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Sunday, 9 March 2014

Call the...Exorcist? :: Possession Phenomena, Psychology & the Quick Fix

"And Jesus asked him, 'What is your name?'
He replied, 'My name is Legion, for we are many'. " - Mark 5:9

This video clip (above) is a portion of the final episode of John Safran vs God, a documentary series by Australian comedian, John Safran. Throughout the series, Safran, an atheistic Jew, goes in search of god via a range of different religions and religious practices, from Judaism to Voodoo and beyond. In the final episode, he meets with US deliverance minister, Bob Larson, infamous for his televised exorcisms. Safran, according to Larson, is possessed by a smorgasbord of demons, an infliction brought about by Safran's journalistic participation in non-Christian rituals, which Larson then promptly proceeds to "exorcise". This episode caused quite the controversy when it first aired on Australian television in 2004: Was Safran hypnotised, or was he acting? Was Safran legitimately exorcised, or was this episode nothing more than a publicity stunt? The episode has not yet been definitively proved or disproved.

Of course, claims of demonic oppression and possession are nothing new, and many cultures and religions the world over have a faith system made up of a spiritual hierarchy that incorporates demons of some kind. It's not a belief restricted to Christians alone, but belongs also to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindis, as well as various indigenous and shamanic cultures. The oldest known reference to demons and possession comes from the Sumerians, who lived in the region of Mesopotamia thousands of years before the birth of Christ.

However, unlike the ancient Sumerians, modern society does not blame demons for illness, disease and mental distress and/or disorder. Demonic possession is not a recognised diagnosis in modern medicine or psychiatry, and people who once would have been described as "possessed by demons" are now generally said to have a disorder such as dissociative identity disorder - that is, multiple personalities. 

When someone behaves in a way that is abnormal or abhorrent,  society doesn't tend to point the finger at demons - and rightly so, because that would be weird. Instead, we accept that there are factors, circumstance and triggers in life that result in some people suffering psychological strain. Psychology has become the tool through which we try make sense of the nonsensical; to provide some kind of logical reasoning for the actions of people whose behaviour is not quite right (or, in some cases, very, very wrong).

I've not yet been witness to a situation whereby I've even entertained the thought of someone being "possessed", and yet I have this fascination with the paranormal that stretches right back into early childhood - a fascination that covers the entire spiritual spectrum, including demons. In fact, the demons came first. Ghosts were not a topic of discussion in my household, but being a regular church-going, God-fearing family, the Devil and his minions were a common sermon theme. The ghosts came later, and were something I figured out on my own. The demons, however, have always been there, and if you are to believe the recent spate of news reports and articles, it would appear they continue to be in and around us, all of the time.

The Catholic Church claims that the cases of demonic oppression and possession are on the rise, with the number of reported demonic possessions skyrocketing in the last decade. In January this year there was the case of the "demon house" in Indiana, USA, whereby its occupants claimed to be tormented and overcome by demons residing in their rental home - claims that have supposedly been supported by credible witnesses such as medical personnel and police officers.

But if what the Catholic Church says is true, then why the sudden outbreak? Are we really on the verge of a demonic pandemic, or is there a more logical explanation for this "possession phenomena"? It is interesting to note that in recent years there has also been a supposed rise in the instance and severity of mental health issues.

There are a number of psychology articles on the topic of demons and exorcism, and the role these belief systems may play in the administration of psychotherapy treatments today. Whilst in official circles a belief in the paranormal - in ghosts, demons, and even gods - continues to be an underlying factor for psychopathology, the use of unorthodox treatment methods, such as exorcism, may in fact have some psychological benefit. In some cases, even the belief in life after death may be an acceptable means by which we, as humans, are able to deal with the pain of losing someone close to us.

Let's face facts: Normal psychological treatment (which may range from counselling, to medication, to corrective therapy) can be a slow, drawn-out, seemingly never-ending process that lasts for years, or even a lifetime. An exorcism, on the other hand, is comparatively swift. Consider the video above: A demon can be removed in a matter of minutes. Is it any wonder people are attracted to the "quick fix"?

The correlation between the paranormal and psychological disorder is something that has fascinated me since I was an undergraduate anthropology student at University (which, incidentally, was more than a decade ago, but we'll try not to dwell on that too much). I wrote my major paper on demonic possession, and the role that exorcisms play in maintaining societal order and norms. It is something that continues to interest me.

I recently had a conversation with a group of paranormal investigators, who flatly refused to even consider the possibility of demons and non-human spirits. There are ghosts, they said, and the rest is mental illness.

As luck would have it, this was followed up by another conversation on the same topic with a work colleague, whose relative believes themselves to be suffering a demonic attachment and refuses to live in their home on account of it being haunted by ghosts and demons. They want to undergo an exorcism, but the family refuses it, and have instead attempted to have the person admitted to a psych ward - unsuccessfully. Said work colleague dismisses the idea of demons outright, because they don't fit within her own private belief system, saying that by entertaining such notions only fuels a person's delusions.

I'm not convinced by either argument; it may be that the most effective way in which to treat a person claiming possession is to work with them through their own system of belief, and if that incorporates demons and exorcism, where's the problem? The path of psychological assessment and assistance isn't vetoed simply because someone requests an exorcism. And what if the exorcism actually works?

When dealing with the concept of life after death, of ethereal presence and spiritual realms, it seems almost alien to have such defined, clear cut set of rules and exceptions. Can we really say there is only death and disorders, and nothing in-between?

Further reading, for the curious:
Ten Terrifying Cases of Demonic Possession
Catholic Church acts to deal with an endemic of demonic possessions
'It's real': Priest reveals exorcism rituals
Devils, Demons & Dybbuks: Possession, Exorcism and Psychotherapy
Ghosts and Spirits can be beneficial to your mental health
Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder)

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