Rated R for strong language and violence.
The Last Exorcist
by Danny Lore
Author’s Note: This piece was commissioned and then declined by a prominent magazine. The only information that has been altered/omitted are locations, as those have been deemed a national security risk. Re-post and share at will.
Naheem is our last great exorcist.
When you point this fact out to him, he barely blinks. It is a title he accepts, not with humility or even resignation, but with frustration. “We should have dozens like me out there on the streets,” he argues, “hundreds. It’s why we’re in this mess.”
When Naheem gets worked up, he gestures emphatically, fingers twitching with every word. He tends towards lecturing, and his topic of choice is the accessibility of exorcism in a post-possession America. He is unimpressed by those who say that the art is too complex, too archaic to pass on to the common man. On the contrary, he believes that becoming an exorcist is a task both necessary and easy, if we are to survive as a people. “If only we were less scared” has always been Naheem’s argument, the lesson he’s blasted at us, from his YouTube channel all the way to the footsteps of congress.
“My dude,” Naheem tells me with a shrug, “Why you think I made those videos in the first place? ‘Cause I thought ya’ll couldn’t save yourselves?”
Naheem tells me this at a Greyhound stop. He’s got his backpack at his feet, filled with supplies. His sweatshirt has the graphic of a black fist prominently centered, and his jeans have splatters of what I later discover is yellow spray paint. He arrived two hours earlier than we’d agreed upon, in order to avoid federal agents on his way through demon-territory.
In less than forty-eight hours, our government will likely pass legislation making Naheem’s battle against hell on Earth illegal.
The first time I met Naheem was when he fought the take-down of “A Desperate Guide to Exorcisms.” The YouTube video was an instant hit in nightmarish times, even crashing the video site one night due to simultaneous views. At the time, Naheem was a name and a skill set, little more. Over his face was a red ski mask, clearly bought for the video. He covered the logo on his sweatshirt with black masking tape, to conceal the name of the Ivy League university he was filming from. When he stepped back, revealing a large white sheet draped near his bed, he was wearing red Converse. As videos continued to be posted, he became a series of ski-masks- red, navy blue, black, gray, green-, the static of voice distortion, a half-dozen bed sheet backgrounds, all in order to protect his identity.
Naheem never masked his goals in similar mystery. “Ya’ll need to protect yourselves,” said the first video. “Every time a demonic contract gets signed those fuckers get more powerful. They’re killing us, they’re possessing our neighbors. Wiping out humanity while wearing our skin. So right here?” Naheem jabbed at his desk with his index finger forcefully. “I’m gonna teach you how to fuck over the devil.”
Naheem’s words were damning- for some, that word is meant literally. Still, even during the well-televised Seance Hearings, Naheem declared he regretted none of it. Every profanity-laden message was repeated, passionately as they aired across the globe.
His was an uphill battle against Residences- those who chose to be possessed- and Helltowns. Entire neighborhoods fled demonic attacks. White communities, scared of black neighbors and brown coworkers, went beyond the individual demonic deals, sealing off entire towns. Seals meant black people were forced from their homes come sunset, lest infernal monsters rose to hunt them. Looking back, none of us should have been surprised at the spike in both possessions and Helltowns. Dr. Rene Jacobs of NYU’s African-American Studies department wrote on the phenomenon: ‘This power is seductive to the weak…[who] want to believe they have power, but are so scared of it being taken away nothing can satisfy. If whiteness alone cannot save you from the existence of blackness, what next but descending into hell seeking new weaponry?’
This interview is not the first time I encountered Naheem. The first time, he stood at the steps of Congress after the Seance hearings ready for the next battle. He’d made a stop before meeting the press, trading his suit and tie for a pair of faded black dockers and a Northface. By this point, he no longer hid behind the anonymity of ski masks. His rounded cheeks and dark eyes had been made for warmth, but in front of cameras there was steely resolve and impassioned devotion to a losing cause.
Naheem took questions like a PR vet. Every sentence was a soundbite, often accompanied by sharp, dismissive snorts about the hearings. When compared to the threat of demons destroying our homes and soul, there was no legal entity threatening enough to silence Naheem.
I only asked one question that day. “When does this crusade stop?”
I’d been assigned to cover Naheem about halfway through his rise to infamy. Somewhere down the line, he went from a young man with a yanked YouTube channel to a contender for the cover of Time Magazine. The Seance Hearings were aired in their entirety on CNN, co-opting every other potential news story. Pundits around the clock- some human, some Residences, some with forked tongues and Armani suits- questioned his methods. Was it fair for him to lash out at demons, they asked. Was he worse than the demons he exorcised? Was he selfish?
CNN, MSNBC and Fox both instituted a 3 minute delay to bleep out Naheem’s responses. Most other networks didn’t. If you have yet to watch Naheem’s appearance CNN alongside Dr. Chad Overton, the noted demonologist, you are missing the origins of one of the most scathing memes of all time.
I called his efforts a Crusade- at the time, I’d dismissed Naheem’s mission. The possessed were people who had made a choice, and none of us were ‘truly’ suffering anymore than we had before. Helltowns had only just begun to spread; in my naivety I believed they would be dismantled. I convinced myself that was why I’d phrased my question the way I did.
Much, much later, I recalled how often I’d heard that word uttered in reference to exorcists. I parroted language promoted by editors and journalists who made deals in order to get bylines. Like many of my colleagues at the time, I did my job poorly.
Naheem took the question more seriously than I did, perhaps because he actually understood the importance of it. “Exorcists were always in the trenches, even before ya’ll noticed the war. Our crusade ends when demons stop invading our bodies, our homes. When black people don’t have infernally-mandated curfews keeping us out of towns and cities we’ve called home for generations. Weren’t you listening? Did I stutter?”
The swell of reporters’ voices crescendo-ed again, until Naheem’s lawyer- fully human, a novelty nowadays, but a devoted and brilliant novelty- dragged him away. Afterwards, another swell began, this one from Naheem’s fans and detractors. Hatred spewed in alternating human and infernal tongues, all of which rolled off of Naheem like holy water.
As I write this, more than 52% of the seats in both US House and Senate are filled by Residences, all of whom traded their bodily autonomy for political and financial gain. There are more Hell Towns than ever before, and there are even reports of parents making contracts for their children.
Trying to save humanity is a dangerous proposition nowadays, but Naheem is less concerned about the risks than one might think.
Naheem gets a rental car. It’s a red sedan, and it’s only then that I realize he’s wearing those red converse, the same ones that he wore in the first of his videos. They’ve acquired some embellishments- ornate curlicues and bubble letters have turned them into a custom job. At first, I make faulty assumption that the markers are arcane; NM86 is scrawled on the outside of the left sneaker. It’s purely aesthetic.
The two of us stop in at a diner right outside of [Redacted]. The waiter and waitress both recognize him, and let us take a booth in the back to start our conversation. Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many white faces to be found here. Trinkets of various faiths hang above the windows, offering symbolic protection if little else. While there are no laws saying this type of window-dressing is illegal- freedom of religion is still, nominally, intact- there is a tension in the air as everyone knows outlawing faith is also coming down the pipeline.
Still, the message was clear about the kind of establishment this was. Naheem orders a plate of food. This close, you can’t help but seek out the wear and tear of his mission on his face. He’s relatively young, having just crossed thirty, and if I didn’t know that I’d likely place him younger. That’s especially true once his food comes out; he eats like a teenager, stuffing his mouth and talking around his meal. He keeps checking his phone. I asked who he was speaking with and he explains he’s trying to line up an actual exorcism for me to watch.
“This one don’t work out,” he said, “There’s a dozen more in this area alone. Wild the kind of requests I get if I say I’m rolling up.”
I ask him to elaborate over his heaping pile of steak and eggs.
“Most of them are bullshit,” he starts. “Nah, that’s not fair. It’s fifty-fifty, but the breakdown is insane.”
And we are smack in the middle of the next lesson: Identifying A Target For Exorcism 101. He tells it in percentages:
If 50% of requests are fake, 90% of that are prank calls. 5% are Residences trying to set Naheem up to get jumped. The remaining 5% are Residences trying to screw over their rivals.
If 50% of his calls, emails, and DMs are real, 30% of those are loved ones trying to save someone they know. Their sister, in a relationship with a demon Residence, using her to say Hey, I’m cool, I love humans, see? Trust my contracts, they won’t hurt humans, they won’t be muscled out of their own world. Or, say, a college-bound woman named Bryce Delacorte who became a Residence in order to get into an Ivy League graduate program.
“She never asked for anything past that,” Naheem points out as he recounts the story. “Demon lets all the brothers and sisters pass her academically- it ain’t hard. Bryce made another deal to get better grades, agrees to recruit others into becoming Residences. First her roommate, than classmates, then teachers. Almost got the board of directors to sign deals turning her school into a Helltown. So I got called in, her mother begging me,” Naheem’s imitation of a rich Connecticut accent is tinged with venom: ‘Please, Naheem, you have just got to save my baby, you must‘…” He shook his head and dropped the voice. “Bryce fucking sued me and her mother. You ever heard something wild like that? Sued us for tryna save her soul. It’s why I hate cases like that.”
Miss Delacorte later attempted to claim it was her parents who arranged her contract. She also claimed to have grown up in a Helltown- her hometown was a Helltown, but the contract was only completed after she’d moved away to her university. Several ex-friends say she felt slighted, overlooked by her first choice school in favor of black applicants. Even without her demonic partner, Bryce Delacorte couldn’t help but lie.
15% think they regret becoming Residences. In a moment of clarity, they beg for Naheem to rescue them. Naheem posts videos about these cases at 3am, looking rightfully as if he’s just lost a fight with the devil. When he gave up on ski masks, you’d see scrapes and bruising across his face, splatters of various fluids across his clothing. He never considered shielding his audience from his failures. “There’s no saving someone that don’t wanna be saved, and these Residences? They just don’t wanna be seen as the bad guys. They don’t wanna lose the contract, they don’t want the punishment that happens when their demon is yanked outta their body- so the second it gets hard, it hurts just a little bit, they start running back to evil. To the monster promising the easy ride, if they hold onto their hatred a little while longer.”
He pauses in both his math and his meal. “4% are the fuckers who really regret it. The ones who looked in the mirror one day, and realized they’re losing. They woke up and felt a demonic thrill of hurting one of my people, or they had to part ways with their lover come sundown, and they can’t handle it. So they reach out to me. Ask me to save their souls. I do it, of course, but you gotta wonder sometimes- these people chose that. They never understand why I don’t hug and kiss when I’m done. They act like the things leaving their mouth during the exorcism aren’t real, it was The Demon, not them…but, my dude, who let that shit in to begin with?”
I can’t help but observe he didn’t have much sympathy for any of them. I ask if this is exorcism fatigue, or if he’s always felt this way.
Naheem laughs. “I didn’t feel bad for these motherfuckers back when they were humans killing my people. You think I’m shedding tears cause they got monsters to commit their terrorism for them? I don’t do exorcisms for the willingly possessed- not anymore.”
The remaining 1% of possessions are those who didn’t sign contracts. Born in Helltowns, forcibly possessed by sneaky independent demons. Before the rise of Residences, Naheem tells me, they were the majority of an exorcist’s work. Now it is at most 1 out of every hundred cases, and that number may have been generous.
After our meal, we go to Naheem’s motel room for a quick look at his supplies. The motel shares all the traits of most highway motels- that is to say, there is very little distinguishing about it. The blue gray rug, the pale bed covers, the decades old television with the remote on a cord- all replicated in hundreds of highway motels. Even in a five star hotel, Naheem’s tools would have stolen the show.
Naheem’s videos have run through the toolkit numerous times. Blessed water from multiple religions- “I always carry offerings for multiple gods, spirits, and entities, just in case”. Handwritten collection of compulsions and prayers, covered in a mass of political and musical stickers. Xacto knife with a handle etched with arcane symbols. Jar of salt. Copic brand markers, MTN brand spray paint. Blackbook that’s equal parts tags from street artists around the world and diagrams for Naheem’s soon to be illegal rituals.
He shows me all of these items with faux nonchalance. He wants to continue playing cool, the way he had in the diner, as if this is just another interview or blog video. Naheem is trembling with excitement, every gesture suffused with opening night-like jitters. If there was ever a performance to not screw up, Naheem had decided it was this one.
I ask him why he doesn’t just use the tools of his own faith, whatever it is (he’s never disclosed). The answer is obvious. “An exorcism isn’t about me,” He explains, letting me pick up the vials of labeled holy water, each decorated during spurts of boredom. “I know exorcism works. It’s about the demons and Residences- what god, what spirit, still scares them.”
“Has there ever been a Residence that wasn’t scared?”
“Nah,” Naheem answers after a moment. “Issue is whether they’re more scared of the compulsion or losing their power.” His cellphone rings, and he excuses himself to answer the call in the bathroom.
In his tools are pieces of the puzzle that forms Naheem’s personal life. Of all the stories, no story is more enthralling than the one in his blackbook. He’s a talented graffiti artist, under the name NahMean86. His style is big, bright colors, fat letters smashed together as if sharing a secret. There is none of his trademark grim determination, none of the obvious rage. Occasionally there are cartoon characters- black boys and girls participating in schoolyard games. One is a play off of hopscotch; the next, his letters are tangled up in a game of double dutch, bookended by pig-tailed girls trying to turn the ropes. Sometimes he switches up his color profile with blues, blacks, and silver and the children are able to play under a safe night sky.
If there is no joy in exorcism for Naheem, there is joy in these pages. On the page is hope- he sketches a world where nighttime play is possible. He pastes pictures of the pieces he’s done next to their sketches, but there aren’t many. Maybe there is another timeline where this is what Naheem is known for.
Before I can finish my investigation, Naheem comes out of the bathroom. “I got something you’re gonna wanna see. At sunset.” Exorcisms aren’t done at sunset. At least, they aren’t specifically done at sunset. I know now there’s something more to Naheem’s previous jitters, although what it is exactly hasn’t quite hit me.
For the first time since we met at the bus station, he’s smiling.
Dr. Rene Jacobs discussed survival strategies for those who sought to refuse demonic influence. “In a world where whiteness is synonymous with the infernal, the automatic assumption is, to defeat it, blackness must become the divine. It must transcend and perfect itself to blot out the evil declaring war against it. To the contrary; we should not seek to become the impossible. Instead, we should rely on what our enemy has forgotten: our humanity. Our passion is not the passion of the divine, but the individual’s love for brothers and sisters. It is our ability to cling to hope and art and love when battered by fear and hate…there is a reason these deals were not made with us.”
Although he would not put it quite the same way as Dr. Jacobs- Naheem has gone on record as believing Jacobs’ work too academic to be put to any “real” use-, it is clear this is Naheem’s approach to exorcism. His bedside manner may be flawed, his attitude occasionally rough around the edges, but he is not trying to be a divine leader. He isn’t the ineffectual leader Residences wish to reduce him to in their counter arguments.
He knows his time to work is limited, and so instead of seeking perfection, he will save as many of us as possible. I was not aware how strongly he believed this until we arrived at our destination.
Naheem’s smile dropped when the news hit.
It was exactly 5:46 p.m. EST, although we were miles away from Washington DC. Every radio station and television channel covered the announcement: The Demonic Protection Act had been passed.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit something about myself I usually avoid discussing in my articles- although, if I were to be honest, it is a fact that colors (no pun intended) most of my writing. My mother is white and made a deal to become a Residence when I was finishing up my higher education. For me, Hell Towns are a nightmarish game of roulette. When the sun goes down, will I be able to walk the streets? Will this particular contract recognize the half of me it’s promised to protect, or will the shadows and brimstone rise up to protect the white community from me? I have seen ‘protection’ circles around Hell Towns glow and smoke underneath me, warming as I blurred the lines of the specific contracts in place.
This is also why I was so willing to call Naheem’s work a crusade- if I admitted to myself that it was important, it would mean another redefinition of my identity and birth, forcing me to choose a side- even if the contracts themselves were still baffled by my existence.
I have never been fond of roulette.
The highway at the town limits of any Helltown are empty at sundown, even if the town’s monsters have chased away the non-white population.
Naheem stops the rental car right at the edge of the circles. We’re close enough to see the demonic letters glow and the smoke of them licks at Naheem’s sneakers threateningly. He is unconcerned as he grabs his backpack. I realize his backpack has been at nearly every exorcism the man has ever done. Large anime and political patches attempt to cover threadbare almost-holes; there are stitch up jobs where something has sliced or clawed it apart.
I’ve reported on exorcisms in the past. I have watched videos of Naheem conducting them. They are intimate rituals, between Naheem and the possessed. When Naheem is lucky, someone helps him restrain the violently possessed- but he’s rarely lucky.
He’s not doing an exorcism on the highway- there is no one to perform a ritual on. There is us, there is the circle, and there are the shadowy figures rising, attempting to pull themselves from the circle in case Naheem steps too close. Perhaps you have never tempted fate and stood at a circle- perhaps you don’t trigger the contracts. The monsters summoned by our skin- no, by fear of our skin- shift rapidly. They are hulking beasts of sulfur; they are sharp and slender speedsters made of smoke and claw. They hiss as they form, as they stalk, as they brace themselves. They are intangible until they have figured out the best way to kill you, the shape that will hurt you the most.
I am in awe, and envious, of Naheem’s lack of fear.
He asks me to hold his phone for him, to record what he is doing live to his Twitch stream- the latest of half a dozen streams taken down and then resurrected. He crouches down outside the circle, placing his salt jar and three vials on the concrete. He holds his Xacto knife tightly.
Naheem faces the camera. “Welcome to the last episode of “A Desperate Guide to Exorcisms.” He’d never before mentioned shutting down his channel; my shock is the cause of the now famous ‘camera shake,’ in spite of rumors that it was Hell itself cheering. “You know me, but not where I come from. So I’m gonna tell you. And when I’m done? I’ve got one last lesson to teach.”
Naheem, born Jamal Naheem Wallis, was born into a family of exorcists. His father was a teacher, and his mother ran a magical supply store. He was an only child, a fact he counts as a blessing, considering what happened when he went to college. By the time he’d turned nineteen, Helltowns were flourishing. There was nothing his family could do to stem the flood of possessions. The white people in his hometown, the ones who looked at his mother’s store as a novelty and his father’s teachings as a threat, banded together.
“That’s the thing with Helltowns the news ignores,” Naheem explained. “It’s not demons shutting us out. This process starts with blacks as scapegoats and sacrifices, and ends with white people signing blood contracts to keep us out. They think we’re to blame for their fears, nightmares, weaknesses. Possession isn’t a tool the demons use to corrupt; the demons are a tool white people use to kill us.”
As his family was forced from their homes, an arsonist- either mystical or human- burned his mother’s shop down, taking his father in the flames. His mother survived, and insisted her son go back to school. She didn’t want him to survive on his skills as an exorcist.
And so Naheem returned. But when he returned, his mind wasn’t focused on his Film major, but on how he could stop what happened to his family from happening to others. And so he started his channel. His first recorded exorcism, a possessed fellow student who’d accidentally opened a gateway in the school basement, was uploaded in April of his third year of college, although there were certainly several before that. And there were several more after, until a possessed student called the authorities on him and he was dragged from his dorm room mid-exorcism.
Naheem hoped that with every tutorial video, he could keep someone else’s family from having to burn. “But,” he said, “I couldn’t just keep doing an exorcism here, another there. That’s not enough anymore. I’ve got to give y’all the skills I’ve been promising since the beginning. I’ve gotta give you the weapons to end the war. So I came back home.”
The video of what happened next is available here for those who want a step-by-step guide to taking down Helltowns. That was Naheem’s goal; that is not my goal in writing this. When this article was arranged, I wanted to capture the personality of the leader of a dying resistance, to immortalize his work before history swept it away.
My goal is not to give you a second to second transcript of what happened next. There are hundreds of those for you to choose from, many of which are accompanied by fascinating analysis. What’s important is all the things that might not be debated for months, and the things that happened when the camera stopped recording.
As Naheem told us during that final video, fighting the individual possessions and contracts was no longer enough. There’s no dismantling the hundreds, thousands of pacts until we do the very thing that white people have been terrified to do from the start: face our fears dead on. That’s what Naheem did when he broke the circle surrounding his hometown. Monstrous ghosts rose from the smoke to fight. Naheem continued his compulsions as if their thick-smoke limbs and claws didn’t touch him- didn’t knock him to the ground, didn’t shake the concrete underneath him, didn’t topple his vials of blessed water.
I watched him cut his hand, using his own blood and the blessings of many to make the monsters run. They reared up and bucked like horses do, their rage and fear tearing thunder and lighting from the sky. I want to be romantic and say that it didn’t touch Naheem, but I saw Naheem struck, over and over, until he could barely stand. Until the fist on his shirt was indistinguishable from the burnt fabric of the rest of his clothing. He shuddered, he collapsed, but he did not fall silent, not once.
Every possession, every seance, was a rehearsal for this very moment. To make sure that his voice did not waver, that when monsters of sulfur roared in his ears and he fell deaf, he did not lose his step. And eventually, each creature lost. First the monsters of the circle, and then the demons wailing in the town. And then the possessed.
We filmed until the nightmare of the ritual was over, until Naheem, now barely breathing, took a step across the circle. By then, there were dozens of white people making their way, angry and confused, towards the highway. I’m not sure if Naheem could even see them now — one long limbed beast had clawed across one of Naheem’s eyes, and surely had blurred his vision.
I’m aware of the power of an angry mob. I’m well aware of the power of an angry white mob, whose power and protection has just been stripped away. There is a chance I am only alive because of my proximity to the rental car. I am ashamed to admit I don’t know whether Naheem made it to sunrise.
What I do know is this: After I stopped recording, I saw Jamal Naheem Wallis reach into his bag and grab a can of bright yellow spray paint and shake it.
I believe he meant to make art.
About the Author
Danny Lore (they) is a queer writer/editor from Harlem and the Bronx. Recent editorial projects include the comic THE WILDS at Black Mask, as well as Death of a Horror Anthology and The Good Fight Anthology. Their writing can be found at FIYAH, EFNIKS and the Nightlight Podcast.