March 06, 1978 12:00 PM

Strange visions of the diabolical have flourished for centuries on the passionate underside of Latin Catholicism. So the faithful parishioners of Porto Alegre, Brazil were only mildly incredulous recently when Eliana Maciel Barbosa, a 16-year-old high school student, announced she had been possessed by the Devil. Satan, she confided, had invaded her bed and had been using her body “for evil purposes.” Though local skeptics pointed out that Eliana’s visions coincided with her introduction to a 21-year-old department store clerk who later became her fiancé, others took her fervid story to heart. Once in Lucifer’s clutches, she told them, she went into trances, raking herself with broken glass and her fingernails. Hoping to cut down on the bloodshed, Eliana trimmed her nails to the quick. “Much to everyone’s shock,” she declared, “they grew back within minutes!”

Then two months ago Eliana reported a second apparition—this one “a kind old man who looked like God” and who directed her to reenact Christ’s Crucifixion. Soon afterward she embarked on a 250-mile pilgrimage to the village of Alegrete, trailed by a ragged procession of gawkers. There, late one afternoon, she hoisted a wooden cross on her shoulders and dragged it to a nearby hilltop. Wearing a white gown and the traditional crown of thorns, she had herself bound to the cross with strips of cloth. (The police, fearing infection, had forbidden the driving of nails.)

For the next 72 hours the clamor of popcorn and hot dog vendors competed with the keening of an ecumenical throng of Catholics, radical evangelicals and followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda sect. Amid a raucous cacophony of prayers, hymns and hysterical moaning, onlookers began bleeding black roosters in an effort to purge Eliana of demons. The girl’s father, meanwhile, obliged her request to make it all “more like Christ’s Passion” by carving stigmata into her hands and feet. Spectators below caught drops of blood in jar lids (see inset photo) that they pressed to their foreheads. “This little girl will be our protector,” proclaimed an ancient crone in the crowd. “She’s a saint,” cried another.

To the local Roman Catholic hierarchy, however, Eliana was a morbid embarrassment. “A pathological case with schizophrenic, paranoiac and hysterical tendencies,” the vicar of Alegrete called her, and the bishop of Porto Alegre agreed. “The Devil is evil,” he said, “but in this case he wasn’t guilty.”

Unperturbed, Eliana completed her time on the cross and descended in apparent good health—though a bit hungry after a three-day diet of bread and water. “The Devil is gone,” she announced happily. “I am at peace.” Her father, however, faces further corporal penance. For the cuts he inflicted on his daughter in the name of Christ, he could be sentenced to up to six months in prison.

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