Demon possession isn’t a topic that comes up often in conversation but when it does I’m still a little shocked that it’s something people believe. It’s an idea that’s found in many religions and feels like it that belongs to the Iron Age, to a time when it was our best guess at understanding illness. Surely the notion of possession has been consigned to the ever-growing “historical context” that’s excused when examining our holy books. But it isn’t. I recall an acquaintance who insisted that we are all possessed with demons. He is now a minister. An otherwise bright woman I know believes, after attending a lecture by a Catholic exorcist, that the internet is a conduit for demon possession that targets children. Several other people I know have suggested that “messing with the occult” (which can include reading Harry Potter) or celebrating Halloween invites the Devil in. Even members of my family expressed concerns about my investigating witchcraft and Spiritualism while studying social anthropology. The people in these examples were Christians and in the UK Christianity and Islam provide much of the narrative framework for demon possession. The belief system through which possession is realised is interesting because the possessed often recognise its authority.
I’m a big fan of the Exorcist, both the book and the film. It’s a well told story with iconic cinematography and a fantastic soundtrack. When we think of demon possession and exorcism we imagine neck-twisting, spider-walking, levitation and projectile vomiting. Many actual exorcisms have been captured on film. Those who are thought to be possessed exhibit behaviours ranging from blasphemy and vocal intonations, to screaming, thrashing and flailing. Some instances of possession and exorcism are similar to faith healing. A person stands before the congregation defies the power of the religion and priest, gets exorcised and is welcomed back into the flock.
The woman in this clip was part of a Christian community who believed she was possessed because she used to tell fortunes using tarot cards. The exorcist (Bob Larson) guided the woman through a sort of confession that ends in invocations, screaming and freedom from her burden. This is fairly typical of possessions and exorcisms caught on camera. It doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the horror movie representation. In order to find this credible you need to believe that the body and mind are separate, that there is a realm of the immaterial and that the immaterial can impact in the material. You would have to accept that aspects of the immaterial world are hostile to people and control them. You need to believe the proposition without questioning the mechanics. Conversely, you might reach the conclusion that the woman felt guilty (was made to feel?) and as though she didn’t belong, she wanted to belong , found a mechanism to do it and did it.
Leaving aside the assumptions one has to accept to be swayed by the idea of demon possession, let’s spend a moment thinking through what a demon achieves by possession. The idea is that a demon seizes control of a person who has neglected their religious observation. In some religions a person can be possessed regardless of their religiosity. What do demons do with this control? It seems that they replicate the symptoms of mental illness in people. One of the difficulties of believing that demon possession is real and that exorcism might be a good way to deal with it is that it can offer a bad explanation and solution for the behaviours of already vulnerable people. Where a person is in distress it might not be appropriate to respond by trying to cast out demons. Perhaps what they need is a safe space and professional help. Another consequence is the temptation for believers to demonize those who are different to them or hold views they don’t subscribe to. A good example is provided by the street preacher Jesse Morrell in a video showing the angry reaction to his preaching at Gay Pride in Houston. Morrell spreads his view that homosexuality is immoral and characterises a man who argues with him as hateful and possessed. There is something extremely sinister and potentially dangerous about the kind of mindset that literally demonizes. It’s a mechanism by which one can dehumanise and disassociate. It’s the removal of the demonized from the same mental category as the demonizer.
Of course I’m not suggesting that everyone who believes that demons are real or that people can be possessed are bigoted but I do think it’s an idea that is routed in a fear of unknowing. For a person who believes in spirits and demons, the night really is fully of terrors. Magic, witchcraft, astrology and fortune-telling are viewed as efficacious and powerful antecedents of possession. Demon possession looms in their imagination in the neck-twisting and levitating representation rather than the variety recorded by Bob Larson. The irony is that while fearing control from the murky unknown, those who credit demons and possession as real are arguably allowing their view of the world to be shaped by ancient superstitions.