According to a recent Daily Telegraph article there is a serious shortage of………exorcists. Seemingly the church is struggling to deal with the number of foul spirits running amok in the world today. As with all such allegedly other-worldly phenomena, critical examination is crucial, and often sheds light on otherwise mysterious occurrences. Anyone familiar with my research on charismatic phenomena will not be surprised to learn that I’m skeptical about cases of demon possession and its close relative, poltergeist activity. In this article I want to give several reasons why we should be skeptical of such claims.
Firstly, it’s a matter of historical fact that as knowledge of mental illness has increased the number of alleged demon possession cases has decreased. Belief in demon possession lingers on primarily where there is ignorance about mental illness. Many accounts of demon possession simply appear to be text-book examples of mental health conditions such as epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, or hysteria. Accordingly, even the Vatican amended its exorcism guidelines urging practitioners not to mistake psychiatric illness for possession. Unfortunately there is little consensus regarding how we are supposed to differentiate between the two. The main telling signs of demon possession are supposed to be:
(i) Speaking in other tongues;
(ii) Prodigious strength; and
(iii) Vulgarities and blasphemies aggressively directed particularly towards the exorcist as he goes about his business.
None of these strike me as incapable of being caused by known mental or physical conditions. For instance, it is well known that schizophrenics can speak in “tongues,” people with Tourette’s syndrome might easily respond to a priest with some vulgar blasphemy, and whilst Prodigious strength is difficult to measure, people having an epileptic fit can easily do themselves or others a serious injury.
Given what we know of mental illness we should be very wary of claiming other-worldly explanations for such symptoms.
Secondly, not only are demon possession and poltergeist activity incredibly easy to fake – by an attention seeking adolescent or a disturbed adult – there have been many cases when they actually have been faked. Such was the case in an ABC broadcast in 1991 featuring a 16 year old victim/actor. Another case of faked possession involved nuns engaging in certain behaviour not because they were possessed but rather because they sought to act out their sexual frustrations, get out of having to do unpleasant chores, and attract sympathy and attention. Moreover, the entire spiritualist movement was kick-started on the back of fraudulent phenomena. The founders of spiritualism – the Fox sisters – confessed later in their lives to having fooled everyone with nothing other than childish pranks and tricks. Others – such as the famed mediums the Davenport brothers – similarly confessed to trickery later in their careers. Given the number of frauds who have made such claims, we should look upon all with some suspicion. Maybe the most recent claims are just variations of the same old pranks and trickery.
Thirdly, as psychology develops we understand more and more about the power of human imagination and emotions such as fear. Noises in the dark are often more frightening than the same noises in the daytime, and our imagination can make much more out of relatively simple occurrences than really is the case. At night time my own house makes a lot of noises. Pipes clunk and grind as they cool down. Wooden doors creak and groan as they expand or contract with changes in temperature. Sometimes we can hear a whistling/humming noise in our bedroom. It took me months to work out what it was: a very slight gap in the window frame through which the wind could whistle when it blew in a specific direction at a certain speed. All such noises could be easily interpreted as poltergeists or evil spirits. Scrapping noises are also incredibly common in such accounts, and can be caused by no more evil an entity than a mouse or a rat shuffling about. Such noises can be unsettling, particularly at night time and one’s imagination can conjure up all manner of other-worldly horrors to explain them.
Furthermore, some people can experience “waking dreams” which can involve frightening hallucinations. Here’s one I experienced myself years ago. I woke up in the middle of the night and in the gloom I noticed a figure beside my wardrobe. It looked “blacker” than everywhere else, and seemed to be hovering in the air. Suddenly it flew right up to my face and I could sense its presence just as if a human being were right there. I shut my eyes as tight as possible and lay in terror for several seconds, unable to move or open my eyes. After this brief time the “presence” seemed to evaporate away. I opened my eyes and all was normal. This could very easily be explained as an experience of some foul-spirit or ghost, and many people do indeed interpret their similar experiences in just these terms, but it was just a waking dream hallucination. Nothing ever came of it. Presumably demons have better things to do with their time than hang around watching teenagers sleep.
In fact, when we hear of various “evil” occurrences it’s often something rather trivial – scratching noises, banging pipes, objects falling off a table. There are many things the forces of evil could well be up to in the world; scaring the crap out of people by banging on a water pipe probably isn’t one of them. More likely it’s just our imagination playing tricks.
This is linked to my fourth reason for being skeptical of possession claims and poltergeist/spiritualist phenomena: the power of suggestion. We already know that the power of suggestion is behind a number of other phenomena – such as many cases of hypnosis and much of what passes for miraculous healing. It seems something similar might be plausibly a work here too. Over the centuries certain types of behaviour have become associated with demonic activity such that people seem to be playing to the stereotype. Michael Cuneo – a sociologist at Fordham university – gave his analysis of an NBC programme on exorcism in which the Rev Brian Connor and a number of associates performed an exorcism on a man who suffered depression. Cuneo observed that the behaviour of the man in question was down to subtle suggestions from the group of exorcists as to how he should behave and respond. The man was convinced by the group that he was possessed. It was a case of self-deception and group reinforcement. Other documentaries and voyeuristic “reality” shows have presented a steady stream of people willing to play up to the kind of “Exorcist Movie” stereotype, such as adopting the raspy guttural voice that we all know the Devil himself uses. Because of this adopting of stereotyped – even Hollywood inspired – behaviour amongst those who are “possessed,” many psychologists conclude that what we are dealing with is a bit of Let’s Pretend role-playing.
The final reason for skepticism is a pragmatic one: gullibility ends up fueling a growth in the practice of exorcism, and the practice of exorcism can be damaging and dangerous. Aside from the psychological and physical abuse of a mentally unwell person, there has been no shortage of fatalities in the world of exorcism. Zakieya Latrice Avery and Monifa Denise Sanford were both charged with murder after stabbing several children in the course of an exorcism. Another exorcism carried out in New Zealand by a Pentecostal pastor and other members of his church involved choking a woman and bouncing on her body. After her ordeal, which lasted several hours, she died, and the pastor was prosecuted for manslaughter. When overzealous exorcists are convinced that before them stands a demon from the bowels of Hell itself is it any wonder why they end up stabbing, choking, punching, kicking, slapping, binding, or jumping up and down on the victim?
The combination of poor understanding of mental health coupled with religious hysteria too often churns out inhumane behaviour. One wonders where evil really lies in such cases.
Stephen J. Graham