Steve: By the time we got into the rainforest, it was early afternoon and the sounds were rich. Frogs and birds were chirping, the butterflies were gorgeous. There were beautiful beatles everywhere. I was turning over logs and things, looking for things like I was a little kid.
Noah: In August of 2001, Steve Peck was in the rainforest in Vietnam studying insects. Steve was a newly minted biology professor. He was the head of a young family, a father to five kids he was raising with his wife, Lori. In a lot of ways, his life was just beginning.
Steve: Everything was new, new, and filled with opportunities. And so things like this chance to go to Vietnam really seemed exciting.
Noah: Steve was a devout Mormon and alone in the jungle. Cataloging insects, he felt like he was in contact with something bigger than himself. This sense of the importance of this little patch of land came over me. There was a profound sense that this place mattered to God.
Steve had no way of knowing how that trip would change his life
Steve: Before this, I was a pretty typical latter day Saint. I would go to church. I’d take my family to church. I would pray often. I’d pray over my family and offer blessings. I would say, I know that these things are true, that God is all powerful and that Satan has no power or influence over God. And the things that happened during this event made no sense from that light. I accepted that Satan could block out God and I accepted that I was under his power and there was nothing that anybody not even God could do to get me out of that.
I had been held captive by demons and tortured and had my entire family captured. And, and this had been one of the worst things that had ever happened to me.
Narrator: I’m Noah Rosenberg. And this is Believable, from Narratively. It’s a show about how our stories define who we are. Our producer, Ash Sanders has this story.
Ash: Steve Peck had been back from Vietnam for six months when the headaches started
Steve: This affected my entire head and it really felt like somebody was taking a sledgehammer to them. At the same time, my vision started to look funny. I would look at lights and there would be a fuzzy haze.
Ash: And these symptoms persisted for months. Steve went through a series of tests, sleep studies and spinal taps.
They’d given him eye drops for an eye infection and drugs for his headaches. Nothing was working and it was only getting worse.
Steve: My son had a birthday party and at the birthday party, I started feeling really sick. I had trouble forming words and remembering how to say things.
Lor: I was really worried and concerned.
Ash: That’s Lori Peck, Steve’s wife.
Lori: He woke up and he threw up. And he couldn’t remember the kids’ names.
Steve: It was disturbing to me. And it was really disturbing to Lori because it was obvious that something was really wrong. That’s the beginning. That’s where it started.
Ash: Lori took Steve to the emergency room in the middle of the night. The doctors gave him antibiotics and sent him home. And the next morning he was feeling a little better, but later that night, when he was trying to get some rest, Steve’s head started pounding again.
Steve: And all of a sudden I noticed that the lamp over our head was starting to glow this beautiful green and that the bed spread itself was starting to shine. And out of the lamp, these beautiful sprays of green were coming out
And my head quit hurting. I just thought this is amazing. This is wonderful. And I woke up Lori. I said, look at this it’s beautiful.
Lori: He was just very agitated. And he was seeing things. And he would go downstairs, I would bring them back upstairs, get them into bed. He would be back up out of bed again, seeing things out in the backyard that really they weren’t there
Ash: Through the bedroom window, Steve watched as crowds of people marched across the backyard. He saw elephants grazing in the Apple orchard. And none of it had the fuzziness of a dream. To him, it didn’t seem odd.
Steve: I didn’t think, or it didn’t occur to me that I should question this reality.
Ash: Lori was worried.
Lori: I have never seen him act like that. He’d never act like that before that night.
Ash: She stayed up watching Steve as long as she could, but at some point she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore. Steve was wide awake, watching the fountain of light coming from the lamp.
Steve: And all the sudden, people started to arrive in our room and there were groups of four or five people wandering through our bedroom and they were looking at things like it was a museum. I couldn’t really hear what they were saying. They were talking quietly. There was something about them that was so frightening. I was scared to death of them. Finally, I spoke up and I said, um, could you people go? And they turned around and looked at me. It was apparent that I had done something that wasn’t to be done.
And they told me that I was now part of the Great Satan Walmart organization and I was in their power.
Ash: That’s right. He said the great Satan Walmart organization. It was an evil corporation run by the devil himself. And what was so strange about that was that it wasn’t strange at all, not to Steve.
Steve: I believed it. I mean, not even belief is the right word. It was just the reality that I was under. I was part of the Satan Walmart organization. I essentially had no more power of my own.
Ash: Sitting there on the bed. Steve suddenly felt a different presence in the room with him.
Steve: I looked over and I realized that it was Satan laying in bed next to me. I still saw Lori, but I knew it was Satan, that he had taken her appearance. And so I started trying to choke him out.
Lori: I woke up not being able to breathe. He was on top of me with his hands around my neck. I immediately pushed them off. I was scared, you know, what are you doing? And he didn’t really say anything.
Steve: She choked out, what are you doing? I backed off immediately. Cause I knew it was her.
Lori: He looked like when you see someone and you can just kind of tell they’re just not all there. It wasn’t really him.
Steve: She became really scared. She knew that I was now dangerous.
Lori: Ifelt shocked. Obviously I didn’t go back to sleep, but I kind of didn’t let my emotions take over as much. I kind of stuck them in the back of my head and I felt like I really needed to get him to the doctor.
Ash: Lori stayed awake until the morning watching Steve. She tried to stay calm. She got the kids off to school, and then she took Steve to the ER.
Ash: You signed him in at the hospital. Do you remember what you said where you just like, my husband’s lost it or what did you tell them?
Lori: I told them that he’s hallucinating seeing things. I just remember waiting hours for him to get in.
Steve: We were in the waiting room, and I noticed that they’d filled the hospital with giant insects. And it was a little disconcerting because as a biologist, I should have known what kind they were, but I didn’t, the giant insects were maybe the size of like a softball and they were multicolored, beautifully colored yellows and reds, and they had flowery antennae. They were actually really gorgeous and they were just crawling around on the floor, like little robots. They just were zipping around.
Lori: He would be looking under the coffee table, you know, just sitting there, just staring underneath. And he’s like, look at all the butterflies under there. And he just saw tons of butterflies under the coffee table.
Ash: After hours of waiting, Steve was finally admitted and given a room and he was in bad shape. He was running a high fever and his brain was showing signs of inflammation. Over the next few days, the doctors started to run tests. They did a spinal tap and ruled out a bacterial infection. Then they did an MRI and that was inconclusive too. They put Steve on antivirals and anti-psychotics, but neither had any effect. The doctors were stumped.
Lori: They just had no idea, you know, they just did not know what was going on.
Ash: While Lori dealt with the doctors, Steve was immersed in a dark new reality. Knowledge about this world would pop into his mind, fully formed. He understood right away that the entire hospital was under Satan Walmart’s control
Steve: Satan Walmart wanted to take over the world. And they were in my mind, powerful beyond reason. The hospital was sort of their operation center.
Ash: Satan Walmart’s goal was to build an army, and they were doing that by converting people and cloning them. Steve was trying to warn the doctors and nurses. Obviously, no one took him seriously, but there was still one person he hoped would believe him.
Steve: I was waiting for Lori and I was kind of standing outside my hospital room. Someone walked up who looked a lot like Laurie, but all of a sudden she let out a bunch of strings of F words, which Laurie would never do. And I knew that this was not my wife. She was a copy of Lori.
Ash: Steve understood what was happening immediately. Satan Walmart had captured and cloned his family.
Steve: They had made copies of all my kids and they were training them to be assassins.
Ash: Lori, the real Lori, walked up moments later.
Lori: He told me that we had clone kids, the evil version of them. And I was trying to tell him there were no clone kids.
Ash: Steve felt responsible for these kids. Sure they were evil clones, but they were his kids. Lori had reached her limit. Their real kids were at home and she had been the one taking care of them since Steve got sick two months before. Even though none of that was Steve’s fault, Lori couldn’t hold back her frustration.
Lori: I just told him I needed a break and I left the hospital, went in the car, cried, just got it out and then came back… and stayed with him.
Ash: A week later, Steve hadn’t gotten any better, and Lori was struggling. Every morning she’d wake up and get her kids off to school. And then she’d be in the hospital with Steve from noon to 10:00 PM. To get through it, she had to put her feeling aside. And even now, she sounds a bit detached when she talks about it.
Lori: I just needed to be there for him. And I tried to not let my emotions get the best of me. You know, at the end of the day, when I would get home I would just go and cry.
Ash: And every day on our way to, and from the hospital, Lori prayed,
Lori: I don’t think I was doing like any formal prayers. Just to help Steve get better and help me get through this.
Ash: But it seemed like Steve was only getting worse. He was still having wild hallucinations and his health was declining dramatically and the doctors couldn’t find a reason.
Steve: They couldn’t stop it. They couldn’t find a way to get it under control. And I was getting sicker and sicker.
Noah: After the break, the doctors make a last ditch effort to save Steve’s life
Ash: After almost two weeks in the hospital, Steve’s body was failing him and he was getting more and more lost in the darkness of his own mind.
Steve: I was way more listless. I couldn’t move around. I was more inclined to live in a world that was completely different from this one.
Ash: Normally Steve would reach out to God when he felt alone. He’d asked for help or blessings. But in Steve’s new reality, that was impossible. Satan Walmart had built a shield over the hospital that was powerful enough to block out God.
Steve: I could tell my prayers weren’t going anywhere. And I could tell that God was completely oblivious to what was going on in the hospital. And it made me immeasurably sad. It just, in a way, broke my heart. I realized my helplessness.
Lori: And that’s when Steve started to get up.
Steve: I just knew I didn’t feel good. And my head was hurting all the time. I just wanted it to be over and I want this to go away.
Ash: He was having some pretty intense doubts about his faith, did he talk to you about that at all?
Lori: He felt like God was not there and had disappeared. And, I tried to let him know he was there, but I understood what he was saying.
Ash: Did you remember thinking he was going to die?
Lori: I remember thinking, um, you know, how am I going to take care of the kids and raise them?
Steve was laying in bed. And I was just in one of the chairs on the side, and I saw standing at the end of the bed, just faintly my granddad. And my granddad had passed away when I was 13 of a brain tumor. It was almost like he was standing there with compassion and understanding with having your brain be affected by a disease.
It was nice just feeling like my prayers are being heard and there’s family on the other side there that knows what’s going on
Ash: The next day, the Pecks got a visitor.
Lori: Some kind of infectious disease doctor came in and wanted to know the history of what happened.
Ash: The man was Dr. Bruce Hathaway. He was a specialist in infectious diseases who had just relocated to Utah from North Carolina. The hospital brought him in, in a last ditch effort to figure out what was wrong with Steve.
Lori told him everything that had happened. And when she mentioned offhand that Steve had visited Vietnam, his ears perked up. Steve’s other doctors weren’t familiar with diseases from that part of the world. That’s why they didn’t take his trip into account, but this doctor was an expert, and he knew exactly what was going on.
Steve had Melioidosis, a disease caused by a soil organism known as Burkholderia pseudomallei. It’s a bacteria that’s common in Southeast Asia. Most often it causes a lung infection. As a blood infection it’s fatal, but in Steve’s case, it had gotten into his brain. Sometime during that trip to Vietnam in 2001, when Steve had been turning over logs and looking for beetles, he’d gotten some dirt on his hand. Then, he scratched his eye, and the bacteria had crawled inside. Over the course of six months, it climbed his optic nerve to his brain. Because it bypass the spine, it didn’t show up in spinal taps. That’s why the other doctors thought it was viral. Later, Steve looked into the medical literature. There were only six known cases of this bacteria showing up as a brain infection. And three of those people had died.
Finally, they had a name for what was ailing Steve, and the doctor had a simple solution. He put Steve on a cocktail of three powerful antibiotics. But after two days, Steve was still hallucinating, and he was still concerned about his clone kids.
Steve: Lori took me from my usual walk and I saw my copied kids throughout the day. I told them we’re going to meet at eight o’clock to discuss where you’re going to live.
And I told Lori, we’re going to meet at eight. And she said, we don’t have any copied kids. They’re not coming. And I said, no, they’re good kids. They’re going to be here. I was going to meet them at a certain hour and we waited and waited. The hour came.
Steve: And so at eight o’clock, they weren’t there. I was really surprised and I was kind of annoyed. I thought, you know, what are they doing standing me up? I tell Lori, they’re still coming. I don’t know where they are. And she said, they’re not coming. You don’t have any copied kids. They’re not coming.
I was essentially watching the clock to see how late they were. And at about 15 after I was really worried and I thought I heard them in the hall and went and I looked, I didn’t see him.
Lori: And he’s kind of buying some time, like maybe they were, you know, late.
Steve: The world’s kind of restructuring. How can this be? This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
Lori: And at that point, Steve then thought–
Steve: What if Lori’s right
And this is kind of cool that it unfolded while I’m watching the clock. 15 minutes later, I thought this is all hallucination.
It was over. I never saw any more assassin kids or clones of Lori. The doctors all went back to normal. It was funny watching me go from insane at eight o’clock to quarter to nine, having rational thoughts again for the first time. It was a moment of almost transcendental joy.
Lori: Oh, I was ecstatic.
Steve: Kind of one of my big worries the whole time was that they’re trying to get Laurie into Satan Walmart, that she was safe was such a joy and a relief. And for the first time in that whole week and a half I was out, I asked how she was doing. And then she knew that I was back to normal.
Ash: A week later, Steve was well enough to go home. The road to recovery would be long. He would have to be on antibiotics for a few months and get lots of rest. But the doctor said he would recuperate fully. Steve started to feel better physically, but emotionally, he felt haunted.
Steve: From my brain’s perspective, I’d been held captive by demons. I mean, all day long, people were trying to hurt my family, do all these terrible things. And even though I knew rationally that that had never happened, the experience was as traumatic as if it had been real.
I became really frightened of diseases, that if I got a sinus infection, I’d just kind of fall apart because I had one just before this happened. It was just an object of terror. I was afraid it would occur, the bacteria would come back. And I was scared to death about that.
Ash: And after this ordeal, Lori was going through issues of her own
Lori: After Steve got home, all those emotions that I kept bottled up, kind of came tumbling down and I just cried a lot. We really depended on each other. We just got through it, you know, one day at a time.
Ash: But the questions Steve had were longer lasting. He was shaken by how easily and completely he had bought into another reality.
Steve: It was frightening in a way that I could literally rewrite my entire belief system under the influence of a bacteria. I accepted that, that Satan could block out God and I accepted that I was under his power and there was nothing that anybody not even God could do to get me out of that.
So I was led by my brain to believe things that would have been unimaginable to believe before this.
Ash: Before he got sick, Steve used to stand up in front of his congregation and say what he believed. Mormons call it bearing your testimony.
Steve: I used to say, I know that this is true, that Jesus atoned for my sins and thing.s I’d say I know.
Ash: But Steve’s illness had shaken his confidence. He couldn’t say that phrase: I know. He still believed in God, and he kept going to church, but the thing that used to comfort him about faith, the certainty of it, didn’t comfort him anymore. After what he’d been through, he couldn’t say he knew anything for sure. So he did something radical. He stopped believing in certainty altogether.
Steve: I think it’s good to be uncertain. And in part, I think this experience moved me away from arguments about right and wrong in people’s belief systems, because I completely recognize that I could be wrong. That’s fine. I’m going to be wrong about a lot of things, maybe about everything. So, that’s okay.
Ash: To a non-Mormon this might not feel like a big move, but I grew up Mormon, and I can tell you it’s a really big deal. I was told again and again, that people who had doubts were bad, week, they were faithless. It was an embarrassing thing to be faithless. As a kid, and later as an adult, I spent years obsessively hiding my own doubts. So to see Steve do this thing, to still go to church, but refuse to say, he knows– it’s pretty revolutionary.
Steve: I would say, I know that these things are true now. I couch it more in terms of, I believe these things and I’m grateful for those beliefs because they structure me and give me guidance.
Ash: When Steve was sick, he was cut off from reality, from his ideas about faith, even from God. But in all the chaos, there was one constant.
Steve: All my beliefs about the world got scrambled, but the one thing that this whole experience didn’t touch were my relationships with my family. The trivia of beliefs didn’t really matter, but relationships, they stayed.
Ash: It’s been almost two decades since Steve had this experience. His kids have grown up and he and Lori have become grandparents. Steve still goes to church, but that’s not where he really feels connected to the divine. He feels that when he holds his grandkids or goes camping with his friends. He feels it in shared experiences with the people he loves.
Steve: It’s experiences that give me hope that this universe has a purpose. And that I’m a part of that. And I think people have this too, when they’re in nature. That sense of awe that sense of connection with something bigger than themselves. For me, that’s what faith is, that I’m in communication with, with something bigger than me.
Ash: It’s the same feeling Steve had 18 years ago standing in the jungle in Vietnam.
Steve: There was a profound sense that this place mattered to God. The forest can form relationships with people and with itself, and I felt that. I felt connected to it, even though it was going to nuke me later.
Noah: Steve Peck still works at Brigham Young University. Every year. He tells his story in a lecture to a microbiology class. His novel, A Short Stay in Hell, which inspired the title for this episode, is loosely based on this experience. This story was produced by Ash Sanders and Ryan Sweikert, with help from Emily Rostek and me, Noah Rosenberg.
Ryan did the mix and sound design, Brendan Spiegel is our story consultant, and our episode art is by Zoe van Dijk. Art direction by Vinnie Neuberg, additional support from Ula Kulpa and Russell Gragg. Special thanks to the Made In New York Media Center and Brigham Young University. This is our last episode of this season of Believable.
And I want to take this moment to thank you for listening. We put so much heart and soul into the show and your feedback and support have been invaluable. If you’ve enjoyed Believable, and like us, you want a season two, please tell all your friends and leave a review on iTunes. It really helps people find us.
Okay. That’s all for now. And thanks again.