'I rang the bells and she writhed in pain': inside the terrifying world of modern exorcisms where mentally-ill teenagers are sent to be 'cured' by the church

It sounds like a scene from horror classic The Exorcist, but this disturbing footage of Natalia's thrashing, marionette limbs and her tormented screams is very real.

For Natalia – who lives in Buenos Aires – an exorcism seemed like the only way to get her life back. She had been complaining for weeks of strange urges and impulses, as well as voices telling her to do things she wouldn’t usually do.

Her parents, desperate to help their vulnerable daughter, believed this could be the work of the devil, so they took her to see prominent exorcist Manuel Acuña – the only man who seemed to have the cure.

Manuel, known to his thousands of followers as the Padre, has exorcised hundreds of girls just like Natalia – believing that the cures to their mental health problems are religious, rather than medical.

In Natalia's case, the Padre, sweating profusely, spends an hour locked in combat with the devil, chanting to himself as the girl's horrific screams echo around his church, in the suburbs of Argentinian capital Buenos Aires.

The young girls who believe they're posessed

Many of us would imagine that exorcisms don't exist outside of horror films, but the truth is that they are still relatively commonplace in some parts of the world.

In Argentina, where religion plays a huge role in society, the Padre has found that there is a huge demand for exorcisms, often for vulnerable, unwell girls who need help from doctors.

During the procedures, he shouts, brandishes crosses and rings bells to ward off demons, while his subjects thrash and moan – supposedly as a result of the high-energy battle between the Padre and the devil.

And now the enigmatic figure, who often appears on local TV shows, has been made the subject of a new BBC3 documentary, Exorcism: The Battle for Young Minds.

In the show, journalist Andrew Gold meets the Padre, who he says was clearly influenced by the big-screen depiction of exorcisms.

"His church was adorned with movie posters superimposing his face onto characters from the X-Files and The Exorcist," Andrew told Sun Online.

But when Andrew took part in an exorcism – by ringing bells around Natalia's head as she lay strapped to the ground – the sinister reality set it.

"When watching videos, there’s a distance that makes the exorcism process seem either paranormal or a little embarrassing," Andrew says.

"But to actually be in the room is something else.

"Initially keen to get involved, I’d taken hold of the bells that supposedly drove off the devil.

"But standing over Natalia, the gravity of her situation dawned on me. This was a woman at my feet who I perceived to be suffering from a serious mental illness.

The self-harmer sent to be exorcised

After the exorcism, Natalia claims that she is feeling better, and the Padre is eager to chalk her experience up as another win for his church.

But when Andrew checks in with Natalia again later on, he learns that her symptoms have not improved at all.

And in other cases, it appears that the Padre's work can even harm the people he exorcises.

That was what happened when 17-year-old Candela came to him, asking for help.

When Andrew meets Candela, her mum explains that she suffers from bulimia, hears voices in her head and cuts herself.

"I tried to kill myself on Monday," the teenager adds, holding out her hand to reveal a lattice of red scars over her wrist.

Candela has been to see doctors about this, but psychiatrists have all wanted to check Candela into their clinics.

Her mother refused, and instead brought her for a consultation with the Padre, who recommended an exorcism as a solution to Candela's problems.

"What worried me was the thought of Candela, already in a suicidal state, being subjected to his violent methods," Andrew says.

"It made me wonder how many other teenagers were shunning medical advice in favour of quick-fix promises."

'I'm free of evil. It's a relief'

Candela's mother watched on, desperate, during her daughter's exorcism.

Throughout the procedure, Candela twitches and cries, a cross resting on her chest as the Padre shouts at her and chants biblical slogans in her ears.

"The power burns you," he says, supposedly speaking to the devil within. "The power commands you. Come out now in the name of Jesus."

"No," Candela shouts in response, supposedly speaking the words of Satan. "She belongs to me".

When the ordeal is over, Candela says she feels like a weight is off her shoulders.

Smiling and relieved, she hugs her mother and says: "I'm free of evil. It's a big relief after two years."

But when Andrew checks in with her months later, he learns that her mental state has deteriorated substantially.

So why would she say she feels better in the aftermath of the terrifying ordeal?

A booming exorcism business

Often, just believing that something will make you better can improve your condition in the short term – and this may explain why Candela was initially pleased with her exorcism.

But this boost won't last forever, and many of the young women exorcised by the padre need long-term help from medical professionals, not a few hours with cross-wielding demon-slayers.

In the documentary, Andrew speaks with doctor Eduardo Garin, who is used to losing his patients to paranormal figures like the Padre.

He believes that exorcism is so popular because it genuinely appears to work at first, as a catharsis.

But the doctor warns: “I can only tell you as a doctor and as a scientist. It is a dangerous practice.”

He adds that its effects can only ever be beneficial for a year or two, until a new psychological episode makes the patient go back to feeling like they did before.

Buenos Aires is actually home to one of the highest proportions of psychologists per person, but poorer residents like Candela often don't have access to them.

This, plus ingrained taboos around mental illness, have helped to fuel a booming industry for exorcists who claim to offer quick cures to serious issues.

So, if exorcisms aren't real, why does the Padre do it?

His opponents say it's all a money-making scheme.

The Padre, who doesn't pay his volunteer staff, collects contributions to the church from everyone he treats or holds consultations with, and the exorcism business has elevated him to a minor celebrity in Argentina.

He also offers paid-for classes about paranormal phenomena at his church, and his spiritual gift shop sells an array of goods which he has supposedly blessed – including plastic bottles of "holy water".

At the end of the BBC documentary, a furious Padre inexplicably flips and demands to be left alone, calling reporters "snotty brats" and "little punks" when they try to press him on the controversies surrounding his exorcisms.

"You got the scandal you were looking for," he rages. "And you came to defraud the church's trust.

"They just want Argentina to look bad. They're English. They're the enemy – they always have been. They took the Falklands."

With that, the Padre storms off, without addressing any of the serious concerns.

Andrew still isn't satisfied. He says: "I'd spent weeks watching this man in his battle to free young minds.

"The deeper I looked, the more I worried that teenagers were looking up to this powerful figure, instead of seeking professional advice.

"Having spent time with Natalia and Candela, I couldn't deny that they seemed happier after their exorcisms. I only wondered how long it would last."

Exorcism: The Battle For Young Minds is available now on BBC iPlayer 

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