’s Director of Psychiatry Dr. Warren Schlanger reported on the broadcast that the 16-year-old daughter of a Columbian immigrant mother had been diagnosed with “recurring psychotic episodes.” “I saw demons and stuff—people who died,” she told the cameras. People filled in her backstory more completely:
Gina had been physically abused as a child by an acquaintance and had been traumatized by her parents’ divorce. According to her mother, Gina began behaving oddly, throwing tantrums, spitting and speaking in the low gurgle of Minga, whom Gina described as a short female, and the screeching of an “African from the jungle” whom Gina called Zion.
Per the 20/20 report, the church only stepped in to exorcize when it was clear that the work of doctors and therapists fell short of healing Gina. Though Miami Children’s Hospital had diagnosed Gina as psychotic, People reported that she “like her mother, believes the problem was not psychological but demonic”...which very could could be psychotic thing to believe! The segment’s producer Rob Wallace told Newsweek that Gina and her mother “felt pressure from the church to cooperate.” He seems to have been referring more to the broadcasting of the exorcism than the ritual itself.
In that same article, Lisa Sowle Cahill, an ethicist at Boston College, wondered aloud, “Was she capable of informed consent?” While you could make the argument that virtually everything you see on TV is somehow exploitative, some exploitation is more irresponsible than others, and certain types of people are more exploitable. Kids are, for sure, as are the mentally ill. Combining the two yields a person who’s particularly vulnerable to the sophisticated Hollywood types. Factor in the possibility of demonic possession and you have a sitting duck who in all likelihood knows not what she quacks.
Gina undoubtedly had demons, but whether they were figurative or literal was up to the viewer to decide. In a weird mix of rubbernecking curiosity and the desire to be terrified, 29 million people watched one of the biggest episodes in 20/20’s history. “People had exorcism parties all over the place,” Wallace enthused to People. I was in sixth grade when this aired. I taped it, and I brought the VHS into my small, all-day seminar class the next week to share with my classmates. When the 26 or so minutes of tape devoted to the exorcism were done, the room was thick with a cannot-unsee sense of unease. I remember thinking I could see the dark circles forming around their young eyes. We must have talked about what we watched for hours after. “Minga” became part of our lexicon.
If this aired today*, it would break the internet. It would be unavoidable on Twitter and spawn countless thinkpieces. They came in 1991, just more slowly for the most part—in addition to the aforementioned articles in People and Newsweek, which described it as “more Geraldo than high mass,” this episode was covered by The New York Times and The L.A. Times, and in several smaller papers around the country. Entertainment Weekly ran a blistering critique called “Real Exorcisms on TV” in its April 19, 1991 issue, which featured a rather prescient dek: “Real exorcisms on TV — 20/20 broadcasts the ritual and possibly ushers in a new era of exploitative reality television.” Keep in mind that the term “reality television” was barely used at that point in time, since reality television, as we’d come to know it, barely existed. Gina exhibited the sort of extreme human behavior we’re by now accustomed to (if not bored of) in our reality stars. Her exorcism was something of an ambush—she supposedly wasn’t aware it was happening until it started. Watch her get duped and you’ll feel like you’re watching an episode of Intervention, which this basically was but with a twist of dogma.
The episode of 20/20 was, above all else, spectacle, and no one does spectacle like the Catholic church (if you want a bit of theater, just attend mass—any mass will do). During an interview that was part of the package, LeBar said there were four major signs of demonic possession: great strength, levitation, clairvoyance, speaking in languages they never studied. On the show, Gina exhibited precisely none of these.
[There was a video here]
We were told by the anonymous priest performing her exorcism, “Father A,” that during a consultation over the course of Gina’s six-month pre-exorcism preparation process, she mentioned another case he worked on “by name.” That was the only indication of her clairvoyance and we were asked to take the guy’s word for it. A woman who prepared the room before the exorcism spoke of the strength Gina showed last time her demons stirred her: She tossed around cushions and a framed picture. During the exorcism, Gina was physically restrained—a disturbing thing to watch any teenager endure—and LeBar reported, “If she weren’t being held down, the resistance could be such that she would rise up off the floor and go to the ceiling where nobody could touch her.” Coulda woulda shoulda. Gina did speak in tongues, hardly another language, and she only said a string of a few gibberish words at a time at the most.
Even worse was Gina’s description of the demons during a moment of clarity between thrashing and screaming that seemed ripped out of one of the countless Exorcist rip-offs that low-budget filmmakers churned out in the ‘70s. “Zion is African…in the jungle,” she said. Oh, African. In the jungle. How specific. “Minga is a very short woman,” she said. Know thy self; know thy demons.
The supposed demon’s words Gina spouted during the exorcism were flat-out laughable. “The world is getting worse,” she shrieked. “More wars are coming. You understand? Jesus is going to take all of us. Going to burn a lot of people.”
That’s…not how Jesus works? And, “More wars are coming?” No shit, Satan. My cat could have told you that. The other demons inhabiting Gina weren’t even named—Father A drew them out of Gina by referring to them as “other diabolical influences.” Bye, miscellaneous demonic entities. (Hopefully at least one of you is named Felicia.)
[There was a video here]
The exorcism ended quietly and peacefully, a far cry from Father A’s dramatic portending before the ritual: “I could die tomorrow. I could be attacked. I could be taken over.” Jarriel reported that later that night, Gina was still hearing voices and so Father A performed another exorcism, this time on her house. She was then hauled back to the Miami Children’s Hospital where she spent two weeks in the psychiatric unit and was put on the antipsychotic medication Haloperidol.
Regardless and ridiculously, LeBar claimed success. He said that Gina told him, “Those voices, those animals don’t bother me anymore.” He added, “And that’s whether or not she’s had any drugs.” But of course, being a man of faith and not science, that’s not his call to make nor is it at all a safe assumption. The drugs very well could have quieted the voices, as Haloperidol is used to treat Schizophrenia, acute psychosis, and hallucinations, among its several uses.
“I’m much better now. I’m very happy now. I feel free,” said Gina in a follow-up interview that took place two months after the exorcism. Schlanger told Newsweek that in retrospect, he viewed ritual was a “significant risk.” “If part of her delusion is that she’s possessed, it just might confirm that delusion,” he said.
On the episode of Nightline that followed 20/20 that night and covered the exorcism ombudsman-style, segment producer Rob Wallace was asked if he captured “definitive proof” of demonic possession and he answered, “I don’t think so.” However, he didn’t go as far as to invalidate his work, which had done precisely what it was supposed to: attract an audience and make people talk. “I came away believing that possession is possible and that it can happen and that, in fact, we may have witnessed possession and an exorcism of demons,” he said.
[There was a video here]
In 1992, Cardinal O’Connor promoted LeBar to chief exorcist of New York. LeBar reported to writer Michael W. Cuneo in the 2001 book American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty that the 20/20 episode “definitely made a big difference” and that immediately after it aired, he received 20 calls a day seeking assistance with demonic possession. Today, exorcism is a cottage industry, and some less scrupulous priests charge for their services.
There’s indication that there’s more interest than ever in exorcism, at least from within the church under Pope Francis. In May 2014, the Vatican held its ninth and biggest exorcism seminar in Rome. Here’s one story from the Washington Post’s report on the event:
During the conference, the Rev. Cesar Truqui, an exorcist based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. “Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.
Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that “once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.”
The Post estimates there are 500 to 600 official exorcists in the church, which boasts 1 billion members.
To Cuneo, Father John Nicola, a demonization expert in the Catholic church in the ‘70s and ‘80s who consulted on The Exorcist movie, reflected on the Gina ordeal:
“I don’t want to give the impression of knowing more than I really do,” he said. “As Damien Karras said in the movie, ‘There are no experts in this field.’ This is one of the first things I told [author William Peter] Blatty and Friedkin when they invited me up to New York for an interview. So I might be wrong, but I’m concerned about the direction things seem headed. The televised exorcism of that poor girl Gina on 20/20 some years back was utterly bizarre. She probably shouldn’t have received an exorcism at all, let alone a televised one. From my vantage point, some of the priests doing exorcisms these days are too rash, too loose and easy with their investigations. Why do we have all these exorcisms? Are they all absolutely necessary? Somehow I doubt they are.”
Gina wasn’t ever heard from again, though LeBar provided an update in Cuneo’s book:
By our estimation Gina wasn’t suffering from full-scale possession, but rather very severe demonic oppression. While she hadn’t been completely taken over by demonic forces, in other words, she was being seriously attacked by them. The exorcism succeeded in getting rid of her demons, but Gina has severe psychological problems that she still hasn’t dealt with. She’s not hospitalized now; she’s up and about, but she’s definitely not well.
If you are or know “Gina” (or Minga, Zion, Felicia, or any of the other miscellaneous demonic entities mentioned in this piece) please get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to talk about this landmark moment in television history. In fact, if you’ve undergone exorcism—televised or not—I’d love to talk to you.