Father Gary Thomas, an exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, California, once came across a movie that got his particular attention. The film depicted a boy who left his body and got trapped by a demon. “In real life, I prayed over a boy who had the ability to leave his body,” Thomas said. “One time, when he came back, there were three disembodied souls there. They changed his personality completely.”
The boy, whom we’ll call Hector, told Father Thomas that he often left his body. “It can happen,” Thomas said. “What makes us human is we have a corporeal body and soul. But when our soul leaves our body we would be considered a disembodied spirit—separate from angels, who are just spirits.”
The boy had been doing that for a number of years unbeknown to his parents. Father Thomas asked Hector where he would go. “I would just travel and go places and see things and I would come back,” he answered.
One time, when Hector came back, there were three disembodied souls in him and it changed his personality dramatically. “He became someone completely different,” Thomas said. That is why his parents brought him to Father Thomas. Since he was still a minor, his parents accompanied him through the whole process.
“When we started to pray, he became very stiff and his voice changed,” Thomas explained. “My whole team saw this. I said, ‘Obviously, I’m not talking to [Hector]. What is your name?’ It was a different voice with a different name.” He learned that the three souls had come through a curse placed on the family by the boy’s aunt.
Thomas asked, “Is someone in your family practicing witchcraft or involved in curses?”
“Yes, my sister,” the father said.
“What kind of relationship do you have with her?”
“We are estranged. We have no relationship.”
The aunt lived next door in the same duplex. The spirits had said they came in through the curse placed by the aunt. Father Thomas broke the ties between the aunt and the curses and between the aunt and the three spirits. It took two visits to free the boy of the intruders. There was also a spirit of emotion—of lust—that was attached to a demon that needed to be driven out.
The boy claimed he had no idea how he could leave his body. It just happened. “I told him not to do it anymore because it was not safe,” Thomas said.
I’ve spoken with a number of exorcists over the years who say they have encountered disembodied souls—separated from their bodies—that can act in this reality especially if they need prayers and God permits it. In a previous interview with Father Vincent Lampert, exorcist for the archdiocese of Indianapolis, he explained that disembodied souls are often behind reports of haunted houses.
“If everything becomes silent when we begin praying, then it’s a soul in purgatory,” Lampert said. “If it’s evil, things will become more turbulent because a demon is being tormented by the prayer.”
“Souls that are trapped need those prayers to move on to where they need to be,” he said. “I want to discern what kind of soul we are dealing with. It could be a soul in purgatory or one that is damned...”
Msgr. John Esseff, an exorcist in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for more than 40 years, was once called into a haunted house situation with the Smurl family. A couple of exorcisms were performed on the house, but mysterious activity continued. After the story was featured on a TV program in 1986, it even reached Rome. The bishop of Scranton sent in Msgr. Esseff.
“Everyone thought the house was possessed, but it wasn’t,” he said. “There were two sisters that previously owned the home. They were infesting the home as disembodied spirits, still attached to the house.”
Msgr. Esseff prayed for the two former owners. He obtained their names from the deed to the house. The Smurls, whom he described as “fine people,” were Catholic, and joined in the prayers. “We did an enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and said a Mass,” Msgr. Esseff said. “Souls in purgatory depend on our prayers which God, in his mercy, allows to help them.”
The Church teaches that everyone has a body and soul and that they become separated at death, but it does not specifically teach on disembodied spirits. It is settled, however, that people should not go looking for such encounters, which are offered through occult practices.
The Catechism of the Catholic Catechism teaches (2116 and 2117) that “all forms of divination are to be rejected” which includes “recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead, or other practices supposed to ‘unveil’ the future, contradicts the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”
That does not mean that we night not be in a position to witness spirits. Padre Pio and other saints claimed to be visited by souls in purgatory in need of prayers. A friend of mine, Rebecca Lengenfelder, rented a house while in college many years ago in which the landlord’s deceased wife appeared to her three times at the side of her bed. It was so frightening that Rebecca stopped sleeping in that room. She was not Catholic at the time and did not know about praying for souls in purgatory, but many years later after joining the Church, she did pray for the woman.
No one should seek out souls on their own, because that gets into channeling. Neither should anyone ever seek to have their own souls leave their bodies, which is called astral projection.
Father Thomas clearly warns against engaging in astral projection, which is satanic. Advertisements for it offer to teach people to walk through walls, fly around their neighborhood, and meet up with deceased loved ones. Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine is the poster child for astral projection. I read her autobiographical book, Out on a Limb, claiming encounters with extraterrestrials and spirit guides, while I was in college. The fact that MacLaine mentioned engaging in an adulterous affair throughout made it obvious even to un-catechized me at the time that she was sleeping with the devil.
I read another book several years later by a non-Catholic Christian once heavily involved in occult practices. During one out of body experience with dazzling visions, a being stepped in and pulled away a curtain, revealing hideous demonic creatures. He was shaken to the core — the being was an angel revealing the truth behind the diabolical façade of astral projection.