Real or imagined, the devil is tormenting this sober industrial city in northwestern Italy.
Some believe a sinister presence lurks in the shadows along the city’s broad, arcaded boulevards and haunts the medieval squares in the nearby mountain hamlets of the Piedmontese Alps.
The city likes to be remembered as the former seat of the House of Savoy dynasty, the first capital of a unified Italy, the resting place of saints and religious relics, the home of the Fiat auto empire.
It’s also the home of the Shroud of Turin, which some believe was the cloth with which Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion.
But Turin has a darker reputation as a haven for Satan and his disciples.
There is no proof, of course. But what is certain is that the city has six official exorcists, an underground corps of devil worshipers and thousands of people dealing in the occult.
Specialists in the occult maintain that Turin forms part of two “magic” triangles representing good and evil.
Along with Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Lyon, France, the city is reputedly a center of “white magic,” a positive force. Turin is also said to join London and San Francisco as a stronghold of “black magic,” which is considered harmful or diabolic.
“Turin has always been a place of great spiritual and magical ferment,” says Giuditta Dembech, a journalist and author of the book “Torino: Citta Magica” (Turin: Magic City). “It has some of the qualities of places like Mecca, Jerusalem and Lourdes.”
The city first attracted widespread notoriety as a devil’s playground four years ago when Turin’s archbishop at the time, Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero, appointed six official exorcists.
Exorcism, the process of casting out demons, is an accepted practice in the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has frequently stated that the devil is a pervasive reality in today’s world.
The naming of the six exorcists in Turin followed a directive from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for churches to exercise greater control over exorcisms.
“Unfortunately some of our priests had gone a little too far and were performing exorcisms too hastily,” says Canon Giuseppe Ruata, who heads Turin’s pool of official exorcists.
Two events in 1988 further contributed to the city’s satanic image.
First, the Pope spoke of the devil during a visit to Turin, saying: “From the history of salvation, we know that where there are saints there is also another person who presents himself not by his name but the name of others. He is called the prince of this world, the demon.”
Then, a month later, Turin hosted a weeklong conference on demonology that bitterly divided local politicians, churchmen and academics.
Church officials deny that Turin has a greater problem with the devil than any other city, pointing out that Milan tops Italy with eight exorcists of its own. Milan has a population of 1.5 million, compared to Turin’s 1 million.
“Turin has an image it doesn’t deserve,” Ruata, 74, said in an interview at the archdiocesan offices. “I wouldn’t make Turin out to be the capital of the demonic empire.”
Most agree, however, that Turin has an unusually high number of magicians, seers, faith healers, mind readers, astrologers and others dabbling in superstition and witchcraft. They advertise continuously on private television and radio.
“There are more than 100 of these types of agencies in Turin,” Ruata says. “They charge $400 as the initial fee for removing a spell. It’s a huge form of trickery.”
Ruata says he is approached every day by people who believe they are possessed by the demon. Nearly all, he says, are people with psychological problems or are superstitious.
Actual demonic possession occurs in “perhaps 2% or 3%" of the cases, Ruata says. He says he has personally performed only one real exorcism.
“Real diabolical possession involves a great aversion for the sacred,” he says. “The possessed will spew out terrifying curses and speak foreign languages which they never learned. Sometimes levitation occurs. They rise up, then fall back like a sack of potatoes. It’s horrible. Then the phenomenon goes away and they don’t remember anything.”
While there are people in Turin who turn to the church to combat demons, there are others who pay devotion to Satan in secret, ritualistic ceremonies.
Ruata says devil worshipers have robbed churches of hosts, the bread consecrated for the Eucharist, and other objects for use in “black Masses.”
Gianluigi Marianini, a Turin television personality, political figure and demonologist, claims the city has 40,000 satanic followers.
“The ones I’ve known are everyday people,” says Marianini, 71, stroking his white goatee. “They don’t give any outward sign of anything. They just have this dark corner of their lives. They are usually people who are frustrated with their lives and choose this parallel religion out of disillusionment.”
Dembech, the author, disputes the 40,000 figure.
“It’s already hard enough to find 40,000 perfect Christians,” she writes. “The real Satanists in this city can be counted on one hand.”
Turin’s devil worshipers have sometimes left behind signs of their activities.
Last year, for example, a satanic cult was blamed for desecrating an ancient church in the suburb of Pianezza, plundering the tombs of clerics buried there centuries ago and using the bones for some macabre ritual.
The bones were found scattered around the church and some tombstones were crushed.
Marianini says several young girls found murdered in the countryside south of Turin in recent years have born signs of ritual sacrifice. “The girls were killed by sword or dagger, their money and jewelry were untouched and there was no sexual assault,” he says.
Marianini says he’s seen basement temples used for black Masses. They are equipped with a black marble altar, an upside-down crucifix, black candles and wooden balls “which are said to contain pieces of human hearts,” he says.
During black masses, according to eyewitness accounts, participants at times show up hooded and the ritual sometimes ends in sexual orgies.
An example of the undeserved attention given the devil occurred in 1988 when the murders of a young Turin couple were blamed on a satanic ritual, drawing such lurid headlines in the normally staid local newspaper, La Stampa, as “Fear of the Devil Killed Them.” In May, a court put an end to the hysteria, ruling that the pair were victims of a cocaine ring. “The Devil Acquitted,” said La Stampa.
The Rev. John Navone, an American theologian at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, believes satanism is no more prevalent in Turin or Italy than in other modern, industrial societies.
“What about Los Angeles or Miami or Seattle?” he asks. “I think there is probably more satanism in the United States than Italy. The fact that it is a scandal in Italy is perhaps a sign of the society’s health.”