Ralph Sarchie exudes an aura of intense strength when he walks into a room. A fit, middle-aged man with heavily tattooed arms (pictures of his daughters and tough cop tattoos, like one that reads New York Untouchables) and a buzz cut, who speaks with a Queens accent straight out of Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Sarchie has a rare and perilous profession. He is a demonologist and exorcism assistant.
Last summer, a major Hollywood studio released a movie loosely based on Sarchie’s life and work. Deliver Us From Evil stars Eric Bana, who previously played Hector in Troy (2004), as Sarchie, and Edgar Ramirez, who appeared as a CIA officer in Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty (2012), as a Jesuit exorcist. The horror flick, a modest success at the box office, was based on Sarchie’s chilling memoir Beware the Night, which described some of his encounters with the demonic.
I met Ralph Sarchie for lunch at a kosher Central Asian restaurant in my neighborhood, exactly one year after reading his captivating, yet deeply unsettling book. He came in with a big police-issue duffel bag and asked to be seated in the far corner of the restaurant, with a full view of the door. In the bag and boxes that fill the trunk of his modest car are the tools of his trade: blessed candles, blessed oil, and a relic of the True Cross. He always wears another relic, one of Saint Philomena, around his neck.
Over skewers of kebabs and Uzbek pilaf, we discussed for several fascinating hours his ongoing “Work” as a demonologist and his former “Job” as a decorated, street-smart urban cop. Sarchie had just come from a case a couple of blocks away, where there was suspected demonic activity in a private home. “I took care of her house,” he mentioned enigmatically, moving to another subject right away. In his book and the many interviews he has given over the years, Sarchie has never revealed the identity of the people he helps.
Growing up in an Italian-American family in a heavily Jewish area of the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, Sarchie was fascinated by the occult, and the movie The Exorcist made a tremendous impression on him. After graduating college with a degree in criminal justice in 1984, he started working for the NYPD and was stationed in one of the darkest and deadliest corners of New York: the drug- and gang-infested Alphabet City in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Patrolling the syringe-littered rooftops and alleys of dreaded Avenue D, the young officer had his first glimpse of the world of the diabolical.
That predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood, previously inhabited by Jews and Italians, was a hotbed of Santeria and Palo Mayombe, pagan sects that developed in the Caribbean from the West African beliefs of former slaves and their descendants. These religions combine external elements of Catholicism with devotion to such gods as Shango and Olòrún of the Yoruba and Kongo tribes. Practitioners of these dark beliefs engage in animal sacrifice (occasionally, human sacrifice) and rob graves. Sarchie describes the Santeria and Palo Mayombe deities as devils. The young patrolman noticed an unsettling pattern of beheaded chicken carcasses, makeshift altars with menacing statues, and candle droppings in many of the apartments on his beat.
Sarchie ended his 20-year police career in the most violent precinct in America, the 46th Precinct in the infamous South Bronx, known as the Alamo. Like Alphabet City, the South Bronx had fallen victim to mass immigration and diversity and is a hotbed of Santeria, Palo Mayombe, and other sinister sects. In New York City today, it is the epicenter of both criminal and demonic activity.
After a few years of working as a cop, Sarchie reached out to Ed and Lorraine Warren, Catholic supernatural investigators mentioned in the book The Amityville Horror. His first case was the investigation of disturbing events on a farm built over American Indian land in the town of Saugerties in Upstate New York. Since then, he has assisted with scores of exorcisms, cleansed hundreds of homes from the demonic presence (minor exorcisms), and conducted thousands of investigations.
Sarchie has never charged a penny for his assistance. And judging from his two constantly ringing cellphones, there are a lot of people in need. (“I don’t have hobbies anymore,” he says.) In recent years, he says, demonic activity has been on the rise, thanks to an increased dabbling in the occult and a worldwide collapse of traditional morality. Aside from the better-known phenomenon of possession, demons can attack in situations known as infestation and oppression. The former consists of the unsettling, unexplainable noises and apparitions like those present in a “haunted house,” and is tied to a physical place. The latter is a series of horrifying physical and psychological attacks on an individual.
According to Sarchie, there are several risk factors that make a person more susceptible to demonic attack. First is one’s participation in a satanic ritual. As he explained, there are two types of satanists. The visible ones are the dabblers who “run around, acting like idiots,” desecrating cemeteries and wearing pentagrams over loose black clothes. The more dangerous ones, Sarchie says, are generational, well-organized Satan worshipers, who in daily life are often very successful professionals. Numerous people who seek Sarchie’s help were drawn into satanism as kids—oftentimes by their own parents. In Sarchie’s opinion, most kidnapped children end up in organized, secretive satanist covens. He believes both Charles Manson and the infamous “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz were members of West Coast-based covens.
The second and more common risk factor involves people who are seeking “hidden knowledge” and engaging in occult practices. This could mean anything from playing around with tarot cards or a Ouija board to taking a class in transcendental meditation. All of these seemingly innocent and even fun activities open a door into the world of the demonic.
Then there is the fact that millions of women today have had abortions. According to both Sarchie and the Vatican’s official exorcists in Italy, this is a major risk factor for possession. The rise in the number of abortions over the decades has coincided with a spike in demonic attacks. In addition, some cases described by both Sarchie and numerous Italian exorcists involve demonic attacks brought about by curses. Especially dangerous, according to Sarchie, are curses related to Latin American cults. In the worst possession case described in his memoir, the afflicted individual was the target of such a curse and remains possessed to this day.
Having assisted in several exorcisms, Sarchie says he has witnessed some terrifying events, though nothing as dramatic as the levitation and head-turning in The Exorcist. But Sarchie claims to have witnessed a man whose forehead split open; another man who talked in a language he had no way of knowing; extreme violence from small and frail women; and the sheer, preternatural hatred in the eyes of the possessed, worse than anything he’s seen in the eyes of brutal criminals. There have also been the nauseating smells, the obscene and appalling threats, and the disgusting, terrible visions that assault the senses of anyone assisting in an exorcism.
Still, Sarchie does not ascribe every sinister, mysterious occurrence to the demonic: “Nine out of ten of the cases I deal with could be handled by the people themselves through prayer, sacramentals, and a relationship with the Blessed Mother,” he says.
Robert McKenna, a former Dominican monk who conducted countless exorcisms in the American Northeast, became Sarchie’s longtime friend and mentor. McKen na is a sedevacantist (a Catholic who believes that the current Pope is not truly the pope), and after years of irregular church attendance, Sarchie, a former altar boy, became a sedevacantist and remains one to this day. He refers to Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis as “antipopes” and believes that the ordinations of priests according to the revised Rite of Ordination promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968 are invalid.
Ralph Sarchie is currently assisted by a six-member team, including an experienced clinical psychologist. He chose the team members out of hundreds of people who were interested in helping with his “Work.” After a meticulous investigation, cases deemed genuine possession are referred to a priest who works with Sarchie’s team. (Sarchie refused to elaborate on the priest’s identity or whether the priest is a sedevacantist.) Since Sarchie rejects the validity and authority of what he calls “the Novus Ordo Church,” he claims that the authority by which he engages in his “Work” comes not from the Church (as the Catholic Church says it must) but directly from God—since, as the Gospels record, Jesus performed exorcisms—and from “thousands of years of tradition.”
Ralph Sarchie believes with the sincere zeal of a crusader, and his intense discussions of his faith occasionally drew curious gazes from the mostly Soviet Jewish patrons of the restaurant. He unashamedly considers his sedevacantist version of Catholicism the one true religion and regrets that Russia has not yet been consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Yet he openly confesses that non-Catholics can be saved, and for this he has been called a heretic by other sedevacantists.
“When you deal with the Devil, you see things in a different light,” responds Sarchie to the criticism. At the same time, he is no Milquetoast, all-inclusive Christian: “God is loving,” Sarchie says, “but He’s not nice.”