Thursday, October 1, 2009

Exorcising the myths behind demonic possession

by Erik J. Martin

"And Jesus asked him, What is thy name? And he said, Legion: because many devils were entered into him…And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them…Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked...Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. They also which saw it told them by what means he that was possessed of the devils was healed."-- Luke 8:30-36:

Reverend John J. Nicola will never forget that day many years ago when he was summoned suddenly to a convent outside of Rome. There, in the room of a 29-year old Spanish nun, he, a priest and his assistant, the mother superior, and an awestruck psychiatrist had witnessed an unbelievable phenomenon. The rigid body of the young nun, apparently possessed by a demonic spirit manipulating her body and voice, had horizontally levitated high above her bed.

If you thought the film “The Exorcist” offered a harrowing, realistic depiction of a helpless girl possessed by the malignant hand of the devil, tip your hat to Nicola, who served as technical advisor during production. It’s no surprise that the movie scared the daylights out of viewers upon its release, thanks in large part to the authenticity of its story, written by William Peter Blatty, which seemed to touch a nerve with audiences searching for truth and meaning behind Biblical references to demonic possessions and 20th century news accounts of such unexplainable phenomenon.

A quarter of a century after the release of “The Exorcist,” we’re still searching for answers and trying to make sense of the stories. Is possession by an entity possible, or is it a figment of a mentally disturbed imagination? Can a priest and an exorcism rite really cast out the devil? What makes us vulnerable to the whims of a demonic will?

Old beliefs die hard
The word “exorcism” comes from the Greek word “exousia,” meaning “oath.” By definition, then, an exorcism is technically the act of putting a spirit or demon on oath, and is not actually the act of driving out the entity, as is the popular belief. This is why a higher authority, such as Christ in the Christian belief, is invoked to control the demon and cast it out of the possessed person.

Many world religions besides Christianity practice a form of exorcism, including Judaism, Buddihsm, Shinto, Islam, and Hinduism. Jews believe in a “dybbuk,” or doomed, evil spirit, that can possess a victim. To expel the entity, a ritual is performed that causes the dybbuk to exit the person through the victim’s small toe. A Hindu exorcism calls for the blowing of cow dung smoke, the burning of pig excrement, the pulling of the victim’s hair, and other rituals. Shamans called in to perform an exorcism must travel to the “lowerworld” to speak with and help cure the soul of a dead person possessing a victim.

The belief in human possession by Satan, his demons, and other indwelling evil spirits became popular sometime around the first century after Christ’s death. To this day, demons are believed to disturb their victims in one of two ways: they can invade the victim’s mind with evil, negative thoughts and thus cause an “obsession;” or they can physically invade and dominate the victim’s human body, resulting in “possession.” Many people believe that to rid the person’s body and mind of such an entity or evil spirit, an exorcism must be performed.

The New Testament is replete with references to satanic possessions and exorcisms. Start flipping through the latter part of the Bible and you’ll be convinced that the devil was one busy Beelzebub during the days of Jesus. So, why were there more accounts of possessions then as opposed to now? Where have all the indwelling demons gone, you wonder?

The devil’s doing or a mind malfunction?
Some theologians believe that Christ’s presence on earth triggered extra activity from the minions of evil, and that his resurrection and the subsequent establishment of the Christian church helped keep Satan’s forces at bay.

Psychologists, scientists, and others argue that anything that couldn’t be rationally explained, which presented itself as foreign or strange, or which challenged accepted spiritual doctrines, was usually labeled as “evil” or “the devil’s work” in the centuries following Christ’s death. They contend that reports of demonic possession of humans from the past through today are actually misdiagnosed cases of mental illness. The symptoms of dissociative disorders such as schizophrenia often closely mirror those exhibited by people who claim to be “possessed.”

“I’ve seen cases where a priest will tell a mentally ill person that he is demon possessed and perform an exorcism on him. Then the person obviously doesn’t improve and becomes desperate or suicidal,” says Dr. Steven Waterhouse, pastor at Westcliff Bible Church in Amarillo, Texas, and author of “Strength for his People: A Ministry for Families of the Mentally Ill.” Waterhouse has a brother with schizophrenia whose symptoms sometimes mimic those of a “possessed” person. “I do believe in demonic possession, but I think it’s rare. More often than not it’s a case of mental illness.”

Even recent guidelines from the Vatican emphasize that most behaviors apparently caused by demonic possession are actually provoked by psychiatric illness. Yet, despite recent changes in thinking about its exorcism rites, the Catholic Church is not about to proclaim that Satan is dead and buried.

“The existence of the devil is not an opinion that you can take or leave. It is an element of faith and Catholic doctrine,” said Cardinal Jorge Arturo Median Estevez, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacramental Discipline.

“I certainly don’t believe in demons,” says Dr. Larry Montz, the founder of the International Society for Paranormal Research and expert in the field of paranormal research as a parapsychologist. “If there were such things, I would have run into this line of work. Television, movies and religious beliefs are responsible for perpetuating these myths about devils. But I do believe that possessions by entities and ghosts of people who have died is possible. I’ve found in my research that they often occur in people who are very weak willed. And sometimes the spirit of a person who remains earthbound can become angry, possess a person, and cause problems.”

Montz worked on such a case in New Orleans a few years ago that involved a young child who was apparently possessed. “At first I thought he had a multiple personality disorder, but he was able to recite concrete, detailed information to us that no child his age would know.” With the help of two clairvoyants, Montz says he communicated with the spirit of an 18-year old who died violently in a car accident—an entity that was angry for dying prematurely who wanted to “take the body of someone else hostage.”

By reasoning with the spirit, his team was ultimately successful at convincing it to leave the child.

Even Nicola plays the skeptic sometimes. His subsequent explanation of the Spanish nun’s possession and levitation?

“Mass hypnosis—each person had hypnotized everyone else in the room.” Nevertheless, Nicola does believe in satanic possession. “My theory is that, contrary to popular belief, very innocent people who have a potential for doing great good in the world are attacked more often by the devil because they’re seen as a threat to him.”

A 21st century Christian exorcism In Jesus’ time, exorcisms were relatively simple—he or one of his apostles merely commanded the evil entity to leave the victim, and it obeyed. Today, however, the exorcism ritual is much more complex. The Roman Catholic Church, which last year revised its exorcism ritual for the first time since 1614, requires that an exorcism be performed only under direct order of a bishop after two thorough investigations that rule out mental illness or other causes. A church-approved priest trained in exorcisms (every archdiocese is required to have one) is then assigned to perform the rite.

The new exorcism rite begins with prayers, the blessing and sprinkling of holy water, the laying of hands on the possessed, and making the sign of the cross. Next, an appeal is made to Christ, the Holy Spirit and the saints of the church. The priest then employs an “imploring formula,” in which Satan’s evils are listed and God is asked to free the victim. An “imperative formula” follows, in which the devil is ordered to depart the possessed via the words “I order you, Satan…prince of the world…enemy of human salvation…”

According to the writings of Reverend Malachi Martin, the late author of the 1976 bestseller “Hostage to the Devil,” though each exorcism is unique, most follow four phases: the presence stage, in which the exorcist team becomes aware of an evil entity; the breakpoint stage, during which the entity recognizes its foes and wreaks havoc upon the possessed victim via physical abuse, disturbing noises, smells, sights, and voices; the clash stage, in which the exorcist grapples with the spirit for control of the victim; and the expulsion stage, denoting the victory of the exorcist in ridding the victim of the entity after invoking Jesus’ name.

Martin insisted that an exorcism’s success depends greatly on the strength, will, and guiltlessness of the priest. An easily intimidated clergyman or one with hidden sins can be vulnerable to the evil spirit, and may even become possessed by the entity himself if he’s not careful. For this and other reasons, most exorcists do not practice alone—they are usually accompanied by another priest or assistant, a medical physician or psychologist, and a family member.

Before you scoff at the notion of exorcisms, consider that you may have had one performed on you without realizing it. Every person given a formal Christian baptism at birth or later in life undergoes an “exorcism” of sorts, a la a short prayer delivered by the clergyman that is intended to cleanse you of original sin and renounce Satan.

Making sense of the supernatural
Every specialist has a different means of explaining away the phenomenon of possession, says Nicola. “A psychiatrist will say that it’s an illusion in your mind. A parapsychologist will say no, it’s psychokinesis at work. A physicist will say it’s a natural happening based on the laws of nature. A religious person will say it’s the devil’s doing. The church will say, we don’t know, so let’s use the principle of scientific economy, rule out other possibilities first, and then refer to a preternatural explanation.”

So, what’s a person to think?

“People today are more aware and intelligent—they want to know true answers to things they can’t explain,” says Montz. His advice for someone who is on the fence about the possibility of entity possession is to “Be open to all possibilities, but don’t believe everything you see and hear. Trust your internal gut feelings, and take your experiences with a grain of salt.”

Waterhouse recommends visiting a doctor to rule out physical and mental problems if you feel that you are being possessed. He also warns against dabbling too deeply in the occult. Satan worshipping, Ouija board playing, channeling and other occult activities can lead people away from their families and possibly promote antisocial, destructive behavior, he says.

Celluloid possessions
Delve more into demonic possessions and exorcisms by checking out these flicks—some renowned, some obscure, and all available on home video.
  • The Entity (1983). Barbara Hershey gets dominated by a lusty demon in this sometimes laughably lame fright flick.
  • Exorcism (1974). A satanic cult goes on a gruesome crime spree in a little English village. Tame by today’s standards, but has its spooky moments.
  • Exorcism’s Daughter (1974). Cheap ripoff of The Exorcist released a year later depicts the insanity of a woman who witnesses her mother’s death during an exorcism.
  • The Exorcist (1973). The grand poobah of exorcism movies and the feature that sparked our cultural obsession with demonic possession. Directed by William Friedkin, it’s also considered to be the most realistic and frightening horror film of all time.
  • The Possessed (1977). An oh-so-dated made-for-TV fleshcrawler starring James Farentino as an exorcist called in to cast out Satan from a private girls’ school.
  • Possession (1981). Rosemary’s Baby clone in which a secret agent’s wife prepares to give birth to an evil manifestation. The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972). Eerie flick about a wealthy divorcee whose brother, apparently the victim of Caribbean voodoo, undergoes harrowing transformations. Earns admiration points for predating The Exorcist by a year.
  • Repossessed (1990). A silly satire that’s still worth the rental just to see Linda Blair spoof herself—with the help of Naked Gun-slinger Leslie Nielson—and the entire demonic possession genre.
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1968). A highly stylized and chillingly effective tale about a mother impregnated with the devil’s child, directed by master auteur Roman Polanski.