Poltergeists and holy water? How Seventies. ANDREW GUMBEL meets a very modern exorcist (from California, naturally) who can drive the negative forces from your home - and even your office
When Sheldon Norberg first realised he might have extraordinary psychic powers, he was too spaced out on drugs to be sure whether he was really in tune with the hidden universe or if he was just on a particularly spectacular acid trip.

For 12 years he earned a living dealing drugs to San Francisco's finest dopeheads, living a frenetic, dangerous life of handling huge wads of illicit cash and narrowly averting being busted by the police. He also spent most of his spare time dropping tabs of LSD, sitting for whole nights in a cave in the middle of a national park to watch the sky explode.

"Acid was my weird religion," he recalls, "until I realised I no longer knew what was real and what was imaginary. When I would reach different levels of consciousness I would blame it on the drugs without understanding what was happening to me. But then I went to see a psychic and my life changed."

That was the beginning of a long journey in which he gave up the drugs and diverted his interest in altered states in quite a different direction, versing himself in the ways of energy-channelling and psychic reading and discovering his real vocation: clearing the vibes out of rooms, or houses, or offices where bad things have happened.

To his own surprise, Sheldon (as everyone calls him) has become an exorcist - one of the most successful and sought after in the San Francisco area. Not your stereotypical banisher of evil, with the dog collar, the crucifix, the rosewater and the loud Biblical declamations against evil, but an exorcist none the less. He has no rituals, Satanic or otherwise - "I don't burn anything or go around shaking bells" - and actually does very little other than sit in the distressed place he has been asked to clear and meditate for several hours at a stretch.

He has done houses where a murder has taken place, or where parents have spent long years grieving the loss of a child, or where someone has battled a terminal disease. He has dealt with ghosts, poltergeists and even the living. There's a growing market in divorcees wanting to rid their homes of the negative energy from an ex-spouse.

Businesses occasionally call on his services, too, to get rid of the spirit of a failed enterprise that might have previously occupied the same building, or simply to create a propitious atmosphere for success and growth.

People like to call Sheldon a ghostbuster, a term he tolerates with great reluctance. "I'm not trying to bust anybody," he protests. They also like to laugh at his telephone number, which begins 666, the Number of the Beast. But mostly they are spooked by what he does, and often take several months to pluck up the courage to call him.

His technique is actually disarmingly straightforward, at least to an outside observer. He asks as much as he can about the history of the space he is clearing and the problems it appears to be causing, then uses an array of psychic energy channelling techniques - from feng shui to Indian kundalini to Japanese reiki - to drive out the bad vibes and readjust the environment to suit the present occupant. A job might take him anywhere from a few hours to an entire weekend, depending on whether he is clearing a one-bedroom flat or an entire office building. His only prop is a necklace he has made from the bones of a Tibetan monk, which he wears "when the situation looks like it might get gnarly".

"What I always ask myself is: what is the power of this space?" he says. "People are sometimes surprised that I ask so many questions. They think that if I'm psychic I shouldn't need to ask. I tell them I don't need to; it just saves me several hours worth of mental investigation if they let me know from the start."

His services don't come cheap (anywhere between $300 and $800) but in San Francisco and the affluent country communities of Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge he has a ready-made market for his services - lots of affluent people with an in-built interest in alternative healing and psychic energy systems. And they are overwhelmingly appreciate of what he does.

One client couldn't bear to go into his own bedroom; Sheldon discovered that a previous occupant had spent the last three years of his life dying of Aids in the bed there. Others have reported getting ill in their own houses, or seeing large objects like TV sets being pushed off tables by hostile forces.

An advertising agency called him in after its creative director suddenly died of lung cancer. Sheldon discovered the building had previously been occupied by a Ford car leasing agency. "It was the wrong choice of building for them. They weren't doing well at all. Advertising people are often very tuned into this psychic stuff, because they have to develop a feeling for other things like public taste. So I created a more advertising- oriented environment, and their business has turned around ever since."

Sheldon first started down this road in 1990, attending courses on psycho- spiritual healing at San Francisco State University and then moving on to the Academy of Intuitive Sciences, a one-of-a-kind private institution in Sausalito, Marin County. He discovered his gift for exorcism when a classmate said she was being haunted by the spirit of a little girl at her Mill Valley home.

Sheldon discovered the house had a traumatic history: it was once a holy Indian site, a woman had died there in mysterious circumstances 20 years previously, and it had been used as a centre for prostitution, cocaine dealing and arms trading. After several hours' meditation, the ghost went away.

By coincidence, that is the only house Sheldon has ever visited twice. A few years later his friend put the property on the market but after three months still had not found a buyer. After further investigation, he discovered that a neighbour had always fancied buying the place herself but could not afford it. "There was a vibe to this house that put everyone off. It was this woman claiming it for herself," he recounts. "The next day, a guy made an offer at the asking price and the house was sold."

How come Sheldon is so good at this? He has had a busy 36 years of life, with a past as a cabaret actor as well as a drug fiend. These days, aside from the house exorcisms, he is busy completing a semi-fictional memoir called Confessions of a Dope Dealer. He also spends long hours cycling or meditating.

"I've always been interested in altered states, post-life experiences, stuff like that. The drugs were part of it, although these days I avoid them because they interfere with my clarity. It's all about getting in touch with your psychic self. Everyone is psychic," he says with the grin. "It's just I'm not as good at denying it as most people."

Some of his jobs are distinctly freaky, such as the house where the burglar alarm kept going off, even when the electricity had been disconnected (it was, he says, the ghost of an old Irishman); or another where the cat was dying, the husband's legs were going numb and the wife, a professional therapist, thought she was going insane. (The previous owners had kept a shrine to their dead son in his old room for 15 years; he had stepped on a landmine in Vietnam.)

Once, Sheldon was asked to "ground" a house in Fairfax, Marin County, whose owner said she felt too spacey. He said the problem wasn't the house, but Fairfax itself which has a reputation for dreamy New Age-style philosophies.

"So I decided to ground the entire town," he said. How long did that take? He grins and replies: "Oh, about three minutes."

Sheldon Norberg can be contacted on www.northmountain.com.