A YOUNG WOMAN WRITHES in a chair, her body contorted, her head swaying and eyes closed. Suddenly, in a deep, guttural voice that sounds nothing like a woman in her 20s, she shouts: 'I won't leave her, she is mine.' A cluster of people close round her in a circle, watching and reciting prayers over the woman who writhes in what appears to be agony. As the incantations fade, she lifts her head and lets out a sinister giggle. She leans forward and roars like a lion and makes faces at those gathered around. A man, dressed in a white shirt and tie, clutches a bible in one hand and points at the woman with the other. 'In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her,' he states defiantly. This is not some Hollywood film set, the video of the ceremony shows a neat office in Kowloon Bay during a midweek afternoon. A real life exorcism is apparently taking place and the small congregation believes they are witnessing Danny Ma Kwok-tung banishing demons from a possessed woman. The ceremony continues, as Ma entreats her to listen to God, and reject the devil. The woman's face twists from softness to an angry mask of rage. Her ramblings sound like the crazed cacklings of a pantomime witch. Her hands slap her thighs as she laughs grotesquely. Ma does not flinch. As the tight knot of Christians starts singing, her hands clasp her ears and she moans: 'Stop singing, it really hurts.' But this devil doesn't want to give up without a tussle. Half an hour later, 'it' still has not gone and the woman, or her demon, depending on your viewpoint, shouts: 'Who are you? Want to chase me away? Don't bother me, you're trouble . . . She doesn't have the power to trust Jesus, she doesn't even have the power to chase me away.' A missionary at the Hong Kong Christian Short Term Mission Training Centre, Ma has been a practising exorcist for 14 years, in which time he has carried out about 400 exorcisms. He offers his services free and says he has helped people from all walks of life, from clerks and housewives, to models and computer programmers. He says even triad gangsters and policemen have sought his devil banishing services. It seems demons are back in fashion. Ma is currently doing in average one exorcism a week in the SAR. Interestingly, The Exorcist was first released back in 1973 and the increase in reports of demonic possession in the US can be charted from then. Figures are not available for Hong Kong. The film's story focuses on the possession of a 12-year-old girl and contains frightening scenes where actress Linda Blair shouts in demonic tones, twists her head 360 degrees and spews green vomit. Somewhere between the 1973 release and the October 2000 re-release of the movie, the ancient rite of exorcism has built up a healthy following. The Exorcist was the second-most-popular film in America during its first week of re-release and has taken more than US$22.3 million (HK$173.7 million) in just three weeks. Hollywood's fascination with exorcism comes as no surprise but the increase in interest in real-life exorcisms is perhaps a little more perplexing. Devils and demons have been around for a long time, the Bible mentions that Jesus Christ was possessed twice, and even conducted exorcisms himself. That was 2,000 years ago but demons, kept alive in the public imagination by Hollywood are enjoying something of a comeback. In the US, the Internet's 'Christian exorcist' Chris Ward says his site receives about 225,000 hits a month. About 400 of those people take the time to fill out the handy 'exorcism application' form posted on his site. The number of official exorcists in Italy, cradle of Catholicism, has gone from 20 in 1976 to more than 300 today. An international exorcism association established by the Vatican's chief exorcist attracted just six practitioners to its first conference in 1993, but the annual event drew more than 200 exorcists and their lay assistants this summer. In America, hundreds of exorcism ministries now exist, some with names like 'Demon Stompers' that offer personal deliverance testimonies and toll-free phone lines for convenient counselling. So why are exorcists suddenly in such demand? Essentially it comes down to one of two things - either the devil is more active or people face greater inner torments in modern life and are searching for answers in unusual places. 'Maybe it is the movie causing all the interest, but I'm exhausted,' Ward, pastor of Logos Christian Fellowship in Leesburg, Florida, told the Chicago Daily Herald recently. 'We find out which ones need the help the most because we can't do everybody. It's a lot to do. These people are in chaos.' The roads to possession include rock music, holding a grudge, ouija boards, greed and fear, according to US exorcists. A few favourites crop up regularly, such as persistent disobedience of God's commands. US spirit names follow a pattern too. Exorcists say they are often named after the behaviour they inspire, such as Lust, Anger or Fear of Elevators. Some even report demons with names such as Scott, Phil, Nutrition and even Inordinate Love of the Chinese. Exorcisms have been taking place in Hong Kong since Christian missionaries arrived in 1841, according to Dr Lo Lung-kwong, head of theology division, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Ma is one of a few active Christian exorcists in Hong Kong, though today's Christians can't agree on their views on devils and demonic possession. Lo says that to him the aim of Christianity is to preach the gospel and practise love and justice, but not exorcism. Ma argues that Christians have to strike a balance. Anglican Reverend Eric Chong Chee-min of Kindly Light Church, who teaches divinity at the University of Hong Kong, says Anglicans have two polar views about exorcisms. Those at the scientific end dismiss all thoughts of possession, evil spirits or ghosts. St John's Cathedral Father Frank Nelson classifies possession as a psychological phenomenon and dismisses the existence of both evil spirits and ghosts. The opposing belief is that evil spirits and ghosts of the dead can disturb the living. 'They believe that the spirits of those who died dramatically, such as in a car crash, will be released,' explains Chong. 'The soul is torn out of the body, lost and doesn't know where to go.' Even the nature of ghosts and demons is in dispute. Church of England Christians generally believe in the existence of both demons and ghosts of the dead, saying some are friendly, some are mean, but Ma insists there is only one kind of devil and he's Satanic. 'There are no friendly spirits. Being benign is a trick to snare people into their trap,' Ma says. Catholic churches in Hong Kong do exorcisms, but follow strict guidelines. While Christian churches allow lay believers in Jesus to do exorcism, Catholics limit the practice to selected priests. Lawrence Lee Len, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong says: 'We won't let lay people do it. Exorcism is a serious matter as it is done in the name of Jesus.' For those who like their exorcisms with a dash of ritual, the Catholic Church offers the most exotic ceremony. Priests wear black or white, wield prayer books, a crucifix and bottle of Holy Water. The priest reads prayers and showers Holy water on the afflicted. 'The possessed will laugh and cry, twist the body, speak some unknown languages and scold people,' explains Father Lee, adding that the devils are struggling with God. While Taoist and Buddhist exorcists calm the spirits and guide them to what they call 'the world of the death', Christian exorcists simply chase them away. Ma's is a very low-key approach. He wears no black gowns, holds no crucifix or bottle of holy water. 'I need nothing but Jesus and Bible,' he smiles benevolently. He goes into the fray armed only with a Bible, and his small band of Christian soldiers who recite prayers and sing with him during the procedure. In most cases, Ma can banish even the most tenacious spirit in a few hours, but some, he says, take longer. Some are so close to their hosts they are loathe to leave. Some people want their demon to stay, believing it helps them make money, he says. In mild cases the evil spirits only disturb the person, in more severe ones the demons take control of both body and mind, which leads to people feeling that a force has moved into them physically, usually with a chill, he adds. Ma says that if the ghost is not banished, being possessed can mean death because the victim can be driven to harm or kill themselves. Ma relates a case from 1995, when two allegedly possessed teenage girls almost lost their lives. The pair claimed they had met their ghost when playing an occult game, the local favourite Plate Spirit. They became so close to it, they said, they even called it 'sister'. The spirit always hung about a tree at the school playground. One day they saw their 'sister' waving to them asking them to jump from a height. They would have done so, adds Ma, had a teacher not stopped them. 'Devils will occupy a person's free mind, step by step,' he warns. Not surprisingly, many people who believe they are possessed end up in psychiatric hospitals, where the medical profession say they are experiencing possession phenomena, not the supernatural. 'Of course it is not spirits,' says Dr Tsang Fan-kwong, the senior medical officer of Castle Peak Hospital, with a laugh. Possession phenomena are symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, or hysteria, says Tsang. The patients are scared, talk to the air, and sometimes smile at nothing, he says. 'They feel that they are taken over by an outside force, and their behaviour and speech are controlled by their so called 'spirit'.' Dr Sing Lee, associate professor, department of psychiatry at Chinese University, says that mainstream psychiatry does not recognise the existence of ghosts in the objective sense, but of course acknowledges the impacts of cultural beliefs in spirits. Some Anglican Church officials would agree. 'Possession and evil spirits are so deep in some cultures, such as the Chinese who grow up with the idea,' says Chong. 'They can unconsciously recreate the fear of possession, which in turn can lead to the belief.' Whether you believe in spirits or not, certain patterns emerge among the so-called possessed. 'They are usually mistress or divorcee, poorly educated, lower class, and have non-Christian religions, such as Taoism and Buddhism,' according to a survey conducted by a Hong Kong doctor in the 1950s, which still holds good today. Spirits seem to prefer to inhabit women and teenagers, Ma says. There are also links that unite the typical possession victim. They have empty, unfulfilled lives, Ma believes. They smoke, drink and gamble; and dabble in fortune telling, witchcraft and magic. He recalls a case where a suspicious wife believed she became possessed after visits to a fortune teller. And a Form 2 boy, who loved playing occult games at school and watching horror films at midnight with the lights off, who one night he felt a wet hand touching his feet. Clearly many spirits get a little help from the well-primed imaginations of their hosts. Imagined or not, there is a growing demand for exorcism, says Ma. 'Demonic possession is getting more and more serious,' he says. Superstition and the financial difficulties are to blame for the situation. 'People feel no security, and seek direction by worshipping idols, witchcraft, and fortune telling,' says Ma. In Hong Kong, adults love fortune-telling, palm-reading, ask rice (contacting the deceased through a medium, usually old women), and witchcraft. About 40 per cent or 6,000 young teenagers play occult games, claims a recent survey by Ma's church. One of the most common occult games is Plate Spirit. Similar to an ouija board, Plate Spirit makes use of a small plate and a piece of paper filled with Chinese words. To tackle the problem, Ma and several other Christian priests from other groups are planning to open a 'Chase Ghost Centre'. Half of the cases Ma received are not genuine possession cases, but mentally ill. To screen them out, the exorcist will first question the person and his family members, and then do a test. 'Evil spirits must have response when we recite prayers, they will scold us, their eyes are angry, their voices will change, their body twist, then most likely they have spirits in them,' Ma says. When the ghost is gone, the person's face returns to normal, he says. 'They will lean backward, belch out a wind and say 'hoo! I am relieved'.' In order to make sure the demons have really left, Ma will test them by reading prayers until he sees the person is calm. So how can you tell if your nearest and dearest is harbouring a demon? The possessed may be able to keep down a job and raise a family, but there are warning signs, says Ma. Personality changes can occur. 'When they talk, they may say something unusual, which is totally out of character,' he says. Some may be frightened and find it hard to breathe when they go to church. Other common signs are girls speaking like old men, women using male voice tones or languages that they have never learnt. Back in Ma's Kowloon office, the woman in the chair is breathing hard. She is a typical victim of occult game. When she was in primary school, she played 'Bug Sin' or pencil spirit. The game is for two. Each holds three pencils and the pair will repeatedly say 'Pencil spirit, pencil spirit, please come out!' 'One day, the spirit controlled me my hand and helped me to do homework,' she says. 'I got 67 marks in the end.' After she got married, she started to sense something was wrong. At night, the living room lights came on automatically, and fresh food went stale. To avoid the 'spirit', she says she and her husband moved seven times in two years, but to no avail. She came to believe that the spirit helped her in her job, and she thought it was her friend. She said she accepted its 'existence', and even believed it brought her luck. 'The spirit started to control me. It caused me discomfort at work.' A Christian friend introduced her to Ma. The exorcism is successful. After more than an hour, there has been no word from her 'demon'. She says she had been aware of what was going on all the time but had felt controlled by the evil spirit and couldn't speak out. When she emerges from the trance-like state she had entered during the exorcism she pronounces the demon gone.