Stella Immanuel’s theories about the relationship between demons, illness and sex have a long history

Matfre Ermengaud’s ‘Temptation by Lechery’ from a 14th-century manuscript. The British Library

President Donald Trump has a new favorite doctor

On July 27, the president and his son Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted a viral video featuring Dr. Stella Immanuel, in which the Houston pediatrician rejected the effectiveness of wearing face masks for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and promoted hydroxychloroquine to treat the disease.

Journalists quickly dug into Immanuel’s background and found that she’s also claimed that having sex with demons can cause illnesses like cysts and endometriosis.

These beliefs don’t come out of thin air, and she’s far from the only person who holds them.

As a scholar of biblical and apocryphal literature, I’ve researched and taught how these beliefs have deep roots in early Jewish and Christian stories – one reason they continue to persist today. 

Hints of demons in the Bible

As in many religions, demons in Judaism and Christianity are often evil supernatural beings that torment people.

Although it’s difficult to find a lot of clarity about demons in the Hebrew Bible, many later interpreters have understood demons to be the explanation for the “evil spirit” that haunts King Saul in the first book of Samuel.

Another example appears in the book of Tobit. This work was composed between about 225 and 175 BCE and isn’t included in the Hebrew Bible or accepted by all Christians. But it is considered part of the Bible by religious groups like Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Beta Israel and the Assyrian Church of the East.

Tobit includes a narrative about a young woman named Sarah. Although Sarah doesn’t suffer any physical affliction, Asmodeus, the demon of lust, kills every man betrothed to her because of his desire for her.

The Christian gospels are full of stories linking demons and illness, with Jesus and several of his early followers casting out demons who afflict their victims. In one of the most prominent stories told in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters a man possessed by a group of demons who call themselves “Legion” and sends them into a nearby herd of pigs who stampede off a cliff.

Demon lore spreads far and wide

Demons pervade biblical apocrypha, which are stories about biblical subjects that were never included in the canonical Bible and include various associations between demons, illness and sex. 

The early Christian text “Acts of Thomas” was likely composed in the third century and became hugely popular, as it was eventually translated into Greek, Arabic and Syriac. It tells the story of the apostle Thomas’ travels to India as an early Christian missionary. Along the way, he encounters a number of obstacles, including people who have been possessed by demons.

In the fifth act, a woman comes to him and pleads for help. She tells the apostle how, one day at the baths, she encountered an old man and talked to him out of pity. But when he propositioned her for sex, she refused and left. Later that night, the demon in the guise of an old man attacked her in her sleep and raped her. Although the woman attempted to escape the demon the next day, he continued to find her and rape her every night, tormenting the woman for five years. Thomas then exorcises the demon.

Astaroth rides a winged beast and clutches a snake.
A 19th-century drawing of Astaroth. Louis Breton

Another demon story is found in the “Martyrdom of Bartholomew,” which probably dates back to the sixth century. Bartholomew also travels to India, where he finds that the inhabitants of a city worship an idol named Astaroth who has promised to heal all of their illnesses. But Astaroth is actually a demon who causes afflictions that he then pretends to cure in order to gain more followers. Bartholomew reveals the farce and performs several miracles to prove his own spiritual prowess. After forcing the demon to confess to his deceit, Bartholomew drives him into the wilderness.

Apocrypha like the “Acts of Thomas” and “Acts of Bartholomew” were popular in the medieval period, and even those who couldn’t read or write knew these stories. They also helped fuel the “witch craze” of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which zealous Christian leaders persecuted and killed thousands of people – mainly women – for their beliefs, often concocting claims that they consorted with demons.

Beliefs that persist today

It’s clear that Immanuel has profited from her beliefs in the supernatural, especially in right-wing and religious circles. She has over 9,000 followers on Facebook and over 94,000 on Twitter, with a dedicated platform as a pastor. In fact, she casts herself as a prophet and destroyer of demons.

It isn’t difficult to find other modern Christians who connect demons, sex and health issues. The conservative Christian magazine Charisma published a story claiming that sex with demons causes homosexuality. And researchers recently were able to show that belief in supernatural evilcould predict negative attitudes toward abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, extramarital sex and pornography. 

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Meanwhile, many evangelical Americans believe that Trump is God’s chosen one, who has been tasked with fighting actual demons. Trump’s personal minister, Paula White, is just one conservative figure known to espouse these views.

If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has shown how many on the religious right continue to rely on faith over scienceStudies have already emerged showing how the tension between faith and science has influenced many conservative Christians to resist the use of masks and other public health responses to the pandemic.

With many conservative Christians sharing some of the same views about demons as Immanuel – and conservative Christians forming a core base of support for the president – Trump’s promotion of the doctor’s beliefs makes perfect sense. 

He’s preaching to the choir.

What we know about American tourists’ deaths and illnesses in the Dominican Republic

Since the start of the year, at least seven American tourists have died while vacationing in the Dominican Republic, and questions are also being raised about several more deaths in 2018. Several of these deaths reportedly occurred after the visitor complained of feeling ill after eating a meal or drinking out of the hotel minibar. The U.S. embassy in Santo Domingo says there is no proof at this point the deaths are linked.

CBS News spoke today with César Duverany, a spokesperson for the Dominican Republic’s foreign ministry, who said the cases are isolated out of more than 6 million tourists, and that this doesn’t mean the country is unsafe. He noted that the government has a special body focused on tourism safety, with protocols in place that have not changed.

Several of the deaths were reported to be a heart attack, which health officials say is the most common cause of death for Americans on vacation. Here is what we know these cases so far.

Jerry Curran

Age 78. From Bedford, Ohio.

Died on January 26, 2019 at the Dreams Resort in Punta Cana.

Curran died three days after arriving in the Dominican Republic with his wife. His daughter told WKYC, “He went to the Dominican Republic healthy and he just never came back.” His daughter said Curran fell ill after dinner and drinks the night of his arrival and that his cause of death includes pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs, which is listed the cause of death for at least three other Americans in the Dominican Republic this year.

Robert Bell Wallace

Age 67. From California.

Died on April 14, 2019 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana.

Wallace died after drinking from the minibar in his hotel room at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, his family said. Wallace’s cause of death has yet to be determined, but his niece told Fox News that her uncle had been in good health before his arrival and he became unwell shortly after drinking a glass of scotch from the minibar in his room and died in a hospital three days later.

Miranda Schaup-Werner

Age 41. From Pennsylvania.

Died on May 25, 2019 at the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville Hotel.

The U.S. State Department confirmed Miranda Schaup’s death on June 4; she died on May 25. She was staying at the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville Hotel to celebrate her ninth wedding anniversary with her husband. Her family said she collapsed and died after she had a drink at the hotel. Preliminary autopsy results released by Dominican authorities said she had fluid in her lungs and respiratory failure. The FBI is conducting toxicology tests. Less than a week later, two more Americans died at another hotel on the same Bahia Principe resort.

Nathaniel Edward Holmes and Cynthia Ann Day

Age 63 and 49. From Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Died on May 30, 2019 at the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana.

The couple were found dead in their hotel room on May 30. There were no visible signs of violence. However, several bottles of medicine were found, such as Galanpertin, Oxycodone, and Loxofen. Holmes and Day had been staying at the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana since May 25. A statement from the Dominican Republic National Police said that an autopsy concluded that the couple had respiratory failure and pulmonary edema, a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs.

Autopsy results showed some similarities between their cases and Schaup-Werner’s. The resort insists the deaths of the three Americans were unrelated.

Leyla Cox

Age 53. From Staten Island, New York.

Died on June 10, 2019 at Excellence Resorts in Punta Cana.

Cox died the day after celebrating 53rd birthday. U.S. Embassy officials told her son her death has been ruled a heart attack, but her son said, “I do not believe it was natural causes.”

Joseph Allen

Age 55. From New Jersey.

Died on June 13, 2019 at Terra Linda Resort in Sousa.

Allen’s family said he was on good health and traveled to the Dominican Republic frequently. His cause of death has not been released. Allen was there with friends who said he complained about being hot at the pool before going to shower and lie down; he was found dead the next day.

Tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic in 2018

Mark Hurlbut Sr.’s son says he was told by a Dominican Republic coroner that his father died from heart and respiratory problems last year in Punta Cana. Mark Hurlbut Jr. said his father and his dad’s wife felt sick the night before he died. “She woke up, and he didn’t,” Mark Jr. told CBS Phoenix affiliate KPHO. “She told me that as she found him that he had something green coming from his mouth.”

David Harrison died in July 2018 at the Hard Rock Hotel, the same hotel where Robert Bell Wallace died this year. According to the New York Post, Harrison died of pulmonary edema and respiratory failure, but his wife said he felt sick with an upset stomach days before his death and woke up with a full-body sweat on July 14 and couldn’t speak.

Yvette Monique Sport, 51, of Glenside, Pennsylvania died at Bahia Principe Resort in Punta Cana of a heart attack in June 2018. According to the New York Post, her sister said Sport had a drink at the minibar insider her room, went to bed, and never woke up.

Reports of tourists sickened in the Dominican Republic

A New York woman said she became ill and spewed blood, leaving her without any taste buds, after taking a sip of soda from the minibar at Grand Bahia Principe Resort in La Romana in October 2018. This is the same resort where three Americans died in May 2019.

A Colorado couple claims they were sickened at same hotel where three Americans died in May. They have since filed a lawsuit against the owners of the Grand Bahia Principe Hotel La Romana after a doctor determined they suffered insecticide poisoning while vacationing at the hotel in June 2018.

A group of Oklahoma teens from Deer Creek High School on a senior trip fell “violently ill” on June 8 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana, the same hotel where Harrison and Wallace died.

A Florida man who went to the Caribe Club Princess Beach Resort and Spa at Punta Cana in May claims he became “severely sick with stomach pain while swimming in the pool.”

More than 50 Jimmy Buffett fans from Oklahoma became ill during an all-inclusive trip to Hotel Riu Palace Macao in April. Some people in the group tested positive for salmonella, while others did not. Symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, chills and fever.

First published on June 18, 2019 / 4:36 PM