The devil first visited Steve Kissing in 1974 at St. William’s Church, an idyllic Catholic school perched on a crest in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati.
At the time, Kissing was an 11-year-old engaged in normal pre-teen rebellion, stealing candy bars from the local pharmacy and coins from his mom’s lunch money jar. But one dark secret convinced him that he brought on Satan’s wrath because, as Sister Lucy, a nun in the parish often told them: “Do bad things and you befriend the Devil.”
When Kissing experienced his first “visit” in his fifth-grade classroom during social studies, he hoped that it was just a one-time terrifying event, as his classmates morphed into the faces of relatives and famous singers, and everyday objects transformed into shovels, tubas, and even a hypodermic needle.
Although the experience was brief, it left him with a monstrous headache and a creepy feeling that clung to him for days, and he was determined to figure out the cause on his own. The visions continued on and off over the next few months, but when he had one during Mass, he became convinced it was the devil.
Kissing believed this for the next five years. He told no one — parents, friends, teachers, priests — of his episodes.
“As strange as my case may have been, taking something to a certain extreme, I do feel like given the environment I grew up in, it makes sense,” says Kissing. “Like, there was a certain logic to it, as crazy as it seems, but what you grew up believing and it’s being told that the devil is real, and people are talking about the movie The Exorcist … and this sense that one will be punished or weakened by doing bad things.”
The worst that Kissing did — and what he later deducted was the reason for his possession — was killing his gerbils’ babies after his parents told him to give them away or get rid of them.
“I resorted to suffocating them because we were literally overrun with the things and I couldn’t even give them away,” he says. “When I couldn’t find enough takers from classmates at school, I even placed ‘Free Gerbils’ posters on a tree in our front yard, which was on a popular public bus line. That didn’t work either. My fear was that if I couldn’t get the population under control, my parents would insist that I get rid of them all.”
“To this day, I can still recall coming home from school one day and seeing six or so hairless babies in the cage,” he continues. “I just thought that was the greatest thing. It was my first up-close-and-personal experience with birth and the cycle of life. That I would later go on to suffocate some of their extended family speaks, I suppose, to the battle of light and dark, good and bad that I seem to see and sense in almost everything, myself included.”
The conflict extended to his family life as well. Kissing’s parents were young, energetic, and fun, but his dad was an alcoholic (currently sober for decades) who was prone to flipping from jovial to aggravated after a few drinks.
“It kind of reinforced my whole world in the sense that good things could just go bad in a flash,” he says.
As the middle child of four, Kissing was a natural peacemaker and diffuser, which explains, in part, his ability to keep his visions a secret for so many years. But he also had fears of turning into some of his more eccentric relatives, like his Great Uncle Herman, who handed out store-bought bread for Halloween.
He also admits that he just wanted to be normal, kiss girls, and graduate from high school without being sent to an asylum.
So when Satan visited him at church, he felt it was his duty to perform his own exorcism of sorts. At the very least, he thought that he knew what he was dealing with and he had the resources handle it.
On the few occasions he was at home alone, Kissing performed a quick ceremony using the family bible, a rosary, holy water, a few holy cards, a slice of bread (for communion) and, ironically, a stolen votive candle from church.
Artist Jim Jimenez illustrated the graphic novel.
When that didn’t work, Kissing moved on to something else that Sister Lucy said about the three basic “parts” of people: body, mind, and spirit.
By the end of fifth grade, Kissing had been “visited” at least a dozen times, but was also an alter boy serving multiple masses a week (spirit) and earning As and Bs (mind).
The only thing left to work on was his body. Although it wasn’t a popular sport at the time, Kissing’s father was a runner, so when St. William announced the formation of a track team, he joined and later began a 1,080-day running streak that improved his body (and his relationship with his father) but ultimately didn’t cure him.
That came shortly after his first Grand Mal seizure in Columbus during a brunch for the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation in which Kissing hoped to be chosen to represent Ohio at the national level.
Instead, he ended up in the hospital where he was put on medications for seizures that, at the time, doctors thought were related to scarring on the brain from birth. The meds didn’t stop the larger seizures but the smaller ones ceased. It still, however, took Kissing about a year to accept that he wasn’t possessed.
“I grew up in a Catholic bubble,” Kissing said recently on a podcast called “This is Actually Happening.” “Virtually everyone in my community was Catholic. Catholics view the world as enchanted, as one theologian puts it. That God, as well as Satan, is very much in and of this world and can be kind of experienced if you will. And that you have some control over your life based on how you’re living it and what you’re doing to either please God or to please Satan.”
He translated this nightmarish experience into Running From the Devil, a memoir that was recently turned into a graphic novel after Charles Santino, a producer of comics and graphic novels, discovered his book and thought it would translate well into this format.
“I wasn’t a graphic novels fan or even a comic book fan or anything like that, and [have] since kind of developed an appreciation for it for sure,” he says. “And I know that it’s a growing form and I figured if it would help reach some people who wouldn’t otherwise read a traditional book, why not? Plus, I just thought it would be fun.”
Jim Jimenez, who is also behind The X-Men, The Mask, and Grand Theft Galaxy, did the illustrations, which include drawings of Price Hill from the 1970s.
“I think it was cathartic and one of the best things about having written it was [that] I heard from strangers — not like the book was a huge best-seller or anything — but I’ve heard from people around the country who had — no one had exactly my experience, nor would I expect them to — but other people who struggled with secrets of one sort or another, or fitting in, or just kind of general issues of finding one’s way through those always interesting teenage years,” he says. So that was very rewarding.”
To date, Kissing, 55, hasn’t had a seizure — or a headache — since he was 20 or 21. Occasionally, certain colors, like metallics, will give him a hint of what he felt before an episode, but it’s infrequent. He’s since given up Catholicism, too, although he still has a deep respect and empathy for those with faith. And to atone for the gerbils, he's helped his four daughters rescue and house numerous animals, including a chinchilla and a dog.
Parenting also gave him a deeper understanding of what his parents went through when he finally came clean after his first seizure, which helped him write his memoir.
“It gave me an appreciation for how far kids can take certain things that are in their heads,” he says, “and also made me wonder what my own kids weren’t telling me.”
He goes on to explain that, for the most part, he had a idyllic childhood, but he wanted to share his story both to help him process and evaluate it and to let other people with struggles know that they’re not alone.
“It was really more about the power of the kid’s imagination and the secret keeping,” he says. “And just the way we’re shaped by our cultures.”
Steve Kissing is the managing partner and chief creative officer at Wordsworth Communications in Cincinnati. To read an excerpt of his graphic novel or to purchase a copy of it and the original memoir, visit www.runningfromthedevil.com. In March 2019, Kissing will keynote a conference in Cincinnati for imaginary friends and foes called The Unreal Roundup. Although he’s no longer possessed by the devil, he’s happy to hear more about invented adversaries and enemies, who can be registered for free here.